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Photography at night can yield amazing results if done right, but it is also a major hurdle for beginners in photography. Instead of blaming the equipment, let’s look at refining our technique. In this article I will suggest a few night photography tips.
The fireworks picture below was taken with a technique involving holding a black card in front of an open shutter. In manual exposure mode, set the shutter speed to 20-30 seconds (or use bulb mode), an aperture of F11 to F16 and an ISO setting of 100 or 200. Using the bulb mode on your DSLR, you can get the shutter to stay open as long as required. If you are using the bulb mode, a remote shutter release is very useful to avoid getting camera shake (yes it can happen even on a sturdy tripod). If you don’t have a remote release, you can also use your DSLR self timer, set it to 10 seconds so that you can give it time to settle down any minute shakes, if any, triggered by pressing the shutter button.
The black card is used to block the lens during any intervals when the fireworks are not showing in the sky, so that the long exposure is optimized to record the fireworks and not over-expose other parts of the scene. The second reason is so that you don’t record any smoke caused by the fireworks. Take care not to accidentally touch the lens, or you might cause some movement which will lead to camera shake.
Timing is Crucial in Night Photography
The single most important tip I can give you regarding night photography is to get a good tripod. With a sturdy tripod, you can use the most basic camera and lens and come out with a winning shot. Armed with a tripod, the next thing to do is to scout for a good location where you can set up your tripod and wait for the twilight hour when the amount of ambient light matches the amount of artificial light. This creates pictures where the sky is a deep blue color, perfect for offsetting the man-made lights in the scene. If you are shooting a low ISO setting like 100 at this time, and your aperture in the F11-F16 range, your shutter speed will drop to a level where it is not possible to hold your camera steady. That is why you need a tripod.
Notice in the picture below that the lanterns are slightly smudged, because the wind was so strong that it moved the lanterns, while the pagoda itself is tack sharp because a tripod was used. A tripod is useful for shooting stationary subjects, which is why wedding photographers rarely carry tripods when they are on the move, shooting moving subjects.
If you are shooting a scenic night landscape, forget about using flash, unless there are human subjects within a few feet from the camera. Your flash unit, typically a speedlight, will only be effective within a few feet. It will not be able to illuminate a night scene that is 800 metres away. Besides, shooting with an on-camera speedlight rarely results in a natural looking outdoor night scene.
Shooting Light Trails
Use a small aperture (which means a big F-number like F16) to get starburst effects on street lamps like in the picture below, taken in Ubud, Bali. Not only does a small aperture give you more depth-of-field (which means objects are sharp from front to back), it also enables you to get longer shutter speeds, which contribute to the long red lines created by the tail-lights of passing motorists. Or white lines created by their headlights. The easiest mode to shoot this is Aperture Priority.
The Right Photography Technique
The moonrise shot below was taken many years back in Uluwatu, Bali with one of my first compact digital cameras, an ancient 5 megapixel Canon S50 (which is also my camera for underwater photography). The crescent moon’s normally hidden portion is now slightly visible due to using a long shutter speed in manual mode. Without a tripod, this shot would not have been possible.
Which goes to show that you don’t need high-end equipment to take nice night photography pictures. All you need is the right know-how.