Look! No tripod.
By Richard Seah
22 Aug 2008
In nearly 30 years of photography, I never took any night photographs, except for a couple during my first visit to Las Vegas in 1981.
Because I dislike - I hate - using a tripod. For a long time, I did not even own a tripod. I believe many of you can identify with this.
All that changed in November 2007 when I bought my first digital SLR, a Fuji S5 Pro. Suddenly, I became a 'night photographer'.
Partly, it was because of bad weather in the two months or so after I bought the camera. It rained on most days and the only time I could try out my new toy was at night.
Mainly, it was because the Fuji S5, with ISO rating of up to 3200, made it possible for me to take night photographs without a tripod.
Very soon I found myself having taken hundreds of night photographs - and feeling like an expert on night photography. This feeling was reinforced when I did an Internet seach on the subject and, sorry to say, did not learn anything new. They all give the same, age-old advice such as you absolutely must use a tripod. I realised that a lot of night photography tips are outdated and irrelevant.
Here, then, are my new, updated night photography tips for the new digital age:
* * * * *
But first, a commercial break ;-)
The main image here is up for voting in the Nighttime Theme. If you think it "rocks", kindly give your "Yeah" vote. Thank you!
* * * * *
1. Get a new digital camera
Get a camera that was launched after 2007 or at least after end-2006, such as the Fuji S5 Pro, Fuji S100fs or Fuji F100fd.
I am not an employee of Fuji, just an unabashed fan. Fuji cameras, with proprietary Fuji Super CCD sensor, produce beautiful colors and a wider than normal dynamic range. This is truly useful for night photography, especially if you have strong bright lights in parts of the image. So if you do get a Fuji, tip #1a is to always shoot at maximum dynamic range.
If you don't get a Fuji, then at least get a camera capable of taking good, low noise pictures at ISO ratings of 3200 or higher. The latest Nikon D300, D3 and D700 cameras have ISO ratings as high as 6400 for regular-sized images, higher for reduced-size.
Notice that I used the phrase "good, low noise" above. This is important. Some digital cameras, including some relatively costly and not so old digital cameras, can take pictures at high ISO but the image quality is not good. As a result, many digital camera owners seldom shoot at above ISO 400.
In the past, ISO (or ASA) 400 was considered high. I find it ridiculous that one website offering "low light and night photography tips" recommends setting the ISO at between 100 and 400. Such advice must have come from our grandparents' time, when films were mostly rated at ISO 25 or 64.
With high ISO ratings - plus improvements in the design of the camera shutter mechanism - I was able to take night pictures hand-held, without having to use a tripod and without any visible camera shake, at shutter speeds as slow as 1/5 second.
(ISO values, shutter speeds and other exposure values are provided for each image.)
2. Steady your hands
Of course, you still need steady hands.
Here's how: If possible, lean agaist a wall, lamp post... or rest your hands / elbows on a solid surface to keep steady. If not possible, press the sides of your arms against your body.
Then take a breath and hold your breath while you press the shutter.
3. If necessary, purposely underexpose.
If the light is still low, however, you may want to purposely under expose by one or two f-stops, so that you can use a faster shutter speed and avoid camera shake.
This is yet another reason to get the Fuji. It allows you to under-expose by as much as four f-stops and still get relatively decent results when you compensate. Other cameras might produce weird colors if you do that.
But don't push your luck even with the Fuji. Two f-stops is about the most I would go. Or else I would under-expose further and be prepared to junk the image if it does not turn out good.
When you brighten a dark image, inevitably there will be an increase in digital noise. So this brings us to the next tip...
4. Get specialized noise-reduction software.
Disappointingly, the noise reduction feature of Adobe Photoshop does not seem to work very well. Either that or my friends and I all do not know how to use it well...
So to deal with digital noise, get an effective noise reduction software. Two of the best I know are Neat Image and Noise Ninja. Both are very affordable at about USD$40 for a home use version with Photoshop plug-in, less without the plug-in.
In the past, I never considered specialized software such as these. Several of my photography buddies also do not know of them. One heard about Neat Image some years back, but never bothered to check it out. When I showed him the before and after results, he was impressed - and ended up buying both Neat Image and Noise Ninja.
I guess many of us all simply assume that programs like Adobe Photoshop provide everything we need. Not so.
5. Shoot raw
Raw files allow greater adjustments without loss of image quality - and without weird results.
With night photography, you may need more adjustments than usual because it can be hard to get perfect exposure, no matter how good your camera is, no matter how experienced you are.
Apart from exposure, the more important adjustment that comes with shooting raw is the white balance. However, newer software like Adobe Lightroom 2 also allows white balance adjustment on jpeg and other processed files.
Most cameras work best with the white balance set at automatic, ie AWB. With digital night photography, however, you do not always want the AWB to be accurate.
I realized this "problem" during Christmas when I went to take some pictures of Christmas lights - and the AWB turned all the yellow / golden lights of Christmas trees to white! The AWB has clearly done too good a job. So be prepared to make white balance adjustments.
* * * * *
Okay. Enough of technical discussions. With modern digital camera technology making photography - including night photography - that much easier, you need not worry too much about technical details. Just get it more or less right, and do the fine tuning later.
My next few digital night photography tips deal with the actual photo taking, which is the more interesting and fun part.
6. Explore a wide range of subjects.
As you can already see from the examples here, digital night photography need not be restricted to city skylines, fireworks (against city skylines), water reflections (of city skylines) or streaks of light formed by moving traffic. Or even Christmas lights.
In fact, almost all subjects can be shot at night time.
- architecture, floors, walls, grafitti, shop windows, people, performers... even humour.
One unexpected subject I stumbled upon just recently...
It had rained earlier and I noticed a street lamp reflected on the wet, back windscreen of a car. I had some difficulty focusing on the water droplets rather than the reflection of the lamp post. But one image did turn out okay.
7. Don't wait for nightfall.
An excellent time for 'night photography' is actually twilight, just before the sky turns dark.
I am not talking about sunset scenes here, just ordinary scenes with the sky dark but not too dark. At times, the effect can be surreal, like in the image of the Buddhist temple.
8. Don't let darkness stop you.
The camera is able to "see" more than the eye. Even when a night scene appears almost black (as was the case of the car windscreen), shoot as long as you have an interesting composition. The results might pleasantly surprise you.
When I first tried some night water reflections photography, I was not just surprised, but shocked. The scene was dark. But when the image appeared on my LCD, it was bright to the point of being over-exposed!
9. Appreciate imperfections
One thing I've learned to do only quite recently, after about 30 years of photography, is to appreciate imperfections - darkness, blurs, camera shakes, movements, off-colors, etc.
Isn't this how we actually see images at night? Sometimes dark, sometimes blur, sometimes with strange colors?
The percussionist, captured at a recent rock / jazz / pop concert, is one example. The image is dark, the man is blur and his skin color is red. Everything seems "wrong". But try to correct all these "faults" and the image will not have the same quality.
One easy way to correct weird colors, for example, is to convert the image to black and white. I tried it on this image and took less than five seconds to decide that I should leave him looking red.
Without resorting to Photoshop adjustments, there is another way to achieve supposedly perfect images at night. And this reminds me of a very fundamental night photography tip that I forgot to mention earlier. It is so fundamental that I feel it should not be numbered "10".
So let's call it new digital night photography tip number...
0. Do not use flash.
It simply spoils the night mood.