Ten Tips for Top Quality Night Photos

Metro-North by Aaron Siladi

Ten Tips for Top Quality Night Photos

Night photography has become a huge hobby of mine, and I enjoy all of its facets, from taking photos of city lights, abandoned eerie and spooky places bathed in moonlight, and even remote desert and mountain landscapes where there is a complete lack of light pollution during the hours of darkness. Successful night photography takes above all a high degree of patience, and mine has been tested many times. However, I feel the enjoyment and relaxation it gives me, and the surreal quality of the photos it can generate make it well worth it, so I have prepared the following tips so that others new to the practice may get a better head start.

1. Use a Tripod and Low ISO

This may sound obvious, but a tripod is one of the most fundamental accessories for any night shooter. While it is possible to take certain night shots handheld using a wide aperture and high ISO, in most cases (and to save yourself frustration) you’re going to want to use a tripod. Using the lowest ISO setting ensures the highest quality results for your image. Your exposure will be longer, but since you’re using a tripod, this isn’t a big factor. Personally, I find the longer shutter speed forces me to relax, and that I can find a state of peacefulness that’s not as easily attained during the daytime.

2. Use Bulb mode combined with self-timer and remote shutter release

When doing longer exposures at night, you’re going to want to use the self-timer mode on your camera to avoid any minute shaking induced by pressing the shutter release; two seconds should be ample time for the camera to stop vibrating after you’ve adjusted the settings. This tip is even more important for shorter long exposures (1″-30″); in multi-minute exposures small initial vibrations won’t factor in as much. This is also a good time to mention that you want to avoid setting up on any surface that may move even slightly during the exposure. Wet sand, a dock or pier, and even tall buildings can move slightly causing your exposure to end up blurry. I learned all of these the hard way, thinking I’d taken a great photo until I got home and saw it on the big screen.

On most DSLRs, the highest shutter speed you can set is 30 seconds. If you have bulb mode on your camera, you can bypass this and leave the shutter open as long as you’d like, using a device called a remote shutter release with bulb lock. This is very useful outside the city, where you’ll often need multi-minute exposures with low ISO even under full-moon conditions. They range from mechanical devices you’ll need to use a stopwatch with, to fully programmable electronic ones. I’ve even heard of people using Gaffer’s tape to hold down the shutter release on their Holga!

While it possible to get creative with aperture and ISO to keep your exposures to 30 seconds or less, this will quickly become a limiting factor. In fact not only do I recommend a low ISO as in the above step, but I recommend keeping your lowest ISO for all night shots. Of course ISO settings higher than the lowest may still be acceptable quality-wise, but doing this will let you get a better feel for exposure time as you progress.

3. Use high ISO to test exposure and composition

Current DSLRs are very good at metering even in very low-light conditions. A great way to meter your shot for a low target ISO when using bulb mode is to first set your ISO to the maximum setting, say 3200, and then multiply the metered shutter speed by the High ISO, divided by your low target ISO. This number will be your low ISO exposure time. For example, if you set ISO 3200 and the meter says a 3″ exposure is correct, your ISO 200 exposure time would be (3200/200 X 3″) = (16 X 3″) = 48″. To simplify the math If your high ISO setting gives you a sub-second meter reading, lower ISO until the meter reading is at least 1″ (or bring a calculator with you and brush up on fractions). Since the viewfinder can be very dim at night, high ISO test shots are also a great way to verify your composition is as you like it BEFORE starting the exposure. There’s nothing like waiting for 30 seconds or more and then seeing a stray element in the scene you didn’t notice because of the dark.

4. Use RAW mode and Tungsten White Balance

Ever take a night shot and have it appear looking completely orange? This is due to the color cast of sodium vapor bulbs, which are the most prevalent street light. You can reduce this effect by setting your WB very low. This also works very well with nature & landscapes to ensure the photo still looks like “night”, not daytime with stars. By shooting RAW, you’ll be able to experiment with different WB settings in post processing without penalty. Depending on the conditions, anywhere from Tungsten (2850K) or lower to around 4200K can all look “correct”. You can also regain a lot more shadow detail from RAW files, which is another reason to use it. Like almost everything else about night photography, color balance and exposure take time and patience to get right.

5. Use CTO Gels to balance flash with ambient light

If you’re following the guideline above, you’ll be shooting RAW mode and adjusting the white balance of your night photos to around 2850K or slightly higher. But what if you want to use flash, which is 5500K? The answer is the CTO gel. This will convert the light of your flash to 2850K and leave you with a smooth, correctly colored photo. Half- and quarter-strength CTO gels are also available to experiment with, as you get more familiar with different lighting conditions.

6. Use Long Exposure Noise Reduction

Long Exposure Noise Reduction works by taking a 2nd exposure of the exact same length with the shutter closed, to create an image purely of the sensor noise only, under identical conditions. This information is then mathematically subtracted from the final image created by your camera. This is especially important to use on cameras with non-CMOS sensors, as they overheat after a few minutes and leave a bluish looking tinge which is almost impossible to remove without extensive retouching. LENR effectively doubles the time it takes to make a photo, so combine this technique with high ISO test shots to achieve maximum productivity.

7. Use the fastest lens possible, prefer prime lenses, and don’t use filters

Most dedicated night shooters use a lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8. Even if you are shooting night landscapes and will be using a much smaller aperture for your exposure, a fast lens will be that much brighter through the viewfinder and make it easier for you to compose well.

Prime lenses are choice for night photography as the lower number of optical elements reduces the chance you’ll experience a composition-ruining lens flare, which is errant light appearing in the photo generally in the shape of the aperture. At night, streetlights, the moon, signs, and even brightly lit windows can all cause lens flare, which during the day is mainly a problem only when shooting directly into the sun. Lens flares are caused by light incorrectly bouncing around the inside surfaces of the lens, if there are less optical elements the chance is reduced. This is the same reason you want to remove any UV filters when shooting at night, just make sure to exercise even greater caution than usual with your lens.

8. Capturing motion

Long exposures are a great way to capture the motion of the earth, water, clouds, vehicles and more, and the effect can be even more interesting at night. If the sky is in your shot, cloud movement adds a dramatic effect, as does the apparent circular motion of stars caused by the rotation of the Earth. Coastlines and rivers can take on a foggy, smoky appearance, and vehicles leave streaming trails of light without actually showing up in the photo. Use aperture creatively and “stop down” to get longer light trails, or for fast moving clouds, use a wider aperture if they blend together too much and lose definition. You can even create light trails yourself by walking through your frame with a light source, and people have created a whole art of “light painting” their composition with flashlights, strobe flashes, sparklers, fire, glow sticks, colored gels, spinning fire staffs, and more. Your creativity is the only limit. In fact, you can combine several of these techniques, like shooting a model with a CTO gel on a highway overpass, while capturing light trails from the traffic in the background (make sure your model is good at remaining still for extended periods!).

9. Lower your LCD Brightness and check histograms

Setting your camera’s LCD screen to it’s lowest brightness setting ensures you don’t underexpose your image based on the LCD preview. LCD screens are calibrated for use in the daytime, so they can cause an underexposed image to look ok under nighttime conditions. While not strictly a tip for night photography, it’s also a great idea to view your histogram and make sure it’s not shifted too far to the left, and try different exposure times. It’s normal for a night photo’s histogram to be more to the left than usual, but not excessively so.

10. Learn HDR and DRI post-processing techniques

HDR (high dynamic range) and DRI (dynamic range increase) post-processing techniques are a great tool in your skill set for night photos, especially in the city where bright lights and dark shadows can easily exceed the 6EV range of most cameras. These computational techniques work by blending image data together from several bracketed exposures to create an image with a higher dynamic range than any of the original exposures. There are many different techniques in this arena, from software such as Photomatix that tonemaps from different exposures for you automatically, to manual masking and blending with Photoshop layers. It’s sometimes a good idea to take several bracketed exposures anyway, even if you don’t end up blending them together, you could end up wanting to have used a longer or shorter exposure and this way you’ll have it.

Now get a tripod and remote shutter release with a bulb lock, wait for the sun to go down, and get out there and take some night photos!