Making pictures by night is a curious practice. While specialists of this subject embrace it as a deep-seated passion and have a never-ending quest for technical and creative advancement, those more familiar with daytime photography are often unaware that tried and true photography rules often need to be adapted or even overlooked at night. With this in mind, consider the following tips the next time you venture out in the darkness, to help you to adapt.
1. Take a Chance and Explore the Unknown
What’s my exposure time? This is the number one question asked by a night photography novice setting up his or her camera for the first time. A basic understanding of the functions of aperture and shutter speed takes on mind-expanding dimensions at night, when stopping down your aperture can turn streetlights into starbursts, and setting your shutter speed to bulb offers you the ability to capture the unseen. Contrary to the view of photography as an exact science, nocturnal image making provides an opportunity to experiment, explore, play, and have fun. So, instead of freezing up and following someone else’s exposure suggestions by rote, explore all the variables at your fingertips with your own camera. Then, make this into a veritable learning experience by noting down your exposure settings in writing (or audio) so you can study the results after downloading your files. To economize on power when taking notes, keep things simple and stow a small waterproof notepad and pen in your camera bag or coat pocket.
Devoting time to this effort will help you to determine what worked best so you can incorporate the same exposure strategies in future shoots.
2. Use High ISO Testing as an Exposure Guide
If you’re still unsure about how to determine exposures from scratch, use a trick called High ISO Testing as your guide. Here’s how it works. For each continuous increase of your ISO dial and full stop in opening the aperture notch of your lens, your subsequent exposure time will be cut in half. Let’s say you boosted your ISO to 6400—a 6x difference from ISO 100—and fully opened your aperture to f/2.0—increasing the amount of light from a mid-range setting of f/8.0. While these settings will potentially yield an image with unappealing contrast, increased grain and limited depth of field, you can save valuable time by shooting an exposure bracket to identify a well exposed histogram at these settings. Let’s say the ideal histogram for this scene corresponds with a shutter speed of 4 seconds. You can then do the math to calculate the required exposure time for the same scene captured at ISO 100 and f/8, which would be a total of 32 minutes.
To determine exposure options efficiently for this long-exposure cityscape, I made a High ISO test at ISO 6400 with the lens closed down to f/16 (left-hand frame), which yielded a decent histogram at 15 seconds. I then calculated the exposure difference needed to capture the same scene at ISO 100 (a 6x difference from 6400 ISO).
In addition to being an efficient way to calculate exposure, doing test shots at high ISOs is also helpful for quickly evaluating your framing and basic details of the image composition. Most important—when using this method, make sure to change your ISO and aperture back to the desired settings after you’ve finished calculations, otherwise you’ll find yourself with a final image that is grossly overexposed, yet took more than 30 minutes to make.
3. Learn & Memorize Gear Functions Beforehand
Locating that pesky button or dial to change camera settings or pull up a menu is much more challenging at night, not to mention locating the accessories buried in your camera bag! Low light shooting makes it even more essential to study your camera manual to memorize how your gear functions and locate access points for essential dials and menu options before you go out into the darkness. When photographing at night, you should be shooting with your camera and lens in manual mode. If you’ll be breaking new ground with this, get comfortable with your gear’s manual functions under low pressure circumstances, so you can act with calm efficiency when conditions are less than ideal. One item I always rely on in low light is a basic magnifying light, which serves the double purpose of casting a concentrated beam of light where I need it and magnifying the text of tiny dials or digital readouts, so I don’t need to pull out my reading glasses.
Keep a magnifying light handy and you won’t have to fumble around in the dark hunting for your reading glasses when you need to make fine adjustments to your equipment.
4. Know your Destination and Scout it in Advance
One challenging repercussion to low-light shooting is that everything in sight takes on an otherworldly appeal, which can complicate attempts to pinpoint one specific composition or picture subject. To avoid this dilemma, as well as to prepare yourself for unexpected surprises, you should familiarize yourself with your destination, ideally by scouting the site in advance. Plan to arrive at your location before sunset and take your time setting up, while also gaining the advantage of making pictures during magic hour lighting. This will add to your understanding of how changing light conditions can impact a scene.
Jumpstart your night photography by arriving on site before sunset. Not only will you be able to photograph the magical effects of sunset and twilight, you’ll get a better sense of the landscape and how to move around in the location, minimizing the risk of accidents in the dark and injury to yourself or your gear.
In addition to scouting your location directly, you can also let your computer help out during a remote scouting session. Photo sharing websites suchare readily searchable by descriptive terms, or even specific GPS coordinates. Scrolling through the results from other photographers can provide innumerable tips about site conditions, camera angles and much more.
Lastly, consider bringing along a digital compass to log GPS data, as well as to determine your orientation in relation to the heavens. This can prove critical when shooting star trail images, especially if you want to make images of star trails encircling the North Star.
5. Adapt your Image Capture to Address High Contrast Levels and Color Casts
Night photography often involves working in situations with extremely high contrast and widely ranging colorcasts. This makes it particularly important to shoot in RAW file format, for greater leeway in controlling contrast and white balance in post-production.
For optimum control of color, you can manually set your camera’s white balance to a specific Kelvin temperature. This can be particularly useful if you’re looking to achieve the cool blue tungsten hue (3200K) that many people associate with nocturnal images. Your camera also has white balance presets for various lighting conditions, as well as an auto white balance option. Auto white balance is quick and convenient, but this setting functions within a limited range and can be fooled by mixed lighting conditions or the predominance of one color in a scene.
Mixed lighting situations—where artificial lights of different color temperatures are adjacent in a scene—are extremely common at night. These can be difficult to identify visually and nearly impossible to control 100 percent. Under these conditions, decisions must be made about which color cast to neutralize and how the neutralization of a dominant or distracting color cast will shift colors from competing lights. In recent years, many cities have made strides to replace traditional sodium-vapor streetlights (which exude a yellow-orange color cast) with more energy-efficient LED lighting. This produces a clearer, whiter light—thereby simplifying the issue of color casts, while simultaneously reducing opportunities for night photographers to explore creative compositions that highlight mixed light.