So much of the world comes to life after the lights go down – cities become magical new playgrounds and the stars illuminate naturescapes. Taking your camera out after hours is therefore an inherently sensible idea. Night photography is challenging – it takes patience, some good equipment, technical prowess… and most of all — patience!
If you are looking for some inspiration I’d recommend checking out the stunning work of veteran night photographer Michael Kenna. Going nocturnal will give you an acute understanding of how you are using light, make you more aware of ISO and exposure and subsequently improve your technical photography across the board.
Here are five simple steps to get you started…
Get the kit
Contemporary advances in camera equipment (including higher-sensitivity in your average digital image sensor and if you are an analog kid, high-speed film) has basically equated to the increase of light, making night photography increasingly possible for non-professionals. For all of those who are a little nerdy about their camera gizmos, getting out after dark is the perfect excuse to go photography-gear shopping!
You are definitely going to need a tripod, and for optimum results we would also recommend a shutter release cable (if not, your self-timer should do the job), both of which remove camera shake on those long exposures. Next up you should use a wide angle lens with a high aperture – f/2.8 minimum. Flashlights and lens hoods will also come in handy if you fancy a real shopping spree!
Scope out your scene
Nighttime tends to be cold, yes? Long exposures are going to have you standing around, so we suggest doing daytime recon to search out potential spots. As always, when shooting in urban environments especially, seek out unusual angles that will make your composition sing.
Water and reflections work really well in night photography so placing yourself by a river with a colourful scene above it is a great start. Consider how much light you want in order to decide whether to return at dusk, the dead of night or dawn. Then when you are in-situ study the scene again, noting points of darkness and colour.
Even the most accomplished of photographers tend to fall back on their auto focus function and there is no shame in that – contemporary cameras have it down! However at night the lack of depth in the field is more than likely to make your autofocus go loco, so it is time to go manual.
To give yourself the best chance, set your camera to a wide aperture as this will make wider range of things sharp within your frame. If you are shooting a broad scene, it can work to set the manual focus just shy of infinity. Otherwise it is time to get acquainted with the distance scale friends! A good tip is to pick out a bright spot which is close the plane of focus you want and aim for this – street lights are ace for this.
Okay back to school time! Where it is perfectly possible to be snap happy in the daytime with great results, sans a real understanding of how your camera is working, at night the game changes. That is why working at night will actually make you a better photographer across the board – you cannot afford to bluff it, particularly when it comes to exposure. Though, that said, Digital Camera World do have a very useful cheat sheet to help you out with getting the settings right!
Set yourself to manual and consider the big three: shutter speed, aperture and ISO. As a general rule of thumb low light means the following – widen your aperture, slow your shutter speed and/or raise your ISO. You need to work all three in tandem, adjusting one according to the other but here is a quick look at the role of each factor.
Now aperture is straightforward – crank it UP (low f-number). The wider the aperture the more light you are letting in. The only issue is that this can give your pictures a shallow feel so experiment a little – focusing at about a third of the way into your field of depth will help to combat that flatness.
Shutter speed in night photography will account for the amount of motion blur that you get. By setting a long shutter speed you are able to achieve amazing photographs of of moving traffic or the night sky for example. To reduce motion blur match the lens’ 35mm equivalent focal length to a reciprocal shutter speed. Finally with your ISO, higher settings will degrade the quality of your image, so you need to aim to keep them as low as possible.
Understanding techniques will allow you to get very creative after dark…
One of the great things about night photography is that it really reminds you of the joy of light (ironically!) – which is after all, what taking pictures is all about. Once you have got to grips with the basics here are some gratifying tricks you can try. Light lords!
- Light painting ( or graffiti): So the background needs to be static and the exposure long… then start scribbling. This can be applied to either organic moving sources of light – traffic trails are great, or one’s that you make yourself. Take that flashlight you bought at vast expense, whack on the self-timer and get experimental in front of the lens for some funky light graffiti!
- Blurred spots: If you deliberately capture light sources out of focus the effect can be quite dazzling – they tend to look a little like the colour spots that appear before your eyes when you have been punched in the head, but they are dazzling none the less!
- Starbursts: Set yourself up with a narrow aperture (around f/16) and not only will this ensure a deeper depth of field for sharper shots, but it will also create that magical sparkling effect with street lights and the like.
What are some of your favorite nighttime photos and/or locations? What have you struggled with? Let me know in the comments below!