This article is different from the blogs that I normally post. This site is a combination of my hobbies of blogging and photography, and as such, I am writing this article. I am working on a more efficient sorting system which will allow me to sort these posts better in the future. I would like to have a ‘blog’ section along with a ‘photography’ section. Right now I am still working on getting it working, but look forward to it!
I am writing this post because lots of people comment on my night photography and ask how I can take such photos so (seemingly) easily and regularly. However, for me, this is really weird to hear… I think that taking photos at night time is easier than in the day! How? Let me explain!
I think that lots of people are scared away from taking night photos due to bad experiences with snapshots. I think that this is for one key reason: Auto mode. Auto mode on cameras and phones is designed to provide a balance of shutter speed and ISO (light). This isn’t what you want with night photography, in fact, usually, it is the complete opposite.
When auto mode adjusts your camera for night shots it will balance your shutter speed (so there is no blur in the images), and the ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor – how much light is in the image). The problem is that this isn’t what you want. When taking night photos, you want to use a slow shutter speed. A slow shutter speed may mean that the image is blurry if your camera isn’t stable, but it will allow for far higher quality. In short, the faster the shutter speed the higher the ISO. The higher the ISO, the worse the image quality will be.
Choosing a Camera
I am sure most people who are reading this either already have a phone/camera with no intention of buying a different camera, or already have a DSLR, but if you are someone who is interested in buying a camera for night photography then this section is for you. Any DSLR or mirrorless camera with a timer/remote and 30 seconds/bulb shutter time is usable for this. However, some cameras are superior for night photography. This is my quick checklist for picking the best camera:
- Check the ISO performance on DXOmark.
- What is the camera’s lowest ISO? Many modern cameras go down to 50 or 64. The lower the better.
- Is the camera full frame? Full frame makes a big difference for night photos. If you are contemplating between an expensive APS-C camera or a cheap full-frame, I would recommend the latter. Since the sensor is bigger, more light will be captured.
- Make sure the camera has a manual mode. Manual mode (the mode where you can pick all the settings) is very important for night photography.
- Can the camera be remote controlled? Either by an app or by a seperate controller.
- Check to see if the camera has a stabilised sensor. This is by no means essential, but after using mirrorless cameras I can’t go back. If wind shakes the camera, the stabilisation will prevent shake from being shown in the image.
In the end, any camera can take great night images. It is usually just a matter of patience. Taking a beautiful night shot will usually take 10+ seconds per image, and so many things can totally ruin your image. Don’t get discouraged if you get 10 bad shots! Practice always make perfect.
- Use the lowest ISO possible in most cases, but don’t be afraid to try some higher ISOs to see the effect.
- Usually, you want to use the lowest ISO and a high F-number (F/22, F/18, etc) for a wider focus area. This means you will be using a slow shutter speed. As such, a tripod or flat surface is usually required.
- Play with different shutter speeds – every speed will give you a different effect, and sometimes you will get totally unexpected results.
- Long exposure shots take a lot of patience. One car driving erratically can ruin your light trails. The wrong red light can make the cars stop and ruin the flow. Patience is key, usually it takes 10 long exposures of the same location to get the perfect one.
- Focus on dark areas of your image to help remove some of the highlights.
- Under-exposing is much preferred to over-exposing. Most modern cameras are easily capable of lifting shadows, and as such, it is preferable to under expose. However, often an over-exposed image can never be fully recovered.
- Make sure your tripod is heavy. Just because you have a tripod, does not mean your images won’t be blurry or soft. Most tripods have a hook on the bottom which allows you to attach a weight (maybe your camera bag, or anything heavy you have on you). This will make the tripod heavier and prevent it from moving in the wind.
- Use bracketing to capture highlights and low light areas of the image. Bracketing will take multiple images at different exposures and combine them together to show a greater dynamic range in your images. In short, it will make them look better.
- Manual focus isn’t required, but it is often superior. Since you aren’t relying on speed, manual focus is great for night shots and will allow you to capture a far sharper image. Further, it will let you customise where you focus, which allows you to pick different subjects or focus on low light areas of the image.
- Use some remote method or timer for your camera shutter. You do not want to move your camera at all while shooting long exposures, and that means no pressing the shutter button. Most cameras have a phone app that can be used, and if not, a radio kit can normally be purchased. This will allow you to use the camera without physically touching it (making it shake and therefore making your image blurry).
- If shooting through glass, use a large F-number. This will help remove the grime on the window, as well as scratches and other imperfections. Further, place your camera as close to the window as possible and if possible, use a lens hood. Placing fabric over your camera will also remove reflections. Anything from a scarf to a blanket will work.
Gear to Take
All of this gear is recommended and will help you take fantastic night photos, but as with any photography, all that is truly required is a camera of some sort. Your results will improve with the right gear, and better gear, but a brilliant photo can be taken on any camera with the right technique.
Tripod – The most obvious and best piece of gear to invest in if you plan to shoot long exposures.
Remote control for the shutter – This can be anything from your phone to a specialised remote such as this. If you don’t have one, using self-timer on your camera will also work.
Wide angled lens – This really depends on what style you want, but a wide angle lens will help you capture the most detail in your image.
Lens hood – This will remove any lights on the sides of your images from ruining the exposure.
Torch or light of some kind – Often you will find locations (such as hills or mountains), that have no lights on them. To scout the location and change camera settings a torch is a big help! However, these days everyone has a smartphone which comes with the same function built in!
Location is something that I can’t really be specific about. The location determines the whole style of the image, and that is up to the photographer (you!), however, there are some spots that are more popular than others. High locations are obviously very popular for long exposures of skylines and cities, and while they may be cliched, they often give some amazing results.
Busy roads and highways are also great locations for beautiful long-exposure light trials. Since cars on highways constantly have to move fast, you don’t have to worry about traffic lights ruining your images.
On the street is one of the most obvious, yet often overlooked places. Streets often seem boring… We walk along them every day after all! But something to remember is that night is capable of changing everything we see. A photo at night is vastly different from one taken at day, and places are never the same at night. Further, long exposures show a whole different world to what we can see with our amazing, yet sadly limited, eyes. This means that while streets may seem too boring to photograph, why not try at night? The results may be totally different from what you expect.
Other than that, it’s hard to say anything else about locations. Wherever in the world you live, there will be amazing locations to photograph at night. Whether in the city or country, rain or shine, every one of these elements changes the style of your photographs, and amazing results are always possible.
Editing is one of the most important parts of long exposure photography as you have already been patiently waiting for the perfect shot, now you want to make it stand out from every other shot out there. I won’t go into how to do everything here (there are enough guides for that out there! I will link some down below), and I won’t cover everything. However, I will try my best to cover the most important aspects that will give your images the ‘WOW!’ Factor.
- Recover shadows and dim the highlights. The first step is to recover shadows (remember that under-exposing is better than over-exposing) and dim the highlights.
- Increase saturation, vibrance, clarity and contrast to taste. This is where you pick if you want your image to be colourful and bright, or dark and moody.
- Crop to make sure your horizon is flat. In my opinion, this is the most important step. Always, always, always remember to make your image flat. Nothing is more off-putting to me than seeing an image which is not aligned correctly. Simply pick a focus area for the image (maybe a building in the centre) and make sure it is straight vertically. This will make sure that the rest of your image is aligned correctly.
- Pick a focus area. What do you want to focus on? Light trails? Or a building? Depending on what you want the focus of the image to be, you can enhance those particular colours or that area. Often making the focus area a little brighter will draw attention to it. Experiment and see what you like best.
Remember that you want to focus on your subject, so it’s important to draw attention there. This can either be done by removing other objects (distractions) from the image or using them (such as leading lines), to draw attention to your subject.
It’s hard for me to provide more detailed or specific instructions without making this post far longer than intended, so maybe I will make a post about that in the future. However, if you have any questions feel free to ask down below and I will respond as soon as I have time. If you would like to ask specific questions about a photo, you can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.