Isn’t the featured picture awesome? Probably, you are thinking that these kinds of pictures can only be taken by professionals who have years of experience, or with a $10,000 camera! But no, that’s not at all the case. I love taking pictures of starry skies, beautiful cityscapes bursting with life and lights, traffic, skyscrapers and subjects along those lines. Well, I am sure that most of the people here are fond of them too and if you too want to make such images, you need to equip yourself with some night photography tips and nifty techniques which will save you from a lot of frustration and trouble while shooting.
While writing I make sure that it is easy to comprehend even for people with little photographic background. But having a basic sense of controls on your DSLR and some idea of composition and exposure is a must, because in the dark, scenarios are different. If you don’t understand what I mean, it’s okay. Keep reading and by the time you finish this article, it would probably make much more sense.
1. A Tripod is Essential
This goes without saying that a tripod is a must. You will be shooting a lot of long exposures and you cannot expect to hold your camera for that long. Makes sense? Right. So the type and kind of tripod do not matter much as long as you are comfortable with all its functions and abilities. Personally, I prefer a nice carbon fiber tripod, the trusty Manfrotto XPRO 055CX. It is because of a couple of reasons. It gives me a lot of flexibility to move around and compose my shots. Also, the night gets very chilly in some places and aluminum tripods become very uncomfortable to use.
But, as I said, it doesn’t matter as long as you are familiar with your gear, you should be good to go. Some situations such as cities, bridges, etc can be well lighted but even then, that light isn’t enough to shoot handheld photos. As for the heads, I wouldn’t stress too much on the type. I prefer a ball head, but that’s just me. Have a look at some of our recommendations of good tripods.
2. Always Shoot in RAW
Another golden rule! If you are beginner, let me tell you this – Always Shoot in RAW. That’s a rule that photographers swear by. Especially in night photography, where you don’t have the option to keep reviewing each of your shot at the site, you should have enough data to work with in post-processing. RAW files are significantly larger in size, this is because of the same reason – A large amount of data.
The data is stored in the burnt highlights or the deep shadows can be easily recovered if it is a raw image. Often during, night photography, there are stars which are not visible in the shots or the subject is underexposed. The data in those files is a life-saver.
3. Switch To Manual Focusing
If you think about this tip for a little while, you will understand why it makes so much of sense to switch of the manual focusing on your camera. Suppose you are shooting the stars in complete darkness, your autofocus will continuously hunt back and forth for the focus because there isn’t adequate amount of light from the stars. In that case, switch to liveview mode and shine your flashlight to the farthest object. Now focus on that object and once it is locked, switch to manual focusing. This way, the autofocus is locked at infinity and you are set.
Another important setting is the Image Stabilization (Canon) or Vibration Reduction (Nikon). You want to turn it off too (the switch can be found on the lens barrel). This is because you are already working with a tripod, so IS will do more harm than good in this case. IS works by counter balancing any shake in the camera. If there is a negligible shake (using a tripod), the IS elements can introduce their own little movements which are not needed.
4. Use a Remote Shutter Release
Having a remote shutter release is optional, but it definitely helps during the shoot. While you are pressing the shutter button with your finger, the mirror flips up (for DSLRs only) and the image is taken. That split-second of hand shake is visible in night photography. Well, one way to counteract is by being extra careful and stable or you can just use a remote shutter release which is much simpler. If you are into making star trails, time lapses, etc you should get yourself an intervalometer. It is a cable shutter release that takes pictures at specific intervals of time for a particular duration. It makes the job very easy for star trails.
If you don’t wanna go in for a remote shutter or an intervalometer, the best you can do is use the timer on your camera. Set it to 3 or 5 seconds of delay and shoot. Now whenever, you press the shutter button, the sensor is exposed after a delay. This reduces the camera shake due to the flipping of the mirror.
5. Always Shoot in Manual Mode
Night photography demands you to shoot in manual mode. But if you are not familiar with it, fret not – Try practicing in Aperture Priority or Aperture Value mode. The aperture is a bit tricky because if the lens is wide open (f2, f3.5), your foreground or background won’t be sharp but at the same time the lens will allow a lot of light to enter.
On the other hand, if you use a relatively small aperture ( f11, or f16), the image will be sharp across the entire frame, but less light will be allowed in. Now it is for you to figure out which aperture value suits you the best. I prefer an f/8, that’s the sweet spot for most of the lenses.
Next up is the shutter speed. Needless to say, if you are shooting stars or car trails, you need to keep the shutter open for a long time say, 2-5 seconds but if you are shooting cityscapes, a speed of 1/6 or 1/10 of a second might be enough.
Tip: As a general rule, try to match the focal length of your lens with the shutter speed for less shaky shots. For example, if your focal length is 24mm, try not to go below 1/24th of a sec. But remember this is only for handheld shooting.
Lastly, the ISO – keep the ISO to a minimum, around 100 or 200. You don’t want extra noise do you, and as it is you are compensating for the exposure with shutter speed adjustments.
6. Switch To AWB and LiveView
Auto White Balance is an amazing function in itself. While shooting in the dark, its best to let the camera figure out the temperature of your photos that is, if you are not trying to change it for some artistic effects. Most of the time, the AWB performs fairly well but you might need to tweak it later in post processing.
Switching to LiveView mode helps a lot in the dark. The first advantage is that the mirror flips and locks up, so whenever you click a photo, there won’t be any additional shake due to mirror movement. Also, when you are trying to focus manually, live view helps you in the dark as you can magnify the subject and lock the focus accurately.
7. Play Around with Bulb Mode
The bulb mode makes sure that the shutter remains open as long as the shutter button is pressed. You can select the bulb mode by turning the shutter speed all the way to the maximum ( more than 30 seconds) You can do all sorts of stuff within the bulb mode. Here is an interesting article on how to use the bulb mode creatively.
There are times, when you feel that 30 seconds of shutter isn’t enough. You might want a 1 minute or 1.5 minute exposure (typically in star trails or light painting). In those cases, the bulb mode comes in handy but obviously you cannot hold the button manually for so long. I would advise to buy a cable release which locks the shutter open for a particular duration.
8. Compose your Shots in Advance
For this tip, I recommend you drafting a rough sketch of what you are going to shoot on a piece of paper. Compose your shot, what to include and what not, the subject, foreground and background, etc well beforehand. I know it sounds weird but imagine a scenario, where you are in complete darkness and you just have a flashlight. You will be in total confusion as to what to shoot and the absence of light won’t help you.
Try reaching the location well before sun down and compose a few shots. Also, don’t forget to take trial shots. This way, you will realize if your composition is actually appealing or not. All this legwork needs to be done before the light is completely gone.
9. Have a Sound Idea of your Location
This is in continuation with the previous technique. I would advise you to go and scout the location where you plan to shoot, a day before. Get familiar with everything, so that you can focus on more important things on the shoot such as composition, exposure and making beautiful pieces of art.
If you are traveling to some iconic place, try night shots with monuments, famous buildings, etc in your frame. I have seen some wonderful images of the 7 wonders of the world during night. It adds a touch of professionalism and creativity to your work.
10. Carry Flashlights and Extra Batteries
This is my last tip for night photography and the most important one. Always carry extra batteries and flashlights with you. A flashlight is your best companion during the night and you must be constantly on guard. Flashlights also help in light painting. If you have a high power portable light, you can light up an entire tree or put it inside your tent for a glowing effect.
Also, keep some wipes or tissue with you at all times. When its cold, your lens’s front element might be fogged. Actually, it happened to a friend of mine once. He was shooting long exposures in the middle of the night only to realize that all the shots were out of focus, thanks to his fogged lens. So in order to save all this trouble and more, try sticking to the above tips at all times while shooting at night.
I’m sure that by this time, your hands must be itching to get started. Night photography is exciting. Whether you are shooting, cityscapes or the milky way, the end result is something unique and beautiful. Cities, people, and the street change during the night. The market becomes a wonderful place to be. There will be tons of opportunities to shoot, it’s just that you have to explore!
These tips above are just guidelines but you won’t see any result unless you take action upon them. That’s the best tip I can offer you right now. Keep practicing and keep exploring! You will learn more that way. Well, I hope you liked these night photography tips. If you have any doubts, questions or suggestions feel free to leave them in the comments section below and I’ll be more than happy to help you out.