If you look at my personal portfolio, you'll notice that I've got a good amount of night photography in there, and that's because night-time is one of my favourite times to shoot. Shooting at night for me, came about from the fact that I didn't really have too much free time in the day, so I would go out and practice my photography with some friends at night.
It's a slightly harder skill to master because the shots take longer to expose, I liken it to shooting on film; you think a lot more about your settings and composition before you shoot, which helps you to hone in your skill much quicker.
Step 1 – Times & Uses
Night photography takes place any time between dusk and dawn, and the range of colours in this time can vary greatly. When there's still a little bit of light in the sky, you can take a long exposure and end up with a relatively blue, evening sky, when in reality it's much darker outside. Take the photo below for example, it was shot well into the evening in the French town of Honfleur and the exposure was probably a little bit too long, causing the photo to effectively overexpose for the time of day.
Night photography is a great equaliser because when it's dark enough outside, you're effectively working with a blank canvas where factors such as weather and people aren't really a problem anymore. A factor that may once have effected the colour of your photo, may now effect the contrast or your photo, so night photography draws some of the same principles on black and white photography to help produce good results. Night time can produce unusual results and views that people aren't used to seeing, and that's especially true when it comes to the sky; with a long exposure, you'll start to see stars you didn't realise were there.
Step 2 – How To
You should first have a good understanding of how exposure works, if you don't then I suggest you go back and read the links inside that link. There are 3 factors that affect an exposure; shutter speed, aperture and ISO, and we use all of these differently at night.
First thing you'll need to do it take your camera out of auto mode, and set it to manual, where you'll have full control over all of these settings. Low light conditions means that you'll need to change your settings accordingly, and that means doing a variety of these things; widen your aperture, slow your shutter speed and/or raise your ISO. When I first find a scene that I want to capture, I raise the shutter speed and take a photo of about a second to see roughly what it looks like with a little bit more light. Then I lower the ISO back down as low as I can to make sure that I don't end up with a grainy photo and I use the extended shutter speed to capture the photo, like this one below shot at ISO 100, for 30 seconds at f/4.
The majority of the photos that you're going to take are going to have a wide aperture so that you can allow the most amount of light in as possible, and this is going to result in a shallow depth of field in some cases, but I always find it much less noticeable at night as the lack of light takes away some of the definition. A good example of this is in the photo below this one, that I've used to demonstrate high ISO. If you're going to be shooting a scene where your subject goes way into the distance, to a point of convergence, then you'll need a narrow aperture to produce a wide DoF. The photo below was shot at my maximum aperture of f/22 for 30 seconds at ISO 100, and I could get away with those settings because I was relying on a bright source of light to be my subject. When shooting a scene like this, always focus about a third of the depth into the photo to create the best depth of field.
When shooting in incredibly dark places, you'll need to raise your ISO, and your shutter speed at the same time, while lowering your aperture. The photo below was taken at night, in the middle of the woods with local light pollution being the only light source to light up the sky. The graininess of the photo, the red of the sky, and the slightly shallow DoF help greatly in producing this photo as this building is widely considered to be haunted. ISO will produce a grainy result in your photos, but can be used creatively if you know what you're doing.
Think before you shoot and you'll be able to decide exactly what you're shooting, whether you want grain, a deep DoF, or light trails, and you'll easily be able to work out the settings for yourself from there. One thing that is worth noting is that you need to
ignore your camera's exposure meter, it's irrelevant at night, and the histogram is going to be completely different to what you're used to; go with the settings that work for you after a bit of experimentation.
Step 3 – Tripod Vs. Handheld
Clearly, the most popular choice for night photography is to use a tripod as it allows you a long exposure and all the ability to play around with a more cool effects, but there are a few points that you need to bear in mind when using one.
- Make sure it's weighted down and away from any strong winds because slight movement will make your photos blurry.
- Use a shutter release cable to that you don't jog the camera when you press the shutter down.
- Turn of any image stabilisation as it will be counter intuitive, thinking that the camera is moving.
If you're shooting handheld, you've got a lot more restrictions imposed on you. You need to be able to hold the camera still for longer periods of time, without too much movement, but to help shorten this time, you can raise your ISO as high as it will go. This photo below was shot at ISO3200, for 1/8 of a second at f/2.8. My lens doesn't have IS so I couldn't use that, but I focused on my subjects lips as a central, reflective point for creative effect.
Step 4 – Creative Ideas & Tips
This is where the photography really starts to get fun as there's some really cool, creative ideas and effects that you can produce that can't be achieved during the day.
Shooting on film is good fun, and if you're stuck for what settings to use, I recommend bringing you digital SLR along the first few times you try it, so that you can learn faster and not waste money on film.
Light trails are fun because if you're controlling them, you can do whatever you like with them. For the photo below, I went into a local town in the middle of the night with some friends and got one of them to drive through the scene while the rest of us captured their trials with our cameras. It took a few tries, but I eventually got this photo, shot at f/18 for 30 seconds at ISO100.
Reflections are a lot harder to get during the day as they're dependant on the light in a scene – when you take away all the natural light, you only have to worry about the man-made light. Try to use as much colour as you can as the colours will merge in reflections of water, creating a contrast between smooth and sharp. Photo below shot at f/4.5 for 8 seconds at ISO 100.
The Moon is one of your only consistent light sources at night, and can produce some very interesting effects. Below, I used a car's light to light up the foreground, while the moon created an almost triangular effect with the light heading down towards the bottom corners.
Movement is an obvious choice for photos with long exposures, and the contrast between still object and moving objects can be easily achieved with a tripod mounted camera, like in the photo below that I took at Stone Henge for 15 seconds.
Sky photos at night have a variety of effects available to them, you can include movement in the clouds or more definition in the stars like in the photo below, taken on a 30 second exposure. If you expose any photo long enough, the small amount of light in the sky will multiply enough times to produce this cool blue/purple colour.