9 min. to read
If you enjoy photography, sooner or later you're going to want to try your hand at shooting after dark. City lights, starry skies and the other elements that come into view after the sun sets can add a whole new dimension to your photos. Long exposures in pitch-dark locations can reveal surprises in the landscape that you may have never imagined were there. Nighttime also provides opportunities for fun with light.
Night photography isn't really difficult; it just requires a little bit of basic knowledge and some practice. Modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras are well-equipped to handle low-light situations. They do have some limitations, though and knowing how to work around them is the important part. This article will highlight some of the techniques you'll need to become familiar with to take spectacular night shots.
Making sure your camera is steady should be the most obvious part of shooting in the dark. Your exposure times are going to be extended and trying to shoot hand-held is almost always going to be disappointing.
A solid tripod is arguably the best way to stabilize your setup. There are other devices that will do the job, from bean bags to grips that can be rested on something. The point is that you need to be sure the camera isn't going to move or vibrate while the shutter is open.
The best way to reduce camera shake is to keep your hands off when the shutter opens. The best way to do that is with a remote shutter release. If you don't have one, the next best option is to use your camera's shutter delay timer. If that's the option you go with, keep in mind that a 10-second delay is probably better than 2 seconds, to allow time for the vibration of pressing the shutter to stop.
If you're counting on your camera's autoexposure system for all of your photos, now's the time to learn not to. Your digital camera may meter a scene just fine in the dark, but it doesn't have your creative mind. To get the most out of nighttime photography, you need to be in control. Most modern DLSRs can be set to preview the exposure in the LCD, so you don't have to be completely in the dark, if you'll pardon the pun.
Set your exposure mode to Manual and get ready to run the show.
The first thing many novices want to do when the sun goes down is increase the ISO setting. While this might seem to make sense, it's important to remember that digital noise increases along with it. Keep your ISO low and you'll have less work to do in post-processing.
You'll often hear the argument that digital image sensors produce more noise as they heat up during long exposures. That's true, but that increase is usually much less noticeable than pushing your ISO setting into the 4 or 5-digit range.
Shooting with a wide-open aperture will let you gather more light in less time. If you're shooting the stars, you'll see more of them in the photo in a shorter time at your maximum aperture setting. Shooting wide can give you nice bokeh, too:
On the other hand, a narrow aperture will increase your depth of field, so the overall sharpness of your photo will be enhanced. Not only that, but stopping down to f/16 or smaller will produce those brilliant “starbursts” around the brightest points of light in your scenes.
Making the best use of your aperture setting varies according to the shot and the results you want. Just don't be afraid to stop down and increase your exposure time.
There are many times when the shutter speed will be a major factor in your night shots. Most of the time the major consideration will be motion. Learning to use your shutter speed at night is a matter of deciding first what you want to happen in the shot.
Long exposure: Light trails from cars, planes, stars, satellites and just about any source of light that moves can be one of the most interesting things to include in your night shots. Just how long the exposure needs to be is often a matter of experimentation. Play with the timing and enjoy the results.
Note: Shutter speed is a critical factor in photographing the stars. To avoid star trails, but gather the maximum amount of light possible, use the 500 Rule: Divide 500 by the focal length of your lens to determine the maximum number of seconds before star trails appear.
Bulb Shutter: Locking the shutter open for really long exposures is the basis of a lot of fun projects at night. One of the most interesting is “light painting”. While you have your shutter locked open, try one of the following:
Star trails, of course are another wonderful nighttime photo project. Point your lens at the stars, focus at infinity and lock the shutter open for 30 seconds or more. Experiment with various settings and see what you get. Take multiple exposures in one spot and blend them in processing to create even longer trails.
The fun really begins when you get your night shots downloaded to the computer and start working with them. You'll find plenty of nice surprises and with the right software, you'll be able to really make your favorite images shine. I recommend Photoshop for Windows users and for the Mac, I think you'll find Luminar has incredible capabilities and an intuitive interface that's much easier to use. It also doesn't have to be purchased by subscription.
Common adjustments to your photos will be noise reduction, contrast enhancement, sharpening and clarity adjustments. You'll find you have a great deal of creative freedom with night shots, so don't be afraid to push the envelope. The scope of what you can do is much too wide to cover here, but I recommend taking a look at the video tutorials for Luminar for some great ideas to start with.