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Photography Tips: Night Photography

This will be the final installation of my February Photography Tips here at the C-BG website…but, I’ll be back; you can count on it!

Before I get into this post, let me say that one of the reasons I love photography so much is because it is so versatile as an art form. If you do these steps regularly: practice – experiment – repeat, you will find that the opportunities to discover creatively through photography will remain one of the most thrilling experiences you can have. And, like every art form, you will see your style develop and grow into something that is uniquely yours. I strongly encourage you to photograph what moves you, and not to simply attempt to duplicate someone else’s style or photographic technique. Be patient and true to yourself, be wary of trends (they always go out of style, in fashion and in photography), and you will find that the photographs you produce will be extraordinarily fulfilling to you, and to others – trust me on this!

OK, NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY:

Like everything else I’ve offered tips on, explaining photographing at night is an entire photography workshop, because there are so many subtle nuances to this technique that need to be learned through trying it, perhaps failing at it, and then trying it again and having some success with it.

Everyone thinks that because their cameras have a high ISO of 12,800 (yes, that is an actual ISO setting on a newer DSLR camera!), that we should crank the ISO way up there, oh, and even increase the ISO sensitivity setting in the camera to go even higher than 12,800. Well, I’m going to dash your dreams and tell you that for the majority of night photography, this is not necessarily the case.

Yes, yes, yes, we’ve all seen those magnificent Milky Way shots at f/2.8 with an ISO of 3200, and yes, that works well (with tricks added to the mix while both photographing and in post-processing, which every image needs), but at higher ISOs, you will have to deal with digital noise. What’s that? Well, if anyone recalls film, there was a black and white film that had an ISO of 3200 (Ilford Delta). Photographs and photographic prints made with this film yielded a lot of grain, or metal particles on the film, that made the final print look, well grainy. In digital photography, we now have to deal with digital noise, which is similar to grain, but can ruin an image visually and can be difficult to correct for in post-processing (a whole ‘nother topic!). So, in most situations while doing night photography, it’s a good idea to minimize the digital noise, which means a lower ISO is typically a better starting point. Which leads us to another situation…

If you use a lower ISO, this means that your shutter speeds are going to need to be very slow, which means you will likely not be able to hand-hold your camera lower than 1/25th of a second (if you are really good), which doesn’t matter anyway, because your shutter speed is going to be WAY slower than 1/25th of a second, and actually more like 25 seconds, maybe 30 seconds, even 1, 2, 4, or 30 minutes! There’s not much hand-holding a shutter speed that is that slow! …which means you are definitely going to need a sturdy tripod, in fact the more sturdy your tripod, the less vibrations your camera will pick up from the ground it is sitting on! …which means that you are going to need a shutter-release device so you won’t shake your camera at those really slow shutter speeds when you need to trip your shutter! And, let’s not forget what mode you want to consider photographing in (I always recommend Manual) and that you are going to have to watch and adjust for light pollution, reciprocity failure (kinda), dark frame subtraction, and amp glow – not enough time to cover everything here.

Get it?! It’s a process, a very exciting, experimental and magical process and you should NOT be daunted by! Did you hear me? I repeat; BE EXCITED, NOT DAUNTED! You should get out there and give this magic a try!

Here is a list of gear and some settings as a starting point for you as you begin to do landscape photography at night:

GEAR:
CAMERA: a full-frame sensor camera would be ideal, because it’ll provide you with more digital information in your image, but if you don’t have a camera with a full-frame sensor, I do hope you have one that is at least a 12 megapixel body, which will be helpful as you begin to work with and enlarge your prints.
LENS: here’s where your Canon EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens will work, at 18mm at least (and at 55mm too, but keep it at the widest setting to start: 18mm), because although it’s not a Fast lens, it is a lens that has decent f/stops for landscape photography at the widest angle, which is some good news about that kit lens, isn’t it!
TRIPOD: sturdy, with a solid head that can be adjusted and locked and a tripod plate that is both removable from the tripod, and also can be locked once it’s sitting on the tripod head, so your camera won’t splat on the ground.
SHUTTER RELEASE: …used to be called cable release in the days of beautiful, big cameras…*sigh… Most camera manufacturers have them specific for your model of camera, so don’t make the mistake of just buying any shutter release; be sure it’ll work with your camera.

STARTING POINT SETTINGS:
SCENARIO: let’s start with Dusk and the Twilight Hour, which is just after the sun sets and the sky is still that beautiful blue…
MODE: Manual; yes, the dreaded “M.” You’ll thank me for that, eventually.
ISO: 200; yes, that low; you’ll thank me later on this too, when you don’t have as much digital noise to deal with in post-processing!
LENS: at 18mm – leave it there.
F/STOP: f/8, or f/11 – leave it there.
SHUTTER: 20 seconds – if under 30 seconds, you can use your camera’s self-timer mechanism to trip the shutter without the shutter release.
— because you are photographing dusk/twilight/darkness, don’t be surprised if you need to quickly adjust your shutter speed to slower settings; the light changes really quickly at sunset and sunrise.
FOCUS: …tricky…there are a couple of rules here…
— turn the auto-focus button on your lens to off and focus manually.
— how you SHOULD focus for normal landscape photography, is to focus 1/3 into the frame, but in low-lighting conditions, that type of focusing can be difficult to do, so, keep your landscape scene one where your landscape is way over there and there is little subject in the foreground – everything is way out there in the frame. Once you’ve framed your landscape image, look for the distance scale on your lens where you can turn it to the farthest distance of focus, denoted by an “L” laying on it’s side (or the infinity symbol on the lens distance scale); back your focus off a bit to just before that L. At f/11 that should work well.
— there are other focusing tricks that can be done, like focusing on the foreground, taking a shot, then focusing on the background, taking a shot and then melding the two images together in Photoshop, but just start there and let me know how it goes.

There is a TON of mathematical and technological preparation and explanation that is important to understand while learning to photograph in low light situations. But honestly, I can’t go through them all in a blog post; it would be way too overwhelming for you without an explanation and demonstration. Come join me for one of my workshops or retreats; you will have a great experience and walk away with so much knowledge that you’ll know how to create your own photographic success! And in the meanwhile, let me know that you tried these things I’ve shared with you, and how it went for you – I really want to know!

Namaste, Joanne Bartone

5 Comments for : Photography Tips: Night Photography
    • deb perry
    • February 19, 2015
    Reply

    Thanks Joanne! I printed this one! looking forward to getting outside and experimenting!!!
    Thanks for this series – very helpful!

    • CBGallery
    • February 19, 2015
    Reply

    Hey Deb Perry,
    You are so welcome; glad to help. Please be sure to post some of your photos and Facebook Tag me in them so I can see your experiments! I look forward to it.
    Best, Joanne Bartone
    https://www.facebook.com/JoanneBartone

  1. Reply

    Thanks for the tips! My sister asked me to take a few extra pictures for her wedding next week. She wants her reception to be held in the evening in our backyard. I don’t know very much about how to take good photos at night, so these tips should help. You made a good point about using the right gear. It seems like I should start looking for a new camera with a 12 megapixel body to use for my sister’s reception.

      • CBGallery
      • September 6, 2015
      Reply

      Hey Deanna,
      How’d those wedding photos turn out? Were you pleased with your results?
      Let us know!
      Best, Joanne

    • Dean
    • October 15, 2015
    Reply

    This is a great post on night photography. Thanks for the suggestions. I will have to add these to my arsenal the next time I have an evening shoot. Much appreciated.

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