Everyone with a camera of any kind, smartphone or large DSLR, wants to try night photography at some time for an incredible evening photo shoot. Results often are not quite what we were expecting. Metering, focus, and camera movement are usually the culprits for our less than stellar shots.
Metering can cause problems due to the way photographic meters are programmed for average scenes. Any scenes that don’t fit into the average may not meter properly. A large expanse of white, such as a snow covered mountain or bright sand on a beach, will be underexposed. A large expanse of dark, like the night sky, will be over exposed.
Focus issues may crop up because of how focus sensors judge subject distance. Without something clear to latch onto, perhaps a building, tree, or person, the camera autofocus may hunt back and forth or default to an inappropriate distance.
Camera movement may happen since many night scenes are dim, making the camera choose longer shutter speeds than we can hand hold.
Our tips for night photography will cover how to deal with these issues and also give you some additional good ideas of how to improve your night photography. Many of these tips will work with all cameras from smartphones to point and shoot cameras to advanced DSLRs. Some will be more geared to users of cameras with lots of adjustments available.
1. Be Still!
One of the primary causes of bad pictures, day or night, is unsharpness caused by camera movement. A person thinks they are standing still, but they aren’t. Especially is this true when using a smartphone or the rear view screen on other cameras.
This is because of how we are holding the camera or phone. We have it up at eye level but also held away from our face. Our arms are outstretched which doesn’t offer any real support to our camera. Even with a lightweight smartphone, this arm position is prone to tiny movements.
If you are using a DSLR or mirrorless camera turning off the view screen and using the eye level finder keeps your arms closer in to the body, making a more stable platform. Other alternatives are resting your arms on something, such as a table or wall, leaning up against a tree, wall, or pole, or using a tripod or some other type of camera support.
2. Use Manual Settings
Going manual is nothing to be afraid of. It’s not as though we’re likely to run out of film or miss a chance at getting a good image. The image review feature on virtually every digital camera takes care of that worry. If you didn’t get a decent pic, change a setting and take another shot.
With a camera designed for advanced users, manual settings are easy to get to. Go to the M setting on the dial or in the menu and set your shutter speeds and apertures. Some simple cameras may not have manual settings available.
For smartphones, iOS or Android, the built in camera app may not have manual capability. But there are many other apps with more sophisticated camera controls. For iPhones, try out Camera+ 2, Android users should consider Camera FV-5.
3. Raise the ISO
This actually needs an explanation. If you’re taking pictures of things or events at night, you may wish to raise the ISO (or sensitivity) on your camera. Doing so will allow for faster shutter speeds which help eliminate camera shake. Increasing light sensitivity also increases electronic noise, so it’s not a solution for all situations.
4. Lower the ISO
Lowering the sensitivity will result in longer shutter speeds, but it also decreases electronic noise in your images. Noise will show up very obviously in large expanses of dark, such as the night sky. It can obscure detail and it makes everything look grainy. If you lower your ISO, you’ll want to pay close attention to tip #1.
5. Shoot During Blue Hour
Full night is the period between the ending of evening twilight and the beginning of morning twilight. Twilight, also known as the Blue Hour, is the time of day with the Sun below the horizon but with the sky still lit by the glow of the Sun.
Right after the Sun has set or just before Sunrise, the skyglow is still very bright. From about 20 minutes to 1 hour of sunrise or sunset is a workable time that looks a lot like full night but still gives you some light to work with. It’s a beautiful time of day. Experiment with both clear skies and lots of cloud cover, both offer great possibilities.
6. Try HDR
High Dynamic Range imaging is a method used by photographers to create images with detail in the shadows and the highlights. Some HDR photography looks somewhat odd, but that’s a special effect, deliberately done. Most HDR images will never be noticed by non photographers as HDR. Look at commercial images of malls, hotels, hospitals, etc… and you are viewing HDR photography.
You will need to use some sort of camera support in order to get the best results. HDR photography blends several different exposures together, so you need to give your program identical image files. Even if your program or camera says hand held HDR is possible, it’s still better to use a support.
7. Scout the Location in Daylight
This is both for safety and creative reasons. Safety is obvious, you don’t want to be suprised by steps, boulders, ditches, drop offs, curbs, and anything else that could trip you. Creatively, you can explore the site for the best angles, foregrounds, or backgrounds.
8. Shoot in RAW
Some phone apps may not have RAW file capability, but they may let you choose between large and small JPEG files. One of the reasons to shoot in RAW or large JPEGs is to give you more image information to work with when processing your files. You do process your files, don’t you? 😉
9. Post Processing
Straight out of camera is rarely the amazing thing that some people try to say it is. Most images will benefit from at least an exposure tweak. Even in the days of film snapshots, the final prints were adjusted for color correction and exposure. Easy to use post processing programs like Adobe Lightroom are available for MAC, PC, and smartphones.
10. Dress For Success
Whether during the Summer or deep into Winter, the absence of the Sun usually means temps are lower than during the day. In a city, the concrete heat sink can hold warmth for several hours, but a remote location such as the beach or the countryside may cool down rapidly. Be prepared. Also, in any weather, good shoes are important.
11. Just Do It
The only way to get great night photographs is to go out at night and start taking photos. Play around and have fun. Experiment with different camera and processing settings. You will enjoy both the journey and the results.