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Photography At Night - Tips & Techniques

Night-time photography can produce some of the most dramatic images that you can create, and it can also be one of the more difficult types of photography to learn and master.

Most photographers (even the professionals) have a stack of poor quality night photographs hidden away. They may be out of focus, the exposure is incorrect, or the wrong part of the photo is highlighted. But the results of the occasional evening of photography make learning how to do it correctly worthwhile. 

This article will give you some tips on taking great photographs at night (tips based largely on our personal experiences with taking bad night-time photographs). Even if you aren't seriously into photography, these tips can help ensure that you're ready to grab that once in a lifetime photographic opportunity when you happen upon it.

Tips for great night-time photography:

  1. Know in advance where you plan on doing your night-time photography session. Spend a little time planning your parking, driving routes, etc in advance. And remember, you'll be going in at least one direction in the dark.
  2. Be aware of when and where the sun will be setting or the moon will be rising if you what to include them in your photographs. Some of the best photography makes use of these two heavenly bodies.
  3. Check the weather forecast for the area where you'll be doing your night-time photography. Then you'll know how to dress appropriately as well as how much cloud cover to expect. It's very easy to get cold when you're just standing around waiting for the right photographic  opportunity after dark.
  4. Use bug spray during the warmer months. If you're going to be anywhere near the woods or water, apply it  liberally. You'll most likely to be sitting or standing in the same place for an extended period so there's no point in making yourself an attractive meal for the local bugs. Photography should be enjoyable. Fighting off insects makes it less so.
  5. Always bring and use a tripod. It's quite common to have exposures of an entire second or more during night-time photography. With exposures longer than 1/30 of a  second, a tripod is essential in order to ensure that camera shake doesn't affect the quality of your photographs.
  6. Bring and use a bubble level. A level lets you make sure your camera is level so you can prevent the annoying problem of images running down hill in your pictures.
  7. Since you'll be using a tripod, also use a cable release for your camera. If your camera is equipped to use a cable release for remote operation of the shutter button, be sure to use it. On lengthy exposures, the camera shake caused by depressing the shutter button on your camera will often be seen in your pictures. If your camera isn't equipped for use with a cable release, a self-timer is a good alternative.
  8. Have your cell phone with you. You're going to be out in the dark after all, and things happen. A cell phone will come in handy if there is an emergency. If you're going to team up with another photographer, both of you should take along your phones. That way, if you get separated it's much easier to find one another in the dark.
  9. This one is a no-brainer: Bring along a flashlight. A pocket flashlight is essential when you're doing  photography at night. Not only can it light up your camera dials so you can adjust your camera settings, but it can also help you find your way back to your car at the end of your photography session.
  10. Preset your camera settings. The more control you exercise over the camera settings, the greater your chances of taking some great night-time photographs.
    If your camera has automatic settings only, you may face some real challenges in your attempts at photography in the dark. Whether photography is a hobby or just a casual interest, you'll be well-served if you invest in a quality camera that allows for adjusting the basic settings.
  11. Don't use the flash. Most on-camera flashes aren't effective past five or six feet in front of the camera. So  at night, it may overexpose anything that happens to be in the foreground while underexposing the primary subject of the picture.
  12. Use a higher speed film or adjust the ISO setting higher on your digital camera to allow the use of a faster shutter speed. The higher the ISO/ASA, the shorter the exposures you can use (very important for good night-time photography).
    For example, if you plan to use an exposure of ISO 100 for 2 seconds at F8.0, you can alternatively use ISO 400 for a 1/2 second exposure at the same F8.0. Some digital cameras show higher than usual noise levels for long exposures. See if your digital camera features long exposure noise reduction.
  13. Understand your camera's light metering system, or meter separately while using manual settings on your camera. Most modern consumer-class cameras, especially the higher level ones, tend to have very sophisticated metering systems. But night-time photography involves some pretty tricky lighting situations. There will be very bright and very dark areas in the same photograph.
    If you understand what your light meter is making its readings from as well as the type of exposure you are likely to get, you will end up with properly exposed photos. If automatic metering doesn't produce the quality of photos that you want, take control by using manual camera settings or using exposure  compensation. If your digital camera has a histogram function, use it to help determine how well your metering is working.
  14. Always bracket your photos. If your camera can bracket shots automatically, be sure to use this feature any time you do night-time photography. I usually shoot the exposure I've set, then bracket the shot with a ? shutter speed step-up followed by a ? shutter speed step-down.
  15. You may be able to save time by using manual focus. Most likely, you're going to shoot multiple exposures of the same shot (a fundamental principle of photography), so set the first shot using auto-focus, then without changing the focus, switch to manual focus. That way, if your camera has difficulty focusing in the dark, it won't repeatedly search for a focus lock.
    The nice thing about photography involving monuments and buildings is they don't move. Once the lens is focused, you don't have to refocus with every shot. But you should still check every now and then, just to make sure that you haven't bumped the lens and altered the focus.
  16. Use the "mirror lockup" function. If your camera allows you to lock the mirror in place, do so. On some long exposures, the internal workings of the camera can actually cause enough vibration to make camera shake visible in the photo! Mirror locking reduces the chances of this source of camera shake.
  17. Take a lot of pictures, especially when you're doing night-time photography. And try using different exposures. If you take lots of photos, your chances of ending up with a few gems are pretty high. Always remember that film is cheap (and digital cameras have a "trash can").
  18. Try taking some pictures before it gets completely dark. Sometimes having a little color left in the sky can add an extra dimension to the photo. Some of the best photography takes place just after twilight.
  19. Review your shots. If you're using a digital camera, you should take advantage of the instant feedback available to you to see if you're getting the results that you want. And if your camera features a histogram function, be sure to check it often to make sure you aren't underexposing or overexposing parts of your images.
  20. Have fun! Photography is a wonderful hobby as well as an exciting way to make a living!

Click here to check out a great resource called "Tony Northrup's DSLR Book: How to Create Stunning Digital Photography".

Note: The above link is an affiliate link.

Patty Hankins and Bill Lawrence are the co-owners of Hankins-Lawrence Images, LLC, a digital photography company based in Maryland. Visit them at www.hankinslawrenceimages.com.

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