Once the sun goes down, the world takes on quite a different appearance. Things that were bland and ordinary during the day can spring to life at night. But taking photos in low-light situations is a little different to shooting during the day. Here are some tips to help you prepare for night photography.
Tip 1: Turn down your ISO. ISO is the light sensitivity setting in your camera. The higher the number, the more sensitive it will be to light. The downside of using a high ISO is that you will start to get “noise” in your photo (it will become grainy). To achieve the sharpest possible photos, use a low ISO like 100 or 200. This is best for taking long exposures of landscapes or buildings at night. If you’re taking photos of moving subjects (like people!) you will need to increase your ISO to achieve faster shutter speeds.
Tip 2: Use a tripod. Taking photos in low light usually means you’ll be using longer shutter speeds, which makes it too hard to hand-hold the camera without shaking. Ideally if you’re shooting any slower than 1/60sec you’ll want to use a tripod to maintain sharpness. There are many different tripods available, but esentially they all do the same thing – hold your camera steady! I’m still just using a cheap $60 pan/tilt tripod which does the job well enough for landscape shots. For more flexibility you might want to get something with a ball head and fully adjustable legs – like this one.
Tip 3: Take a torch (flashlight) or a speedlite. Objects in the foreground will often appear dull, even with a long exposure. By painting the object with the light of a torch or flash it will stand out more, whilst still being able to expose the background properly. Due to the long exposure time, it doesn’t really matter if you’re running/walking through the frame – because you’re not in one spot for the whole exposure you won’t really show in the final image. A torch also comes in handy for setting up and changing camera settings (and navigating your way through barbed wire fences). It can also be useful for helping your camera to find a focus point in the dark! If you want to find a good torch for photography, have a look at my other site – LED Flashlight Guide.
Tip 4: Keep it steady. When you’re shooting with longer exposures, you’ll want to avoid the camera shaking at all. When you press the shutter release button, you’re always going to shake the camera – even just a little bit can ruin an otherwise sharp photo. The mirror inside your SLR camera can also introduce shake – see if your camera has a “mirror lock up” option to stop it from moving. By using the self timer, you can press the button and the camera will have a few seconds to stop shaking before taking the photo. Another great (and cheap) option is to buy a remote shutter release. I picked up a wireless remote for my D90 for just $3.99! Another handy hint to avoid camera shake is to weigh your tripod down with something heavy (like your camera bag) and tie up the shoulder strap! This will stop the breeze from blowing it around too much.
Tip 5: Try to eliminate lens flare. If your lens came with a “hood”, try using it to block out any surrounding lights. Filters can also cause lens flares and other strange looking effects in your images. I usually keep a UV or polarizing filter on my lens during the day, but I take them off if I’m doing any night photography. Flares can make for some interesting effects though, so play around and see what works best to achieve the look you want. The wonder of digital photography is that you can review your photos on the fly and decide whether you need to try again!
Tip 6: Water is your friend! Try taking some photos near a river or lake at night when the water is fairly calm. You’ll get some wonderful reflections off the water and it can give great symmetry to your images.
Tip 7: If you’re trying to take photos of people or moving objects, it would be a good idea to use a fast lens. What I mean by that is a lens which can open up to a really wide aperture to let a lot of light in. Something like a 50mm f/1.8 lens is a must for every photographer, and can be purchased for just over $100! By using a much wider aperture and increasing the ISO a little, you should be able to take reasonable shots without using long exposures – very handy when the subject won’t stay still.
Tip 8: Light painting – set your camera to a long exposure and wave some lights in front of it. They could be torches, LED keyrings, glowsticks or anything else you can find that lights up. You can create some really cool effects with light. Try tracing around your friend’s figure with a torch, or throwing a bunch of glowsticks in the air. The results are always different and the only limit is your imagination. Some people have really turned it into an art form.
I hope some of these hints will help prepare or inspire you for your next night photography expedition. One last tip? Take warm clothes. Even in summer it can get quite cold at night – especially near the water. Please leave any more tips in the comments!