Shooting night time photography

Shooting pictures at night is a popular activity, and can give some pretty amazing shots. There are several “themes” of night photography where some of them are: light painting, city views, city streets, night sky and lightning shots. In this article I will talk a bit about general techniques to be aware of when taking pictures in the dark, as well as a bit about each of these kinds of photography.

Equipment: When shooting during night there is a couple of things you need. The first and most important item (except the camera itself of course) is a good and sturdy tripod. It is dark outside, but any vibration at all will clearly show in every single source of light on the picture you just took. For this reason it is also often good to know what kind of weaknesses your tripod has. Usually, the weakest spot is the same on all tripods, namely the “expandable neck”. Basically its the part between the legs of the tripod and the head where you connect your camera. Most tripods allow you to expand this up and down. My personal recommendation on this is don’t do it unless you really need that extra height. Some tripods are not very good at locking a fully extended neck hard enough to remove all vibrations.

At its most basic, this is all that you need. A camera and a tripod. Other pieces of equipment you might consider for future projects (also depending on what you want to actually do) are a strong flashlight, a flash gun (preferably with the added gear needed to remotely set it off) and different flash gels. A flash gel is a piece of colored gel that you place in front of the flash gun to put some color on the light. You get it in any variety of colors and can be used to either even out a strong color of some other sort, or create a contrast on your subject. I’ll talk more about this when covering city streets.

Light painting: A light painting is basically a picture of something, either in nature, or in the city, or in a dark room or whatever. The only requirement is that it has to be properly dark (which sometimes makes shooting this way in a city somewhat difficult). The main concept is that you keep the shutter of the camera open for a long time, and you “paint” a selection of the area with some light source. For example a flash gun or a flashlight. There are tons of ways to do this and an equal number of types of light you can use to paint the picture. I won’t go farther into the concept here, but experiment a bit and see what you can do and you’ll soon figure out a lot of tricks by yourself.

Spain 2

Neon light coloring the clouds over the city of Malaga, Spain.

City view: Cities with their shining lights, occasional rivers and monuments, moving traffic and neon lighted clouds, can make for some pretty stunning photographies. Again the trick is exposure. How much do you want to get? Some times you only want to capture the pure light, and other times you want to try to capture a bit of the details that the lights shine on (buildings, trees, streets etc). You will have to keep the shutter open for quite some time, and because of this a tripod is not something you can be without.

Because you’re covering a large area, you have very little indirect light. The only light you will see is the light coming straight from all the light sources around town. If you expose the sensor for too short a time, you will only get a black screen with glowing dots on it. If you over expose it (and that’s not very likely that you will), you may see that the light in some places have sort of “bloated” out. There is also a higher risk of noise in the image. Switch your camera to manual mode and set your settings by following these thoughts:

First of all, remember that there is a white balance setting in your menu? You should keep this in mind. Normally this will be set to automatic and it will work ok for most parts. You may however want to try experimenting with this and find what you’d prefer.

You want to have a lower ISO when doing this. Not necessarily ISO 100. I usually go for 400 or 800 depending on what my goal for the shot is. The reason for this is that while ISO 100 would give you the least possible amount of noise, it is still an ISO that is very demanding of light. You may have to keep your shutter open for a very long time just get the picture exposed well enough, and even then you might find that the dark parts of your pictures are still “too dark”.

You should also turn your aperture to around f/8, even if you have a lens that supports f/1.2 even. Yes, it will take in a lot more light at f/1.2, but you don’t have to consider this as much when you have a tripod. At a certain distance, the depth of field is no longer really an issue, but most lenses are in fact a tiny bit sharper around f/8 if we totally disregard the lighting.

As for shutter speed, I recommend you try a couple of shots with longer and longer speeds until you see something you like. Keep an eye on the lighting meter on your camera. Despite the darkness it is actually possible to over expose the image which will result in a kinda gritty image as the noise becomes very prominent, and the details kind of washed out. (Cool tip on this matter though: If you get a picture that looks good on every aspect besides the exposure, try turning it black and white, and even try turning the contrast up a bit. You may find that this makes the image pop!

City streets: Down into the cities there are several things you can photograph. People moving around on the streets, traffic passing by, lonely streets, the list does indeed go on. To shoot here, you mostly follow the same rules as before, but keep in mind the rules for depth of field. Even at f/8 you may still get a blurry background if the subject you are photographing is close. (Say you are 2 meters away from your subject at focal width 30 mm and an aperture of f/8. You will then have a grand total depth of field of 2 meters. About 0.6 meters in front of your subject, and 1.4 meters behind. How do I know this? I use a depth of field calculator. Google it. They are everywhere. Better yet, search the AppStore/Google Play for a depth of field calculator. There are several to choose from).

When you have the depth of field taken care of, there really is not much more to think about than when doing an overview shot. Down on street levels though your light meter can actually give you some pretty sound advice as to how well exposed your picture will be. You can try using this to get a feel for it, but you are not unlikely to find that you need to tweak the settings a bit. I normally try to use a program and see how well it fares. If I’m not happy with the results, I look at what kind of settings the program chose for me, and I go to manual and set my own settings based on what I learned from the program shot.

Night sky: Shooting the night sky is something most people attempt at least once. It is actually quite fun just because it can be so rewarding to capture a beautiful night starry sky. The thing is though, when I sat down to learn the basics of this I found a blog called “Star Circle Academy”. I could talk about how to do this, or I could direct you to this blog that will explain the concepts as well as give brilliant examples that I cannot even hope to match. Yeah, I like the second idea better too. On to Star Circle Academy!

Lightning FlashLightning: Shooting lightning can be a thrilling project. Don’t kid yourself though. Thunderstorms are dangerous! Be careful and if things are getting a bit intense, back out of it. Do not challenge the weather, for it does not care that you enjoy your life. It does not care if you have a wife and kids. It will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger. Made my point yet? Good.

That said, it is also one of the most beautiful naturally occurring phenomena in this world and a well timed picture can impress even the coldest of hearts. So how do you photograph a lightning? It’s actually quite simple, though not necessarily easy.

I have only experienced two thunderstorms in my time, and only at one of those did I have a camera. I have read much about it, preparing for that next chance, but so far my best result is the picture you can see to the right.

You obviously cannot wait with your camera and lunge in the direction of the flash to get a snap of it. It’ll be gone before you even manage to move a muscle. Instead, what you want to do is place your camera on the tripod and point it in the general direction of where the lightning seems to appear. Then set the timer of your shutter to BULB. This means that the shutter will be open for as long as you press the shutter button. Now set your aperture to a fairly wide opening and set your ISO to about 400.

You’re ready. Do you feel ready? You should. Now press the shutter button and open the shutter. Keep it open and keep watching the sky. You are now basically fishing for a lightning flash to come. Every 30 seconds or so (depending on how dark it actually is) you should close the shutter and start on a new picture. When a flash does come in the area you pointed your camera, immediately after it is done you close the shutter. Check the screen and see if this is an exposure you are happy with. Check if you may need to make the camera less light sensitive for example. When you’re happy you repeat the process over and over, only when you’ve captured a lightning successfully, don’t stop to marvel over the picture you just took. Ignore it for now. Just keep that shutter open and keep capturing all the lightning you can.

If you successfully captured multiple shots with lightning while pointing the camera in the same direction, you can even use some photography editing software to merge two lightning shots into the same picture. It is indeed cheating a bit, but like everyone’s doing it!

Comments (2)

  1. Steven Christenson

    Thank you for your very kind praise of By looking at your lovely lightning photos, I feel certain you can produce excellent star trails. I hope to see them when you do!