Above: Perfect Viewpoint I chose a low viewpoint for this shot of Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and timed it so that I would be in position well before twilight. Once the sky is completely black this type of shot can look dull and flat.

While it might mean an extra hour in bed in the morning, winter’s longer nights provide countless opportunities for creating exciting and colourful pictures. Whether it is the deep blue sky at twilight, a neon sign or the trails of car lights, the night time can be anything but dark! Digital cameras are perfect for night photography and getting the result right every time, as you can review each shot instantly and check the histogram for faultless exposure.
   
If I am shooting cityscapes at night my favoured time is what I call the twilight zone. This occurs about half an hour after sunset and lasts for about twenty minutes, so if you want to take full advantage of this period you need to get in position well in advance. The reason I like this time is because the sky takes on a deep blue hue, which offsets the illuminated buildings to best effect. After this time I find that the sky will record as a deep black, which at times might work, but usually I find looks too heavy and isolates the buildings as blobs of light with little detail of their structure. Naturally I use a tripod and cable release so that my shots are pin sharp. Many tripods are not worth the bother and certainly not the money as they can be as stable as handholding the camera; but a good tripod is definitely a worthwhile investment and will be useful for other applications besides night photography. A decent cable release should be purchased at the same time.

Trails of Light (Right)

I mounted the camera on a tripod together with a cable release and I
used a 4 sec shutter speed. To ensure the shot was sharp I used the
mirror-up facility and the self timer for a smooth shutter release.

SHOOTING LONG EXPOSURES
One of the problems with shooting pictures at night is that longer-than-normal exposure times are required. Many cameras have a shutter setting known as ‘bulb’. When the shutter is set to this it will remain open for as long as the shutter release is pressed. This can drain the battery rapidly so ensure you have plenty of backup. However, since many cameras have shutter speeds up to 30 seconds it is unlikely you will need to use this setting.

Another problem with long exposures is ‘noise’. This can result in grainy images, which will really show up if you intend to make large prints. Most cameras have a noise-reduction, or long exposure, mode so this should be set before you start shooting. Another area to watch is the ISO setting. There can be a tendency to increase this to cut down on the exposure time, which can be fine, but can also increase the noise. As a rule I would rather use a lower ISO and increase the exposure rather than vice versa.

Some cameras are better at reducing noise than others, so only by testing will you determine how effective yours will be. When shooting with a DSLR, and having mounted the camera on a tripod and attached the cable release, I then choose ‘mirror up’ mode from the menu. During long exposures the camera can vibrate when the shutter is fired, and this mode prevents this. Usually it works through a double action procedure. Having pushed the cable release half way, the mirror goes up. I then wait a few seconds and push the cable release further and the shutter fires. As a final precaution I also set the self-timer so that there can be no possibility of jerking the camera when the shutter is released. The mirror up will not work on the self-timer setting.

Finally shoot RAW if you can. The reason for this is that you will be able to adjust and improve the image in Photoshop later. If you shoot JPEG important information might be discarded as the camera interpolates the image.

FLASH AT NIGHT

It is often necessary to use flash as fill-in light when taking
pictures at night: for example, if you are shooting a portrait and the
background is made up of neon lighting. The exposure required in a
situation such as this will be different for the two areas of the
picture, with a longer ambient exposure required for the background. I
always find that if I leave the camera to calculate the flash itself,
it overexposes by about 1/3rd so I shoot with the flash in its manual
mode and decrease the power accordingly. With practice you should be
able to judge your flash accurately and compensate accordingly.

Slow-sync flash is another situation where using flash at night can be
effective. This is where the flash is combined with a slow shutter
speed. This will result in light trails being caught by the ambient
exposure while the flash will freeze other detail. Many cameras have
what is known as second-curtain synchronisation.  This means that the
flash fires at the end of the subject movement rather than at the
beginning. This provides a more natural effect, creating a trailing
blur that emphasises motion. 

Bulb Setting (Above)

Fireworks make great pictures, but it is all too easy to get them
wrong. By using the shutter on the B (Bulb) setting you will be able to
keep the shutter open for just the right amount of time, as you can
close it as soon as you have the burst of light.

Guide to Low Light Photography: Exposure, by John Freeman

Winter’s longer nights provide countless opportunities for colourful and exciting pictures


Above: On reflection
What would have been a fairly drab composition here has been brought to life through the eerie reflection of the lighthouse’s beam.

Above: Shuter speed
With the camera on a tripod, I chose a 2sec shutter speed. As soon as the shutter had been released, I gradually altered the focal length of the zoom as the shutter remained opened. The highlights of the interior lights add to the picture’s abstraction.

Above: Sunset colour
The setting sun provides a perfect backdrop for this shot of a motorway. So as not to lose the detail in the sky, I used a graduated neutral density filter to even up the exposure between sky and foreground.

Above: White Balance
In this shot (above right), the camera’s white balance was set to the daylight setting, which would seem sensible as the picture was taken outdoors. However, the sky looks dull and the building, lit by tungsten light, looks unnaturally orange. With the white balance setting changed to the tungsten setting (above left), the sky becomes far brighter and the lights shining on the building look more realistic.

Guide to Low Light Photography: Useful Gear and Tips, by John Freeman

Useful Gear

Tripod
For blur-free images at the longer shutter speeds necessary for creative night shooting, a tripod is essential to  keep your camera steady. It’s worth spending that little bit extra for a decent model, as a good tripod can last a lifetime and prove its worth in more situations than night shoots. Velbon’s DX-888 is designed for digital cameras and features a versatile 3-way pan and tile head. Manfrotto’s  Magfibre range is a similarly wise buy.

Flash
While by no means essential for night photography, a flash gun can be useful. A burst of flash during a time exposure can be used to light a person or fill in foreground detail. You can even use multiple flash techniques to light buildings. With the TTL flash systems in most DSLRs, exposure calculation is easy. There are many options, but the new Metz range looks good. The powerful 58 AF-1 offers dual flash heads for simultaneous bounce and fill-in, and dedication with Canon or Nikon systems.

Lens
Both wide and tele lenses have their uses in night photography. Wideangles let you get whole buildings in shot more easily, or go in close for more impact; while telephotos let you compress distance by, say, shooting down a street lit with Christmas lights. Try to go for a lens with a wide maximum aperture, to ensure a bright viewfinder image and enable shorter exposure times. They don’t come much wider than Canon’s new 50mm, with its f/1.2 max aperture – if you can spare £1150!

John’s Top Tips For Low-light shooting

1 If you’re serious about creating sharp images, it’s essential to invest in a good tripod and cable release.

2 Try to shoot at twilight rather than when the sky is completely black. This will ensure better exposures and more colourful images.

3 When composing an after-dark frame, try to shoot at a lower ISO and increase exposure rather than shoot at a higher ISO and a shorter exposure.

4 If you are shooting in wet conditions make sure that the camera is well protected. Something as simple as a plastic bag should do the job.

5 If you can, shoot RAW rather than JPEG. Due to low light levels, you will need to gather all the information from a scene that you can get.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. Guide to Low Light Photography: Exposure, by John Freeman
  3. 3. Guide to Low Light Photography: Useful Gear and Tips, by John Freeman
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  • LJ Corley

    Always a pleasure to read and learn from your articles particularly low light. Michael Willie nailed it on the head for me.
    Thanks for your work.

  • Collins

    As an amatuer I did not knew this. This is very educative article

  • Kaz

    Id appreciate some tips on shooting gigs (bands) as some dont allow flash so long exposures & tripod are out!