Photography can be an incredibly enjoyable and rewarding experience. However, it also requires plenty of time and effort in order to master various shooting techniques, not to mention the huge amount of money you can easily spend in purchasing the various lenses and other equipment you’ll need.
While taking fantastic daytime photos can be enough of a challenge on its own, the process becomes even more complicated when trying to take photos at night. Still, taking night photos doesn’t have to be that difficult, and by following these simple tips, you can eventually be rewarded with some truly stunning nighttime images that you can really be proud of.
1. Use a Quality Camera
This first factor probably seems quite obvious, as you’ll generally always get better results with a higher quality camera. This is true both for amateur and professional photographers and no matter whether you’re shooting during the day or at night. Still, it’s especially true for night photography, where using either an SLR or DSLR will almost always provide the best results.
Both types will give you much more freedom and control to adjust the various settings. However, the digital version is definitely the best choice when first perfecting your night photography skills. This is because it enables you to continually make adjustments to the aperture, ISO and shutter speed on the fly and then immediately see how each adjustment affects the image.
2. Keep the Camera Steady
One of the major challenges of taking night photos is that you’ll generally need to use a long exposure time, otherwise your picture is likely to turn out too dark and grainy due to the lack of light. However, long exposure photography presents its own specific obstacles, as any slight movement of the camera is virtually guaranteed to make the resulting image blurry.
For this reason, one of the most basic tenets of nighttime photography is to always use a tripod to ensure that your shaky hands don’t ruin your otherwise perfect shot. Still, even a tripod on its own isn’t usually enough to prevent blurry pictures, which is why most professional photographers either use a cable release or the timer mode on their SLR or DSLR.
Both wired and wireless releases give you the ability to trigger the camera’s shutter without having to touch the camera. Even pressing the shutter button by hand is often enough to make night photos blurry and unusable, which makes using either the timer mode or a shutter cable another necessary part of the process.
If you’re using a DSLR, it’s also a good idea to use the mirror-lockup function if your camera has one, as this can also help to reduce blurriness. Similarly, if your camera has an image-stabilization or anti-vibration function, you should also turn this off whenever using a tripod. Although this function can be great when shooting by hand, when used with a tripod, it will often result in blurry images as it attempts to correct movement that isn’t there.
3. Switch to Manual Mode
The auto mode on your camera may be great for taking portraits, landscapes and action shots during the day, but it definitely won’t do you any good at night. In fact, most likely the auto mode will keep the shutter speed set too fast, resulting in dark images with very little detail or depth of field.
Therefore, you always need to make sure your camera is switched to manual for any nighttime shots, as this will give you the ability to adjust the various settings until you achieve the desired effect.
4. Pay Attention to Shutter Speed and Aperture
Knowing how to choose the correct aperture setting, read a light meter and select the appropriate shutter speed are all important skills that will serve you well on any nighttime photo session. However, there’s no hard-and-fast rule governing aperture size.
Some professionals recommend using a smaller aperture and extending the exposure length, sometimes as high as 30 minutes, while others prefer a more open aperture and slighlty shoter exposure. Still, it all depends on what you’re shooting and what type of effect you wish to achieve. For instance, if you wish to create a cool ‘streaming lights’ effect, you’ll want to set your exposure length at anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds or more.
This is where a DSLR comes in handy, as you can easily experiment with various settings to see what kind of effects they produce. Once you begin to understand the basics of how each they affect the image, you can then start to get creative with your settings to produce some truly amazing results.
5. Choose an Appropriate Lens
Like the previous tip, this one is also related to aperture. In most cases, you’ll want to choose a lens with a large overall aperture as the increased size of the lens opening will allow in more light. While some professionals tend to use a wide lens for many of their night shots, any lens with a larger aperture will produce better results in low-light situations.
6. Turn Off Your Auto-Focus Function
When taking photos at night, the auto focus function generally won’t work as there’s nothing for it to focus on. Therefore, you should always manually focus your night shots. You can either try to focus on whatever lights there are in the image or simply extend the focus out to the vanishing point if the lights are too far away.
7. Timing is Important
If you’re planning on shooting nighttime cityscapes, you have the ability to shoot virtually any time from dusk to dawn with great results. On the other hand, shooting nighttime landscapes requires a bit more patience as the best photos generally come in the so-called golden hour just around sunset and sunrise.
For many photographers, the absolute best photos are those that come in those 15 to 20 minutes just before the sun comes up or after it goes down. The minimal amount of residual light at these times can create some incredible effects, especially when combined with the colorful array or oranges, purples and pinks often present in the sky.
The biggest key to night photography is to not be afraid of practice and experimentation as these things will only serve to hone your skills. This means not only experimenting with different camera settings, but also with shooting in a variety of different conditions, situations and subjects. By doing so, you’ll soon find your night photography skills getting better in a hurry. So much so that you may begin to wonder why you ever thought taking photos at night was a challenge in the first place.