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Camera Settings for Proper Exposure
The biggest challenge with night photography is being able to capture enough light to make an image. In daytime, ample sunlight makes this a non-issue. At night time, however, the lack of sunlight makes even well-lit urban areas a challenge to photograph. Fortunately, there are many different combinations of camera settings that allow for proper exposure in low-light situations.
A night photographer should be familiar with the manual settings on their camera. Many cameras, like the Canon and Nikon lines, have different preset settings for different situations, but because night photography can be so varied, it is best to learn the manual settings in order to have full control over your camera and the image. This means understanding aperture, film speed (ISO), and shutter speed.
With night photography, you will need to play with the manual settings in order to get the right shot. Start with your aperture open as wide as possible, with your f-stop around f/5.6 or even as low as f/2.8. Set your shutter speed to 10 seconds—yes, your shutter will be open for 10 full seconds, at least (exposure time varies). Then, set your ISO to 1,600. You can play around with ISO a bit, as this is probably the trickiest setting for most beginner nighttime photographers. With high ISO, you run the risk of increasing noise in your image (noise is what makes your image look grainy or pixelated). For noise reduction, try to get your ISO as low as possible while still creating a clear image.
Start with these settings and begin shooting and experimenting, adjusting different settings as you go. Manual focus is a great way to control the subject of your focus. For example, the focal length of a wide-angle lens will be shorter, so adjust the manual focus to ensure you are getting the shot you want. If your camera has a live view feature, where the viewfinder shows how the image will look with the settings applied, then that will make your life a bit easier (though perhaps less fun!), however keep in mind that a live view feature is an estimation of how the image will turn out and not exact so continue to play around, even if you have live view.
With such slow shutter speeds, holding the camera by hand will result in a blurred image. Even a heart surgeon, with the steadiest of hands, would not be able to produce a clear image without camera shake. The best way to get around this problem is to use a tripod. Mounting your camera to a tripod will allow you to set your camera to what you need to get the image you want, even if it means using a shutter speed of five minutes or even 30 minutes. Tripods can be cumbersome to carry around, as they are heavy, so if you are traveling you can pick up a smaller, travel tripod. If you forgot your tripod while out shooting, try to steady your camera on a sturdy surface or makeshift stand, like a bench or tree stump. This is not an ideal way to take photos at night, but it will work in a pinch!
When shooting in manual mode, there is generally a limit to how long the preset shutter speeds will allow the shutter to be open—usually about 30 seconds. This is where bulb mode (“b” on the shutter speed dial) comes into play. Bulb mode allows you to take an image capture while leaving the shutter open for longer than normal. Bulb mode is the only way to capture the star trails or the Milky Way with night sky photography—you must have a very long (over 3 hours) exposure in order to achieve that effect. Bulb mode is also used for creating light paintings and other forms of long exposure photography.
In order to hold down the shutter for longer than 30 seconds, use a remote or wired shutter release, preferably one that has a lock feature so you do not have to physically press the button. This helps you avoid any vibration, since the act of pressing the shutter button can create movement in the image. A remote shutter release works by the photographer releasing the shutter using a special device like a television remote for their camera. It means the photographer does not have to touch the camera, which risks moving, vibrating, or even knocking the camera over. If you do not yet have a remote shutter release, a viable workaround is to use the self timing feature on your camera, which releases the shutter any number of seconds after pressing the shutter button on the camera.
Set your camera to shoot in RAW format, rather than JPEG. RAW format helps nighttime photographers because it produces higher quality 14-bit images, rather than the 8-bit images JPEG produces. A camera captures the brightest end of the color scale best, but at night you are shooting a the lowest end of the color scale, with a lot of areas of dark colors or even black. Shooting at a higher 14-bit allows the camera to process more colors and prevent any banding that may happen in the darker areas of the image (banding is when color gradient transitions on an image are abrupt and do not look natural).
Tips for Night Photography
Given that you will be working in the dark, scout your location before shooting to plan your images, and to make note of any possible challenges or obstacles. Go to the site you wish to photograph both in the daytime and nighttime. Once you are there, observe the site: how many people are there? How many cars speed by? Is the site lit with artificial light? Do the lights change colors? What angle looks best? How can you best maximize the light you have? You can also scout the location online beforehand, looking at photos and becoming inspired with how other photographers have captured it.
When shooting at night, plan and prepare to be outside for long periods of time. It takes time and effort to get great night photography shots, from setting up the tripod and camera to adjusting the camera settings for proper exposure time. Carry a set of gloves in preparation for changes in weather or drops in temperature.It can be difficult to change camera settings when your hands are cold, so it might be a good idea to bring a few hand warmers with you, depending on how cold it gets.
Bring a flashlight with you to help light your work area. Even with ambient urban light, it still might be difficult to see your camera’s manual controls or see the screws for your tripod. A small flashlight is a useful light source as you make your way through the night. You might even be able to use it to light part of your image.
Editing Night Photography Images
Post-processing is an important part of editing photographs taken at night. Take your RAW images and upload them to a post-processing software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. Here, you can adjust the exposure and contrast, but also punch up small details like star trails for an ethereal effect.
By experiencing and expressing the earth at night, night photography is a means for a photographer to convey the world with a completely different perspective. Night photography can conjure different emotions with your images than daytime photography can, showing the world with a sense of emptiness, vibrancy, potential, and life.