Night-time photography

As night falls, a whole new world comes to life – but with it come photographic challenges: how to take exciting photos after the sun’s gone down

7 mins

The term ‘night photography’ is a bit misleading – the best time for night photography is actually at dusk when there is still light in the sky. If you shoot too late, all you will get is a series of bright lights lost in an inky black sky.

Time it right

As darkness falls there is a point when the brightness of the sky matches the ambient light in the scene – both the subject of the picture and the sky will register. The result is a luxuriant blue or even a vivid purple, depending on which part of the sky the sun has set.

The optimum moment to snap is between 15 and 30 minutes after sunset; this means that you can only comfortably shoot from one location on each night shoot – you only have around 15 minutes of ideal ‘light’. To maximise your shooting time, take your first shot pointing east, away from the setting sun, and your second facing west. Due to the sky’s differing light levels, there can be a 30-minute gap between optimum light in each direction, giving you more time to move location.

If you shoot after all of the natural daylight has disappeared, frame your pictures so that the shot is filled with other light. Achieve this by balancing the lit subject of the picture with reflections in water or even wet roads, or by cropping in closer to remove the sky completely.

Be more sensitive

If you’re photographing at night and want to freeze the movement in your picture – even if the motion is as slow as a chugging riverboat – shoot with a higher sensitivity: a higher-speed film or a high-sensitivity setting on your digital camera.

In digital cameras, sensitivity is measured in a scale called ISO (which is identical to the ASA scale for film). The higher the number the higher the sensitivity: doubling the number doubles the sensitivity, halving the amount of light needed to make an exposure.

If you’re using a film camera, you are limited to no more than 800 ASA, which won’t be fast enough to guarantee a sharp image with a hand-held camera.

If you are shooting with a relatively new digital camera, however, you should be able to utilise sensitivities up to three or even four stops higher, at 6,400 ISO or greater. At these sensitivities you can shoot without a tripod, especially if you are able to brace the camera against something for a bit of stability.

The downside of shooting with higher ISO settings is that images can be noisy (in other words, affected by a random or coloured speckling), especially in the darker areas of the picture. Higher ISOs are also not as good at balancing the extreme contrasts between highlights and shadows in night photography.

Get stable

If there is no movement in the scene and you want to shoot a high-quality image, or if there is movement that you want to blur for effect (such as car-light trails) use a long exposure time and a tripod to keep the camera still. Make sure the tripod you choose is stable; carrying around a flimsy tripod is pointless. Also use a remote release to avoid camera shake.

Camera shake is less apparent when shooting with a wide-angle lens than when shooting with a telephoto lens. It is also worth taking a couple of frames of each shot: even a gust of wind or a passing vehicle can cause the camera to move fractionally and ruin a picture.

You can achieve a nice effect by setting the exposure time for long enough to allow moving people or the lights from travelling vehicles to blur. Instead of shooting for two seconds, use a 20-second exposure, which will allow for long vehicle trails. Remember to time your exposure so that the traffic is not stopped at a junction.

Using a slow shutter speed and a tripod allows you to use a much lower sensitivity setting, resulting in less noise and a wider possible contrast range. It also allows you to use a narrower aperture for a greater depth of field. Some cameras have an auto-sensitivity feature, which sets a higher ISO in darker conditions. Switch off this and the flash to force your camera to use a longer exposure time.

Find the exposure right

One of the hardest elements of night photography is calculating the right exposure. The contrast between bright light sources and dark surroundings can lead to extreme over- or under-exposure.

Set the exposure for the ambient light. If your camera has a spot meter, use it to meter an averagely lit part of the scene and set the overall exposure from that reading. Any strong light sources in the picture, such as floodlights or lit windows, will bleach out, but this is not a problem in a night shot.

If shooting with your camera on automatic set it to +1 or even +2 stops of exposure compensation to allow for bright lights fooling your camera into under-exposing.

Whether shooting with manual or automatic exposure, review the shot on the LCD screen of your camera. If shooting with film, bracket (take a number of pictures at different exposures) so you are confident that one will be exposed correctly. Bracket quite widely as film can be unpredictable at exposures over ten seconds, needing twice the predicted exposure – sometimes more.

Extreme exposures

If you want to shoot when the sky is completely dark, film SLRs and more sophisticated DSLRs can take super-long exposures by moonlight. If you shoot with exposure times greater than ten minutes, the rotation of the earth during the exposure causes stars to be rendered as long trails.

Many digital cameras can’t shoot with a long enough exposure time to produce star trails. Those that can will usually have a long-exposure noise-reduction facility. This reduces random noise speckling caused by the sensor heating up – it carries out a dummy exposure immediately after the real exposure, and maps out any noise.

Steve Davey leads his own exclusive range of travel photography tours, Better Travel Photography, with land arrangements by Intrepid Travel

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