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Basic night photography tips

Starting off on the right foot


Use the
Use the "B"setting on your camera's shutter speed dial to manually control the duration of a time exposure.

SHUTTER CONTROL FOR TIME EXPOSURES

Your camera must have a setting that permits the shutter to remain open for an extended period of time. If its shutter speed dial has a "B" (for "bulb") setting - or sometimes on older cameras, a "T" (for "Time") setting - that is the shutter speed setting to use for manual control of the duration of the time exposure. Pressing and holding the shutter release button at its "B" setting will keep the shutter completely open until you remove the pressure on the button. If, for example, you wish to expose your film for ten seconds, depress and hold the shutter release button and immediately begin timing. As soon as ten seconds is reached, let the button go, and the shutter will close.

The shutter speed controls of some cameras have built-in timers that permit you to set a specific duration - 4 seconds or 10 seconds, for example - for the shutter to remain open. (The venerable Nikon F2 shutter speed dial in the picture on the left has orange numerals for just such controlled time-exposures.)

Many cameras will not permit long exposure times. Some, for example, only allow a maximum of three seconds for the shutter to remain open. Check the specifications in your camera's manual to learn whether your camera's shutter speed control is limited. If it is, you cannot use it for lengthy time exposures and should consider purchasing or renting a camera that has no limitation on how long its shutter can be kept open. You may be able to purchase a used, older model camera that is fully manual at a reasonable price.


ROCK SOLID CAMERA STEADINESS

If the camera is moved during a time exposure, the entire scene will be completely or partially blurred. Image sharpness in time exposure photography requires no movement of either the subject or the camera. If the subject moves when the shutter is open, it will likely cause blur, streaking or only partial exposure so that it appears transparent and ghost-like. Sometimes, these are effects that you desire, but complete sharpness in night photography requires an unmoving, solidly-supported camera.

A good tripod is the most commonly-used, practical camera platform to prevent movement. But, even when mounted on a tripod, camera movement can still occur if the tripod is on a moving, vibrating or unstable surface, or if conditions are windy, or if the camera is jarred, even slightly, when the shutter is released. Preventing camera movement requires a stable surface on which to place the tripod, protection from the elements and the use of a shutter release cable (or the camera's self-timer) when releasing the shutter. Even with all these precautions, a single lens reflex camera may move slightly when the shutter is released as a result of the normal movement of its internal reflex mirror. Assurance of maximum sharpness is obtained by "locking-up" the mirror, which some cameras allow you to do. A mirror lock-up switch or lever raises the mirror before releasing the shutter and keeps it locked in the up position so it cannot move during exposure.

With the shutter held open, moving lights record as streaks.  Subject or camera movement will cause streaking, blurring or ghosting.
With the shutter held open, moving lights record as streaks. Subject or camera movement will cause streaking, blurring or ghosting.

Proper exposure for night photography is often a matter of intelligent guesswork based on experience.
Proper exposure for night photography is often a matter of intelligent guesswork based on experience.

LENGTH OF EXPOSURE TIME

Knowing in advance how long to keep the shutter open for proper exposure of a dark scene is usually a matter of experience and experimentation since exposure meters typically do not provide accurate readings of very low light levels. An exposure meter reading that appears to be correct may not give the results you expect. Reciprocity failure may alter the manner in which the film records light during a long time exposure. A digital camera may also experience color shift during a long exposure.

Acquiring the ability to estimate proper exposure can be tackled in a scientific manner, by first restricting all your night photography to one type of film and film speed or, for digital photographers, one ISO setting. This constant will allow you to more accurately gauge the results of using different exposures. Have a notepad and pen handy so that you can record exposure information (specifically, aperture setting and length of time that the shutter remains open) for each frame you shoot. A general description of the ambient lighting at the time may also be helpful, including any light meter readings you are able to obtain. Your notes may say, for example, "Early evening, medium gray sky, no moon. Meter reading of 2 sec @ ƒ/4. Frame 1: shot at 4 sec. @ ƒ/5.6; Frame 2: 10 sec. @ ƒ/5.6;" and so on. By changing only one variable from frame to frame (say, only the time that the shutter remains open without changing the aperture, or vice versa), you will be better able to judge the effect on your images.


When your film has been processed or when you download your digital images to your computer, compare your notes with the final images, noting particularly the exposures used for pictures that turned out properly. Using the same exposure settings under similar conditions the next time you are taking pictures at night will provide greater predictability of the results. This is not a foolproof system, though, since absolute accuracy is not assured, and the best it will do is to help you to estimate proper exposure settings. You are wise to bracket your exposures to ensure at least one good image.

A well-exposed night-time scene can be very rewarding.  Wide bracketing of exposures usually ensures that at least one frame will be satisfactory.
A well-exposed night-time scene can be very rewarding. Wide bracketing of exposures usually ensures that at least one frame will be satisfactory.

You cannot rely on bright moonlight for adequate visibility when you are taking pictures in remote places at night.  Carry a good flashlight and take other precautions appropriate to the situation.
You cannot rely on bright moonlight for adequate visibility when you are taking pictures in remote places at night. Carry a good flashlight and take other precautions appropriate to the situation.

MORE THAN PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT IS NEEDED

When you are taking pictures during the evening and at night, consider your personal well-being in addition to the photographic equipment you will need.

  • A bright flashlight (with fresh batteries) will prove to be invaluable as darkness surrounds you. It will not only light your path when you are moving from place to place, but it can often be used to illuminate your subject for accurate focusing.
  • Since you will most likely have to remain quite still for long periods, ensure that you are dressed warmly, even on summer nights. If you are in any doubt as to whether the temperature will drop, it is wise to carry a spare sweater or jacket, and even to bring along gloves and a hat. In colder seasons, you will need to bring heavy winter clothing and possibly even survival gear.
  • Bear in mind that you may become hungry and thirsty as the night progresses, and bring a snack and a bottled drink or hot thermos in your kit.
  • If you will be traveling in rugged country, ensure you take all the common-sense precautions essential for survival in the event you get lost or injured. These can include a traveling companion, matches, a cell phone, a compass, a hunting knife, a map of the terrain and other items appropriate to the circumstances.
  • Insect repellant is an easily-overlooked item that you may be glad you brought.


Related topics...

Evening photography

Daytime long exposure photography