By Brent Pearson
While I come from a landscape and seascape background, I became intrigued with the unusual images that long exposure photography can produce and the ability to abstract detail in a scene, whether it is turning water into a an abstract mist, or turning clouds into movement. This fascination with low-light photography eventually took me squarely into the realm of night photography. Night photography is an extremely rewarding form of photography in that it can produce truly unique-looking images with a real “wow factor”.
However many photographers are put off from venturing into the realm of night photography because of the various challenges that it brings including:
• You can see through the viewfinder to compose
• Your cameras autofocus systems don’t work well in the dark
• Your cameras light meter won’t work
• Your images can appear noisy if you are not careful
However if you know some basic techniques for night photography then all of these challenges can be easily overcome. This article will give you some basic pointers to get you started in the world of nocturnal photography.
The good news is that you don’t need a lot of expensive equipment to do night photography. Here’s what you need.
• Your camera needs to have a bulb setting (which allows you to lock the shutter open) and manual control over your lens’s aperture.
• You need a reasonably sturdy tripod
• You need a cable release that allows you to lock the shutter open
• A bright torch to help you compose and focus.
Step 1: Compose and focus
Find a good composition and set up your camera securely on the tripod. To help you see, you want to use a bright torch that is illuminating your subject. ideally get an assistant to help you out with the torch, otherwise I grip the torch between my knees (which frees up my hands to work the camera controls).
Zoom in all the way on the point of focus and either manually focus or use your autofocus. Once your lens is focused, you will need to put your lens into “manual mode” so that it does not try to autofocus again.
Step 2: Estimating exposure
In my eBook I explain a more accurate way of calculating exposure, but for this quick guide let me just give you a simple exposure table to get you started. Make sure that you set your camera’s ISO to 200. To estimate exposure, you start off by looking down the column to the moon setting that matches your current conditions. So if you were shooting under a half moon, then you would go down to the third row. Then you can read across that row to explore different exposure settings.
So you could expose your image for 2min @ f4 or equally 4min @ f5.6 or 8min @ f8.
I would recommend you use the widest aperture you have for your initial test shot to ensure that your exposure is correct.
When evaluating your exposure, I strongly recommend you use your camera’s histogram rather than just viewing the image on the LCD. At night the LCD looks bright, and it is easy to think an image is correctly exposed only to find when you get back to your computer that it is 2 stops under exposed. If you need more information on reading histograms, check out this article.
I would recommend you do your first night photography experiments under a full moon, as this will require the shortest exposures and allow you to correct any mistakes relatively quickly.
Getting the exposure right in camera is critical. If you find that you need to boost your exposure later on the computer, you will probably find that you magnify a lot of noise that is produced in your images. Long exposure photography does introduce more noise to your images, but providing your exposure is correct, this noise is manageable. Any amplification of your exposure or signal during post production will amplify the noise to the point where it becomes a major problems.
Once you start becoming comfortable with the world of night photography, then you are ready to start experimenting with light painting. I’ll write a separate article on light painting in a future post. If you are hungry to learn more about the world of night photography and light painting, then check out my web site for lots of tips and tutorials as well as my eBook on Night Photography and Light Painting.
Enjoy the night