Night is defined as the period between sunset and sunrise. Thus, the amount of illumination provided by the sun will vary considerably. Depending on the time of the month, illumination from moonlight will vary. What other light sources might affect the object(s) being photographed?
As will become evident, there is a vast variation in subjects that can be photographed at night. Will one be photographing in the city or out in the desert? Will the light source be moving or static?
What equipment should one use and how should one use it?
Ideally, your camera should have the capability to manually set focus, shutter speed, and aperture. Shutter speeds of up to 30 seconds and/or a setting for a bulb exposure are necessary so that the shutter may be open for relatively long exposures.
Because exposure times will be relatively long, a tripod is necessary. In addition, can the tripod and the camera be placed in a position where people will not stand in front of it or periodically walk in front of you? If one can’t use a tripod, is there a stable platform such as a railing or car roof the camera can rest on?
A remote release should be used. This further ensures that there will be no camera movement during the photograph. If the subject being photographed is static (none moving) then you might use the camera’s self timer. A cable release can be used together with “bulb” exposures. If possible, lock the camera’s mirror in the “up” position
If there are nearby light sources that might adversely affect your exposure time, use a lens hood.
How well does your camera’s exposure meter work at night? Should you have a separate hand-held meter?
Be sure to take enough film or memory cards.
Carry additional batteries.
And definitely have a small flashlight.
Take a stopwatch! Trying to read a sweep second hand on a wristwatch or counting seconds, one one thousand, two one thousand, etc. is less than accurate.
If you are going into a remote area, think about three additional items; a large flashlight, a portable GPS unit, and a cell-phone.
Should I use a Film or Digital Camera?
Either a film or a digital camera can be used for nighttime photography. There are certain common characteristics that are important.
With a film camera, depending upon the subject being photographed, there is a choice of film ISO ratings. Film rated at 100 will work well, especially for static subjects. I prefer using a film rated at ISO 400. For example, assume one is using a lens setting of F8.0. If with ISO 100 film, the exposure duration will be two (2) seconds, with ISO 400 film, exposure will require only ½ second. There are situations, such as recording movement for example, such as cars passing by, when you may want the two (2) second exposure (or even longer). But for static images, higher ISO values reduce blur.
If one needs to “freeze” or slow down motion effects, a film rated at ISO 1600 may be necessary. In addition, the “effective” ISO rating can be elevated by developing the film “as if it were exposed as ISO 3200 film.” There will be a grain effect at these higher values.
An advantage of the digital camera is the ability to change the ISO rating with each photograph.
Digital cameras are changing rapidly. The safest prediction is that they will be better and cheaper in a year or less. In May 2008, I purchased a Nikon D300 in order to photograph inside of dark buildings using available light. I can use a setting of ISO 3200 with minimal or no grain effect. A year ago, that would have not been possible.
Color can vary tremendously at night. For film, I use a standard daylight ASA 400 film. When photographing with a digital camera, I set white balance to auto.
Because night photography can be highly variable, with very bright and very dark areas in the same photograph, it is important to understand how your camera meters light. You may wish to use a hand-held light meter, particularly if you are using the manual settings on the camera. On a digital camera, the histogram function will help to determine if your exposure is satisfactory.
Using auto focus when it is dark might not work well with some cameras. Try to set the shot using auto focus. When it “locks in,” switch to manual focus. Then, if you are bracketing your shot by using different exposure times and/or varying the lens opening, you will maintain the focus.
Bracketing is something one should do. Use values that are above and below the value you believe is ideal. One advantage of a digital camera is the ability to review an image or images. Even though the newest cameras allow one to see the photograph as you compose it, I would still recommend bracketing. While not the subject of this discussion, this technique will allow the production of high definition photographs.
Because digital camera capabilities have changed so rapidly within a short time, I recommend reviewing your camera’s manual. This is particularly useful if you are taking nighttime photographs for the first time. Many digital cameras have special features for night time photography.
One caution is that older digital cameras tend to create “digital noise” with longer exposure times. Newer digital cameras utilize noise reduction technology. Luminance control is one method. Luminance is defined as the luminous intensity of a light source per unit area. (Remember that in night time photography there is often a wide variation with multiple areas of very bright and very dark.) Dark frame subtraction is another technique. Because CCD sensors are not perfect, one can see hot spots when looking at an image that required a longer exposure. This problem is corrected by the camera automatically taking a second exposure without opening the shutter. The hot spots will still be recorded and then can be removed from the first image. It is worthwhile to know that if your camera does not have this as an automatic capability, one can take a photograph with the lens cap in place, and later, in photoshop, perform a similar operation
Shooting Modes and the Digital Camera. Have you noticed that if you select a shooting mode of Auto (A) or Program Auto (P), your night pictures always come out too dark? They are simply underexposed. Why is that — if your camera’s shutter speed ranges up to 10 or 30 seconds?
Check your camera’s User’s Manual. Are all the shutter speeds available in Auto or P mode? Many digital cameras do not make the whole shutter speed range available in A and P mode! If the slowest shutter speed available in A and P mode is only 1/3 second, that’s not satisfactory for night photography. To access the longer shutter speeds, select one of the other shooting modes, such as Shutter-Priority, or switch to full Manual mode.
Be sure that your digital camera has full Manual mode and allows access to the full range of slow shutter speeds in that mode.
A few more SUGGESTIONS
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to photograph with Ralph Gibson. One sage bit of advice he told me was, “Always have a plan for what you want to photograph. You’ll get better photos. This doesn’t mean that if, by chance, you encounter an unexpected opportunity that you should pass it by.”
Night time photography generally requires more advance planning than day time photography. Usually you will be traveling at least one way in the dark. Do you know your route? Do you know where you can park? For example, some public areas are closed to parking during the dark hours.
The times of sundown and sunup as well as when the moon will be rising as well as the phase of the moon can be important. Light from the sun and moon may offer opportunities for a better photograph. The hours of twilight can provide wonderful illumination and colors.
What is the weather forecast? Changing weather conditions are usually less apparent at night.
Even in the summer you may need a jacket or sweater. I remember getting up at 4:00 A.M. to take sunrise photos while I was at Palm Beach, Florida. It was very uncomfortable waiting for the sunrise and some warmer air. Bug spray may save both body and soul in the summer, particularly if you are near water or woodlands. While you may not need a sandwich, one or two bottles of water can be very welcome if you are out for many hours.
There are exceptions but usually a flash is NOT useful. The camera built-in flash units have a very limited range. If you feel a flash may be useful, use a high quality accessory flash unit.
With objects that are reasonably near, one can create some interesting photographs by “painting” objects with a flashlight. A hand-held flash that is periodically fired during a time exposure can also provide additional interest. Coupled with your accessory light, think about using colored cellophane or colored gels in front of the light. These gels can also be placed in front of your lens. If you are “painting” with a flashlight and are walking about in front of your camera, wear dark clothing. Because you are not standing in one spot, your image may be barely seen in the resulting photograph. Obviously, your image is less noticed after a 30-second vs. a 10-second exposure.
My film cameras allow for multiple double exposures of the same film frame. Digital images generally require manipulation with programs such as Photoshop to achieve the same effect.
On your digital camera, if you can, set the LCD brightness to Normal, not Bright.
If your camera has a “night scene” mode, try that first.
And almost last, but not least, patience is a virtue. You shouldn’t become easily frustrated because the moon is not moving fast enough to get that perfect reflection shot in the lake.
Finally, particularly with a digital camera, take lots of images. Bracket your exposures. Vary the timing and the lens openings.
Use your past experience to improve future photography. And most of all, ENJOY!