Monday, February 16, 2009


Night or low light shooting

When one thinks of a good lighting situation for photography, typically the abundance of light comes to mind. In the case of night photography, it's the minimal lighting that makes for compelling images.

In this tutorial, we'll cover the equipment needed, how to meter, and how to compose a good night shot.

I'm probably one of the few photographers I know that carries a tripod just about anywhere that allows a tripod. This is even true when I'm shooting in broad day light. I love tack sharp images and there's no better way to get tack sharp images than to have your camera on a tripod to eliminate camera shake. Of course there are exceptions to my personal tripod rule. I don't use a tripod when shooting sports. I usually shoot with a wide open aperture and shutter speed will be fast enough to eliminate blur from camera shake. This also applies to birds in flight. When I'm shooting portraits I usually use strobes so shutter speed does not really play a factor, thus no blur from camera shake. However, when I'm shooting with a smaller aperture to get a greater depth of field, the shutter speed will be typically slower, therefore there is a greater chance for camera shake. This is especially true for night photography or low light photography. (Low light photography can be anything that has little light such as a wedding in a church with very little ambient light but for this lesson, we are referring to shooting out doors when the sun is setting, rising, or completely gone.)

This is a long winded way to state that you will definitely need a tripod. A good sturdy tripod with a sturdy ball head is recommneded. Some sort of remote shutter release that has a locking mechanism is preferred as well.

A remote shutter release serves 2 purposes. It allows you to trigger your shutter without touching your camera. The less you touch your camera, the better, and yes even pressing the shutter button can introduce blur. The second reason is it allows you to keep your shutter open for longer than 30 seconds. If you plan on keeping your shutter open for longer than 30 seconds, then place the camera in bulb mode. Bulb mode keeps the shutter open for as long as the shutter is pressed down....of course this is down with the locking remote cable release.

If your tripod has a hook at the bottom of the shaft, you can hang your camera bag or a bag of phone books on it. This will increase the stability of the tripod which can be especially helpful on windy nights.

Other equipment that you can use but is not required are various filters. I've used a neutral density filter to slow down the shutter even longer. You can also try a graduated neutral density filter if there is still a hint of light from the setting sun.

Now let's talk about technique. Most DSLRs have a custome setting called Mirror Lockup. This is when the mirror inside the chamber of your camera will flip up until it completes the exposure. The shutter stays closed until the exposure starts, but the mirror will be flipped up. The action of the mirror flipping up causes some vibration in your camera which can lead to minor blur. Activating the mirror lockup will eliminate this vibration.

You also want to turn off the IS or VR (Image Stabilization) or (Vibration Reduction) on your lens. There is a motor that controls the stabilization of the lens and this motor when activated also causes vibration. You won't need IS anyways because your camera will be on a tripod.

Metering for a long exposure night shot without a incident light meter is tricky. This is especially true when there is still some evidence of color from the setting sun or rising sun. Sunlight can still be a factor up to an hour after the sun has set below the horizon. The tricky part is, the intensity of the light will constantly be changing. I often start out with just using Aperture Priority and let the camera do it's job. This offers me a baseline to work with. Try to spot meter on something midtoned. The night sky would be a bad idea because your camera will try to overcompensate and you'll be left with an overexposed shot. Metering on a bright light would also be a bad idea because your camera will underexpose the shot. But hey, we shoot digital so take a shot, wait until it takes the full exposure and chimp. Look at the LCD on your camera and decide how the image looks. The histogram in this case won't be as helpful like it normally would be in normal shooting conditions because you will see spikes on the left (black) and right (white) sides....and that's okay. The spike on the left will represent the night sky and the spike on the right will represent any lights that are in your shot such as a car's headlights or a street light.

I use a smaller aperture when taking night shots because I want to exaggerate the effects of a long shutter such as the clouds rushing through the sky, the headlights of a car streaking by, or the the star flare of stationary lights.

Use the lowest possible ISO you can. Noise can show up very easily in dark areas of the sky so you don't want to exxerbate that with a higher ISO. Remember that you'll be shooting on a tripod so low and slow.

Two other things to add. First, try to add an element of motion to your long exposures. Having an element of motion while everything else is stationary and tack sharp makes for a dynamic image and adds life to the image.

Second, and this can apply for any scenic photo. Try to add a foreground element to your image. This will anchor the image and make for a better composition.

Please feel free to ask questions.

Here are a few examples of my long exposure shots.

Notice all three lights on the street sign. Total accicent but came out sweet.


Harold said...

Thanks for the tip about turning off the IS on my lens never thought of it.

Question: How do you know how long to set the exposure in bulb mode, is it trail and error?

Will King Photography said...

Hey Harold. It really depends on so many variables. Of course all the variables that determine the right exposure; aperture, ISO, shutter speed, ambient light etc..

I usually shoot my long exposures at f/22, ISO50 or ISO100. I start out with aperture priority just to get a meter reading. The camera will tell me what the shutter speed should be. If it's less than 30 seconds, I will keep it on aperture priority or take that exposure reading and set the camera on manual with those exposure values.

The camera will not be able to give you a meter reading that extends past a shutter speed of greater than 30 seconds. So if I get a reading from the camera that tells me 30 seconds, I will change the aperture to something larger until the shutter speed goes lower than 30 seconds. From that, I will go back to f/22 and do the backwards math for the correct shutter speed. Hope than makes sense.

Harold said...

Thanks Will

It makes sense.