How to photograph at night and get great shots

Brooklyn Bridge at Night

Why do night shots look so attractive to us?

Our retina is build with rods and cones. Rods offer much better night vision, but far less color sensitivity than cones. Since our eyes have to keep a fixed exposure time, this is nature’s elegant trade off.

Our cameras work the same at all times. To compensate for lower light, we increase exposure time, a luxury the human eye cannot afford.

Our camera is capable of recording colors invisible to us, as the color sensitivity of the camera does not change with exposure.

This results in photographs that look brilliant and much better than we see the world at night. Street lamps that look white and yellow to us have a much wider color spectrum than we know. These lamps create the fantastic colors we see on our night shots.

It is easy to capture beautiful photographs at night and stun your audience by following a few easy steps.

When to shoot

Unless you want to photograph star trails, I recommend shooting when there is still some color left in the sky. Sometimes the color lasts up to one hour after sunset, even if our vision tells us otherwise.

If you photograph in cities on overcast days, you can photograph longer. The city lights reflect off the clouds and you get a spectacular looking sky.

Different light sources produce different colors. Fluorescent, Sodium, Tungsten, Mercury, Sulfur Lamps and LED all produce different colors, even though we cannot distinguish them at night.

Our camera brings out all of the colors. The resulting photographs might surprise us sometimes.

How to shoot

Shoot in aperture priority Mode (Av,A) to control depth of field and maximum sharpness. Since we have to use a Tripod at night, we can “stop our lens down” to achieve maximum sharpness.

Keeping tight manufacturing tolerances over larger areas (wide aperture) is difficult. That is why every lens, even expensive ones, will be sharper when stopped down (smaller aperture). A cheap lens that is “stopped down” can outperform an expensive lens that is wide open.

How to stop down

Start by setting your lens to the widest possible aperture (smallest f/stop). This number will vary depending on your lens. Assume your widest aperture is f/4 for the sake of this article. Now back up one to two stops from your widest aperture.

Most lenses have a 1/3 stop scale. Here is the one-stop scale for reference:

2  2.8  4  5.6  8  11  16 22

In our example, where f/4 is the widest aperture, you should back up to at least f/5.6 preferably f/8.

As a general rule of thumb, you can remember that f/8 will yield very good sharpness for most lenses. Decreasing the aperture even further is only necessary to cope with large depth of field scenarios. Optical diffraction sets a practical lower limit for your aperture.

How to meter

The varying brightness levels confuse most camera light meters. Streetlights are tiny but bright dots in a sea of darkness. Depending on your scene, your camera may expose correctly, or over- or underexpose.

Start with Aperture Priority and let the camera figure out the exposure of your first shot. Then check your histogram and compensate.

Cameras with an RGB histogram are perfect for this task. For night shots, the red channel is often brighter. A camera with a brightness only histogram will hide this fact.

I recommend exposing the brightest of the three RGB histograms to align right, while I would leave a bit more room on a brightness histogram. Clipped highlights are almost impossible to recover. Take a few test photographs under different lighting conditions and evaluate the exposure on your computer (RGB histogram) to learn how to expose properly.

You can also bracket your exposure to pick the best one or to generate a high dynamic range (HDR) photograph.

How to set up

Putting your camera on a tripod and using a cable release, remote control or self-timer is essential for long exposures.

Study your camera manual to find out if your camera supports mirror lockup (only SLR cameras have a mirror). The mirror, used to direct the light to the viewfinder for composition, needs to move away from the sensor to take the photograph. This motion causes camera shake that may cause motion blur in your photos.

Mirror lockup separates this process into two steps. First, you flip the mirror, and then you take the shot. Wait a few seconds between the two to give the camera a chance to stabilize.

Use your cameras noise reduction (or dark frame subtraction) feature to get cleaner images.

Different light sources can confuse the automatic white balance of your camera.

If your camera supports RAW, you can record RAW and fine tune the white balance during the development process.

If your camera does not support RAW, adjust your white balance properly during the shooting. Bracket your white balance to pick the best one later at home.

Make sure your horizon is straight! This is tougher at night than during the day.

 

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