Updated: Jul 1
Top Tips for Stepping into the Dark
When the sun downs down it's a great time for you to explore the Night with your camera. It's all about the light, or the lack of light to create the mood of the moment, discover the many variation of darkness that you can use. I love that magical time when the sun has just fallen below the horizon and you are on the edge of day becoming night. Equally, it could be the dead of night with a jet black sky and the stars shining bright. Step out and become aware of the differences with or without Moonlight and all its stages between, and the effect it has on your photography.
Re-engage yourself with the Night, we now live in a world filled with Artificial Light and it is very easy to forget our ancestral past when there was none, only the darkness. May I recommend a wonderful book to read before you get started - Under the Stars by Matt Law. Although not directly about photography this book retunes us into looking at the rhythms of the night in a very different way, and with that it can only but help how you become a nocturnal photographer.
However, the use of Artificial Light will be dominate in your photography, just walk the streets at night and you can’t avoided it, but see if you can use it in a creative way. Think of it as painting with light on a canvas of darkness. Have fun with it, even add your own extra light to create some extra dramatic effects. The great thing about night photography is that there are no rules, even your camera will not perform the same way as it does in daylight, be prepared to fail, but also be prepared to capture something really special.
Here are my Top Tips that I found works for me, some of these tips may seem obvious, however others I have only found out when things went wrong! With practice you will find your own way of doing things and getting the best out of your equipment and the situations you find yourself in.
Before stepping out into the night I always try and pre-plan where, when and what I want to achieve. Having a loose plan in mind helps me gather what equipment I need to take, you don’t want any more than you need , but equally forgetting a vital bit can be very frustrating in the dead of night. With little bit of preparation it can make a big difference in having a successful night of photography.
Check to see what the weather may be doing and what you need to wear.
Work out what the condition of the sky is likely to be, will it be clear or cloudy.
Find out what phase the Moon is and its movement across the sky for the night.
If you are photographing night time Seascapes find out the tide times.
Get any maps together as to where you are going and work out a route before hand.
Think about your timing, when to start and finish to get the best out of the night.
There has been times for particular locations when I have done a daylight visit first. It's so much easier in places you don’t know to check it out first in daylight, rather than turn up in in darkness and be complete confused what to do and where to go. Everything looks so very different in the dark!
99% of the time I use a Tripod for night photography. I have three different sizes to choose from; Large & Heavy, Medium & Sturdy, Compact & Lightweight. Depending on the accessibility of the location and how far I have to walk usually determines which one I will use. However, some shots such as Star Trails you are going to need a heavyweight, so don’t forget you will need to carry this. Without a Tripod you will find that you will limit yourself considerably what you are able and need to do with your camera, a tripod is literally your foundation that all will develop from.
Turn off all Auto Exposure facilities on your camera, you need to be photographing in full Manual mode to be able to control all aspects of the exposure. I also tend to turn off Auto White Balance and give it my own single pre-set value. This means in Post Production I know exactly what all my photos are set to and can make adjustments from this single point. If it was on Auto then every image could have different values making it difficult in making overall adjustments. For those of you that have it, make sure you capture images in RAW format, this will allow you the maximum editing opportunities Post Production. If you don’t have a RAW setting on your camera don’t let that stop you shooting in JPG.
Why bother taking a Tripod, just ramp up the ISO and Handhold? That’s not my preferred way if you want high quality clean images and have the flexibly to shoot at lower speeds. I tend to do quite the reverse, I shoot at very low ISO at night and slow speeds, so I really need that Tripod. However, there has been times when I have handheld at a high ISO to get a shot because using a tripod was not appropriate or possible. In these cases it is better to get the shot at high ISO rather than not getting it at all, you just have to do more work in Post Production to reduce the noise out of the image.
With the benefit of your camera mounted on a tripod you can shoot at very slow speeds, not possible when handheld. To create light movement in your photographs such as car lights etc then you will need to play around with the camera speed at the lower end. It's a bit of trail and error to find the correct setting and waiting for the best moments to fire the shutter, but that’s all part of the fun. Overtime you will develop your own gut feel when you start put your camera to the test of this type of photography. Don’t forget to use some form of remote shutter release to negate any camera shake, if you don’t have one of these then put the camera on a short self-timer setting for firing without your hands on the camera.
If you are running at lower speeds on you camera this gives you lots of flexibility with your aperture settings. The thought maybe that when shooting in low light conditions you need to open your aperture right up to allow as much light into the camera. Well this may not be the best when thinking about the depth of field. Imagine your night shot exactly as if it was in bright daylight, what aperture setting would you use then? Better to slow the speed and have your aperture reduced for a better depth of field. Also if you are after a “Star Burst” effect from streetlights and alike then a small aperture is going to create this for you. Play around with different aperture setting for the same shot (adjusting your speed accordingly) to see what works out better for you.
If you are in very dark conditions and can be very difficult at times for Auto Focus to work correctly. One thing you can do is temporarily maximise your ISO so that you can see the view through your camera, turn Auto Focus off and adjust the focus manually. You will need to lock this focus in, I use a small strip of tape around the focus ring to stop myself accidentally moving it. Once the focus is set you can now readjust the ISO to the correct setting you want.
Yes, Condensation on your lens can be a big issue when photographing late at night. There has been times when I have thought I had a perfect shot in the camera, and it was not until later after I had downloaded the image onto my computer screen did I then see that there is water droplet in the middle of the picture! Always carry plenty of dry lens cloths as condensation can happen at anytime at night and can be really hard to spot, keep checking the front of your lens. For very long exposures (an hour or two) I have even had to resort to using heated elements around the lens, like the ones they use on astronomical telescopes to stop condensation forming on the glass.
Make sure to have fully charge spare batteries with you. You will find photographing at night and in the cold will drain your camera battery much quicker. Because you will be doing longer exposures and likely be using the Live View Screen on the back of your camera a lot more power is being used than would be normally during daylight photography.
The Bits & Bobs
Take a Torch - White light and Red light, and a head torch frees up your hands.
Warm Cloths - it can get cold out there at night, a hat helps reduce heat loose.
Gloves - I use thin gloves so I can still feel the camera, but the camera body gets cold.
Footwear - ware sturdy walking boots if you are going into rugged terrane.
Food & Drink - in remote locations you will be pleased you brought these with you.
Mobile Phone - for emergencies and great for map app’s (if you have a signal).
Finally, be prepared for the unexpected! Things can and do happen at night so be super aware and keep safe, but ultimately have a great time and produce some amazing photographic results.
There are many other things I could talk to you about Night Photography; creating Star Trails, Light Painting, Post Products and Editing, plus lot’s more……….but that’s for another time. Look out for more of our blogs from OPENPHOTO-STUDIO.
All The Best - Chris
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