Monday, October 18, 2010

Tips for shooting at night

Montreal coloured cityscape

You can walk by the same spot 10 times during the day and not find anything interesting. But once the sun sets (or is just setting) and the lights of the city turn on, the same scene you walk by during the day turns into something magical. It could be the mix of colours due to different light sources (ie - white balance), the stillness and serenity of the image caused by long exposures, I don't know. Just something about it that I love.

So I decided to make a quick write up about what goes on through my mind when I'm doing a night shot.


- Low ISO is a must for me. Sure, you can take a higher ISO shot at night and will give good results, specially with how some camera's handle high ISO, but generally, I aim for ISO 100 on my Canon 7D. Yes, my camera handles high ISO well, but the low ISO allows me to get longer shutter speeds which are essential in night shots

- Small apertures. I'm usually in the f/11 - f/16 range. The smaller your aperture, the deeper your depth of field will be - ie, the more you will have in focus. This applies to landscape photography done during the day as much as night shots. A great side effect of small apertures is a start effect in some lights, which adds some coolness to the shot.

- Slow shutter speeds. If you shoot in AV, the combination of low light, small aperture and low ISO will mean a long shutter speed, often in the realm of 15 seconds. A long shutter speed is great for capturing fun car light streaks when you are shooting streets. It also allows for people to walk through the frame and not be captures, enhancing the serenity of an image as it can be a busy street that appears empty.

- I like wider lenses for city spaces. I often use my Canon 10-22 on a crop body, settling in around 16mm. That would be around 26mm on a full frame. I will sometimes use a longer focal length, but I always have my wide angle with me

- A tripod is a must. I don't know anyone who can hand hold a camera for 15 seconds without shaking.

- To go with the tripod, you should have a remote release. Any movement can cause slight shake which will affect the image. Even the movement of hitting the shutter button. If you don't have a remote, then look into how to use the delay timer in your camera. I'll set mine to 2 second delay so the camera has time to settle after I hit the shutter

Opera house at night


There are many composition rules that can be applied, and many more that can be broken. I'm not going to start listing the basics of photography such as rule of thirds, leading lines, triangles and so on, you can do some googling on that (or maybe I'll blog separately about it at a different time). What to look for when shooting at night?

Finding a nice body of water to use as a reflection for either an entire cityscape or something as simple as a street lamp can add that fun element in the image. If you are doing a cityscape with a body of water, I find that reflections look nice when your horizon line is in the middle of your frame, allowing for the reflection to be almost as equal as the cityscape itself.

Another thing to think about with reflections in water is the weather. If you have a windy day, you will have ripples in the water that will distort the image but still show the light when shooting at longer shutter speeds.

See the below and how it compares to the intro image. Same place, different times of the year, different weather conditions. The one below had no wind, the one up top and more.


I mentioned it in the tools and settings. Long exposure means that cars will be passing through your frame. The head lights and tail lights being bright will register on your sensor while the rest of the car will not. Look for roads that twist and turn or use a bit of camera tilt to create a diagonal line in the streaks. This will add a sense of motion to the image.

Light streaks

Play with the shutter speed to get different streak effects. See what a 30 second exposure will give you vs. a 5 second exposure. If you are shooting a less travelled area, think about using Bulb mode. Let’s say your settings say that your shutter should be open for 25 seconds. But there aren't many cars going by. Set your camera in bulb mode and have something black to cover the front of the lens like a piece of cardboard. Start the picture with the front of the lens covered. When a car goes by, remove the cardboard and count how many seconds your shutter is open with no cardboard in front. Let’s say it took 3 seconds. Once the car is out of frame, put the cardboard back. Wait for more cars to come by and count again until you hit 25 seconds.


A zoom pan is a simple process. And it only works if you have a zoom lens. You can always attempt if with a prime lens, but you need to be able to walk very very quietly (that’s my Elmer Fudd online typing imitation). I prefer zoom pans at night, but they also work during the day. You start your image at either end of your focal range. So let’s say you are shooting with a 10-22mm. You start at 10mm. You need to try and time the shot so that while the exposure is being taken, you are able to zoom to 22mm. When you hit the 22mm, your shutter closes.


Oratoire St-Joseph

That the basic idea, but if you hold the zoom in certain places for longer periods, it will give you different effects. Same if you zoom pan from 15mm to 22mm instead of 10mm to 22mm. Photography is about trying things out and learning as you go.

Most modern cameras have this as a setting. You can turn it on or off in your custom menu area, check your instruction manual.

What does it do? Well, just as it says. For long exposures, it will reduce the noise. How does it work? Well, when your camera is done taking your image, it takes a second image without opening the shutter (called a dark frame). It then uses the dark image and compares it to your image and substracts the noise.

Is it perfect? No. But it does a good job. Should you use it over noise reduction in post processing? You be the judge. As I use low ISO which causes little noise, I find that using in camera noise reduction for long exposures does a great job and I dont need to process the image for noise reduction later.

It comes down to my philosophy of getting your image right in camera first...which means exposure, crop and noise control.

There you have it, a few tips and ideas for night shots. Nothing said anywhere in photography is gospel. So take the words for what they are worth, tips and ideas. If you want to try an ultra high ISO night shot, go for it! See what it gives and how you can work with that.

If you have questions, shoot me an email or post up a comment.

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. Merci Pierre; c'est très intéressant et bien expliqué. Bravo!