Shot in the dark
Why am I writing about Night photography for beginners? Never the twain shall meet.. surely? Night photography requires a whole set of skills that are way beyond the typical beginner and the beginner should be in bed before 9PM right? Well, I am going to argue, not only that Night photography and Beginner photographers can go together, but that they should go together.
Night photography is a specialism. Many online galleries don’t even have a “Night photography” category, so you end up putting your dark images into “Landscapes” or “Nature”. But actually, the “Night photography” category has several categories of it’s own; star-trails, Milky Way, Northern Lights, Big Cities, moonies, fireworks etc.
For equipment you will need a camera that can make long exposures. This means that the shutter is open for a long time. Many cameras allow you to go to 30 second exposures in manual mode. This wil get you started and is fie for some types of Night photography (i.e.Northern Lights and City), but for more long-exposure power you will need a way of keeping your camera shutter open for longer periods of time. Traditionally, photographers have used a cable with an air bulb that screws into the shutter, but modern digital cameras have many ways of achieving bulb mode (bulb mode means that you are in total control of the shutter opening and closing). My Canon has an infra-red remote, but you can get cable versions, or even android apps that will give you extra exposure power.
With most long exposure photography, it is critical to keep the camera still throughout the exposure. The slightest movement can ruin the shot. With tripods, you generally get what you pay for. For Night photography, you will want a tripod that keeps your camera steady at about chest height. Heavy is good if you don’t have to walk far with it.
What do I need to know?
You need to be able to use manual/bulb mode, change iso settings, turn your lens to manual mode (no auto-focus). It helps to understand the value of a ‘f-stop’. You need to know about the place you are shooting and if there are any dangers involved.
We have talked about bulb mode and long exposures, but how long do the exposures have to be? When you are in bulb mode, you camera stops helping you. Bulb mode s like extreme manual mode. You are on your own to figure out how long you should expose the scene. This is an important calculation because if you decide 8 minutes and you were wrong, you have wasted 8 minutes.
Apart from the shutter speed, what other things can you adjust?
Aperture and ISO can also be adjusted, so let’s step back into the classroom to see how adjusting these can help you get the right exposure length by understanding f-stops.
- Shutter speed – double the exposure length = +1 stop.
- Aperture – double the aperture = +1 stop.
- ISO – double the value = +1 stop
Just to mess with your heads, halving the aperture will double the f/value. i.e. half of f/2.8 is f/5.6 🙂
- 1) You are using f/11 and you want to adjust your aperture to give you +1 stop… what would you change the aperture to?
- 2) If your ISO is 200 and you want to adjust it to reduce your exposure by 1 stop… what would you change iso to.
- 3) In bulb mode, you took an 8 minute exposure, but you need to increase the exposure by 1 stop, how long do you have the shutter open next time?
Click here to check answers
Out in the field
If you got correct or close answers to the ‘Exposure Stop’ test, then you could end up with some decent night photography exposures. Now that you are set up with your camera pointing into the dark, let’s use your knowledge of stops to get a perfect exposure with professional settings. You shouldn’t expect perfection in Night photography. Viewers will expect a dark image and wont expect fine art details in the shadows. If stars are present, they should be sharp or they will be blobs (round white dots). A sharp star looks like a short pen stroke.
Set quality goals
With a mid-range camera you should be aiming around the middle for aperture and iso. If iso 1600 is good on your camera then aim for iso 800. For your lens aperture aim for f/11 (unless you have a close up composition) because this will give you good DOF and good sharpness. With a good exposure, these settings should be fine for print quality. Once you have your quality goals, you need to figure out the final part of the exposure triangle = shutter speed. Shutter speed could be anything from 10 seconds (Snow landscape with full moon) to 30 minutes (Dark landscape – new moon) with iso 800 and f/8. If your first Night photography session is in a dark landscape with no moon, trial and error could take some hours. Even if you are a die-hard photo enthusiast, you wont want to waste hours in the cold night.
Put on your Maths Head – Time to use your knowledge of Exposure Stops.
What we do is use starting settings to stop up. We increase the aperture to f/2.8 (+2 stop), then increase the iso to 3200 (+2 stop). This gives us an increase of +4 stops. Now you can trial and error exposures around 1 minute until you get the right exposure and then multiply the number of seconds by 4 and use your quality goal settings. So let’s say the good exposure was 2 minutes at f/2.8 iso 3200. At f/11 and iso 800 the exposure should be 8 minutes.
Number one mistake
The Number one beginner mistake at this point is to judge your exposure by looking at the image preview. This is fantastic for judging your composition, but can be disastrous for judging your exposure. The reason is that your eyes have adjusted to the darkness and are very sensitive to light. An under exposed photo will look great in the dark at night, but when you get it home it will be too dark to be useful. Under-exposure is the gateway to noise in Night photography.
Always use the histogram to judge your exposure at night until you become used to what it should look like on the preview. A good night photography histogram will have the mountain crossing the half way point, like the unprocessed Northern Lights photograph open in Lightroom below. The Histogram is top left in Adobe Lightroom and shows you data (usually in the form of a mountain) with dark on the left and bright on the right. As long as this mountain is within the boundaries of the histogram, you have data to make a photograph. What you don’t want is half a mountain at one end.
Have a go
I am excited that you might have learned something from this. The next step is to get out there and get shooting. Experiment and have fun. Someone who sees themselves as a beginner see themselves as someone ready to learn. Hopefully I have shown that with a bit of equipment upgrade and understanding of exposure stops, a beginner can experiment with Night photography. Apart from falling down a dark hole or being attacked by a night panther, what’s the worst that could happen?
Now I am going to tell you why a beginner should try Night photography. When you are out in the dark with your camera making exposure adjustments and changing modes, you really learn your camera. It is “In at the deep end”, but it really gets you well acquainted with your camera controls. My driving instructor taught me beginner car control at night so I wouldn’t look at my feet. Imagine being able to look at a scene while your hands are correctly changing the settings on your camera because you know it all by feel.
Exposure & compositions
Shooting at night teaches you a lot about composing. Especially a long exposure night landscape where a poor composition wastes many minutes. When you start a 10 minute exposure, you better be sure you got a good composition. Taking pictures at night teaches you about exposure… well you just learned what an Exposure stop is!
Setting your camera at chest height will allow you to control the camera comfortably. If your hands are working above your heart, they will get colder quicker. Having your camera at chest height will allow you to see settings on top of your camera and lens easily.
Check out your night locations during the day. This not only makes it slightly safer, but you can find compositions easier and even leave you camera set-up ready for the night.
Turn off auto-focus. This will work if there are city lights, but even then you should switch to manual focus. It can be difficult to focus in the dark, but your camera will never manage it and will refuse to shoot. Some lenses have an infinity mark so you can judge the focus on the outside on the lens. Others have soft focus rings that are difficult to use at night. If you do have a light source such as a car light or building, you might be able to use auto focus and then switch to manual.