Back to basics: night photography 101

Shooting lights and cityscapes at night has always fascinated me. Before even starting to learn photography, I used to wonder how they do it. In what follows I will share some of the techniques and tips of shooting at night.

First, use a tripod. Remove that dust on your tripod and make use of it. It has to be sturdy to withstand wind and in order not to fall and break your expensive DSLR. I always say invest couple of hundred bucks in a good tripod as insurance to protect your cameras from falling. On the other hand, once light goes off, technically you need a tripod because your exposure can reach more than 10 seconds therefore you cannot handheld the camera. There's nothing worse than shooting a great scene, looking at the back of the LCD and not noticing that all the photos are blurred. It is only when you go back home importing those photos onto your computer that you will find out the ugly truth.

Second, use Manual Focus. You need to acquaint yourself to the manual focus ring on your lens. In dark conditions that auto focus won’t work. Switch to the LCD view and zoom in to see if you have focus. If not, keep on turning that focus ring left and right until you reach an acceptable focus level.

Third, use a Shutter Release Cable. Use a shutter release cable (or wireless remote) in order to minimise any camera shake during exposure. If you don't have one, use the 10 seconds self-timer option in your DSLR.

Fourth, set ISO to lowest. Long exposures usually introduced noise (depending on camera make and model). I usually set mine at 100 or 200 max. If you have it on your DSLR turn on long exposure noise reduction. Long exposure noise reduction uses dark frame subtraction (a second exposure, taken while the shutter is closed) to minimise noise.

Fifth, use a small aperture for details. Consider f/16 to f/22 depending on your camera capability. Shots at open aperture (example at f/4) usually introduce an unwanted halo in light sources. Furthermore, shots at f/16 and lower create that starburst effect in light sources. The following photo illustrates this point.


f/11 for 30 sec at ISO-100

Now how much should you set that shutter speed? Well, it depends. Do you want movement to appear or not in the final image? In the left example below of the tunnel leading to Byblos old Souks, a couple was walking straight at me. Because the shutter speed was set at 30 seconds, they disappeared from the scene.

On the other hand, I wanted to show movement in the right image below of Byblos Souks so I reduced the shutter speed to 6 seconds. So as a general rule, scenes with little or no movement the shutter speed makes no difference.

f/11 for 30 sec at ISO-200

f/4.5 for 6 sec at ISO-200

The next shot below illustrates further the notion of slow moving object and the relationship to shutter speed. Taken at the Municipality Road (donno the real street name), the cars travelling along the road have dissolved into a continuous trail of red lights. They were travelling slowly. so I had to push that shutter speed to 30 seconds. Should have they been on a highway, a shutter speed of 8 seconds or above would have sufficed. Slower than this and the trails from the cars would have been visible as segments of light instead of continuous and smooth trails.

f/25 for 30 sec at ISO-100

So, when it comes to night photography, you have to experiment and try all possible shutter speed and aperture settings. What you think of as a bad shot might turn into a piece of art. Don’t delete images oin the camera. Wait till you view all on your PC and then decide. Night photography has its charm and magic plus it is has that WOW effect that may even surprise you when you look at your LCD after that 30 seconds exposure. So go out at night for city lights and keep on shooting.

f/11 for 25 sec at ISO-200