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The proper exposure for night photography

Night photography is by far more rewarding than day photography. Things look different at night, and the result you see in your LCD display always produces a wow effect. At night there are less people, tourists and cars so clutter is by default minimized.

The main challenge during the night remains in getting a proper exposure. But what is the proper exposure during the night? At day times, the 'technically right' exposure is achieved by a a gray card and a histogram that fills the whole tonal range. On the contrary and at night it all depends on your taste. You might like dark photos or a fully stretched histogram as if you have taken that shot during daytime. I always shoot in RAW format and that holds even true in night photography because if you shoot in RAW you have more flexibility afterwards in post-processing to decrease the exposure or increase it to your taste.

Initially shot at ISO 100 for 10 sec at f/10

Underexposed to my taste using Adobe Lightroom

Challenges of night photography:

  • Camera shake due to absence of light hitting the sensor
  • High ISO and the resulting digital noise
  • Long exposure heating up the sensor and resulting in noise
  • Shutter speed and light sensitivity
  • Trade-off between depth of field, exposure time and image noise
  • Etc.

Come to think of it though, the same principles of exposure work during the night. One will need just more time to allow light into the sensor. A tripod is necessary to stabilize the camera, and if you forgot the remote shutter release you can always use the shutter release timer to reduce camera shakes to minimum during exposure.

ISO 100, f/16 for 15 sec

ISO 200, f/11 for 25 sec

Here are some tips to improve your night exposure: 

Always shoot RAW

The Raw file in almost all cameras is a 14 bit file, whereas a Jpeg file is only an 8 bit files. The more bits, the better for exposure flexibility in post processing and for available colors.

Always shoot in Manual Mode

Because you have all the time to set the exposure triangle why not be in control and use the Manual setting. And because the camera meter might be fooled by the sparkles, lights and shadows, a trial and error process is necessary. Therefore, Manual mode is your friends for quickly change the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO. This puts you in complete control over your exposure.

Manual mode however, only works for up to 30 seconds on all major brands of cameras. If your exposure needs more time for a proper exposure then use the Bulb mode. The shutter stays open as long as you hold the shutter button down. When you press the button, the shutter opens. When you release the button, the shutter closes. To avoid any shake, using a shutter release cable and a tripod are a necessity when using Bulb mode.

ISO 100, f/22 for 10 sec

ISO 100, f/9 for 3.2 sec

Always meter from the highlights (bright areas)

Spot Metering is your friend in night photography. Use it to expose for the highlights. Set your meter between +1 and +2 as you meter from the highlights. The +1 -2 setting will keep your highlights looking bright, but at the same time, will keep the highlights within the dynamic range of the camera. This will result in your dark portions looking darker but don't worry if dark areas happen to turn black, well, it is nighttime after all, and there is supposed to be some black. Take a test shot and adjust as necessary.

Exposure settings

Proper settings will always depend on the situation. 

Aperture: Open up your aperture i.e. smaller f-number. At night, the background and the sky are black anyway and you will not need as large a depth of field. The larger the aperture opening the more light is entered into the camera with less time and less noise.

ISO: Keep your ISO setting as low as you can (i.e. 100). Night photography always means there will be dark areas in your photos. Those dark areas and the long exposure shutter speed timing will inevitably introduce digital noise. Raising the ISO will double the problem.

Shutter speed: Since you will be using a tripod, you can let the shutter stay open as long as you need. If you have traffic (streaking lights), a fountain, or running water in your picture, the longer shutter speed the better. The only exception is high winds, or other instability like a shaky ground that might impact your tripod stability.

Bracket your photos and consider HDR

Think of it as an insurance for blown highlights and blacks. Night photography is one area where you will benefit from the bracketing feature of your camera. HDR also is a great think to consider for night photography. It can take your photo to the next level. Lightroom 6 now has a RAW HDR capability that is quick and easy to use. So why not bracketing and testing the HDR result. Please however, don't over do the HDR. I like the natural look of bracket merging that results in a clean result and Lightroom is made just for that.

ISO 100, f/4 for 0.6 sec

ISO 100, f/4 for 2 sec

Conclusion

Night photography will teach you a lot about exposure and it is a good environment for testing your exposure knowledge. You have time at your hands to think of exposure and get it right. Just be ware of highlights and shadows when you meter and consult your histogram as you shoot. Taking test shots, making adjustments, and doing some field tests will help be in a better control of your exposure knowledge.

Remember! A scene that might be boring during the day could be a winning shot at night. You will actually be surprised at what you end up with on your computer after playing around with your post-processing software.

So, when everybody is asleep at night, take your gear and tripod and roam in the city for winning shots and don't forget to share those in the comments below.