Monday, January 11, 2010

Night Photography: Overcoming the Obstacles, Reaping the Rewards

Bruges: The Belfry and Cloth HallIn last week’s article, Night Photography: Pushing the Limits, Understanding the Obstacles, I discussed some of the difficulties encountered in Night Photography.

In this week’s article, I’ll discuss how to overcome those problems to produce wonderful night images which help tell one’s travel stories.

When it’s possible to use one, the tripod is absolutely the best tool for photographers to make great night photographs. A well-chosen tripod with a quality “head” can enable photographers to hold their cameras motionless to create high quality night photographs.

Sometimes, however, tripods are not permitted in some of the best locations to create spectacular night photographs, such as the Eiffel Tower, or Empire State Building observation areas. When at a location which doesn’t permit tripods, the use of a “bean bag” is my first choice, but sometimes “bean bags” aren’t practical. In that case, other choices such as clamps and clamp-like devices are viable alternatives.

While it’s possible to get along without it, using a remote shutter release, to augment a tripod or tripod substitute can help further reduce any chance of camera movement the photographer can cause, simply by the act of pressing the button to take the photograph. A remote shutter release is always part of my night photography equipment.

Arc de TriompheFor SLRs and DSLRs using the camera’s mirror lock, if it has one, to eliminate the problem of mirror-slap can also help hold the camera steady. I know it’s hard to believe, but when making a long exposure, even the vibration caused by the movement of the mirror inside the camera can lessen the quality of a night photograph.

Sometimes hand holding one’s camera for a night photograph can’t be avoided. In that case, bracing the camera, and/or the photographer bracing themselves is essential to get sharp night photographs. Using pillars and posts, fences and other available objects to help hold one’s camera steady can really work well. I was unaware I couldn’t use my tripod on top of the Arc de Triomphe, so I didn’t bring a bean bag or other tripod substitute. I used the fence at the top of the Arc de Triomphe to help steady my DSLR, by bracing my hands directly on the fence.

Manual focusing can overcome you camera’s inability to use auto-focus due to low light at night. Many night photography subjects are far enough away that you can set your lens to infinity, but don’t do it. You can’t get maximum use of you’re camera/lens depth of field to create a well focused image if you set your lens to infinity. Depth of the field is both in front and behind the focus point. By setting the lens at infinity you loose the depth of field behind the focus point. If you focus a little short of infinity, you maximize your image’s depth of field, which can minimize focus error, and maximize how much of the image’s foreground is in sharp focus.

Amsterdam: De Kleine KomedieIf you’re using a digital point and shoot camera, manual focus may not be available to you. In that case, try focusing on any point light source at a similar distance as your subject. Use the auto-focus central focus point, as it’s generally more accurate/sensitive. You can also focus on the brightest part of your subject, hold your shutter button halfway to lock the focus, then recompose your photograph as desired.

Unfortunately, most in-camera light meters lose their accuracy as exposures approach and surpass about 30 seconds.  Even then getting an accurate meter reading isn’t difficult, however, it takes understanding the relationship between ISO, aperture and shutter speed. You can meter using a larger aperture and/or higher ISO than desired, so that the exposure time is less than 30 seconds. You can then adjust the exposure setting, to use a smaller aperture and/or reduce the ISO, and increase the exposure time accordingly. Sometimes, if not a burden when I travel, I bring my external light meter which doesn’t have the shortcomings of the in-camera meter.

To ensure you have a satisfactory exposure, I suggest you consider bracketing your exposure above and below your chosen exposure setting to ensure you have an exposure which minimizes blown highlights, and an exposure which contains good detail of your subject. Later, in post processing, you can fine tune your photograph(s) to produce the desired image.

Amsterdam: Opera HouseTo reduce noise in my night photographs I set my ISO to 100 whenever possible, and always try to keep my ISO at 400 or below. Some newer DSLRs sensors are better and can keep noise low even at ISO settings above 400 at night, but lower ISO settings are still better to reduce noise. Of course, that means you’ll need a longer exposure, and/or use a larger aperture. That’s in part why using a tripod or alternately bracing your camera for a night photograph is so important to give the photographer maximum shooting flexibility.

If you’re using a point and shoot camera, manipulating the triumvirate of settings, ISO, shutter speed, and aperture, may not be as easy as on a DSLR, but many point and shoot cameras have a “night scene” mode which can really help get a great exposure.

Go out and practice your night shooting. This is an area of photography in which practical experience is essential.


Charles said...

Ned, your night photos are unreal. I had been setting my focus on my D90 to infinity for night landscapes. I won't do it any more after reading your article. I never would have thought about how that practice reduced my use of depth of field to help focus. It's an incredibly great tip. Thanks.

Maria said...

I too never realized about focusing at infinity and what it does to depth of field. You always come up with great tips Ned.

Shana said...

Ned while I didn't realize the depth of field problem at infinity, what I picked up in the article was why I've been having such a hard time with exposures. I didn't know my camera's meter wouldn't work right for long exposures. I've just come in from outside having used your procedure and the photos are great. Thank you so much.

victorian inn bed and breakfast said...

The night photography is such a great and lovely experience.The photography at night is just amazing and wonderful.

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