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My approach to night shots

Low-Light Photography

My approach to night shots

Posted by: snootchies on Wed Nov 14, 2012 15:18   (3456 Reads)
Well, on request I've been asked to provide a bit of a tutorial on my techniques to night shooting.

So here we go...

This is actually a rather large subject to cover. I've done quite a varied amount of night photography. Here are 10 different examples:











In all of these cases the shots are about where light is coming from or the influence it has on other objects. Though of course clearly all photography is about the behaviour of light, however it is obviously a premium at night so it plays arguably more of a significant role than it would during the day. The behaviour and availability of light is always is at the forefront of your mind when doing night shots as you cannot take it for granted as you might in the day.

You'll have noticed my shots cover everything from car trails to star trails, The Moon, lightning, fireworks, moving vehicles frozen in time and more conventional long exposure work. I'll provide a brief guide on the techniques I used for all these situations, for today I will focus on conventional long exposure night shots and star trails. I'll add tutorials about moon shots, fireworks & lightning etc another day.

Conventional long exposures at night

First I will tell you the five main things you need to know which will hopefully get you some great results.

1) Welcome news here - use the kit lens! It controls light very well in long exposures. Other lenses I've used generate an awful lot of lens flares, especially when stepped down to low apertures. The humble 18-55 always delivers good results for me no matter what I put it through. It doesn't get nearly enough credit as it deserves. Shots 3, 9 and 10 were taken with the 18-55 for example.

2) Get a tripod! Most of my night shots are long exposures. You'll need a tripod to pull these off. All the shots with the exception of 2 and 5 needed a tripod.

3) Learn to shoot in manual mode. No other mode gives you full and easy independent control of everything. Don't leave the camera to decide on anything as all bets are off at night. In most cases it doesn't predict what you'll want, and its good practice as a photographer to get accustomed to shooting manual as you'll learn more about the dynamics of photography. Plus its at night - there's no rush, you can take your time. It's a rewarding experience.

4) The 2 second delay (or remote trigger if you have one). Its important you either have the camera set to a 2 second delay or use a remote trigger when doing long exposures as the act of pressing your cameras shutter release button can cause movement to occur and will result in blurry shots.

5) The Photographer’s Ephemeris This is a brilliant tool which shows you where the sun rises, where it sets, where the full moon will be or what stage in the moons cycle it currently is for any location. This is a great way to plan a night/dawn/dusk shot as it eliminates a lot of guesswork if you want to focus more on limited sunlight or moonlight and the direction it will come from.

Conventional long exposure night photography is I think a really great way to learn and explore. Its one of my favourite and most relaxing forms of photography. In a way I do not want to spoil your fun experimenting, but I will share these final tidbits:

Keep to a low ISO - 100 or 200 depending on what the lowest one is (for bodies that go even lower, for example the K-5 can do 80, this is an expanded mode, and I would personally avoid it). The longer the camera is taking a picture, the warmer the image sensor gets and the potential for noise to creep in, so you need the lowest ISO as a starting point. You might argue using a higher ISO means you do not need as long a shutter speed, and whilst technically that is correct, you wont get as good a result.

Aperture - its mainly up to you. The sweet spot of the kit lens is generally F8, so that's a good starting point, however, I tend to use lower apertures than that because I often want longer exposures. At F8 ISO100 exposures of 20 or 30 seconds will likely be overexposed. Of course it depends on what you are looking at. For me, a dreamy night shot does need a long exposure. I should also mention that if you step down to low apertures such as f22 and smaller, you do lose sharpness as you are beyond the typical f8 sweet spot of the kit lens. I'm personally happy to settle for a little post processing sharpening up, however the purists among you could quite happily use an ND grad filter to block out more light and keep to the sharpest f8 aperture - if you are going for ultimate quality then perhaps this is the way to go.

As a final statement on conventional long exposures at night, just study the effect of street lightning, shadows, light being diffused through a fence or railings, mist or fog (your best friend when it comes to this type of work) and of course vehicles. There is something alluring about mysterious car trails swooping through otherwise empty streets, and its very easy to get. You just need a vantage point - bridges work best.

Star Trails

Doing this well requires a few things:

1) Little light pollution. Unfortunately shot 1 was taken in my back yard. I've yet to be at a remote spot where there is less light pollution and have a fair amount of time on my hands to get truly stunning results - BUT I've learnt enough to know the technique.

2) Understand your camera's noise reduction. When I took shot 1, I had a K20D. The K20D will take exposures up to 6 seconds before it takes an equal amount of time applying noise reduction. You cannot do anything about this. You want uninterrupted coverage so as little time as possible in between shots, otherwise you will not get strong continuing star trails, they will be dotted lines. So with the K20D I set it to take continuous 6 second shots. With the K-5 I have now, I can do continuous uninterrupted 30 second exposures, so I think I'll have a bash at this again some day.

3) Remote cable. This depends on the number of interval shots your camera can do, you might not need one, but with the K20D I used a remote cable where the button can be locked down, set the camera to continuous mode and left it to take hundreds of 6 sec exposures.

4) The North Star. You need to know where the North Star is if you want to capture circular movement as the stars 'rotate' around it.

5) Condensation. Can be a problem when taking shots over several hours. As it gets colder, condensation will likely appear. A handy squirt with a rocket blower every now and again will hopefully budge it. I know others that have left a fan constantly blowing air over the lens.

6) Star trails software. This very easily composites all your shots together to form the end product - the star trails. If memory serves, about 400 images were used in shot 1, and I used this software to produce it. It's a little hypnotic to watch too - you slowly see the start trails being built up.

7) Use a wide lens. 18mm on your kit lens will do the job, but wider is better if you have it. I used 10mm for mine.

8 ) Take a few shots first to ensure you have correct focus first before leaving the camera to do its thing. Don't assume you can swing the focus ring right all the way to infinity and you are done. Lenses can usually go to a focus which is slightly beyond infinity to take account for variances in temperature which can cause very slight contraction or expansion.

Right, that's enough for today. I hope you find this useful.
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