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Night Photography Techniques

Ideas and tips for taking pictures at night

Let's take a look at some simple but effective night photography techniques. Photography is about using light so it may seem odd to head out with your camera just when there isn't any! But actually there are plenty of light sources available after dark, and taking pictures at night can produce some really dramatic and original results.

The most obvious opportunity presented by night digital photography is for capturing motion with a long exposure. So here's one of the top tips for night photography, which is essential for many night photography techniques: use a tripod. When shooting with a really slow shutter speed it is essential to support the camera on a tripod to prevent your picture from becoming a mess of incomprehensible shapes.

Urban night photography techniques

(Above image: 4 second exposure)

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So what makes a good subject? Well in urban environments the lines created by traffic as it meanders along roads looks really cool on a long exposure. You need to take some test shots to check you've set the shutter speed slow enough to capture long lines of light - but not so slow as to burn them out.

Anywhere from between about 4 and 10 seconds should suffice for these kind of long exposure photos. Remember to adjust the aperture size to compensate here. Even though it's after dark you might need a small aperture (high f.stop) to allow for such a long exposure and prevent the traffic lines burning out.

I'd recommend investing in a remote release device for these sorts of shots. Pressing the shutter button yourself causes camera shake which will damage the finished image, whilst using the self timer means gambling on something happening at the right moment.

Other great urban night time subjects include: neon lights, the glow of street lamps, lights refelcted in puddles, buildings with their own unique lighting (often from below), bars and restaurants shot from the outside.


Rural night photography techniques

(Above image: 6 second exposure)

In rural environments water is a great subject to go for and can make for some really good night pictures. I often shoot on my local beach just at that moment before the light completely goes. This dusk light produces an amazing, almost mystical blue tone (white balance set to 'cloudy').

Make sure your tripod is secure and, for that smooth misty effect of moving water, set the shutter speed right up to 10 seconds +. I often take 30 second exposures in these conditions (see below).

Whilst a remote relese device is less important than for shooting traffic lines (where precise timing is crucial), it's still a tool to have. It's amazing how the little vibrations that are sent around the camera by the shutter release button can dimish sharpness. At the very least, use the self timer to prevent camera shake.

(Above image: 30 second exposure)


Freezing motion in low light digital photography

You may of course want to freeze motion after dark, in which case the above night photography techniques won't be much use!

Lots of night time scenes involve people bustling around: parties, crowds at fireworks displays, eating outdoors at a restaurant with just candelight, etc.

So you'll wamt some nice clear shots of the action. But even with a wide open aperture this can be a real struggle. Solution: rev up that ISO, increasing the image sensor's sensitivity to light.

Higher ISO's do lead to noise (nasty specks), but every camera performs differently. So get a feel for the top limit of your camera (the point beyond which noise levels are too much of a problem).

When I'm being a pefectionist I don't like to go beyond 800 ISO in low light. But at night time that ofen isn't sufficient. So rather than use a flash I'll happily stretch to 1600. By the way, if you do choose to use flash, be sure to make use of the flash compensation options on your camera which reduce/increase the strength of the light.


Photos of fireworks, Christmas lights and carnival rides

(Above image: 4 second exposure)

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Having a few night photography techniques in your toolkit is really helpful when shooting fireworks, Christmas lights and carnival rides. I'm sure we've all struggled pathetically with these subjects at some point. My first attempt at shooting Christmas lights involved lots of faffing about with the flash - almost always a useless bit of kit in that situation. Keep your tripod close at hand and you can't go wrong.

Just as with the long exposure photos of traffic lines in cities, you need to capture the bright artificial lights with a slow shutter speed, wary of the fact that - though it's dark - they can become overexposed.

So set up your tripod and take some test shots to work out the right shutter speed. It's pretty tricky to get the timing right using the self-timer on your camera, so a remote release device is ideal.

You might think about selecting the 'bulb' mode when shooting fireworks. This is a setting that allows you to keep the shutter open for however long the shutter release button (or remote release button) is held down. Begin exposing as the fireworks are set off and let go of the button when they fizzle out.

When taking photos of fireworks/lights and similar subjects, with people or objects in the foreground - as in the above photo - the flash can be a useful tool.

Set the correct exposure to capture fireworks/lights etc, and take the photo with the flash on. As the flash fires it will fully expose the foreground without effecting things behind. The flash also serves to freeze objects or people (because it only fires for a split second), even as the motion blur from a long exposure shows up on the lights behind.


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