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How to take photographs at night

Night Photography - Wexford Bridge, IrelandNight photography can produce some stunning photos if it is executed correctly. And it can make a mundane, uninteresting subject look far more photogenic than if it were photographed in daylight. It’s a tricky thing to get right, but when you do, the results are spectacular.

The odd thing about night photography is that the best time to take night shots is not actually at night! Just before the sun completely disappears is the best time. This leaves some colour still in the sky, and the difference in contrast between sky and street is not so big, so it’s easier for the camera to cope with. But, it is also late enough for any street or building lights to have been turned on.

Using a tripod is essential due to the long exposures that are going to be needed to capture scenes in this light. It may also be an idea to use a cable release button or timer to press the shutter button to reduce camera shake. I always set the self timer to 2 seconds, which means I am not touching the camera when the shutter fires, and therefore camera shake is kept at a minimum. A shutterspeed of 1/60th of a second or slower and you won’t be able to handhold the camera without camera shake.

It’s natural to think that because the light is so low that a faster ISO setting (or faster ISO film) is the way to go. However, unless you are looking for grainy images, this is a mistake. The grain may not be noticeable at first glance, but when you enlarge to 10x8 inches or larger it can be very obvious. Always choose an ISO rating of 100 to 200 to give crisp, colour saturated images.

Because light levels can be so variable at night, it’s best not to rely on the camera’s automatic settings. I know it can be a bit daunting to go to full manual mode, but for this it is necessary.

What I would suggest is to take a meter reading with the camera to get a “feel” for the exposure settings. Then take that setting and bracket widely either side of it as it’s impossible to accurately meter for all the varying light levels.

This means to take several photos adjusting the exposure settings above and below the meter reading settings. For example, if the camera’s meter says 250th/sec at F.5.6, you would take a number of photos above (250th/sec at F.8, 250th/sec at F.11) and below (250th/sec at F.4 and 250th/sec at F.2.8). It’s worth noting that you can change the shutterspeed instead of the aperture to achieve the same result as above. And also, most modern cameras now increase shutterspeed/aperture settings in one third or one half stop increments.

In doing this, you are sure to get an exposure that’s right.

PlaceholderIt’s a fairly obvious observation to point out that using an electronic flash gun while trying to take a night photograph of a cityscape would be a fruitless exercise, but it’s amazing how many first timers try it. A flashgun would never be powerful enough to light an outdoor night scene, so it’s best to leave it in the kit bag or turn it off.

Long exposures using film can sometimes throw up surprising results, some underexposure or colour shifts. This is known as Reciprocity Failure and is a result of using a film outside the exposure “window” it was designed for. Usually exposures longer than 30 seconds will cause this. And the results will depend very much on the type of film used. The only way to know for sure is to pick your favourite film and go out and try it!

 

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