10 Tips For Better Night Photography
The secrets to getting great shots at night are revealed
Night photography is one of those aspects of photography that always gets attention. People love to see night scenes—that mysterious mix of ambient light and city lights. The challenge is to compose them well. Night photos used to be difficult to capture with film (though film still shines for superlong night exposures) because of exposure problems. Night exposures can be hard enough to deal with anyway, but in addition, film had something called reciprocity failure. This meant that film lost sensitivity with long exposures.
You always had to compensate for this reciprocity failure by increasing exposure by two, three or even four times the expected exposure from a meter reading. You'd end up doing 10-second, 20-second and 40-second bracketed shots, and even then, hope for the best.
Digital changes all that. Reciprocity failure is no longer an issue. Plus, you can now use your histogram and LCD review to be sure you're getting the photo you expect. Exposure is still a challenge because of the high contrast of night, but it's now more manageable.
Digital cameras actually make night photography a lot of fun. You can experiment with color by changing white balance, trying different exposures, adding flash and so on, then see the results instantly on the LCD. Let's look at 10 tips to make your night photography more effective.
1. Start With Auto Exposure
Most digital cameras can handle bright night scenes that have a lot of lights, such as a city street or a lit building. The challenge, though, is that the bright lights and large areas of black may (or may not) overinfluence your meter—this can be hard to predict. It's worth starting with the auto exposure, then making adjustments to it after seeing how conditions are affecting your exposure. Check your histogram.
Your histogram will give you a lot of good information about the scene. Often, bright lights will make the camera underexpose the scene, pushing the histogram to the left. That can result in weaker colors and tonalities, plus a whole lot more noise. Having some bright lights clip on the right side of the histogram (meaning their brightness levels are cut off and only pure white can be recorded) is generally not a problem at night, as long as that extra exposure reveals something worth seeing.
3. Choose Your White Balance
Auto white balance can be random at night, giving you inconsistent results. I suggest you try some specific white-balance presets, so you can gain consistent, repeatable results that you like. This will help when you process the image in your computer, too, even if you shoot RAW.
The obvious choice, Tungsten, can give an effective night look, but it isn't automatically the best. Sometimes Daylight offers an attractive warm feeling to night lights. Or, if you need some specific tones to be neutral, you might try the camera's custom or manual white balance (check your camera's manual, as cameras do this differently among different models).
4. Photograph As Twilight Changes To Night
One of the great times to photograph is overlooking a city scene as the sun sets and twilight turns to night. The night lights can balance a rich sky at this point. You have to start photographing as the sun sets and the lights come on and keep photographing until the sky is black (or very dark). You can never predict how good the sky will be under these conditions, plus it changes over the course of many minutes. Be prepared to wait it out and keep taking pictures all the while.
5. Noise 1—Underexposure
Noise is such a critical problem with night photographs that I'm giving it three tips. The latest digital cameras do a superb job in limiting noise, but night shooting encourages noise. Noise occurs more frequently from the long exposures that inherently pick up noise as well as the underexposed dark areas that, when brightened, often reveal noise because of the higher ISO settings that can be so helpful at night (as they increase, so does noise). To keep noise at a minimum, expose properly and use higher ISO settings sparingly. Be sure to avoid underexposure as much as you can because it has such a negative impact on noise in the photo.