Night Photography: Handy Tips and Tricks for Long Exposures

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It’s that time of year again. Time for insomniacs and artists alike to wander the streets from dusk till dawn as they take in the sights and sounds of Toronto’s eighth annual Nuit Blanche.  Nuit blanche is the perfect night to get out and capture some amazing night shots as the city comes alive with light, crowds of people and spectacular art installations.

View from the CN Tower
View from the CN Tower by Richelle Forsey from Vistek’s Photo and Video Pool on Flickr

We’ve got some great tips and tricks to get you started on your night-long adventure. First things first: be prepared.  What should be in your gear bag, other than your camera, extra batteries and a couple of your favourite lenses?  We’ve created a short list of essentials to pack before you head out in to the night.

You need to keep your camera as steady as possible for long exposures.  A tripod will save you time looking for a ledge, wall or post to rest you camera on while keeping your camera movement free and safe.  If you’re out on foot and plan on moving around from location to location a travel sized tripod is your best bet.

  • Benro Travel Angel – this tripod is lightweight (just 3.6lbs), compact but incredibly strong.  It can support up to 17.6 pounds of weight.
  • Manfrotto 055XB Tripod and 804RC2 Head Kit – This is one of the most versitle and popular tripods in the Manfrotto range, this works equally well in the field or in the studio.

Remote Cable Release
You want to avoid camera shake during long exposures, so it’s best to use a remote to trigger the shutter.  If you get a remote with an interval timer you can also use it to create long exposure time lapses.  If you don’t have a remote you can always use your camera’s 10s self timer to avoid shake.

Lens Hood
Overpowering street lights can ruin shots.  If you are planning on shooting in a well-lit city make sure you bring your lens hoods to cut down on lens flare.

You may find yourself fumbling in the dark, looking for a dropped lens cap or changing your camera settings. That’s why you need to bring a flashlight.  Flashlights can also be used as a light painting device, if you bring along some gels you can “paint” with light in just about any colour. 

Nuit Blanche
Nuit Blanche by Matt (Gotham Nurse) on Flickr

Next up: What to do to get the best results.
1. Set your camera on Manual (M):
You’ll need full control of the Aperture and Shutter speed of your camera for night photography. If you use your camera’s Auto settings your photos will either turn out too dark, or with a lot of unwanted movement or ghosting of lights.

2. Use a longer shutter speed
If you’re shooting fireworks you should or in brighter areas you should set syour shutter speed to 1s or less, otherwise shutter speed in the 5s-15s range is a great jumping off point for most night scenes.

Moved by Money
Moved by Money by Freaktography, on Flickr

If it’s totally pitch black, or you want to capture star trails, you may need to use a shutter speed of 30s or more. In this case, switch your camera to Bulb mode.  With bulb mode it’s highly recommended that you use a trigger or remote, not only because you can set exposure duration with it but it save you from having to hold perfectly still while keeping your finger on your cameras trigger.  

spinning wildly out of control
spinning wildly out of control by Lynn Armstrong from Vistek’s Photo and Video Pool on Flickr

For help in calculating exposures try the Available Light Photography Exposure Calculator

4. Keep your ISO as low as possible.
Shoot at the lowest ISO setting possible for your camera to get the in order to avoid noise in your image.  Since you are using a tripod you don’t need to increase your ISO to get a brighter exposure.

5. Use the lens sweet spot
Use the ‘sweet spot’ range of apertures for your lenses – this is usually between f/8 and f/16, but take test shots to find out. Even pro-level lenses don’t produce the best results when used at their maximum and minimum apertures. By using apertures in the middle of the available range you’ll increase your chances of capturing the sharpest shots with your lens.  Also, using a smaller aperture will give street lights a “star-like” effect which can yield really cool photos.

5. Focus Manually
Most cameras will have some difficulty focusing using auto-focus in dark conditions. Auto-focusing can work at night if you your subject has enough light, if but more often than not you’ll have to use Manual focus.  You can use your flashlight to help you focus on dark object or use Live View. To use Live View, simply turn it on, increase your ISO so that you can see your subject more clearly, pick something to focus on, zoom in, manually focus and turn Live View off, reset your ISO. If you don’t have Live View, then you can use infinity focus (the ∞ symbol) on the distance indicator of your lens. Place the dot or mark right in between the ∞ and your focus will be infinite. Some lenses are not tack sharp at infinity focus so make sure you test out your lens before taking any important shots.

6. Experiment
Use your first few images of the night as a test. There is no right or wrong shutter speed for night time photography, you just have to pick the one that produces the image you like the most. If your image is too dark, and the colors aren’t filling the frame as much as you’d like them to, decrease the shutter speed. If your colors take up too much of the frame and overpower the shot, increase it.

Fun times at Cherry Beach
Fun times at Cherry Beach by _Rashomon_ from Vistek’s Photo and Video Pool on Flickr

If you want to learn more about night photography or you would just like to get together with other like-minded people for a night photography adventure we have the perfect workshop for you.  Start out your Nuit Blanche adventure with instructor David Black on a photowalk through a pre-planned four kilometer route along Queen Street West in downtown Toronto on Saturday October 5, 2013 from 6:30pm – 10pm.  Learn more & Register