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Night Photography

Travel Photo Tips Series: Part I by Rick Sammon, September 2008 (updated February 2009)


Night Photography | Wildlife Photography | Capturing Culture Digitally

In this series of Travel Photo Tips articles for photo.net, I plan to cover every aspect of travel photography. Hey, I know that is a tall order, but I have been traveling around the world for 30 years, and have photographed just about every subject in every condition in more than 100 countries. What’s more, I’ve made every mistake in the book! Therefore, I am in a good position to help you avoid mistakes and to help you get the most out of your travel photography experience.

I’ll lead off this series focusing on Night Photography—and I’ll lead off this article with one of my favorite nighttime images, a photograph I took just after dusk at Niagara Falls (using the technique I mention below for blurring night lights).

The tips here are in no particular order. If you see a photograph you like, scroll down and grab that tip—and then move on to other photos and tips.

If you like what you read and see, you can learn more about me and my photography in my latest book, Exploring the Light—Making the Best Possible In-Camera Exposure.

Ready? Let’s go!

Creative and Inviting Images

Pictures taken at night often take on a more creative and inviting look than daytime pictures due to the creative lighting that illuminates the scene—as illustrated by these two pictures taken of the Ice Hotel near Quebec, Canada. That’s one reason why I like to shoot at night (Images 1 and 2).

When I shoot at night, I always tote a tripod so I can shoot at slow shutter speeds without camera shake, which can cause blurry pictures, I set my ISO to 400 and my White Balance to Daylight (because I like warm tone pictures).

I use my camera’s self-timer, which avoids camera shake that may be caused by pressing the shutter release button.

I also use the camera’s noise-reduction feature, which is a better way to reduce digital noise in a file than reducing noise in the digital darkroom. However, like all in-camera noise-reduction features, it slows down the time between taking pictures, sometimes several seconds. Therefore, I plan my shots carefully.

Night photography, due to the often wide-contrast range, is a time when RAW files are the best choice because they have a wider exposure latitude than JPEG files.

As always, I check my camera’s histogram and overexposure warning indication to make sure I have a good exposure.

Blurring Night Lights

One of the cool effects we can create in camera is blurring moving lights at night. Blurring the lights takes some of the reality out of the scene, and when we take out some of the reality, a picture becomes more creative and more artistic.

Here are a few guidelines to follow if you want to create photographs like this one, which I took in Miami’s South Beach (Image 3):

  1. Set your camera on a sturdy tripod.
  2. Set the ISO to 100.
  3. Set the camera to the Tv (shutter priority) mode and select a shutter speed of 10 seconds or slower. I took this picture with the shutter speed set at 10 seconds.
  4. Use the camera’s self-timer to take the photo. That will prevent blurry pictures caused by camera shake when you press the shutter release button.
  5. Take a shot, check the histogram and overexposure warning on the LCD monitor on the back of your camera to make sure your highlights are not washed out, which can happen in high contrast scenes. If they are washed out, use your camera’s exposure compensation (+/-) feature to fine-tune your exposures by reducing the exposure.
  6. Take additional photos at different slow shutter speeds to see how you can improve your pictures.

Note: when photographing moving cars, getting the red taillights in the picture will look much better than just getting the white headlights.

Photographing Fireworks

Fireworks photographs are not easy to take, mostly because the light level changes, sometimes by a few f-stops, from burst to burst. What’s more, each burst is in a different place in the sky. Another challenge is to capture the burst right at its peak.

Here are my tips for photographing fireworks. Even though I followed them, the three photos you see here are the best out of about 100 that I took at two different fireworks displays (Image 4).

  • The first tip is to be prepared to take lots and lots of pictures.
  • Bring a small flashlight so you can see what you are doing!
  • Choose a location. This is very important. For two of the pictures here, I had a good location. For the Brooklyn Bridge fireworks shots, I did not have the best location, and I was locked into that position (due to the large crowds).
  • Mount your camera with a wide-angle lens or wide-angle zoom on tripod. You want the tripod to steady your camera (use the self-timer to release the shutter) and the wide-angle lens to capture the fireworks in the sky.
  • Set the ISO to 200, the exposure mode to Manual, and begin by setting the exposure at f/11 at 2 seconds. You’ll have to change this setting from time to time, but I find that it’s a good starting point.
  • Activate the long-exposure noise reduction feature in your camera if it has one. Noise shows up in dark areas, and you’ll have plenty of dark areas in the scene. If your camera does not have that feature, plan on reducing the noise in the digital darkroom.
  • As I suggested, plan on taking lots of pictures.
  • Finally, have fun! Fireworks displays are a blast—literally!

Cooling Off and Warming Up Images

In the digital darkroom, I often like to warm up and cool off the tones in my images. Color Temperature, found on mid-range and high-end digital cameras, lets you get great color and even fine tune color. It’s usually a Custom Function and it lets you set the precise color temperature (my EOS 1Ds Mark III lets me choose from 2500K to 10000K), and even offers White Balance Color Correction (which basically lets you apply a digital color conversion/compensating filter in camera

In this trio of photographs (Image 5), the top photo was taken with no Color Temperature adjustment and with the White Balance set on Automatic. For the middle image I set the Color Temperature to 2500K (cooling off the image). And for the bottom image I set the Color Temperature 10000K (warming up the image).

Sure, you can create the same effect in the digital darkroom using the Color Temperature, Color Balance and Photo Filters, but it’s fun and creative to try to create different in-camera effects—and sometimes essential if you are shooting commercially.

By the Light of the Moon

Here’s a well-known photo expression: There is always enough light to take a picture—if you have a tripod.

You need a tripod to steady your shot during what will be a long exposure. One night when the moon was full, I went over to the Croton Damn in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, which is about five minutes from my house. I mounted my camera on a tripod, set the ISO to 800, set the exposure mode to Av (aperture priority), activated the camera’s self-timer (to prevent camera shake at the time of exposure), and took the shot—the photo you see here with the stars visible in the sky. The other photo, which I include here for comparison, was taken during the day. My exposure was 40 seconds at f/4 (Images 6 and 6a).

The next time the moon is full, pack up your gear and go out and take some moonscapes. Good fun—and good picture opportunities.

Have Fun Painting with Light

I took this photograph on a starry night in Namibia when a full moon was setting behind me. I used a technique called “painting with light” to create the effect (Image 7).

Here’s how you can create the same effect on a night when the moon is bright in the sky—even if you are only photographing a tree in your backyard:

  1. Choose a wide-angle setting on your zoom lens or use a wide-angle lens.
  2. Set your camera on a tripod.
  3. Set the ISO to 400 or 800. Note that as the ISO increases, the digital noise in a file also increases.
  4. Set your camera to the Manual exposure mode.
  5. Choose an f-stop of about f/8 for good depth-of-field.
  6. Choose a shutter speed of 30 seconds or even longer. I can’t tell you exactly how long because that will depend on the brightness of the scene.
  7. Now, use your camera’s self-timer to release the shutter.
  8. Move into the frame and start painting the subject with a flashlight—and be careful not to point the beam of the light at the lens. You will be moving and you will not be illuminated, so you will not be recorded in the frame—unless you stand still.
  9. If your picture is too dark, you’ll need to boost your ISO, choose a wider f-stop and/or choose a slower shutter speed. If it’s too bright, chose a lower ISO, a smaller f-stop and/or a faster shutter speed.
  10. You’ll need to take a few shots to get the shot you want. Also keep in mind that anything moving in the scene (such as some of the branches in my picture) may be blurred.

I used a Canon 15mm full-frame fisheye lens on my full-frame Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III to create the curved horizon effect.

Night Portrait Mode

Want to use city lights as a backdrop for a nighttime point-and-shoot shot? Then set your camera to the Night Portrait mode. A slow shutter speed is selected to capture the nightlights, and the built-in flash automatically pops up (or you can activate an accessory flash) to light your subject.

This mode is perfect when you want to get a good exposure of both the subject and an illuminated background. That’s the mode I used for these nighttime portraits (Images 8 and 8a).

For more creative control, and to fine-tune your exposure (of the background and the subject), here’s the technique I recommend:

  1. Set your camera on manual and dial in the correct exposure for the background. Take a test photo and check your exposure on your camera’s LCD monitor.
  2. If you think it’s too light or too dark, use your camera’s exposure compensation feature to darken or lighten the picture.
  3. Now, turn on your flash and take a shot. If the subject is too dark or too light, adjust the flash output in-camera or on your accessory flash. (Most digital SLRs and even some high-end compact cameras allow you to vary the flash output over and under the “correct” exposure.)

In both situations, you’ll need to hold your camera very steady (because of the slower shutter speed), use a tripod or an image-stabilization lens to steady your camera during the exposure.

Reflect on Your Subject

Hey, when you are out and about taking pictures at night in a city, look for cool reflections on the hoods, trunks and roofs of cars—which is what I did when photographing in Miami’s South Beach. Include them in your photographs for some creative images (Image 9).

Photographing at Dusk

This may sound funny, but the best time to take nighttime pictures may not be at night, but rather at dusk. At dusk, there is still some light in the sky. That light colors the sky a nice shade of blue, rather than black. What’s more, the skylight offers some illuminations on the building, reducing the contrast range between a dark sky, bright lights and the sides of the buildings.

Get on the scene early and begin your nighttime photography adventures while there is still some light in the sky. That’s how I started my nighttime photo shoot in Miami’s South Beach (Image 10).

Conclusion

Enough reading. I think with all the techniques listed above, you have enough ammo to go out and get some great nighttime images. Before you go, however, here is a final and important tip: wear white at night for safety in traffic situations.

Me? I need to start pulling together some photos for the next article in the Travel Photo Tips Series: Photographing Wildlife.

Catch you next time.

More

About the Author

Rick Sammon has published 30 books, including his latest three: Rick Sammon’s Secrets to Digital Photography, Exploring the Light—Making the very Best In-Camera Exposure, and Face to Face—The Complete Guide to Photographing People. Rick gives more than a dozen photography workshops (including private workshops) and presentations around the world each year, in addition to presenting at Photoshop World. He hosts five shows on www.kelbytraining.com. He’s also been spotted giving presentations at Apple stores in New York City and in San Francisco. Rick is also the author of the Canon Digital Rebel XT lessons on the Canon Digital Learning Center and is a Canon Explorer of Light. More »

Example Images from Rick’s Gallery


Text ©2008 Rick Sammon. Photos ©2008 Rick Sammon.

Article revised February 2009.

Readers' Comments


Add a comment



Terry Thomas , September 18, 2008; 04:21 P.M.

Feedback on your Night Photography column.

Rick,

Nice article. But, a few problems.

The Miami South Beach photo (Image #3) did not show up. All others were present.

You said you were going to say how to blur lights at night but never actually disclosed your techniques.

I've read about (and used) techniques such as putting a diffusion material over the lens for part of the exposure. One trick I've used is a chunk of panty hose stretched over a frame. Another is to use a photographic diffusion filter, just hold it in place for a few seconds and your regular hand vibrations will do the trick. What method(s) do you use?

Many, if not most, of my architectural photographs on my website are created at twilight as I think the colors are more intense at that hour of the day. Plus it helps me avoid driving in evening rush-hour traffic! :-)

I've had success using the Night Portrait setting on my Nikon D70 when photographing residential interiors. I put a 20 ounce Styrofoam cup over the face of one of my Nikon SB600 strobes which I aim toward the ceiling and "pop" manually during the exposure. Sometimes I do multiple "pops", if there is enough time. (Of course the camera is mounted on a Gitzo tripod.) The camera's computer sees both the available light and the strobe and calculates the duration fairly accurately. The only thing that will mess this up is a bright light source such as a window or lamp. So I shoot when the outdoor light is low and carry dimmers with me to put on the lamps. With practice, this works quite well.

Thank you for the series.

Terry Thomas

Architectural Photographer

Atlanta, Georgia USA

www.TerryThomasPhotos.com

Terry Thomas , September 18, 2008; 04:46 P.M.

I mentioned earlier that I sometimes put a 20 ounce white Styrofoam cup over the face of my Nikon SB600 strobe.

Here is a photograph of that rig in action.

Terry Thomas

Architectural Photographer

Atlanta, Georgia USA

www.TerryThomasPhotos.com

Image Attachment: filesA6LSO.jpg

Paul Fogarty , September 22, 2008; 01:43 A.M.

Hello Rick

Thanks for the article and the photos, I do enjoy seeing your work. However, I had the same problem as Terry Thomas, couldn't see No. 3.

I also wanted to comment on two points in your article; you repeatedly say to use the camera's self timer to take these types of shots, I always use a cable release, which, especially with a subject like fireworks, allows you to take shots continuously if required without having to touch the camera once it's set up.

And secondly you mentioned digital noise, and the use of in-camera noise reduction technology. I have a Canon XSi, and the problem with Canon's noise reduction system, not sure about Nikon etc, is that it takes TWICE as long to "take" a photo with the noise reduction "On."

For example, a 2 or 5 second firework shot would take 4 or 10 seconds to process; 2 or 5 seconds to take the actual photo, then a further 2 or 5 seconds for the camera to process out the noise, and no further shot can be taken 'til the camera finishes processing the image.

The problem would be even worse on your beautiful "Painting With Light" night shot of the tree, which you said was a 30 second exposure; that would be a full 1 minute "exposure" with the noise reduction circuit switched on, plus you're powering the camera for twice as long as needs be... better invest in an extended battery pack! :)

A Canon Rep - no less! - recommended a piece of software called Noise Ninja to process out the noise in the digital darkroom; it's not expensive, and runs as a plug-in for Photoshop, the results are outstanding!

All the best, Paul

Phil Trites , October 02, 2008; 04:18 P.M.

Great Tips, and Night and Dusk views were great. It's been my favorite time as well.

James Alexander , October 08, 2008; 08:48 P.M.

You went over to the Croton? Damn!

carl quattrocchi , November 03, 2008; 06:58 P.M.

Rick:

I have attended your seminars read you books bought you dvds. Your style is easy to follow . will you be at Amhurst in July ?

carl quattrocchi

Rick Sammon , January 02, 2009; 01:56 P.M.

hi all

i will ask photonet about the missing photo.

thanks!!!! rick

Angshuman Chakraborty , July 14, 2009; 03:15 A.M.

Hello Rick,

I am just a beginer with true interest in photography, your discussion on night photography is really helpful to beginers like me. Thanks.

Angshuman

Tomek Gooseberry , August 12, 2010; 09:14 A.M.

little known tip for preventing camera shake

While not a technique available to all, guess it would be worth pointing out the electronic first shutter curtain trick, a.k.a. 'silent shooting' mode in Canon's lingo, which, as Michael A. Covington explains on his website, beats mirror lock-up in terms of preventing camera shake during long exposures.

Funny enough, I can hear no difference in the noise produced by my 7D's shutter  ...it sounds equally loud to me no matter which "silent shooting" setting I put it on...  so I was really glad to discover that this gizmo may actually have some use  ;^)

Michael Pucciarelli , August 24, 2010; 02:22 P.M.

Rick,

Great article.  Enjoyed reading it.

I would like to add to the fireworks section.  Some people say that you a tripod and a cable release.  By using a cable release, the camera is completely still.  I had to learn this the hard way with my July 2009 Fireworks. 

Michael

ajayan pp , September 19, 2010; 03:45 P.M.

Dear Rick,

Very very useful article for photo enthusiast like me. Painting with light is an interesting technique. I would try during my next desert trip. Thanks a lot for giving such educative article.

ajayan

Elvin Jijo , March 21, 2011; 08:10 A.M.

Dear Rick,

I read your Wildlife photography and capturing culture digitally and this one too all the article are really awesome. I think your really took some fantastic pics. Thanks for sharing. Houston attractions Atlanta attractions

James C. Williams , June 27, 2011; 10:32 A.M.

Hi Rick - Good piece. I do light painting and travel, so I wonder what you can recommend for a tripod - sturdy, yet light-weight. Thanks!

~James C. Williams

Winston-Salem, NC


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