I belong to a camera club called the Photography Interest Group (the “PIGs). Our members vary in their photographic background and experience (as well as in age, gender and cultural background, by the way). A couple of us have used SLRs since the film days. Some of the others in our group are beginners with their first Single Lens Reflex camera. But we all love photography.
The “senior PIGs” often get questions about why we do things a certain way, or how to do a specific thing. I think it might be interesting to others if I post the questions and answers. When a junior PIG want to know, others may want to know too. So this post is the first of what may become a series. We’ll see how it goes.
Q. How do you make photos at night?
One member of our club has a trip planned to Yosemite. He (let’s call him “Donuts”) wants to do something a little different and make photos after dark. Do you need special equipment? What settings do you use? How do you focus when you can’t see anything?
Now before we get started, we’re talking about outdoor, landscape and nature photos, not your regular dinner party photos. That would be a completely different post – somewhere else.
A. Slowly and carefully
I’ll write this for people with DSLR cameras. Most of the principles will apply if you have a point and shoot, but your camera may not have the controls or flexibility you’ll need. Still, you should experiment – you may discover some good work arounds with the equipment you have.
1. Night Landscapes
Night landscapes can be different and add some interest to your portfolio.
- Use a tripod to steady your camera. Hand holding a camera at night just won’t work — unless you’re only trying to make sunset silhouettes.
- Compose carefully. All the normal landscape concepts still count for night photography. Composition (e.g. the rule of thirds), and having something of interest in the foreground as well as the middle and far distance will help your photo. You might want to use a bubble level in your camera’s hot shoe so that you can make sure your shot is level.
- Focus carefully. The light level might be too low for your camera to focus automatically. If your camera has a live view mode, it can be a great help for manual focus at night, since you can zoom in to see detail. If not, you can estimate distance and set your lens manually. If you’re using a wide-angle lens, depth of field will help you. You can also stop your lens down to give more depth of field (f/11 or f/16) and make the focus less critical. Try focusing 1/3 of the distance into the frame if the main subject is close to the camera, and 2/3 in if the main subject is far away. Again, you may want to set your camera / lens to manual focus after you get it adjusted properly.
- You’ll need a remote release too so you can avoid shaking the camera when you press the shutter release. For many exposures, the light may call for an exposure longer than your camera’s longest shutter speed (typically 30 seconds). In this case you’ll need to put your camera in Bulb mode and use the remote release to time the exposure by hand (more on this later).
- Exposure is tricky. Your camera’s auto exposure mode may work, but will probably make the scene too bright. You can adjust this a bit in post processing to make it look more like a night scene. You can also chimp your shots to make sure you’re in the ball park and the result is close to what you want. If not, use your exposure compensation – usually to dial in a bit less light.
- Here’s one trick to try for determining proper exposure for very low light situations: Set your camera’s ISO as high as it will go and make a photo. Chimp the shot to see if it’s exposed the way you want. Then set your ISO back to its base value to get the highest quality photo and slow down the shutter speed by the same ratio as the ISO change. For example, if your exposure looks correct at f/8, 4 sec. @ ISO 3200, then it should also be correct at f/8, 64 sec @ ISO 200 (4*3200/200 = 64).
- Many DSLRs limit the slowest shutter speed to 30 second. How do you make an exposure of 64 seconds? Use manual mode. Set your aperture, and use Bulb for the shutter speed. Hold the shutter open with your remote release and manually time the exposure.
- Long exposure noise reduction: With any exposures over a second or two, sensor noise will probably be an issue. I use Nikon’s long exposure noise reduction in these situations. When turned on, the camera will take a second exposure with the shutter closed to measure noise and then subtract the noise out from the first exposure. Try it on your camera – it works well on mine
- For more advanced projects, stars (and the moon) will leave trails in any exposures longer than a few seconds. One nice effect is to scout a good landscape scene to the north and make a very long exposure. The circular star trails will be centered around the north star. You can also make spectacular photos under a dark sky by placing your camera on an equatorial mount so that the camera follows the earth’s motion. I’ve seen beautiful photos of the Milky Way behind spectacular scenery made this way.
2. Shooting the moon
The moon is interesting and one of the easiest astronomical objects to photograph. But it isn’t easy. You’ll need to set up carefully, expose correctly and have your camera as still as possible. Your photographs will benefit from as much magnification as you can get.
- Use a tripod to steady your camera. Hand holding a camera to make a photo of the moon might work if you have very good image stabilization in your camera or lens. But with a high zoom ratio, hand-held photos will hardly every work out, especially when you zoom in so you can see some detail.
- Zoom in so you can see some detail. A 300mm lens on a crop sensor camera (~450mm equivalent) should allow you to make a decent photo. Much smaller than that and you’ll need to crop the result a bit – which will lower the quality. I made the photo above with my Sigma 150-500mm zoom at 500mm (750mm equivalent) on a Nikon D90. It’s uncropped and doesn’t fill the frame, but this combination does yield some nice detail.
- Focus carefully. You might want to set your camera / lens to manual focus after you get it adjusted properly. Don’t bump it later, and don’t forget to put it back in auto focus mode when you’re done.
- Your camera most likely will not expose the moon correctly. With a lot of dark sky in the frame, the moon will probably come out way over exposed. For your exposure, use your camera’s spot metering function and then set your exposure compensation to about -1 EV. Chimp the result and adjust as necessary. If you don’t have a spot meter, then try using the “sunny 16” rule in manual exposure mode and adjust from there. For those of you that haven’t ever shot with slide film and a manual exposure camera, this rule of thumb says that for bright sunlight, your exposure should be f/16 at a shutter speed of 1/ISO. Since the moon is lit by the sun, this rule of thumb will get you close to a good exposure.
- You can do even better if you have access to a telescope. It’s relatively easy to use a point and shoot camera to take a photo through the eyepiece of a telescope like I did below. If anyone is interested in this, I can provide more information.
I’m sure you’ll come up with more ideas as you practice this. Good luck, Donuts. And don’t forget your flashlight and bug spray.
©2010, Ed Rosack. All rights reserved.