How to Photograph at Night
Expand your photographic horizons once the sun goes down
You might think that night photography is complicated, and requires a lot of technical know-how. It's more basic than you might think, especially when the most important tool to have available is a flashlight.
Before you go out on a huge night photography expedition, there are some basic accessories that you are going to need to get good photos. You will also have to make sure that your digital camera is up to the task.
Unless you are trying to get intentionally blurry photographs, you must have a tripod to take photos at night. In order to get a proper exposure at night, you have to use very long shutter speeds. The only way to keep your camera stable is to use a tripod.
Ideally, you don't even want to touch your camera when you are taking photos at night. Even if you have a tripod, the act of pressing the shutter release to take a photograph will shake the camera and create a blurry photo. Digital SLR cameras have a port where you can attach a remote release. Other compact cameras come with remote controls that do the same thing.
Often overlooked but absolutely critical. Unless you are so familiar with your camera that you can change its settings in the dark, a flashlight is necessary to see the buttons on your digital camera. It also helps when you are in the middle of nowhere and don't want to fall in a rabbit hole.
Your camera must have manual controls so that you can adjust shutter speed and aperture yourself.
Your camera must have an opening on the bottom where you can attach a tripod. Almost all digital cameras — compact and digital SLR alike — have a tripod thread hole.
It's best if your camera has a remote control. If it doesn't, a self-timer works the same way (you just have to wait 10 seconds to take 1 photo).
The best late-night digital cameras have a feature called long exposure noise reduction. With digital cameras, the longer the shutter is open, the more noise (off-color pixels) you will see in the final photo. Since all night photography requires long exposures, the camera can process the image when you take it to reduce some of the noise.
Night Photography Technique
So you've got your camera with manual settings, you've attached it to a tripod and you've got your remote control (or self-timer) ready to go. Now what?
Set up the camera, and manually adjust the shutter speed until the camera's light meter indicates that a proper exposure will be achieved. Depending upon the amount of available light, you may have to use a shutter speed up to 30 seconds.
Whatever you do, don't shake the camera or the tripod. This seems simple, but I can't stress it enough. Many people think that since their camera is attached to a tripod, this is enough. Not always.
If you have a somewhat flimsy tripod and your camera is heavy, even a slight breeze can move the tripod and the camera with it. During a 30 second exposure, this will create a blurry photograph. Make sure your tripod is absolutely solid and that it won't slip or shudder during the exposure.
Additional Night Photography Ideas
You've tried you hand at a few digital night photographs. You've stabilized your camera, and your photos are looking sharp despite the long shutter speed times. So what now? What else can you do?
When you're taking your night photograph, find a moving source of light. Cars are always good for this — as they move past the camera, they head and tail lights create streaks of light. This is a really fun effect if you can find a lot of moving cars all in the same spot (bridges are ideal).
You can also create artificial streaks of light by using your zoom lens with a slow shutter speed. This technique will only work with a digital SLR and an interchangeable zoom lens (compact zooms can't be adjusted when you are taking a photo). Set the zoom to a wide angle view, depress the shutter and zoom to telephoto. Any light in the photo will streak toward the camera, which creates a sense of speed and motion.
Painting With Light
Even when it's dark outside, you can add artificial light to your photograph. Since the shutter is open for such a long period of time, you can use flashlights and other light sources to create unique lighting on your primary subject. You can use colored lights to really make things look interesting.
While you camera's shutter is open, just "draw" on the subject of your photo with the lights. You can either use the light source off-camera to illuminate the subject, or you can include the light source in the photo itself to create additional patterns. You can even write your name in lights if you get really good at it.
Here's a fun trick for those who want to photograph ghosts: get a human subject to stand in front of the camera for roughly half the time the shutter is open. For example, if you have a shutter speed of 10 seconds, have your friend stand in front of the camera for 5 seconds, and move out of the way for the other 5.
This results in an optical illusion: your friend will appear transparent. The slow shutter speed will not capture your friend entering or leaving the photo, just the brief period of time that they stand still. Since they don't stand still for the entire duration the shutter is open, only half of their image is captured.