This “What I Learned” is in regards to night photography, particularly in urban settings. This has nothing to do with HDR, but how to properly expose photographs with a single shutter click. To quote one of the great philosophers of our generation – Ronnie, from the MTV reality series Jersey Shore – “THAT’S ONE SHOT, KID”. So temporarily forget HDR or Photoshop existed and focus on the moment you’re attempting to capture.
As usual, focus will be placed on overarching concepts as opposed to exact technique because I believe why you’re shooting in a certain way will guide how you choose to do so. Though I’ve included my camera settings with these photos I cannot stress how relatively meaningless they are. Not only is each scenario different, but your specific equipment (camera and/or lens) make and model have individual properties and idiosyncrasies that you will adopt to as a photographer. Further, with your set of equipment, you can achieve similar exposures at various combinations of ISO and aperture for any scene; it’s just a matter of what you’re attempting to achieve. Photography isn’t about what you set your camera to and PRESTO! (though admittedly that day is coming sooner than later) -it’s a way of thinking.
The two photographs above were captured with my first digital SLR and BOY, if I could take these shots again! I’ve learned so much since then and you’ll see many of the things I didn’t implement before in the examples below.
If shooting architecture or urban environments, I wouldn’t dare leave home without a tripod. Unless you’re shooting moving subjects at wider apertures (such as people) or using a camera that successfully shoots high ISO with noise, a tripod is strongly recommended to keep your camera stable for long exposures.
It is of great benefit to shoot in RAW. In fact if you’re reading this and still shooting in JPG, I’m not merely suggesting – I’m telling you to switch. No matter your skill level, there is no longer any good reason to shoot in pure JPG unless you REALLY hate your life.
Your camera may not be as accurate auto-focusing at night. Manual focus can help you gain accuracy.
I’d consider removing the filter from your lens. Besides slowing down your exposure an additional stop, dust spots or watermarks on your filter can cause strong light reflection during long exposures.
A lens hood isn’t just for the daytime! Hoods will help keep stray light from entering your lens. Some tilt-shift lens do not accept hoods (which is a total pain) so I’ve used my body, hand, or even an umbrella outside of viewfinder range to help shield stray light. You can see how I allowed light pollution in the upper-right hand corner of this depiction of the Bechtler Museum of Art in Charlotte, North Carolina (doh!).
Step away from out underneath the lighting and voila!
The available natural light during sunset thru night decreases rapidly and understanding how to shoot full manual gives you great control over your photograph. Knowing how to change your “film speed”, aperture, and shutter speed are critical and night is a situation I would not let the camera make a decision for you. At sunset, you will tend to implement lower ISO, shorter exposures, and achieve greater detail in your photograph. As day gives way to night, you may gradually need to increase your ISO, shoot with longer exposures, and settle for less detail in your photograph. You may choose to increase your aperture. Understand your camera’s tolerance for noise as you increase the camera’s ISO. There is no single manual setting that you’ll stick with during the night as you compensate for your surroundings with what you’re attempting to achieve with your shot. Sky color, shadows, reflections, capturing traffic, light posts, signage, and moving crowds are all rapidly-changing variables in a single equation that only you can decide the answer.
While on business, I initially drove past this block of buildings on Daytona Beach during the middle of the day and based on experience, instantly knew I’d return to shoot here later in the evening. The beach was to the east and I realized the setting sun would illuminate the building facades and cause window reflections off the west-facing buildings. The palm trees would be in silhouette and I wanted to get headlight streams from passing vehicles both ways. However, it was Wednesday in January and traffic was light. So I maintained ISO at 100, lowered aperture to 14.0 (enough to keep the buildings sharp), increased my exposure to over 10 seconds and waited until I spied traffic coming both ways. Had it been a busy weekend, my camera settings would’ve been much different in response.
During sunset and the “blue hour”, color temperature of your shots can swing wildly in a short amount of time. At this time, I typically set color temperature to bring out the sky. Later in the evening, I’ll default to Tungsten or Fluorescent to match artificial lighting. No matter the format you shoot in, RAW or JPG, it’s helpful to know how to set your camera’s custom white balance. Even so, RAW is much more forgiving in that you can change this easily in photo software. If in doubt, switch to AWB (auto white-balance). However, I’ve often personally found AWB tends to overcompensate and be too warm, causing evening photos to appear too yellow. Below is an example of how quickly the lighting environment changes.
Light-diffraction increases (when lights appear to look like stars) with smaller apertures which typically require longer exposures – not necessarily as a result of longer exposures. Wikipedia has a scientific explanation, but really I just look at the first couple pretty pictures.
However, you can use those longer exposures to your advantage for dramatic skies and other light elements. Since we’re discussing lighting, be patient until street and window lights come on. Evening photographs seem to look pretty lifeless without them.
Selective depth of field and tilting the plane of focus can help guide the eye to what’s important in the photograph. In the case of the North Carolina State Capitol, I was concerned at such a later hour the sharp silhouette of trees and abundance of surrounding artificial lighting might compete with this state capitol facade. I used a tilt-shift lens to modify the plane of focus and shot at a wider aperture than I normally would to minimize light diffraction. By doing this, I captured the building entry in focus while the surrounding trees and lights appear blurred. It’s a subtle yet effective visual trick.
Keep in mind these are all decisions made ON LOCATION as opposed to looking at them later on the computer (shooting tethered can help). On a recent trip to Chicago, I had an opportunity to attempt many of these ideas at once with the Chicago Theatre. My challenge was to properly expose the photograph, keep the individual bulbs that formed the signage distinct without blowing them out, yet still achieve visible light diffraction. Note in regards to the Chicago sign, I said “distinct” not “sharp”; it’s important that they be distinguishable relative to the entire scene, not that that the scene itself be completely sharp (which I think is widely overrated and misunderstood anyway). So I bumped my ISO up to 1600 to increase the “film speed” yet still shoot at a narrow aperture. The half-second exposure kept light “glow” to a minimum.
But…I also wanted people walking in the scene, specifically entering or leaving the subway. Once I figured my settings, I patiently waited for individuals and groups to walk by to depress the trigger. In one of many attempts over 15 minutes a solitary woman passed by and I captured her in time. I quickly checked the camera preview and YUP! – that was the one. I packed up my stuff and was good to go.
Yet I was frustrated that I couldn’t get the lights underneath the canopy as distinct as I wanted (I did manage to pull some of it out in Adobe) and perhaps I should’ve shot at higher ISO. However, it wasn’t until I was looking at the photo in full-resolution that I realized a bus pulled into the right of the photo frame. It added an artistic splash of color and movement I wasn’t intending. Even the location of the sitting ambulance helped. Had I increased the ISO, I would’ve missed the whole thing with a faster shutter speed.
So remember, no matter how much you wind up learning or the skills you attain – there’s nothing like having a little luck in the moment. Heck, the unpredictability of it all is an essential ingredient to what makes photography so much fun!
Opinions and facts (ha!) are subject to change. Suggestions? Corrections? LOLs and snide comments? E-mail email@example.com