During every photography course, you often hear that you need light for taking photos and that, without it, you can do very little.
It is true; light is a fundamental part of photography. But would you really be so silly as to put away your camera, or go back home, as soon as the sun disappears behind the horizon?
THE FUN STARTS AFTER SUNDOWN
In reality, night-time photography offers so many opportunities that it is impossible to get them all in to one post; for this reason, I will deal with the subject of this technique in the course of more than one post.
Before discussing the aspects and technical complexities that you will come across, I want to list a series of creative ideas that will totally rid you of any doubts you may have over the opportunities this type of photography can offer.
Urban locations, for many reasons, are very interesting from a photographic point of view and are definitely the ideal environment for photo features. I talked about this here, in this post.
At night, however, the city changes completely. Saying it comes to life is not enough. A city captured by day is totally different when observed by night. The lights of the buildings, the coloured signs of the bars and clubs and the street lamps with their characteristic amber glow: these are all elements that, photographically speaking, give you an infinite number of opportunities in this environment.
From a technical viewpoint, night-time obviously involves slowing down shutter speeds, but this doesn’t have to be seen as a handicap.
We are used to a chaotic world in which we are encouraged to “seize the moment”, so it is normal for you to feel a bit awkward at first.
However, a slow shutter speed allows you to capture the light trails created by the lights of cars racing by on the roads, creating something that is visually (and photographically) spectacular.
Immediately after sundown follows the fantastic “blue hour” of photography. But after that? Total darkness? Certainly not; the sky and the stars offer two fascinating opportunities.
You can choose to photograph the sky and the stars in such a way as to capture their vastness, or you can choose to capture the earth’s rotation and the influence this has on the apparent motion of the stars.
Using a wideangle lens, obviously in the country and far from urban light pollution, the results will always be fantastic.
THE TECHNICAL ASPECTS
In your approach to night-time photography, you are forced to settle for compromise. The rules of photography don’t change; they are always the same, as with the rules of composition, which I mentioned in earlier posts.
That said, initially you may feel maladroit and out of your element, for a whole series of factors that you must take into consideration.
First of all, for night-time photography, you need a good tripod to be able to use and manage the long (or slow) shutter speeds with which you will have to work. I can totally recommend the BeFree carbon model (the very best and the one I own) or the less expensive aluminium version.
USE RAW FORMAT
All Reflex and Mirrorless cameras, and many Bridge cameras, offer the option of saving files in RAW format, as well as the classic JPG.
But what is so interesting about RAW format? In simple terms, it is a file format that gives you a much wider scope of intervention in post-production. It enables you to recover overly-intense (burnt) light or lighten excessively dark areas, all without creating a loss of quality in the final image.
USE MANUAL MODE
If you are used to taking photos using your camera in aperture or shutter priority mode, I recommend that you use manual mode for night-time photography.
In very dark situations with intense light sources, the light meter may not work properly, therefore providing you with incorrect setting values.
In manual mode, you have to set the aperture and shutter speed yourself, but after a few shots, you will soon work out the best parameters for the scene you are photographing and you will be in full control of the whole situation.
My advice is to set the aperture at its maximum possible value, in order to allow the lens to let in the most available light.
It is true: using a wide aperture leads naturally to a very reduced depth of field but, given that these photos are taken in very dark environments, it will be much less noticeable in the final images.
Of course, you must consider each scene individually; no advice will always be universally applicable. However, generally speaking, you shouldn’t come up against any major problems using the widest aperture that your lens allows.
For night-time photography, I advise you to use low ISO values, in order to avoid digital noise, a side-effect that occurs when you overly increase the sensor’s sensibility and that compromises the quality of the final image.
When you take photographs in daylight, it’s likely that the shutter speed is the first value that you try to get under control. For night-time photography, however, it is usually the last, if not indeed a value that you accept without question when you use a tripod.
In such a context, the use of very slow shutter speeds gives you spectacular and suggestive images.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR SHUTTER SPEED AND ISO VALUES
If you are looking to use the lowest ISO values possible, it can easily happen that the shutter speeds, in low light conditions, end up being “too” slow (more than 20-30 seconds). In this case, I recommend increasing the ISO value, in order to increase the shutter speed an bring it up to an acceptable time.
Setting the correct white balance on your camera is very easy if you are taking pictures in daylight or inside a well-lit room; you can use the Automatic White Balance with no problem at all. However, it becomes extremely complicated when you photograph at night or in the evening.
In such contexts, especially in the presence of street lamps or cars that light up the scene, even the automatic white balance can’t cope. Night-time photos could turn out overly “warm”, that is to say with dominating ambers or yellows, which is because the camera interprets the darkness as “shadows” and reacts accordingly.
I recommend that you set the manual white balance mode and try out a few test shots. Start with Tungsten mode and then try out other modes until you find that best suited to your scene.
TRUST IN SOFTWARE
If you shoot in RAW mode, as I recommended, even if you don’t follow all the advice I gave or you don’t seem to be getting the perfect image you imagined, you will have lots of opportunities to improve your picture.
In post-production, you will be able to carry out effective changes to lighten shadow, recover overly-intense light, remove excess digital noise and, above all, you will be able to adjust the white balance correctly.
With this, I don’t mean you should give little importance to technique, but that you should be aware that many improvements and optimisations can be carried out afterwards.
With this first post, I wanted to pave the way for approaching night-time photography in the correct manner. During this week, you will have to practise gaining confidence in manual photography methods and the various suggested parameters, because my next articles will look in-depth at certain specific techniques of night-time photography.
Freelance photographer, photography teacher, author and blogger.