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A personal opinion about night photography

While I enjoy many types of photography, I feel most connected with night photography. Maybe it is the vibrant colors against the dark backdrop of the night, maybe the challenges of getting a good night photo, maybe because it shows a face of the world most of us do not get to see because we’re too busy sleeping or partying, or some other secret ingredient, or maybe a combination of all of the above, but I simply love taking photos at night.

The challenges of coming back with good images after a night out shooting are many, but I feel the satisfaction makes it well worth the effort. Moreover, the evolution of gear has made things easier over the past few years. Medium and top of the range cameras now have very little noise even at ISO values that were unheard of just a few years ago.

When I got my first digital camera in 2006, it’s highest ISO value was 400, while with my D600 I can and sometimes will go above ISO 6400 and still have less noise that my Kodak point&shoot had 8 years ago (yes, I know I compare apples to pine cones or something, but it would be even less fair to compare my current DSLR to some DSLR I never got my hands on – I doubt the Nikon D40 with it’s ISO 800 setting would have been much better suited for night photography).

My first venture into night photography was cities at dusk or night, and only after getting my D300 did I start photographing stars.

Necessary things:

  • Obviously, a camera.
  • A fast lens.
  • A sturdy tripod.
  • A cable release or remote control.
  • Spare batteries.
  • A lot of patience.

An essential feature for any camera to be able to take night photos is to have the ability to manually control the aperture and the exposure time; ideally, it should have a bulb setting that allows for longer exposures (minutes to hours, very useful when photographing star trails or night landscapes), but at the very least a time value of more than a few seconds is necessary.

I now take night photos with my Nikon D600 usually paired with the Nikon 24-120mm f4, but I have used many camera and lens combinations in the past and I realized that if I know and respect their limitations, I can get very good picture with most modern digital cameras, even in low light conditions.

Dusk photography – the blue hour

The blue hour is the period of time when the sun is down under the horizon, either before rising or after setting, when there is only indirect light that takes a predominantly blue hue. There is enough light to see properly with the naked eye, and even more so with the sensible sensor of a digital camera.

There are two ways I shoot dusk photos: if I have the time, I go the purist way – set the camera on the tripod and go for as low an ISO value as possible – usually 100 or 200, using a 20 to 30 second exposure time. However, when I am traveling, usually with my family and always under the “let’s go already” pressure, I set the ISO on auto (or adjust it manually), and take photos either hand-holding (which I don’t encourage anybody to do) or at the very least supporting the camera on a piece of railing or against a wall.

The best photos however I feel are the ones shot with an exposure time of 20 to 30 seconds: there are light trails from the cars, shadows of people going around, the clouds moving in the sky, and they all add a sense of dynamism to the image. Also, when shooting long exposure images with water in them, it gets a silky-smooth aspect that adds a lot to the image.

Another thing to remember is to shoot in the direction of the sun, because the sky there has the most light, color and vibrance; in the opposite direction it is still (or already) pitch-black, with no details whatsoever.

Things to remember:

  • use a tripod or brace the camera so it doesn’t move
  • use manual settings (aperture, exposure time, ISO – the lower it is, the less noise in the image)
  • long exposures (20-30 s) are more pleasing to the eye:
    • dynamism – light trails, moving shadows, clouds streaking
    • water is smooth
  • shoot in the direction of the sun – that’s where the light (and color) is

Star photography

I started to take star photographs only after getting my Nikon D600, as it has a very good sensibility in low-light with less noise than other cameras I used previously.

If I want to get distinct stars as spots in the sky rather than lines, the rule is to use a shorter exposure time the longer the focal length is; usually at 24 mm, I shoot wide open and 20-25 seconds is enough so I won’t get star trails; at longer lengths, I shorten the exposure to 5-10 seconds and increase the ISO accordingly. However, when I want to get star trails, I close the aperture and lower the ISO to the optimum value (usually 100 or 200), and I go for as long an exposure as I can. Sometimes, I will take multiple shots in a series and combine them in Photoshop to get a combined image of longer star trails than single images could get.

Under these conditions, a tripod and the ability to have the camera take the image without being touched (via cable release, remote control, self-timer or intervalometer) is essential. Also, taking numerous long and very-long exposure photos will drain the battery faster, so if I want to keep shooting, I need to have at least one spare battery with me.

Since the temperature at night is colder than during the day, unless I have somewhere warm to go inside, I take warm clothes, maybe a hat and gloves so I won’t be cold. The cold of the night has two effects on the camera: it keeps the sensor cooler, which means less noise (it usually warms up during long exposures, and this in turn increases image noise) but on the other hand, the battery drains faster.

Another important accessory I have with me is a small flashlight or headlamp, both to see my way when getting to or from a location, and to see in case I need to change the battery on the camera (while I know my way around my camera’s buttons, dials, battery and card compartments in the dark, it is more difficult to change the battery on the camera when it is on a tripod, and even more so if I want not to move the camera). The headlamp I have has two sets of LEDs – a set is bright white to see where I’m going, and a separate led is dim red so I can look at things without losing my eyes’ adjustment to seeing in the dark.

Things to remember:

  • use a tripod
  • use settings appropriate for the expected result
    • shorter exposures for distinct stars (usually under 30 seconds)
    • longer exposures (minutes-hours), series of long-exposure pictures for star trails
  • use a remote control or intervalometer
  • have spare batteries
  • have a headlamp or flashlight
  • dress appropriately

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