Five Techniques for Night Photography

This post is meant to help beginners get started with night photography.  Five different techniques are described and examples presented.

  1. Aperture Priority Long Exposure with Tripod.  This method works when you want to get your shot in one single exposure.  This is also the simplest technique of all the possibilities and therefore the easiest for absolute beginners.  The result can be much better if you use one of the other techniques described in this post, but this is the simplest way to begin.
    • ISO  = Native.  My Nikon D300 has a native ISO of 200 and my Nikon D5100 has a native ISO of 100.  This gives the best noise performance (least noise).
    • Aperture = as necessary for required depth of field.  For images with extensive depth of field, an aperture of f22 is appropriate.  If the subject is relatively flat with not much depth, you can get away with f5.6 or similar wide open aperture.
    • Metering = Matrix or Evaluative.  Matrix or evaluative metering works best if the image does not have disproportionate extreme tonalities.  The assumption is a night subject or landscape with average tonality.  If your image has half of it very bright and half of it dark, the matrix metering will work well most of the time.
    • Shutter speed = auto.  Let the camera determine the shutter speed automatically in the aperture priority mode.
    • Post process in Lightroom or similar software to reach desired look.  In today’s environment, it is a given that people are touching up their images in the computer.  I use Lightroom, Photoshop and Nik Software for my post processing.
    Shanghai Night Skyline

    Shanghai Night Skyline, shot from the Bund.  Nikon D300, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 lens, f16, 8s, ISO 200.  Gitzo 1340 Tripod, Kirk BH-1 Ball-head, Shutter release self-timer 10s.

     

  1. Auto-ISO Hand-held Exposure.  This is the method to adopt if you are walking around in a tourist destination with just your camera/lens, without a tripod or other accessories.
    • ISO = auto.  Granted, this will result in noisy images with consumer or prosumer cameras.  There are professional cameras these days, that can produce virtually noise-free images at ISO 6400 or even ISO 12800.  However, for those of us, that do not have professional cameras, resort to noise reduction in post production.
    • Aperture = as necessary for required depth of field.  For extensive depth of field, use f16 or f22.  For shallow depth of field, use f4 or f5.6.  Even in situations where an extensive depth of field is required, I find it hard to shoot hand-held at night, with any aperture narrower than f5.6, due to unacceptable shutter speeds.
    • Metering = Matrix or Evaluative.
    • Shutter speed = 1/50s or 1/100s or 1/200s, depending on the whether the subject is stationary or moving and how steady your own hands are.  In addition to considerations related to moving or stationary objects, you must consider your own hand-shake to determine what works for you.  Run a test to determine acceptable hand-holding shutter speeds for you.
    • Post process in Lightroom or similar software to reach desired look.

    Buses and Clock Tower at the Bund, Shanghai.

    Buses and Clock Tower at the Bund, Shanghai. Nikon D300, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 lens, ISO 1600, f2.8, 1/160s, Hand-held.

  1. Manual Long Single Exposure with Tripod
    • ISO = Native
    • Aperture = as necessary for required depth of field
    • Metering = don’t care
    • Shutter speed = 1s, 2s, 4s, 8s, 15s, 30s, 1m, 2m, 4m
    • Review the results from the various shutter speeds in Lightroom or similar software and pick the exposure that is exposed most to the right, without losing highlight detail.  Then process that exposure to reach desired look.

    Austin Downtown and reflection in Colorado River.

    Austin Downtown and reflection in Colorado River. Nikon D300, Nikkor 17-35mm lens, ISO 200, f16, 60s. Gitzo 1340 Tripod, Kirk BH-1 Ball-head, Nikon Electronic Shutter Release.

  1. Manual Long Composite Exposure with Tripod
    1. ISO = Native
    2. Aperture = as necessary for required depth of field
    3. Metering = don’t care
    4. Shutter speed = 1s, 2s, 4s, 8s, 15s, 30s, 1m, 2m, 4m
    5. By reviewing the previews and histograms on the LCD screen, determine the shutter speed resulting in the exposure, that is exposed most to the right, without losing highlight detail.
    6. Using shutter speed determined in previous step, keep clicking several exposures of the exact same scene to capture different nuances of moving subjects (for example, fireworks, traffic trails etc)
    7. Using Lightroom and Photoshop or similar software, make a composite that overlays the various exposures made in previous step.

    Las Vegas at Night.

    Las Vegas at Night. Nikon D300, ISO 200, f22, Several shutter speeds and composited using the method described here.

  1. Manual Long HDR Exposure with Tripod
    • ISO = Native
    • Aperture = as necessary for required depth of field
    • Metering = don’t care
    • Shutter speed = 1s, 2s, 4s, 8s, 15s, 30s, 1m, 2m, 4m
    • In post production, review the fast exposures that still have highlight detail as well as the slow exposures that still some lowlight details.  Using these two exposures as extremes and including some additional exposures in between, export them to HDR Efex Pro 2 or similar HDR software and generate an HDR image.  Thumb through the various presets in the program and pick the one that most matches your vision.  Furthermore, fine-tune the HDR image in your software, until you are totally satisfied.

 

Austin Capilol Building at Night.

Austin Capitol Building at Night. Nikon D300, Nikkor 17-35mm f2.8 lens, ISO 200. Gitzo 1340 Tripod, Kirk BH-1 Ball-head, Nikon Electronic Shutter Release. HDR procedure described in this section.

Feel free to leave a comment.  If you like this post and benefited by it, please forward it to a friend who may benefit from it as well.  Thank you and I shall see you again soon.

 

 

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