Night Photography How-To Tips

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Night photography can help you to capture some of the beautiful scenes that captivate us all. The night tends to mix lots of colors, lights, and darkness into a peaceful and awe inspiring serenity that you can’t help but photograph. Many people just getting into photography will want to get much better pictures. While upgrading your camera can surely do it, there is still more that you can do to get even better images.

Bring a Fast Lens
Fast Lenses are also known as wide aperture lenses. For starters, know that the lower the number, (f/1.8) the faster the aperture. The higher the number (f/5.6) the slower the aperture. So why do apertures matter? Faster aperture lenses allow more light to hit your camera’s sensor and therefore also let your camera shoot at a faster shutter speed. That speed ensures that your photos are blur free in case you may move the camera slightly; that is also called camera shake.

Walk into any major camera retailer and you’ll also hear people say, “I want to get a camera where the person will be sharp and I’ll get a blurry background.” The blurry background effect is affectionately called, “Bokeh.” Colloquially, this referred to the quality of the look to the blur, but it means blur in a more mainstream sense these days. If you want the night to fade into a beautiful hazy blur, then fast lenses shot wide open (at f/1.8 or a little bit slower to f/2 or f/2.8) may deliver the look that you want.

Raise Your ISO or Bring a Tripod/Image Stabilized Lens
Don’t have a fast lens? You’re in luck because many cameras have excellent high ISO results. In English, what this means is just how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. The general rule is:

  • The lower the ISO settings, the slower your shutter speed/the wider your aperture, the less grainy your images will be.
  • The higher the ISO settings, the faster your shutter speed/the narrower your aperture, the more grainy your images will be.

In order to take better images in the low light situations that the night presents, you’ll need to raise your ISO. But if you don’t want, “image noise” in your photos, then you can try another alternative.

Some lenses or cameras have what is called Image Stabilization. It is called different things such as Vibration Compensation, Optical Stabilization, etc. These lenses and cameras will let you shoot handheld at a slower shutter speed. But sometimes even that isn’t enough.

This is where you would spring for a tripod and a nice, stable surface. Using a tripod, you can stabilize your camera and shoot at a lower ISO setting with a longer shutter speed. This is how people get motion blur effects of cars moving down city streets or water looking super smooth.

Shoot Wider Angles to Prevent Camera Shake
When taking photos, you should take note of the reciprocal rule of shutter speeds. What this basically means is that your slowest shutter speed should be the reciprocal of your focal length or equivalent view. So that means if you’re shooting with a 50mm f1.8 on a Canon 7D, then you’ll need to consider the fact that the sensor has a 1.6x crop factor due to the APS-C sensor. That means 50 x 1.6 = 80mm. You should be shooting at 1/80th at a minimum in order to gain steadier photos.

When you shoot with wider angles, that minimum shutter speed goes down. Shooting with a 24mm f1.4 L on a Canon 5D Mk III? Well your minimum shutter speed should be 1/25th. That means you can once again lower your ISO settings to get images with less grain.

Bring the Camera In Closer To Your Body
For even more stabilization when shooting handheld, the best way to shoot is to bring the camera in closer to your body. As a couple of quick reminders:

  • Tuck in your elbows
  • Use the viewfinder or flip the LCD screen up so you can look down at it. This way your images can be much more stable when shooting that beautiful night sky scene.
  • Try to control your breathing. Some people say shoot at the top of your breath while others stay shoot at the bottom of it. Personally, we like to slightly hold our breath and then release the shutter at the top.
  • Make sure you are comfortable and your body feels natural when you are shooting. 

If you’re shooting at night during the winter, chances are that you’ll be shivering when you go to take a photo. Here’s an analogy to think about for stabilizing your camera: imagine that you’re holding a television and about to carry it up a flight of stairs. Which would be easier:

  • Holding the television outstretched from your body and moving up the stairs (similar to holding a camera outstretched with your arms)


  • Holding the television in closer to your body for extra stability while moving up the stairs (similar to holding a camera in closer to your body.)

The same concept applies, and so you can surely get better images with your camera in closer to your body.

Switch to Manual Focus to Prevent Autofocus Hunting (And Save Battery Life)
Don’t want your battery life to die? Well, your camera may not be the best to focus in low light. If you keep telling it to try to focus, then refocus, then refocus, then refocus, you’ll just end up draining battery life and therefore hating your new camera. Switch the focusing to manual and once you have the subject that you want in focus, fire off the photo. Many modern viewfinders are bright and detailed enough to make this simpler for you.

Keep these tips in mind when you’re photographing the night scenes and you’ll have even better images to show off on Flickr, 500PX and more.

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