Summer nights are my favourite time to be out. The weather’s cooled off from the daytime, there’s a wonderful smell in the air, and the whole world just seems that much more relaxed.
Of course, all this also makes it a perfect time to get out and shoot. But like any time of day or year, there are issues.
Low light levels mean longer exposures to ensure you get enough light for photography. That means you need a tripod or other stabilising device. Not all night shots need one, but plenty do, so it’s worth buying one if you haven’t already.
If you can’t carry such a device because it’s inconvenient, you can get away with resting the camera on a solid object and placing coins under the camera’s lens or body to adjust its angle.
Also, consider a remote release, preferably one with a lock button. This helps reduce shake but also allow you to leave the camera alone during ultra-long exposures, such as for star trails.
Shooting star trails
Speaking of star trails, here are a few key tips:
- Make sure you shoot them on moonless or nearly moonless nights. This is because ambient light ruins them. It’s also why shooting them in rural areas is best.
- If it’s a cold night, wrap some heat packs, like the ones you buy in sports shops or pharmacies, around your lens with a rubber band. This helps prevent condensation forming on the front element.
- Use a low ISO and a wide aperture. Depth of field is unimportant when shooting mainly at the sky, while a low ISO lessens the noise in long exposures.
Rural night shoots
With terrestrial landscapes, the lack of light in rural areas can cause problems, in particular the lack of light for foreground objects. However, thanks to the physics of long exposures, you can get around this.
Any object that is relatively dark and keeps moving becomes invisible in a long exposure. So, if you move around during a shot, using a flashgun or light at any areas you want highlighted, they become lit up while your body and the light you are holding disappear.
Urban night shoots
Of course, there's more to night shots than just landscapes. Pubs, clubs, night markets and other well-lit urban areas are all great spots to shoot, but again, they have their pitfalls.
The major one is simply a lack of light. While lit, most of these venues have very low light levels. Taking shots in a pub or club with a tripod is a recipe for disaster, so the best bet is up the ISO (try 400-800) and open your aperture (f1.4-f4).
However, even this may not be enough. If so, a great technique if you have an SLR (sadly even hybrids are too small for this) is to turn side-on to the subject and rest the camera on your shoulder. This extra stability should gain you a stop or so, which is always very handy.
I used the shoulder-rest technique when shooting a while back at the Sydney Chinatown night markets. As you can see, there was plenty of light, but sadly not enough to get away without extra stabilisation.
If you need to resort to flash and don’t have a decent flashgun that can bounce light, try holding a business card in front of your camera's built-in flash and bounce light that way. It's a bit hit and miss, but if you get it right, the results can be surprisingly good.
OK, that’s about it for now. Hope these tips help.
If you have questions or comments, let me know how you go in the comments section below.