Nighttime is one of my favorite times to take photographs. There is always the element of surprise! Long exposures make it possible for your camera to record something that you can’t even see. Click on the thumbnails to see the larger versions in a lightbox.
The only caveat for shooting at night is that most of the automated features of your camera will not work and you really need to use your camera in Manual mode and understand the relationship between ISO, speed, and aperture. When I’m taking photos at night, I try to take two of the three settings out of the equation. Since it is difficult to focus at night, the first thing I do is to stop down my lens to a small aperture such as f/8, f/11, or f/16. This increases the depth of field so that focus is not so critical, i.e. the greater the depth of field, the more of the subject will be in focus. Next I set the ISO at the optimum of my camera. Since I have a Canon camera, I set the ISO to 100. If you have a Nikon, set the ISO to 200 instead. The reason for using the camera’s optimum ISO is to reduce noise. Long exposures are inherently noisy so it is important to do as much as possible to reduce noise. Sometimes you will have to increase the ISO to get the shot. The duration of the shot is the main thing that you will use to get the exposure. Increase or decrease the shutter speed until you get the correct exposure.
Watch out for blown out highlights! Look at your RGB histogram and shorten the exposure if any of colors are touching the right side of the histogram. I am hooked on HDR so I usually shoot three exposures and check each exposure. If you are shooting HDR, it is OK for the lightest exposure to have blown out highlights but none of the other exposures should be blown out. I also turn on the blinkies so that I can instantly see the blown out areas of the lightest photo. If I am bracketing with 3 stops in between each shot, I usually expect the lightest shot to be about one-fourth blown out. This is especially true if there are any light sources in the subject.
If your photos are too dark, open your aperture by one stop and, if that doesn’t work, increase your ISO. You may also need a remote cable release. This will allow you to take exposures longer than the maximum of 30 seconds built into your camera. While I’m mentioning long exposures, don’t forget your tripod. Long exposures demand a tripod unless, of course, you like the jittery lightning bolt look that hand-holding a long exposure inevitably generates.
Carry a flashlight with you. Expect autofocus to fail miserably so use manual focus. If there isn’t a light in your scene to focus on, put your flashlight in the scene where you want to focus or use the flashlight to illuminate the focal point.
You should also turn on LENR (long-exposure noise reduction). Like I mentioned, long exposures are inherently noisy so turning on LENR will help reduce some of the noise.
Finally, I almost always shoot in camera raw plus JPEG. Camera raw gives me the most dynamic range and JPEG allows me to see my shots on my PC. When looking at directories, Windows doesn’t show a preview for a camera raw file. By setting my camera to save both camera raw and JPEG, I can see the JPEG’s thumbnail in the directory. Macintosh computers show a preview for camera raw so can save some space.
To summarize, use Manual mode, select a small aperture, try to keep your ISO at your camera’s optimum, change your shutter speed to adjust the exposure, view the RGB histogram, use a tripod, carry a flashlight, turn on LENR, and save your files in camera raw.
Hopefully, I have given you enough tips to be able to successfully take night photos. Now, get out there and take some night shots and feel free to post them here by commenting on this post.