Picture This: Night Photography

Rising to my own challenge on the heels of my post about shooting in manual, I busted out my camera and hit the Sydney scene for a night of photos in the dark!

Every year, the city of Sydney lights up in a display of colors (or colours) as soon as the sun goes down in what has been acclaimed to be one of the world’s most delightful festivals: Vivid Sydney. This was my second year at the festival and though I wasn’t planning on it, it happened to line-up quite nicely with this week’s article and last week’s theme. I had always planned on going out to shoot photos but it wasn’t until my photo-friend cancelled that I realized the night wasn’t yet a loss – I could still go alone and make it work! So I busted out my mittens, my beanie (it’s winter down-under!), loaded up my bag, and off I went!

A boat with lights on it sits infront of a lit up bridge under a greying sky.
This photo was taken with a 13 second shutter and f/14 aperture, but it's still blurry even on a tripod because the wind was really whipping that night! Click to see the blur.

Down at the waterfront, I got myself started by setting up my tripod. For those of you who don’t have one yet, tripods are a must for aspiring night photographers. You can only use fence posts and car hoods for so long before you start realizing that either a) the right angle is hard to get, b) there is still too much vibration, or c) the risk of your camera falling on the cold, hard ground isn’t worth it. By purchasing a trust-worthy tripod, you’ll be extending the life of your camera. Why do I say that? Because I once had a crappy, cheap tripod that collapsed on me while at a photoshoot, dropping my camera on the pavement and completely decimating my lens. I cried so much over the cost, the loss, and the embarrassment I experienced in front of my clients. In the dark and especially in crowded places, it’s really easy for things to get knocked over and for shit to simply go wrong. A good tripod will set you back a couple hundred dollars (I spent $250 on mine), but it is worth it’s weight in gold. Not only are you doing something good for your camera by securing it, you will also be improving your photography.

At night or in low-light settings, you will need to use a long shutter to expose your photo because your camera needs more time to receive enough light for processing clear images. I suggest using the shutter priority mode and letting your camera set the appropriate aperture. (Refer back to my last post on shooting in manual for details on shutters and what speed to use.) The darker the conditions, the greater the need for a long shutter speed. In the late evening just after or before the sun disappears, you can probably get away with a 1/250 second but at these low speeds, your camera will likely pick up hand shakes, causing blurry or out-of-focus photos. If it’s cold out, you’ll be shaking even more. If it’s windy out, your camera might pick up the wind in the photo. Some photographers take this to the next level and use remote controls so they won’t bump the camera while pushing the button! Any amount of movement once the shutter is open can result in an unclear photo.

Four people jumping a light rope in the dark.
This photo took AGES to set up and anticipate but my hard work paid off when I finally got the shot I wanted! These four people are playing jump rope with Christmas lights! Shutter 1/250 with f/3.1 aperture.

Once the sun goes down and it starts getting dark, you’ll need an even longer shutter speed, maybe 1 whole second or even more. In general, the darker the scene, the longer the shutter. If you want to do those amazing star trail photos (I so want to do this!), then you’ll definitely need a remote and a tripod as exposures are usually between half an hour and four hours long! Your camera battery may only have enough juice for two photos of that length, so it’s important that your gear is stable!

To turn out a great night photo, you also need to consider your light source and anticipate the moment. That means first, you need to make sure you know where your light is coming from. If the light is behind you or to your side, your photo may come out under exposed. A good tip is to make sure the light in your photos is coming directly into the lens and not indirectly. Second, you need to remember that at night, it’s easy to end up with streaks of light through your photos. This isn’t necessarily bad and could be a very cool thing, but it can be a real pain when you weren’t expecting that car to drive right through your perfectly positioned photo. It also means that if your photo is of some action at night such as fireworks, you need to be ready with your camera focused and in place for the big explosion of action. If you shoot too soon, you won’t get anything; if you shoot too late, you won’t get anything. It’s important to get your timing right so find your perfect setting by taking lots of photos on many different settings, then leave it, focus your camera, and start practising your timing. It might be a hard slog at first but eventually you’ll get the hang of it!

The Sydney Opera House with green, white, and grey designs projected onto the sails.
My best shot from my night out at Vivid Sydney. After a few mistakes and mishaps where a water taxi rode right through my photo, I finally got my timing and my settings right! Taken with a 13 second shutter and an f/9 aperture.

So you’re assignment is to give night photography a try! Take a friend or your partner along for company and protection (it can be really intimidating out alone at night) and use them as props or creative idea generators! You can take photos of neon signs, street lights, trails of headlights, billboards, office buildings, bridges, or fireworks (keep this post in mind for the Fourth of July!). It might be hard to get the photo right at first but with persistence, you’ll figure it out! Remember to use the shutter priority mode and if you feel up to it, come back here and post your best shot in the comments with the shutter and aperture settings in your comment! Good luck!

By Thelma

Thelma is a photographer and traveler currently residing in Sydney, Australia. In her free time she can be found with her nose behind a camera or obsessing over koalas.

11 replies on “Picture This: Night Photography”

Ditto to tripods! Also play around with it before you need it, so you know where everything is and don’t have to fiddle around in the dark to find the right way to change the height, etc. I first used mine at night in Iceland, about -20C, deep snow, thick gloves on, and I was wishing I’d practiced more with the tripod before I got there…. this was one of the shots that were usable and you can still see movement in the stars. f.20, 3.2 seconds.

The last picture is gorgeous. I think this is going to be a toughy with my standard Coolpix, but of course I will try.

Your timing is impeccable, Kortney. Only yesterday did I think about needing a new photography post because I made a bunch of pictures with my smartphone and tadaah!

Ok, so I didn’t take this for the challenge, but I just got two rolls of film back and this was on them. I lack a good tripod, so I don’t shoot at night very often.

ETA: This was taken with my Diana Mini on Agfa Vista 800. The Mini only has two shutter speeds (Normal and “B”). I’m not sure how fast normal is, but I am fairly sure that that was what I used.  Also the apertures aren’t labeled in f stops, so this was set to “the little picture of a cloud.”

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