Night or low light photography

My favorite time to take photographs is in the early evening and into the night. The majority of the black and white, city scenes, panoramic and astrophotography images were taken in the late evening or night. I find it is a great time to take photos because of the even light conditions and lack of hard shadows. Sure it presents some challenges but the images become more saturated and details come alive. There are two main challenges when it comes to night photography; the first is focusing in low light conditions and the second is getting the exposure right. Luckily we live in the world of digital photography which makes things a lot easier than others (including myself) had to deal with in the past. Today’s SLR cameras are equipped with LCD displays which provide us with instant feedback. After you take a picture you can review it on the viewfinder to check for focus (enlarge the image as much as possible) and assess the exposure. If the image is too light, reduce the exposure, if it is too dark, increase the exposure. By doing this you can, with some trial and error, get that exposure near perfect. Even if it isn’t perfect you can always fix it in post processing if it isn’t too far off.

One thing to keep in mind is that exposures may run in excess of the capabilities of your camera (usually 30 seconds). If that sounds like a long time, it isn’t when the light is low. I have had many photographs with exposures in the 5+ minute range. If you encounter such a situation you have several choices:

  • open your aperture – this will of course reduce your depth of field;
  • increase you ISO – photos will have more noise; or
  • invest in a shutter release cable and use the bulb setting on your camera.

I prefer to shoot at ISO 100 to keep noise at a minimum but today’s cameras are getting much better. The aperture I use is usually between 5.6 and 9 depending on what is in the image and how close the elements are in relation to each other. I then set the shutter speed to the appropriate time. I generally do this by trial and error by taking a reading using the camera and then setting the exposure manually. I then increase or decrease the time based on the  resulting image and the look I am hoping to achieve. You can of course just use the cameras setting, although this limits your creativity and often gets it wrong, or calculate the correct exposure which I won’t go into here.

Again I always shoot in RAW because of its superior post processing capabilities but you can use JPG if you prefer. I do, however, highly recommend moving to RAW. Once you make the transition you will not go back.