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6 Tips For Better Night Photos With A Point And Shoot Camera

Sansome Like a lot of photographers, I carry a camera around just about everywhere I go.  But it’s not always my preferred DSLR as the bulk and weight often preclude easy travel, especially if I’m just heading to the store. 

A Point & Shoot (P&S) camera, however, easily slips into my pocket or resides peacefully in the glove box of my truck.  With years of service, it has become invaluable in capturing special memories and spur of the moment shots. 

On a recent business trip to San Francisco, with my trusty P&S in my pocket and the DLSRs moping around back at home, wondering why I had forsaken them, I was bitten with by the photography bug.  I’m guessing most of you know this feeling.  Some of you are bitten every day.  But for some of us that don’t have a specific project or trip in mind, the photography bug doesn’t pay a daily visit.  Inspiration in us all comes and goes, like the tides.  When the bug does bite, though, a camera must be acquired, STAT!

For me the bite happened at night as I walked the streets of the Financial District.  With only my P&S along for the ride, I’d like to share some trips I have found handy in pushing a small camera to an often large task; night photos without a tripod.  In this case, I’ll limit it to a city landscape.

1. Use A Longer Shutter Speed

Without getting into specifics concerning one brand of a camera or another, most P&S cameras have some ability to adjust the shutter speed.  If you’re lucky, yours will actually have a shutter speed setting, but my Canon Digital Elph does not.  However, it does have a “Night Scenes” mode setting with an expanded feature.  This feature does allows for shutter speeds beyond its standard two second maximum in Program mode.  In fact, it can be dialed all the way up to 30 seconds if I desire.  And to be honest, it took me two years of using this camera to finally notice this setting!  I’d highly suggest checking your owner’s manual to see if your camera has such capabilities.  If not, then you might want to skip tip #2…

2. Try Different Shutter Speeds

We all know longer shutter speeds will bring in more light.  But chances are if you’re shooting at night in a city, there’s not too much light.  Meaning, your camera will have the latitude it needs in the aperture settings to keep the exposure well developed.  I found my camera was able to handle shots all the way up to about 20 seconds before things started to get too blown out.  Otherwise, different shutter speeds allowed me to capture headlight streaks with a varying degree of streekiness.  Longer shutter speeds and their corresponding smaller aperture also brought distant buildings into focus.

3. Find Something Sturdy

Not So Steady I can hear some of the comments now, “20 second shutter speeds without a tripod?  Are you crazy?”  While I mentioned the lack of a tripod, I didn’t mean you have to completely handhold each shot.  Find as many sturdy surfaces as you can.  Newspaper boxes, lamp posts, statues.  Just about anything will work.  Sometimes it will mean the surface will be in the shot (such as with a railing or ledge) so you’ll need to take that into account.  Some people can make decent handheld shots down to one second long.  Me, I need stability in the form of large objects.  Even then, technique matters (see example at right as a prime example of what not to do), which means you will want to…

4. Breath Easy And Squeeze

Keep your finger on the shutter release as you’re taking the photo.  Don’t attempt to remove it as it’ll likely cause minor shakes.  Breathe normal and steady, don’t hold your breath.  I read some place that sharp shooters are trained to squeeze the trigger while exhaling as the body tends to relax during that portion of the breathing cycle.  I’ve found this to be mostly true and it does help with longer shutter speeds.

5. Fiddle With ISO

Depth ISO can be your friend or enemy in city night photos.  P&S cameras don’t often have the same noise reduction capabilities of their larger brethren (although they are constantly evolving) and this makes for some fairly grainy shots past ISO400.  Some people like this, some don’t.  If you’re not a fan of all that grain, take manual control (if you can) of the ISO setting.  This will, of course, mean longer shutter speeds, but that’s half the fun of learning photography; getting used to the interplay of the controls to manage how much light passes through to the sensor.  Also, if there is just a touch too much light in the scene, lowering the ISO may help darken those areas until they are acceptable.  Also, lowering the ISO may help you grab some light trails that didn’t exist before with a faster shutter speed.

6. Use Noise Reduction If You Have It

As previously mentioned, not all P&S cameras are equipped with decent noise reduction for higher ISOs.  However, a fair number of cameras DO have noise reduction for long shutter speeds.  My camera is such a unit and it has positives and negative aspects.  On the positive side is the fact that the feature is intended to be used with night shots.  It knows black should be mostly black and can handle night skies well.  One the negative side, the feature takes about as long to process an image as it took to shoot the image.  I’ve cursed this aspect as the scene I really wanted went zooming past while my camera took 20 seconds to process my 20 second photo.  It’s something to be aware of.

I’m limiting this post to just these six tips which I hope are the most helpful, otherwise a blabber mouth like me could go on and on and on.  I do have one more tip that is outside of the parameters I set at the beginning of this post.  Grab a GorillaPod and leave it in your vehicle.  Or carry it around with you, but that’s not always practical.  These little devices are very easy to use and perfect for night photos around a city.  They can also give you more latitude in composition as you’re not confined to straight forward shots on newspaper boxes.

Lastly, don’t forget to check out Natalie’s previous post How To Avoid Camera Shake.  While directed at the large DLSR lens crowd, it contains a number of tips that also apply to using a P&S at night.

Now then, let us hear from you!  Add your favorite night-photography-with-a-P&S-in-a-big-city tip in the comments section below.

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Peter West Carey

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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