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Exposing your photos correctly at night can be a bit challenging, and will certainly require some trial and error.
In this article, you will learn helpful information to minimize the learning curve. Follow the tips outlined below and you will be taking better night photographs in no time.
If you’re shooting at night, your exposures are going to be pretty long (anywhere from one to 30 seconds, or more). Since it is impossible to hold your camera perfectly still for that long, you will need a sturdy tripod, so that your camera does not move at all during the exposure. For added stability, you can hang your camera bag (or another somewhat heavy object) from the hook on your tripod’s center column. This is especially handy in windy conditions.
With a long exposure, any camera movement can ruin the shot, making it soft or blurry. To ensure you get a sharp image, use a remote shutter release (remote trigger). The best type of shutter release to use is the kind that functions as a timer remote as well. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, you can use your camera’s self-timer. The only downside to using the self-timer is that you will have to keep your shutter speed at 30 seconds or less. If you don’t have too much light, you can always increase your aperture (decrease the f-stop) or increase your ISO to speed up your shutter speed.
Keeping image quality in mind, you should always strive to shoot in RAW format. It records more pixel information, and does not compress your images at all. RAW provides you with more post-processing options, including white balance correction. If you happen to under or over expose an image, you can easily adjust the exposure if your image is in RAW format.
When taking photographs with little available light, you are better off using a low ISO (400 and below) and longer exposure times. This is important so you don’t get too much noise (or grain) in your images. Also, make sure you have Long Exposure Noise Reduction turned on in your camera’s settings.
While shooting in very low light, your camera’s light meter may not read the scene too well. Your best bet is to use Manual mode, where you control both the aperture and the shutter speed. To find a baseline for the correct exposure, you can use the following trick (which I learned in this blog post):
Take a test shot using these settings to get an idea of what your image will look like. Note, these settings are almost equivalent to a 1-minute exposure at ISO 100, a 30-second exposure at ISO 200 and a 15-second exposure at ISO 400, etc. If your scene is too bright with these settings, you can see what a half second exposure at 6400 looks like. This would equal a 30-second exposure at ISO 100, a 15-second exposure at ISO 200 and a 8-second exposure at ISO 400. This baseline is a great guide, you can easily take test shots to figure out what shutter speed to use.
If you use the above trick, you won’t unnecessarily waste time taking a bunch of long test exposures. As it is, long exposure night photography is rather time-consuming. Make sure you switch your ISO back to 400, or below, before you start taking photos that you intend to keep.
In scenes where you have a decent amount of available light (e.g. places with numerous streetlights), you may be able to use Aperture Priority mode instead of Manual mode.
Night photography can be rather tricky, and requires a good amount of practice. In time, you will have a feel for the amount of light in various night scenes, and be able to figure out accurate camera settings with relative ease. Hopefully, the information contained in this post will help you capture great long exposure night shots, that don’t need much post-processing.