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Introduction to Night Photography

20120116-IMG_0364.jpgA guest post by Sam Levy, founder of citifari.

When speaking about night photography and what there is to it, the first thought is long exposure, car light trails, etc. While this is correct, there is a lot more to night photography and since we have more time for our exposure, this might mean endless fun.

The essentials: tripod, remote and gloves

It is correct to start thinking long exposure for night photography, and therefore this might seem trivial, but no need to read further if you are not ready to carry a tripod for night photography. There is no long exposure without a stable support for your camera.
Besides a good sturdy tripod, a remote control is very handy. I typically prefer the wired controls rather than infrared for two reasons:

  • Battery sometimes fail and having the wired exempts you from one point on your checklist before going out
  • Settings on your camera might need to be changed to turn on the infrared receiver whereas the wired control always works; you don’t want to miss out on that shot just because your camera settings were reset (on turn off or timeout)

Lastly, temperatures at night drop significantly and unless on a nice summer night, you don’t want to be taken by the cold and would prefer to be comfortably covered so that you can take all the time you want for your shots. The most important piece is your gloves. Carry them with you as you will probably be holding your (wired) remote control out for most of your shooting session. Put them on early, before being cold as the cold will last much longer after you have them on.

A few techniques


20120127-IMG_0864.jpgZooming is a simple technique that consists changing the focal length (i.e. zooming) while the shutter is open. As you are zooming in, the elements that were in the center of your picture are moving outwards (when zooming out, the elements from the corners move towards the center). In order to realize this shot properly, start from a known position with a known exposure time.

Take the basic shot and check that everything is right. For instance, in the picture of the UN headquarters, start by framing properly the building, and exposing for 4 seconds.

Think about what you want to add by zooming. Here we wanted to add the light trails and the light mark at the end. So we added 2 seconds, took the shot again and started zooming in approximately after 4 seconds (the base shot) for one second and let the lights mark on the zoomed in position for the last second.

Everything is approximate and you will have to try a couple of times before getting the desired result but plan your shot and try to envision the result before shooting and you will be amazed by the results. One more tip: position your hand on the zoom ring prior to beginning the exposure, you will avoid the camera shake when coming in contact for zooming and ensure a smooth zoom.

Light Painting

You can use a light to paint elements of the shot that you would want to brighten for your shot. Typically you will use a long shutter speed to allow yourself time to turn on the light and paint. You can experiment both with direct light on the shot or a projected light, with a flashlight, an off camera flash or any light emitting source. In the example here, we went to a 20 second exposure and made sure that the background was properly exposed. Then, with a flash light we wrote I [heart] NYC in the air.


Timing and patterns

20120108-IMG_9544.jpgWhile doing these exercises you will realize that at night timing is everything. I assumed you are also carrying a watch or a cellphone to use as stopwatch. Check what is around you and how you could take onto a shot events that are not supposed to appear together.

I believe, one of the best examples would be a traffic light. Each of the three colors alternate but a long enough exposure will make all three appear together.

For this shot, start by measuring the length of the yellow (here 3 seconds) multiply by 3 and take the closest shutter speed available on your camera (here 10 seconds). Now measure the length of the green light (here 20 seconds) and next time the light turns green, start exposing a bit before second 17 (20-3). As a result you will capture 3 seconds of green, 3 seconds of yellow and 3 seconds of red (and 1 second lost somewhere in the approximation).

Mirror Lock

This is more a tip than a technique but you will notice that your camera moves as the mirror is moving inside. Some offer the option to lock the mirror, that is, to open the shutter before the capture. Then another press on the remote will start the capture. The first few times, you will forget about the option but it is a neat feature and you will easily notice the improved sharpness of your pictures.

While you might have read about these techniques already, there is nothing better than going out and trying them yourself. We work with our guests on these techniques during our New York by Night photo tour and it is interesting to notice how many guests had heard about the techniques but had never tried them. Once they try, they are so amazed and so much in love that they want to apply them at each opportunity.

Sam Levy is the founder of citifari. citifari offers photo tours in New York City. Structured as a 2-1/2 hour practical workshop, citifari tour helps you get comfortable with your camera settings and take great shots in New York City. Connect with them at their website, on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter or Tumblr.

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