Shooting in low light, as with many other forms of photography, requires a bit of thought beforehand in order to get the most from the time you have. First and foremost will be making sure you have the right equipment with you.
Besides your camera and lenses, the top of the list of things you will need will be a tripod – the sturdier the better as exposures can get up to 30 seconds and sometimes even longer which is where even the slightest vibration or movement of the camera can ruin a shot.
Other items that you can get by without but if you have them will be very helpful include:
- Remote release – these come in many forms including infra-red/wired/wireless. I’ve used all of them at some point or another and would now always opt for a wireless trigger. They can be inexpensive and give you a good mix of reliability and range. There are now also apps that you can use on your smartphone with a suitable cable that act as a release and can offer some great features above and beyond being a simple trigger, one I’ve used that is worth a look is called TriggerTrap
- A torch – trying to get your camera to autofocus in very low light can be a right headache at times, shining a torch on your desired area of focus will allow it to lock on quickly (but remember to switch to manual focus when it has!) It is also useful for changing settings on camera and just generally seeing your way around!
- ND Grad filters – by no means essential, but if still a bit of colour in the sky these can be helpful to ensure things in foreground are correctly exposed, particularly if already in shadow when beginning to shoot.
- Warm clothes! Depending on where you are in the world, it can get very cold very quickly as it goes dark, nothing worse than standing round shivering as your 60 second exposure ticks very slowly by!
Personal safety is also very important to mention if you are out to shoot in limited light conditions. Ideally take someone along with you, not least to give you someone to talk to as it can get very boring waiting for long exposures to finish, or at least tell someone where you plan to go and what time you expect to return. Carry a mobile phone and try not to make it obvious you have valuable equipment with you where possible.
You will probably already have locations in mind that are suitable for low light photography. I tend to find that cities offer the best opportunities and will set out with the intention of shooting specific buildings from various viewpoints and then improvise as the night progresses and other things present themselves.
Artificial lighting can greatly enhance a dark scene and if you use a narrow aperture, f/16 for example, you should capture lights with a starburst effect to add some drama to the image.
Once you have found the composition you like the look of, set your tripod up ensuring it’s not in the way of others. If it has a bag hook as some do then hang your camera bag from it to give you a bit more stability.
Compose the scene in your viewfinder and use the torch as mentioned if needed to focus, then switch to manual focus which will stop the lens from ‘focus hunting’.
At this point I will wait for any moving light sources such as vehicles to leave the composition so I can check the settings selected by the camera before then plugging these into the cameras manual mode to ensure they do not change when shutter is triggered.
If the scene is very dark, it may be the case that your camera cannot meter it sufficiently well to give a correct exposure (DSLR’s generally will not automatically select an exposure longer than 30 seconds).
If this is the case you will need to go into manual mode, choose your aperture, then select the cameras ‘Bulb’ mode which will open the shutter when you use the remote release and keep it open until you press it again. This is where guesswork comes into it, you will need to try out some exposure times until the image is sufficiently exposed and use the histogram on back of camera to give you some idea of how far under/over your exposure is.
Longer exposures can also produce ‘noise’ within an image. Similar to when using higher ISO’s to reduce this most DSLR’s will have some sort of ‘long exposure noise reduction’ setting somewhere within the menu system. If you turn this on when you have taken your image, the camera will then close the shutter and take a similar length exposure. You won’t see this second exposure and it doesn’t get saved to your memory card, but the camera will use it to subtract any hot pixels showing from your original image which can greatly reduce noise. The only problem is that this can get annoying though as every exposure will then take double the time to capture!
White balance can be tricky in low light with all kinds of artificial light spilling across your scene. For this reason I would suggest shooting in RAW to give you the flexibility to adjust this later, plus it will capture more detail in the image which can sometimes be an issue in very dark areas.
Don’t let rain put you off either, wet surfaces can look brilliant as light bounces off them!
And if you are feeling really creative, timelapse sequences can look fantastic as the light slowly disappears. This clip was made from about 140 photographs taken on Tower Bridge in London.
Now just grab your coat and get out there! I’d love to see what you get if you’d like to share some links in the comments below.