Night photography is very popular, and if you go out to take photos on on any given night here in my hometown of Melbourne, you will find other photographers doing the same thing. Night photography can create magical images and you are able to see things with the camera, that you can not see with your eyes alone. Your camera can do a better job at taking in the lights than you can.
Taking photos with your phone, or on a compact camera, is never going to give you those amazing results you see of night photos. You really need to do long exposures; set your camera up on a tripod and do exposures from a couple of seconds, to several minutes.
One major problem with taking photos at night is the sharp contrast between the highlights and shadows. If you try and get detail in the shadows, you will often blow out your highlights. If you do expose for the bright parts, then you won’t get any detail in the rest. Most people don’t mind this. However, if you want your night images to really sing, you should start looking at what you can do to make them stand out.
Comparing shots with different exposures
Here is a side by side comparison of images all taken at the same time, but with different methods. The first was taken with a phone, the second is a single exposure, the one the camera says is correct. Lastly, the third image is an HDR using four out of five bracketed shots.
Hopefully you can recognize the difference and appreciate just how unique each approach is.
Photos with your phone
You see a lot of people in the city taking photos with their phones. If it is all you have, then you have to be content with what you get. However, you are never going to get amazing night photos simply with a phone or most compact cameras. Often the photos are too grainy, you will only get a few of the highlights, and none of the depth that a longer exposure will give you.
To get great night photos you need to have a camera on which you can control the ISO, aperture and shutter speed.
The first image (below) was taken with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4. It is not a bad image for a phone, but it is noisy and not as sharp.
Using a DSLR or Mirrorless Camera
When you can control what your camera is doing, then you can use a low ISO, the aperture you want, and get a shutter speed of a couple of seconds to several minutes. You will get a lot more detail doing this, however, you do need more equipment.
A tripod or somewhere solid to set your camera is important to prevent camera shake. If you want to do exposures longer than 30 seconds you will need a remote shutter release, that will allow you to lock your shutter open for however long you choose to expose. Both are pieces of equipment that you will use a lot so they are worth getting.
This image was taken with a DSLR at the correct exposure, according to the camera.
Bracketing your photos is thought to be a process that people only do for HDR. However, photographers have been using this technique for a very long time. In the days of film, you would have had to work it out for yourself, but most digital cameras have the ability to take bracketed exposures, and do the calculating for you.
The process involves taking a series of photos, usually three or five. When you do this, you are taking one image that is the correct exposure, and additional images that are under and overexposed. The amount of time for each image changes, while aperture and ISO remain the same, and the shutter speed is altered by the camera.
There are good reasons for bracketing, one being that it gives you more options. Sometimes the exposure the camera says is the right one, is in fact not. The overexposed image or the one that is under can be the better choice.
There are, of course, disadvantages to bracketing. You end up with many more images, especially if you are doing five each time. If you are shooting in RAW you may encounter storage problems. However, I find that the positives far outweigh the negatives.
High Dynamic Range (HDR)
The HDR technique has been popular for a few years and we have all seen those hyper-real images that some people create. They have given the process a bad name, but if it is used in the situations it is meant for, it can be very effective.
High Dynamic Range is used to correct the problem of having very bright and overly dark areas. Cameras do not work the same way as our eyes, and they cannot make the necessary adjustments that your brain and eyes do. Your camera will either expose for the highlights and make the shadows too dark, or it will do the opposite.
HDR software takes the well exposed highlights and shadows, and puts them together in one finished image so that nothing is lost in either area. You can do it manually (using luminosity masking or layer blending), but there is good software out there which can do it for you.
Here is an HDR image of the same scene above, using four of five bracketed shots. Notice how much more detail is retained in the highlights.
There are many different types of software that can process your HDR images for you. The most popular has been Photomatix Pro, though Lightroom and Photoshop can also be used, and they have improved significantly over the years.
Lightroom does a fairly decent HDR image and I often use it. However, you do have to be careful that the image is processed properly. Sometimes it misses spots, but most of the time it is effective.
It is easy to use Lightroom’s Merge to HDR. Select the images you want to process and highlight them. Go to Photo > Photo Merge > and click on HDR (you can also find it by right clicking with the images selected).
A separate window will come up. You can select whether you need deghosting or not (use it if something has moved between shots like trees or people). If you have used a tripod to take the image then you shouldn’t need deghosting, although it doesn’t hurt to use it regardless.
Watch for the Merge icon to come up and then press it.
Often the image will appear at the end of the folder, sometimes just after the images. You may have to search for it (sort by file name and it should appear next to your originals).
Once it is done you will see that it does not look great.
Lightroom shows you the adjustments that it has made using Auto Tone, but there is no reason why you can not change them.
I have found that it will often have the exposure up too far, but you are able to turn that down slightly. You can turn the shadows down a little, and you usually need to add more black to the image. Compare the image above and below and you can see what changes have been made.
Once you have the image as you want it, you can do further adjustments in Lightroom or press Ctrl+E and continue editing it in Photoshop.
Long Exposure Night Photography
There is nothing wrong with doing long exposures as well. You do not need filters, but you can do images that are more than 30 seconds. Using a tripod and a remote shutter release, you can put your shutter speed on Bulb, and try taking some exposures for a minute or longer.
You do have to be careful that you don’t blow out the highlights too much. Try different times and see what you can get.
Night photos taken with any of these techniques can give you great results. You should try them all and see which ones you like, and what works best for your style.
Following are some more night shots with descriptions of how they were done. Good luck and be safe out there.