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Night Photography


Our main topic for night photography is going to be about capturing night scenes, such as starry skies, lightning and fireworks.  

Night Portrait Mode


Before we get into that properly I'm just going to recap on night shot mode - using flash at night.
In summary: night mode will use your camera flash to illuminate your subject.  It will also use a slow shutter speed to capture as much ambient light from the environment as possible.  This places your subject properly in a dark location.   Refer back to the earlier chapter if you want a reminder of all the details.  However, for the discussion here you would not use night mode.

Night Photography Preparation


Shooting at night requires very long exposures measured in seconds, minutes or even hours.  During these exposures your camera must remain absolutely rock steady.  A tripod is an absolute must.
Shooting at night is often cold as well.  Between long exposures and the cold you will find your batteries do not last as long as normal.  Make sure they are fully charged before you go out and keep spare batteries nice and warm (in your trouser pocket is ideal).
You will need a torch, or ideally a head lamp, so you can see your equipment while you are working.
 You will need to dress up warm - very warm as you will be standing around for ages.  You need a warm coat, warm gloves and warm feet.
If you are taking pictures with a shutter speed of more than 30 seconds you will need an external shutter release so you can lock the shutter open.

© Nigel Howe

When shooting at night you are going to find all the useful automatic functions of your camera are going to grind to a halt.  Auto focus, auto exposure and auto white balance will not work.  You will be shooting manually.

If this all sounds like hard work it is.  But the rewards are that you will be capturing scenes over time that you cannot see any other way.

Getting Started


Let us start off with something simple. Turn your house lights on and walk outside. Just take a hand held photo and come back indoors. Have a look at your image on your computer. You will see the lights are very bright. There is almost nothing to see in the shadows as they are all dark. The dark areas will be full of speckles of red, green and blue. The image will probably show camera shake.

Now let us go and do this properly. Put your camera on a tripod. Set your camera for aperture priority at f/5.6. Set your ISO to 200 and choose RAW mode. Setup your camera outside and manually focus on the house. Take the picture again.

You should be able to hear the mirror and shutter open and close - listening to this will give you an idea of how many seconds the exposure is.

Now have a proper look at the picture you have just taken. Check that the composition and focus are correct. Have a look at the shutter speed recorded. Check the histogram - if it is exposed properly then the histogram should be strong in the right hand quarter.

The picture on the LCD screen should look like almost daylight. This is okay because you are going to darken it down in software later.

Now using this information set your camera to manual mode and dial in the shutter speed you saw on the test image.  Take a few images adjusting the shutter speed up and down by quite a good margin - at least twice as fast and half as fast (say 5,10 and 20 seconds).

Now on your computer you will use your processing software to do the following:
  • Reduce the brightness so it looks like a night photograph
  • Adjust the white balance and colour so it looks right
Later on in the software section I will give you more details about how to do this.

A two and half hour exposure for star trails
© Ralph Arvesen

Shooting Stars


You need to get out in the countryside, well away from street lights - which can shine a very long way you will discover.  Shoot well after the sun has set.  Shoot before the moon rises.  Choose a clear and cold night - the air is clearer then.  Shoot towards the darker part of the sky, away from brighter parts of the horizon.
You want to find something in the foreground.  When you are shooting stars they need some kind of foreground or horizon in the picture.  Otherwise they will just look like random dots of light.

To photograph stars as fixed points of light, as you see them by eye, shoot at around 30 seconds shutter speed.
Of course what you really want to do is shoot those long star trails.  For this you need a much longer exposure.   Choose your lowest ISO, set a moderate aperture (around f/8).   Use your remote release to take a picture of 10 minutes or more.   The longer your shutter stays open the longer the star trails will be.

After each picture have a good look, especially at the light from the horizon - this can start to wash out the image if you are not careful.

Image Stacking


Image stacking involves taking lots of shorter exposures, then overlaying them on top of each other.  This is the preferred method used by serious star photographers.  Instead of taking a single 1-hour photograph you would take 120 photos of 30 seconds each.
Some general imaging software like Photoshop includes functions to layer all these images together. You can also use specialised software such as StarStaX, Image Stacker, StarTrails or StarTracer.
Image stacking keeps the sky darker and avoids bleed from light pollution.
 Whichever route and software you use be prepared for this to take a long time.  Computer processing to stack all those images together is very intensive.

Shooting the Moon


You've seen amazing pictures with a huge moon hanging over a low horizon.  They might look good, but they are faked.  They are a composite of a moon shot and the general scene.  This is because the moon actually takes up a very tiny part of the frame.  The way it looks large to us, particularly when rising or setting, is just an optical illusion.  So you have to cheat a little.
To get a really good moon photograph you need the longest lens you can lay your hands on.  You would actually need a 1,000mm lens to fill the frame with the moon - a seriously expensive piece of kit.  So use the longest lens you can.    The moon won't fill the frame but you will still be able to get quite a lot of detail.

Moon photographed through a telescope
© John Spade

This is what the moon really looks - it only takes up tiny fraction of your image.
© Lars Kasper
You can leave your camera to auto expose. You should get quite short shutter times. If you think about it the moon itself is in strong daylight. You want to use a low ISO and a high f-stop number but make sure the shutter speed does not get into more than a couple of seconds otherwise you will get motion blur from the Earth's rotation.



The main thing about fireworks is that it is their unfolding over time that makes them so exciting to people.  A frozen shot of a firework won't be half as interesting as a shot with light trails.   A good target is around 3-5 seconds.
The second thing is that while you have the impression of lots of fireworks in the sky in reality there is often only one or two.  So expect to merge several firework shots together afterwards.

© Colink.

Put your camera on a tripod and set a fairly wide angle, say 24mm.  You want to catch as much of the sky as you can - fireworks are big devils.
Set your focus to infinity, you won't be able to focus on the fly.
Set an ISO of 100, aperture of f/5.6.  Shoot RAW files as this will give more options later.
Then through the display just keep hitting the shutter button - a lot.
If you have an external release with an interval timer then I recommend using this to take photos every 5 seconds and just sit back and enjoy the show.
When you get home and have a collection of single fireworks, select the best looking and merge them together in software.

© Nigel Howe
Just as with the stars and moon firework pictures can be helped a lot by having a foreground object or horizon in the picture.

One final trick for a more exciting and unreal look at fireworks is to very slowly zoom in and out during the shutter release. This creates lovely, flower like images.

© Ajari

Your best shots are going to come from the beginning of the display. By the time you get to the end there will be so much smoke left in the air that the fireworks will lose their sense of crispness.

Red gels over a flash mix with artificial lights from the building to create this very interesting scene
© Sparkfun Electronics

Photographing Buildings at Night


To photograph a building that is already lit then just use a shorter shutter speed and tweak exposure as required.  But how about photographing an unlit building?  You can use the "painting with light" technique.
Painting with light uses an off camera flash or even a very bright torch to light the building.

Painting with Light


As with all night photography, setup your camera on a tripod.  Use a low ISO and aperture of around f/8.  Autofocus won't work, so manually focus on the building.  Take a test shot just to make sure your composition and framing is okay.

Now set your shutter speed to 30 seconds. Release the shutter. Then before the shutter closes run around the building flashing your speedlight at different parts of the building until you feel you have "painted" it all. Try not to overlap the flashes. Rush back to your camera and see what you've caught. Now rinse and repeat. Getting it right first time will be very lucky, but after a few goes you will get a feel for where to light from and how many flashes you need.

The process with a high powered torch is basically the same, but it is continuous not flashed.  Just make sure you do not point the torch towards the camera otherwise you will get a very bright spot.
In both cases if you remain between the light and the camera and you keep moving you should not register on the final image.

A 30 second exposure and a standard torchlight, focussing on key elements for around 10 seconds each.
© William Cho

© Thor
When doing this sort of shoot you can also add a lot of fun and drama by using coloured gels over your light source. You want to try and avoid overlapping different colours because they will look more natural than coloured.



Time to photograph some stars.  If you live in a town or city with a lot of lights you might really struggle, because light pollution will wash out the stars, so you might need a trip into the countryside.
Follow the checklist; make sure you have got everything you need before you set off.
Once you have everything setup and working OK, experiment with shutter speed for different effects.
See if you can find the north star as a focus point, shoot one image with the camera towards, another with the camera away from the north - how are they different?
If getting out into the countryside is really too difficult, then find somewhere to shoot car lights at night instead.