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Night and Low Light Photography

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While I feel that many people “pack it up” and leave when the sun tucks below the horizon, I find myself more and more amazed by the colors and patterns that are only visible during this time of day. And by day, I really mean night. Because to me, I find taking photos of many landscapes simply boring during the daytime. Either the shadows are in the wrong place or the light is too harsh or too flat or the sky isn’t interesting or you name it and something is the matter. However, I’ve rarely found myself displeased with night photography unless it was simply a boring scene, and even then the interesting things that your eyes CANNOT see that a long exposure will pick up can really spice up even the most mundane setting. Personally, I think I enjoy night photography because you really don’t know what your image may turn out as until you take the capture, and that it is far more challenging than “simple” day photography.

Night photography requires a few “different” tools than

day photography. The most important is a very steady tripod. Obviously you want to park your camera somewhere sturdy regardless, but with night photography your exposures may be anywhere from 1/2 second through 30 seconds and more. While the shutter speed in the featured image was only 1/25 second, I was using a fairly fast f3.2 with a 14-24 f2.8 lens to capture the dimming light. However, once the sun fades and the stars show up to the party, shutter speeds will need to get much much longer. With that, the second “tool” that I recommend for night photography that you may not find necessary during the day is a good headlamp. (At least a few people just went “HUH?”)
By headlamp, I’m basically talking about a flashlight for your head. They come in all sizes, prices and with a variety of features. But before you spend your money on a headlamp, let me make a recommendation… You will want one that has a RED light mode. While fairly dim for walking around and such, the red light will not interrupt your night vision or of others that may be around you. You may also want to be sure it has a good SPOT beam which is perfect for hiking to and from your campsite or vehicle, and a wide angle mode which is perfect for digging around in your bag or during setup and breakdown. I personally picked up a Black Diamond Storm headlamp (pictured) from a local REI store after comparing many other models online and in person. While it may set you back $45-$50 for the headlamp, you could opt for the slightly less waterproof Black Diamond Spot headlamp which is about $10 less but has a slightly lower peak light output and less battery life, though still very capable.

Not to be left out, another thing that I suggest you keep in your bag for night photography is a good remote release. It can be a cable type or a wireless release, but a remote release will allow you to trigger the camera without the possibility of even the slightest camera shake. If you happen to be setting up to do a night HDR bracket, this is even more critical as even the most steady tripod and head will move ever so slightly when you press the shutter without a remote release. And if you are using a longer, heavier telephoto lens, the odds that you will have camera shake that will blur your image goes up by magnitudes. I typically use fast wide angle lens for night landscape where very minor shake isn’t amplified much, but I have been known to use up to a 500mm lens for moon captures and even the mirror slap can cause the slightest motion that gets amplified highly by the huge focal length of the lens.

I would suggest bringing along any “fast” lenses you may have.

As for your lens selection, this is going to depend obviously on what you have access to, but also what your intentions are. If you want a nice wide-angle landscape shot at night, clearly you should opt for the appropriate lens. But I would suggest bringing along ANY “fast” lenses you may have. By fast, I mean max apertures of f2.8 or less. While the depth of field at f1.4 is very shallow when shooting close to your subject (portrait distance), when focused on a point several hundred feet away or greater, the range of image in focus will not be as much of a limiting factor. Additionally, lenses with faster max apertures will allow for the camera to meter and auto focus better in this very low light than similar lens with a slower max aperture. (since the camera opens the lens to the max aperture until the shutter is pressed) I almost always pack my 85mm f1.4 lens and the wonderful 14-24 f2.8 lens, but for super-telephoto images (such as moon closeups) the Tamron 200-500mm f5/6.3 lens proves satisfactory since my subject is “well lit” anyhow. Any f1.2 to f2 prime (such as 35mm or 50mm) will be a great option for night photography as well.

So now on to setup. This is what separates the novices from the experienced night photographers. Depending on your camera, you may be able to get away with using higher ISO settings and lower shutter speeds, however I typically find that I “prefer” the longer shutter speed and stick with lower ISO settings whenever possible. Also, your white balance settings can prove tricky depending on what light may be left over. If you are in a more urban setting with street light glow, you may prefer the “colored” light look of the street lights, in which case I would stick with a Daylight white balance (which is what I use for “most” of my night photography anyway), but if you want to neutralize that cast, you may need to create a custom white balance which can prove tricky in very low light. Your best bet is often to simply take a reference image of a target such as the X-Rite Color Checker Passport in these various light settings and work out the color later in your RAW editor. (Just remember, you want to take the picture of the target with the same settings, including exposure time, aperture and ISO, as you are taking pictures as the various ambient light can mix differently depending on the length of the exposure and so on.)

Back to the featured image at the top, that was set up at ISO 200 with the aperture set to f3.2 and shutter speed of 1/25th. While not the darkest time of day, the sky was still fairly well lit while the ground was barely visible. But as long as I get “decent” information in the shadows, I know that I can pull that out later from the RAW file. But in some cases, you can only get very little light on the ground or your subject matter to even out with the light of the sky. This was much the case with the image “Storm Warning” above. While the moon was full and very bright (it was the 5/5/12 “Supermoon” evening), clouds obscured the majority of the moon most of the time so very little moon light was available. So a longer exposure was necessary. While the image doesn’t appear to have any movement, the fast moving storm created a very strong steady wind of at least 60mph while we were taking pictures. This posed new problems, movement… Both of non-stable objects, clouds and so fourth, but also the camera itself was being blown around slightly, even with the stable tripod. To counteract this, I braced the two tripod legs through a sturdy wooden fence and added a bit of ballast to the center post to help keep the tripod upright, but also to “absorb” some of the tiny movements causing any potential motion. This allowed me to use a long shutter speed. In this case, 30 seconds at f5 with the ISO at 160 for low noise. While dark (far darker in person considering we were in an otherwise completely dark Colorado open space parking lot), the image almost appears to be taken at dusk not unlike the sunset picture. But it may surprise you to know that this was taken at 10:41pm.

I’m sure a few people just asked themselves “why a 30 second exposure at low ISO and not a shorter exposure and higher ISO” and that would be a valid question. In fact, their are several reasons why to go with a lower ISO and longer shutter speed. First, as long as you keep the exposures under 30 seconds, you will get very little added “sensor” noise that you could get from a very long exposure (such as exposures of several minutes and up). But also, the image will have less ISO noise which in some cameras may jump dramatically from your base ISO settings (ISO 50 to 200 depending on the camera) but I also feel that the longer exposures help “unfreeze” some of the moving aspects such as cars (note the highway in the background of the “Storm Warning” picture), clouds and even stars if that is what we are after. More on star trails in a later post. While “freezing” the movement of stars may be ideal for some pictures, when using a wide angle lens, the movement is typically not picked much and you can get away with much longer shutter speeds before the “star trails” are noticeable.

Now when it gets extremely dark, such as when no moon or stars are visible, sometimes we simply cannot get enough light to bring any detail out of the foreground objects. Such was the case with the above night shot of the lake reflections. Unless I did a very long exposure and/or raised the ISO settings considerably, the trees and grass in the foreground and background were essentially a silhouette. Rather than fight the lack of light, I embraced the beautiful reflections of the sky and background in the water. (This was a 20 second exposure at f2.8 and ISO 200.)

Histogram vs Image Exposure

Now that we have a capture, how should we process it?

Honestly, we first need to consider how we want to convey the “look and feel” of the image. With the image above, I wanted a very cool blue “twilight” feel to the image. But if you look at the histogram for that image, either on-camera or in your image editing software (in this case Photoshop CS5), the image appears highly underexposed. But because this is the feel that I am trying to get, the exposure is exactly where it should be. Don’t over-correct the image just for the sake of a histogram. While the histogram is a GREAT tool for judging if you have lost detail in highlights or shadows during the time of capture and I highly suggest paying attention to it while editing in Lightroom, Aperture, Capture One or Photoshop, it is only a “graph” to help you judge where the majority of the image falls in terms of exposure (in this case I have it set to Luminosity). Because I want a “deep dark” feel to the image, I can clearly SEE that on the histogram and easily tell that I have not lost much in terms of black clipping. This is especially important if your screen isn’t calibrated extremely well or has a tendency to clip shadow details that may otherwise show up in a print, or vice verse.

I am currently utilizing Adobe Lightroom 4 for all of my RAW processing before exporting images to Photoshop for final tweaks and other edits that I cannot easily handle in LR4. The main objective of Lightroom is to get the “most” out of the camera RAW files without hurting details or clipping highlights or shadows. And while the imported file may appear nothing like the capture on the camera, this is largely because the camera is displaying the embedded JPEG file (part of the RAW file) while Lightroom is processing and displaying the essentially un-modified RAW image data. Additionally, if your default “import” develop settings are set poorly or wrong, it may even give you a very crazy preview that is even worse than it should be. So be sure to either reset all of the settings for the default import, or have minimal “tweaks” so to not mess up the image previews that are automatically generated. (You can fix it later, but it saves time when culling images to have decent previews depicting each file.)

Again, when it comes to editing the RAW, this is all about how we want the end result to “look and feel”. This largely comes down to personal preference and your creative vision. But I can say that it is quite easy to “bring back” some of that shadow detail and once you master the controls in Lightroom, you can easily manipulate the images to fit your initial vision for the scene.
As for doing this, I highly suggest watching some of my Lightroom tutorial videos on my YouTube channel: http://www.YouTube.com/ModifiedPhoto

I hope this was helpful and informative. Please feel free to share any night photos you try out after reading this! And as always, use the “Share” links below to share this post with friends. Happy night shooting!

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A good photograph is knowing where to stand. - Ansel Adams