Shooting at Night, Part 2 – Digital photography Tip of the Week

Last week I talked about some of the equipment that will be helpful when taking photographs at night. This week I will build on that by discussing some of the techniques that can be used.

Manual mode is necessary for proper exposure when shooting at night or in low light situations. Any of the program modes (Program, aperture priority, shutter priority, or creative zones such a landscape, portrait or sports) will produce images that are too bright including night time skies that look gray instead of a near black.

If you camera has a B or Bulb setting, you can use this. This was found on older cameras and many new cameras as well. Bulb keeps the shutter open for as long as you press the button on the camera. This is where the cable release is useful. Holding the button down on the camera, even when on a tripod, is likely to introduce some movement that will show up in the image. The cable release will let you do this off camera so as to avoid camera movement. When all the other adjustments are made, press the button on the cable release for the length of exposure you are looking for. If you need to adjust the length of exposure, simply change how long you hold in the button on the release.

Many cameras have set shutter speeds that may go as long as 8, 15 or 30 seconds. You can use these instead of the Bulb setting if your exposure will need to be less than the longest shutter speed your camera has. If you do not have a cable release (or infrared remote) but do have long shutter speeds, you may use the self timer on the camera to prevent camera shake.

After setting the camera up and focussing, set your aperture according to how much depth of field you need. Remember, the larger the number, the more in focus, but the longer the shutter speed needs to be. If you subjects are all far away, you can use a smaller f-stop. Don’t forget that if you purposely want a longer exposure (to show motion in the light, trails, etc) then using an f11 or f16 instead of f2.8 or f4 will give you that extra time.

Now that you camera is set up, shutter speed set, aperture set, and you are focussed, you can make your first shot. Start with a one second exposure. Night photography is one case where a digital photographer has an advantage over a film photographer. If the image is too bright (too much light recorded) then either use a faster shutter speed (1/2 or 1/4) second or use a smaller f-stop (higher number). If the image is too dark (not enough light recorded) then use a longer shutter speed or a larger f-stop (smaller number). You can continue to make adjustments like this until you have a good shot.

Once you arrive what appears to be a proper exposure, then I recommend that you bracket your exposure both up and down after that to ensure you have a good shot. (Bracketing is the process of purposely either under or over exposing an image by a little bit). To bracket your exposure, keeping the aperture the same, increase your shutter speed by a little, then by a little more. Do the same again decreasing it from the known good shutter speed. For example, if you determine that at f8 and 4 seconds produced the image you want on the screen, then shoot 4 more shots at f8 with the following shutter speeds, 6 seconds then 8 seconds (both overexposed) and 2 seconds and 1 second (both underexposed).

25 seconds at f /13

If you are shooting film, failure of the law of reciprocity will start to factor in to your shots. Without getting too technical, as your exposure time increases (beyond a second or two), additional time may be needed. I have had exposures that should have been about 30 seconds, but because of reciprocity, required two minutes. This is not really a factor for digital photographers though as the digital sensors do not seem to be prone to reciprocity failure.

There are a lot of little things that can be done in night photography, but it really does not have to be too daunting. Get out and give it a try.

I am on vacation next week so will not have a new tip for you then, but will be back the week after with the third and final installment on our night photography series. I will talk about using flash at night, 2nd curtain sync (night mode), dragging the shutter, magic hour and I will have examples of some very nice night photography to share. On a side note, yesterday (January 31, 2006) marked the end of my first year posting a daily image on my latest website. If you haven’t seen it yet, feel free to stop by and have a look.

The digital photography tip of the week is written by the PCIN Assistant Editor, Chris Empey. Chris is a long time photographer and is currently the vice-president of the Niagara Falls Camera Club. You can see more of his photography at his Photo of the Day website.
If you have a tip to send Chris, or a question about digital photography he can address in the newsletter, send it to

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