Shooting at Night, Part 3 – Digital Photography Tip of the Week

I have been discussing night photography in the past few tips, including helpful equipment and shooting techniques for great night shots. I will finish up the series today with some tips about when to shoot, using flash, a technique called dragging the shutter, and 2nd curtain sync.

Using flash for night photography can be helpful, but usually only for illuminating near subjects. The built in flash on cameras are only powerful enough to effectively light a subject up to 20 feet away at best. Using flash on automatic mode, you will end up with photos that exhibit ‘deer in the headlights’ syndrome. The subject will be illuminated nicely, but the rest of the photo will be black. So, how do you compensate for that? This is where manual mode pays off. But first, let me explain the two exposures that are happening in your photo.

The first exposure is a product of your flash and aperture. It is an almost instantaneous exposure (the length of the flash burst). The aperture controls how much light is being recorded on film. The second exposure is a product of your shutter speed. So long as you stay at or below your camera’s sync speed, usually 1/90th of a second or slower (more on that another time), the foreground will always be illuminated by the flash (up to the point when the shutter speed/aperture combination provide enough exposure for the main subject) while the shutter speed will affect the background. A longer shutter speed will allow more of the ambient light to be recorded, bringing detail out of the background shadows.

Dragging the shutter or slow shutter sync is simply using a longer shutter speed than the camera recommends when using flash to illuminate a night scene. Your photo will then have proper exposure for the foreground (because of the flash exposure) and the background will start to have more detail in it (because of the longer shutter speed). If you want the background brighter, use a longer shutter speed, and if you want it darker, use a faster shutter speed. If your camera features a night mode setting, that will also drag the shutter (though for a fixed time.)

This photo shows what can happen when you combine moving objects, flash and night photography.

Another feature many cameras have is called 2nd curtain sync or also referred to as rear curtain sync. This basically controls when the flash fires, either at the beginning of the exposure or at the end. For a static subject, it does not really matter, but for a subject that will move during the exposure, 2nd curtain sync has an advantage. When the subject moves, it will leave a trail in the image. If the flash goes off at the beginning of the exposure, the subject will appear to be moving into the streaks, whereas if the flash occurs at the end of the exposure, it will appear as though the subject is moving away from the streaks (which is what we would normally expect to see.)

When is the ideal time to photograph at night? Well, that depends on what you are shooting and what you want to accomplish. However, two times do stand out as worth noting. Just after dusk and just before dawn, often referred to as the magic hour. During this time, there is some light in the sky though not enough to provide enough to expose your subjects. Shooting at this time can yield some spectacular results. The shot below was taken within this timeframe.

Last week I also promised some links to some nice night photography. I’ll start with some of my own. The series of 7 shots (the first image and 6 days prior) was taken in Toronto, ON between 1:00 and 2:00 am, with exposures ranging from 1/8 second to 3.2 seconds. features many night photographs of abandoned places along roadways in the US. features a gallery of night time images as well as resources for night time photography.

I hope this series on night time photgraphy has been helpful. Next week I will discuss keeping straight lines straight.

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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