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How to Get Creative with Night Photography

How to Get Creative with Night Photography

Take your night images to the next level with creative photography techniques at night!

Night photography is an exciting genre of imaging that encompasses many different disciplines from concerts to traffic trails, and landscapes to nightclubs. However, it’s notoriously difficult to take good images at night because of the lack of light.

Low light levels means camera settings are pushed to the extreme as photographers try to maximize the brightness of available light to eke out every last photon for a good exposure. Not only that but autofocusing is next to useless because the camera relies on sufficient light to nail focus on subjects. Instead, you’ll have to get creative by nailing manual focusing techniques. So let’s take a look at some of the creative photography techniques you can use to nail some excellent night photographs.

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Traffic Trails

As the light fades and the city lights turn on, drivers of cars and other motor vehicles turn on their headlights to see where they’re going. Take any camera to the city at night and put it into automatic and you’ll see that all you’re left with is a set of streaky bright lines worming their way through your photo. This can look unsightly, but with a little preparation it can actually transform a dull city scene into something remarkable.

Set the camera on a tripod and engage manual mode. Set the aperture to f/5.6 or narrower to ensure a long depth of field. Put ISO to 200 or similar in order to reduce image noise, and then switch the shutter speed to roughly 10 seconds. Watch as the headlights turn into traffic trails that smoothly slide along the frame. Simply by putting the camera on a tripod and engaging manual control of the camera, we’ve achieved traffic trails. This kind of photography works extremely well in bustling towns and cities, and on highway overpasses where it is sufficiently safe to take night photography.

traffic lights at night photography

It’s important to use a remote trigger such as the MIOPS Flex to take the photographs. That’s because when the camera is triggered by hand when shooting long exposures, the small vibration from the user can cause the camera to move during exposure and make images blurry. Instead, set up a remote trigger to remove the issue and keep the camera steady for sharp shots.

Rear Curtain Flash

Something you’ll no doubt have seen on all the nightclub galleries online is something called rear curtain sync flash photography. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but the principle is simple. Allow the camera to shoot a long exposure (1/2 a second will work) and place a flashgun on the hot shoe. Engage rear curtain synchronization - this means that the flash will fire at the end of the exposure. Now for the technique.

night photography ideas

Remember, this’ll work best in indoor situations or at night when ambient lighting is dim, such as a nightclub full of dancers. We’re aiming to move the camera deliberately during the long exposure, and then have the flash fire at the end of the exposure to correctly expose the foreground subjects. If you look for some kind of lighting to put in the background it will amplify the effect. Now, as the camera is rotating the camera, aiming to keep the lens steady during the shot. You’ll be left with a very creative night photography effect where the background is blurry and textured, but the foreground subjects are exposed correctly.

Low Light Landscape Photography

Landscape photography is all about composition, and nailing focus through-and-through, once the light goes down. There are two techniques to achieving a low light landscape photograph that contains correct focus: setting the aperture and manually focusing.

Narrower apertures such as f/11 and f/16 produce a greater depth of field than wider apertures of f/2.8 or f/1.4. The depth of field is the slice of focus in front of the camera that is in focus. To ensure a landscape is in sharp relief from foreground to background it’s important to set a narrow aperture. But a long depth of field is no good if the focus isn’t in the right place.

low light landscape photography

Autofocusing will undoubtedly not work when shooting in low light. That’s because the camera relies on available light to help autofocusing clasp onto a subject. Instead, engage the live view and set the camera to manual focusing mode. Then zoom in on the screen and find a spot bright enough in the landscape to see on the screen. Next, rotate the focusing ring until the landscape is in focus. If you’re struggling to see the landscape, bring a high power torch with you to light up the landscape before focusing.

Timelapses

Timelapses are a great way to capture the environment at night. Look for moving subjects such as waves on a beach, clouds moving through the sky, or a busy inner city. Set up the camera on a tripod and engage the in-built timelapse mode. Set the interval times (the time it takes between shots) to an appropriate length between images based on the moving object's speed. For example, clouds flying through the sky will require around a five second interval time, unless there are high winds, in which case one to two seconds will work.

night photography timelapses

If your camera doesn’t have an in-built timelapse mode then use an external camera controller. You’ll need a camera controller that can not only trigger the camera remotely but also has the ability to set intervals between photos. The MIOPS Flex is the best camera controller from a smartphone because it allows manual control via the on-board screen and buttons on the device itself, or via the MIOPS app on a smart device like a smartphone or tablet. Simple attach the Flex to the camera with an appropriate cable and mount it to the hot shoe of the camera. Then dial in the mode settings and set intervals as desired before triggering the camera.

Concert Photography

Gig photography is notoriously difficult to master. When photographing concerts at night low light levels and stroboscopic lighting mixed with other stage productions can make it hard to get decent images. That’s where getting creative is important.

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First off, shoot with a lens that has a wide maximum aperture, like a 24-70mm f/2.8. Then set the camera to a semi-automatic mode like aperture priority. Dial in the widest aperture possible and set the shutter speed to the reciprocal of the focal length. For example, if shooting at 24mm set a shutter speed of 1/25 sec as a minimum. If the image is still dark then boost the ISO sensitivity. Alternatively, dial in auto-ISO to let the camera set an automatic exposure.

Blog Credit: Jason Parnell-Brookes

Jason Parnell-Brookes is an Internationally award-winning photographer, educator and writer. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014. Jason is a qualified teacher, Masters graduate and works with many high profile international clients. Further information can be found in his website www.jasonpb.com.

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Guide to Capturing Best Long Exposure City Time lapses

a busy city at night

Nighttime-lapses stand out from other time-lapses as they combine multiple long exposure shots into a sequence that plays back as a video. The effects and motives are infinite as imagination itself. Most cameras, from mirrorless, DSLR's and even smartphones, can achieve these results as long as they allow you to set the exposure manually.

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Most of the time, video cameras are limited, as they can't expose for extended intervals like photo cameras. Of course, a great solution is using external triggers such as MIOPS Smart, RemotePlus, or Mobile Dongle.

cars passing on the bridge by night

Best time for city time-lapses

Trails of light caused by cars passing by, bicycles, lighted buildings, or any urban structures lit by incandescent or fluorescent bulbs are the best scenarios to shoot. Any city will offer multiple options, but most important is choosing the ambient light to work. Shooting at night is the best because the contrast is more notable and dramatic.

It is recommended to do city time-lapses in winter because the sun sets earlier, providing a dark sky that is more suitable for capturing lighted motion. However, shooting in summer also has its advantages, providing different effects, such as working during the blue hour, which provides more fainted tones. During this time of the year, backgrounds are more full of life, like trees and bushes full of leaves, which can be more visually appealing. Also, combining day and nighttime-lapses can lead to interesting results. In the end, it all depends on the desired effect and the availability of time.

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Consider shooting in raw

If you are an experimented photographer, it will be obvious that shooting in RAW is a must, but for a beginner who doesn't know the difference between using RAW and JPEG, it is important to acknowledge that saving nighttime-lapses in JPEG has a significant limitation. The main issue is, with JPEG files the dark parts of the image will be too underexposed, and the bright lights are often overexposed.  Raw photo sequences, which allows you to adjust exposure and contrast much better in post-production, reveal a lot more details that are otherwise lost in the shadows or highlights when saving them as JPEG files.

cars passing next to Allianz Arena at night

Resolution matters

As mentioned, even smartphones are capable of shooting time-lapses; however, the high resolution of the DSLR and mirrorless cameras allows you to crop and adjust the angle and position of the sequence even when creating a 4K video. Using keyframes, the time-lapse can be animated easily, making the shot look more interesting than leaving it static. That's where the Capsule Slider comes in handy. For example, you can animate a zoom or simply simulate a tracking shot.

Filters

Daytime-lapses are usually captured with a neutral density filter attached to the front of the lense. For nighttime-lapses, different filters can be very handy as well, for example, light pollution filters. These filters are designed to block out the wavelengths of light emitted by Sodium Vapor Lamps, the main cause of light pollution. A quality light pollution filter will allow the colors and light emitted by the subject to reach the camera sensor and block out the nasty brown glow of a washed-out sky. The design of the filter includes layers that block specific bandpass lines of the visible spectrum.

cars passing by arc de triumph at Paris

Other considerations

The aperture value (Av) refers to the lens opening's size, which determines how much light makes it through the lens. Since aperture values (or f-stops) are represented as fractions, smaller values provide a larger lens opening – and a larger lens opening means more light will pass through the lens. To shoot the night sky and its surroundings, it is highly recommended to use a lens with a maximum aperture value of at least f/2.8 if possible.

Slower shutter speed allows more light to reach the image sensor (great for night photography), and when shooting nightscapes, it is recommended to use a very slow shutter duration of between 20 and 30 seconds. Of course, further adjustments should be made according to the current circumstances.

When shooting still frames for time-lapse, it is important that the camera doesn't change focus every time it takes another picture, so it is important to switch to manual focus mode when shooting time-lapses. When shooting at night, achieving proper focus can be a challenge. Therefore, use the Live View zoom and magnify feature to make your subject larger and lock your focus properly.

This type of photography can lead to impressive results with patience and practice. As an example, and if considering the exposition time mentioned above for taking pictures every 30 seconds, it means that the camera will be shooting two frames every minute. If 180 pictures are needed, then the camera should run for 90 minutes.

cars passing by a pink lighted building

Related Article: What is the Easiest Way to Make Good Timelapse Videos?

About The Author Manuel Delgado:

Manuel Delgado is an award-winning photographer with a specialization in travel and documentary photography. He writes for Contrastly and is a Mentor for NGO Photographers Alliance, having led workshops in Africa with a focus on ethical and humanitarian photography. His work has been exhibited in Europe and the Americas.

Driven by an innate curiosity for his surroundings, Manuel´s process is mainly focused on capturing people in their natural environment; translating through his lens the subtle threads of daily life that are shared across cultures, borders, and races. Depicting people from diverse backgrounds, his work is united by a shared aesthetic that serves to tell each individual’s story. Manuel is currently living in Düsseldorf, Germany. 

Manuel Delgado Instagram Profile

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