Photography is all about the light, so nothing complicates matters like trying to shoot great photographs at night. Luckily, there are some simple tips that will help you whether you want to take a low-light snap in a restaurant or want to try your hand at long-exposure shots of the stars.
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Shooting in low light
Exposing a photograph correctly is just like filling a bucket with water. Just imagine that instead of filling a container with a liquid, you are filling your camera with light through the lens. In bright sunlight it won’t take long at all, but at night, when the light levels are much lower, it will take a lot longer.
So a shot of a loved one taken in bright sunlight might only mean the shutter on your camera is open for a thousandth-of-a-second or less. However, a shot taken in the dead of night might mean that the shutter is open for several minutes at a time. It is impossible to hold a camera steady for this length of time, so you’ll need a tripod to help you.
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Using as tripod
A tripod can be as complex and expensive as a carbon-fibre professional model costing £500, or as simple as a tabletop version costing £5. Either way, you need to get it good and steady before pressing your camera’s shutter.
Of course, the best way to release the shutter is using a remote switch or a smartphone app to avoid any camera shake, but I wouldn’t worry too much because the long exposure will mask any slight movement anyway.
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If you haven’t got a tripod
You can, at a pinch, balance a camera on a wall or fence and try to hold it steady by hand, bracing it against the surface for more support. It’s a bit hit-and-miss, but if you take a few shots like this you’ll be surprised at what you can achieve.
This shot of a Rolls-Royce Wraith was taken at night with a cheap compact camera that I balanced on a wall. The colour balance was a bit odd, but I solved that by converting it to black and white.
You will probably want to set your camera’s ISO level manually, otherwise it will generally default to a high ISO setting to try and minimise the time the shutter is open.
A high ISO number will introduce a lot of noise into the image, which isn’t a good thing, so you want to keep it in the 100-400 range, which isn’t a problem because you don’t mind a long exposure, do you?
Painting with light
You can also try a very simple technique in which you paint the subject of the photograph with light using a torch. You just focus and press the shutter before walking around the subject shining a torch all over it.
You won’t appear in the image because that long exposure means you won’t be in one place long enough to register on the camera’s sensor.
Star trails come about as a result of the earth’s rotation. This, of course, means holding the camera steady on a tripod as the exposure can last for anything from 30 seconds upwards.
To shoot star trails use your widest lens, and focus on infinity. If you know where the North Star is, then set that in the centre of your shot and try the following settings on your camera’s manual mode to get you started: ISO set between 100-400, exposure length of 30 seconds, and set the lens wide open.
Once you’ve shot a couple of photographs you can decide whether the exposure needs shortening or lengthening. Experiment with different exposure lengths (i.e. less time to decrease the exposure and longer to increase it) until you get a result you are happy with.
Long star trails might need an exposure time of an hour or more, so moonlit nights are no good. If you can see more than a quarter-moon there is too much ambient light to let you set the sort of long exposure times you need to get good star trails.
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You can’t set a long exposure time to shoot indoor scenes like parties and dinner dates, so you need to boost the ISO to compensate. ISO is simply how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. Modern DSLRs can shoot up to 6,400 and still produce usable images, but smaller, cheaper cameras might struggle at anything higher than 800.
If you have image stabilization then switch it on, and if you can’t use a tripod then try and brace your camera against a wall or tabletop to hold the camera steady. Try to squeeze the shutter button slowly to minimise camera shake.
Of course, you can use your camera’s flash if it has one. The trouble is you’ll probably get harsh, unnatural light so it should be a last, not a first, resort.
Trial and error
None of these techniques are difficult but they do require some practise, so don’t be afraid to get out there and give them a go.
Don’t worry too much about the subject matter initially as your first efforts will probably be a bit blurred and under-exposed. But you will get better and I promise that within a very short space of time you’ll be producing some amazing low-light images.
If it all goes wrong, call it art
If it does all go wrong, please don’t despair. Simply print some of your more random and obscure pieces out and call ‘em art: I did this with this image of Llangollen at night and most people who see it tell me that they love it – and I’ve even sold a couple of copies too!
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