Aug 3, 2006

How to Take Spectacular Nighttime Photos

Night photographs express a special something that cannot be seen in normal daytime photography. Whether it is a photograph of a moon and starlit sky over a windy deserted beach, the excitement of a downtown cityscape when the lights go on, or just a picture of you and some friends in front of a favorite hangout, nighttime photos, when done right, are sure to attract attention.


However, even for experienced photographers, nighttime photography can be a tricky situation. Photos often look unfocused, blurry, or lacking crucial details, and many may not come out at all. There are some tricks, though, to taking spectacular nighttime photos with your digital camera, tricks that can be explained yet only completely learned through practice.



Night photographs express a special something that cannot be seen in normal daytime photography. Whether it is a photograph of a moon and starlit sky over a windy deserted beach, the excitement of a downtown cityscape when the lights go on, or just a picture of you and some friends in front of a favorite hangout, nighttime photos, when done right, are sure to attract attention.

However, even for experienced photographers, nighttime photography can be a tricky situation. Photos often look unfocused, blurry, or lacking crucial details, and many may not come out at all. There are some tricks, though, to taking spectacular nighttime photos with your digital camera, tricks that can be explained yet only completely learned through practice.

This first part of a three-part series on nighttime photography will cover tricks not necessarily related to digital camera settings, but tricks nonetheless that can result in better photographs or a more pleasing photo-taking experience.

* Although more expensive digital cameras do not necessarily result in better photos, realize that the cheapest cameras may not be capable of taking great photographs at night. It requires more work, both on your's and the camera's part, to take spectacular shots in very low-light situations. Though you don't have to spend over a thousand dollars for night photography, don't expect too much out of a sub-two hundred-dollar camera, either.
How to take outstanding photographs at night with a digital camera

* Especially if you are not completely familiar with your camera's settings to enhance nighttime photography, consider first taking some photographs around dusk, when the sun has not yet completely left the sky. Dusk photos can sometimes be even more dramatic than those taken in the pitch-black sky, as the added light helps illuminate details easily missed in a completely dark environment Check your local newspaper where you are shooting photographs or a website such as http://www.weather.com for sunrise/sunset times, and be ready to shoot around a 20-30 minute window for best results.

* Plan your photos before you shoot! While it is always a good idea to study an area first, this is crucial if you are planning on snapping photographs around dusk! You will not have much time to plan, and if you spend five or ten minutes just getting a perfect angle or framing the perfect shot, the overall lighting will change as the sun slowly sets. And of course, remember when composing your photos that the sun sets in the west.

* Be prepared for the environment. If you're heading out by yourself, especially in a semi-deserted wilderness area, always carry a map so you remember how to get to your home, camp, or hotel. Check the weather before you go and wear a poncho or coat if necessary. Carry a flashlight, or, in the most extreme environments, a flare, to help others find you if you become lost. Also, bring along a WELL-CHARGED cell phone in case of emergency! You're taking photos at night to have fun and create spectacular results. Be prepared for unexpected situations so they don't ruin your experience.

While the results can be outstanding, night photography presents its own unique benefits and hazards. Not just any digital camera will do; lower-end models may not have the capability of taking spectacular shots. Timing is crucial, especially when taking pictures in the brief time between dusk and total darkness. And, the environment and weather can play havoc with your plans. By purchasing the correct equipment, studying the subject area before nighttime falls, and dealing with unexpected situations with the correct nighttime gear, you can be better prepared to take amazing nighttime photos.

Night photos can take on a somewhat magical quality you may find lacking in normal daytime photography. Amazing night pictures certainly can attract attention. As the sun goes down, however, it becomes harder to capture images without the proper equipment and techniques. Thus, as was mentioned in Part I of this series, taking incredible nighttime photographs requires a lot of planning.

When your digital camera receives less light, it cannot absorb the surroundings as well in the resulting photographs. Some pictures may turn out too dark. Others can be too blurry. Your camera requires more time to absorb enough light to create an effective picture, so any shaking of the device will result in photographs lacking sharpness.

To compensate for the lack of lighting, here are several things you can do with most middle and high-end digital cameras to get the results you need. Part III of this series will continue with even more expert ideas.

* You may think that professional photographers take a large amount of time to set up a shot, perform complex calculations, talk about all sorts of topics such as f-stops, shoot one photograph that accurately represents their interpretation of a particular scene, and then leave.

While most of this may be true, the last part - only taking one photo - is far from it. Many, if not most, professional photographers commonly take a multitude of shots for every subject! Traditional photographers can go through rolls and rolls of film on a single shoot, and digital photographers may use gigabytes of memory.

Professionals know that no matter how well everything has been factored in when setting up a shot, 'stuff happens'. It is better to take time shooting a particular subject ten times and get one outstanding photograph than to take one or two photos that turn out blurry or dull.

Most photographers perform a trick called bracketing, where they intentionally adjust their camera settings in small increments in case their calculations were not precisely correct.
How to take outstanding photographs at night with a digital camera

Heed this advice when taking photographs at night. If you have a particular subject you want to reproduce in digital form, don't rely on taking 'the one perfect shot', but take several photographs in case problems occur with the lighting, or lack thereof.

Remember, you're shooting digitally, which means you can later throw out all the bad photos in your camera's virtual 'trash can', and no one ever needs to know! I can't tell you how many times I've done this, especially when taking late-night shots of the Chicago cityscape in places I couldn't bring a tripod. I may shoot hundreds of shots and only keep a few dozen.

* If your digital camera has a special nighttime mode, study your manual and learn how to enable this feature. Perhaps your camera has a button or dial next to a graphic of a half-moon to signify this setting. This works well for some late-night situations.

* Use a tripod. If you don't have one with you, brace your camera against some sturdy object like a parking meter or lamp-post. This will make all the difference.

* Forget about using the flash unless you purchase a high-quality accessory flash unit. Flash shoots a burst of light out of your camera and works most effectively when your subject is within a few feet. If your subject is a long way away, your small flash unit will never reach it effectively.

Nighttime photography requires a little extra work out of you and your digital camera. To prevent against mistakes and increase the chance of a spectacular shot, it may be necessary to take the same picture multiple times, adjusting your camera settings slightly to help ensure at least one picture will come out well. The digital camera manual must be studied, as many high-end cameras contain automatic features to help take better photos. And, a natural tendency most people have to use flash must be avoided. By heeding this advice, you can learn to take spectacular nighttime photos.