I haven’t had a flash for my camera since 2012. It’s not that I hate them or anything, I just don’t see the necessity for the kind of pictures that I take. Believe it or not, a flash isn’t necessary for amazing night pictures. In fact, 97% of your night pictures (we’re talking general landscape here, not portrait) will look better without the flash.
Night photography is a whole different ballgame than ‘day’ photography. You’ll have to reverse some settings typically used in the day due to the sun not being there for you. Also, you’re going to have to switch your DSLR off automatic mode and click it right on over to manual mode. Scary, I know, but I’ll walk you through a few tips to help you capture gorgeous, crisp night photos.
FOR NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY WITHOUT LIGHT TRAILS ( or otherwise known as snapshots)
1. Shoot in RAW. RAW formatting is a camera image setting (you can either use that or JPEG) that allows the camera to record more detail in photos. It saves each photo as a pretty big file, so make sure you have lots of space. By shooting in RAW you’ll have the flexibility to change things later on in the editing process using an Adobe RAW editor. You’ll be able to change white balance, highlights, lowlights, contrast, saturation, and sharpness to get the most out of your photograph.
2. Pick a lens with a high aperture. The wider your lens can open up, the more light will be let in (so a maximum f-stop of at least 2.8 – 1.4 or even 1.2 would be best). You may not need to max out the aperture for some landscape shots, but it’s always good to have flexibility. For your initial ‘test’ photos, set your aperture at the maximum width and adjust from there.
3. Pick a fast shutter speed. The goal is to take a super fast picture, thus freezing the motion that’s happening in front of you (whether it be the trees blowing in the wind, people walking by, birds, etc). The trick of it is, if you pick too high of a shutter speed, your picture will be super dark. I generally start snapping my night photos with a shutter speed of 1/40-1/200 depending on the lighting I have in front of me.
4. Adjust your ISO (to a higher number) to compensate for the shutter speed. On a sunny day a photographer will typically shoot at an ISO of 100-200. At night however, that will change. Depending on your f-stop, shutter speed, and the amount of light you have to work with, this number can vary quite a bit. Just note, the higher the number you go, the more likely you’ll be to having noise in your shot(aka the picture will be grainy). Thankfully ISO is quickly adjusted by using the little wheel to the right hand side of your camera (not sure where it is on a nikon, but I think it’s still in the same general area), so take some quick shots to get it right where you need.
5. Play around with your settings. Every single place you go, every hour of the night, the lighting will be different. You’re going to have to adjust and readjust constantly. Pictures at 7:00 pm are going to be totally different than pictures at 12:00am. The narrow alleyway is going to be a lot dimmer than a busy main street area. Don’t be scared to adjust your settings over and over again! That’s normal! Once you get a good feel for adjusting your photos and then taking quality night pictures, it won’t be that scary of a deal to change things up a bit. Lower that ISO, increase the shutter speed, raise your f-stop. There isn’t a magical formula for night shots! Hopefully with these tips you’ll get a better understanding on what each setting does, and that’ll help you understand how to take night pictures.
6. The use of a tripod is optional. Did you know that? I rarely bring a tripod on our travels, just because its bulky and takes up too much room. Also when my husband and I travel around an area, we don’t want to be carrying it with us. I have yet to use a tripod in a night shot that wasn’t meant for capturing light trails. If you get your settings right, there isn’t a need to!
FOR NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY WITH LIGHT TRAILS (fireworks, city lights, stars)
1. Shoot in RAW / turn the camera on BULB mode (optional). Just like night snapshot photography, shooting in RAW is the best for light trail photography (better known as long exposure photography) too. Actually, I use RAW for all my shoots, but that’s just personal preference. Now, in another completely different topic, give BULB mode a try instead of manual. Its optimized for letting the most amount of light in. The only thing you’ll have to do is control the shutter, and this means either a: holding the shutter button down manually for the amount of time you wish, or b: using a wired remote shutter. More on this in point number 6.
2. Use a low aperture. You’re going to be taking a picture for a few seconds to capture the light trails, so a setting of f1.4 or f2.8 may be too bright and completely wash out your picture. Set your aperture at f6-11 initially to see what kind of lighting you can achieve. If it’s too bright? Adjust it higher (remember, thats a lower f number…totally confusing I know). If it’s too dark? Adjust it lower!
3. Pick a slow shutter speed. Light trails don’t happen at 1/500th of a second. Give them some time to develop! I like to initially try a shutter speed of 3.00-10.0 seconds depending on the subject. Fireworks are fast, and only require about 3-6 seconds. Car light trails depend on how fast the traffic is moving. Want some cool sparkler photos? You better slow that shutter speed WAY down to about 15-25 seconds.
4. Use a low ISO. Because you’re giving your camera and lens so much extra time to gather light, you can’t use a high ISO like you would in a night snapshot picture. I always set my ISO to 100-250 for these ‘light trail’ kinds of pictures.
5. A tripod or some sort of camera stabilization is required! Here’s the deal. You’re messing with light, and even the slightest bump to your camera can result in a shaky trail. Sometimes it’s cool, but most of the time it’s not. Get a really stable tripod, or find something to rest your camera on. Trying to hold it still against your body won’t cut it…we humans naturally move. Even when we don’t want to.
6. Use a remote. Referring back to point number 5, even clicking the shutter button and releasing your finger from it will bump your camera. It’s a bummer when you have a sweet pic and then it’s ruined by a slight jolt. Get a remote! I’d recommend a wired remote shutter instead of a wireless for this kind of photography. With a wireless you have to sit there and spend those precious seconds you could be taking a really cool picture trying to get your camera’s shutter to trigger wirelessly. Not worth it. Also with the wired remote shutter (sorry it can get confusing) you can hold that shutter down as long as you want to!
Although I took some classes in photography while I was in college, I do not have a degree or solid education in the field. The tips above are a result of what has worked for me as I figure out my way through the complex art of photography and learning my camera.
Now get out there and give it a try! Tag me/ send me some pictures of your results!