Nighttime Photography

Today we'll talk about nighttime photography and other lowlight situations.

There are three interdependent variables in digital photography.

1) Shutter Speed

2) Aperture

3) Film Speed

Throughout the pages of this site I talk about how these three interrelate. For now just remember each will affect the other two. When you understand and find the correct balance you will leave the world of snapshots behind and enter the world of photographs.

Looking at the properties of this photo, I shot it at f/4.5, 1/4 second, ISO 200, Exposure compensation 0, Center weighted average, auto white balance and a focal length of 18mm.

I had no tripod with me so I hand held the camera. I limited myself without the tripod, because I had to find something solid to rest the camera against in order to shoot.

Even that is hard sometimes because I have to have at least two points of the camera touching whatever I use for support. Then I support a third point using my hand and rest that on something as well.

That's my homemade tripod. A light pole or handrail works well.

I seldom find the exact composition I am looking for when I do it that way; but hey, what's the challenge in using a tripod, right?

As for settings; when I shoot nighttime photography I put the camera in manual mode, watch for what the built in camera meter shows as the right exposure and then take a shot. If I don't like it I either increase or decrease the shutter speed until I like the exposure.

With experience I almost always know when to use different settings than what the camera claims to be the correct exposure. Normally I am within one or two stops of the correct exposure with the first shot.

Thanks to digital I know instantly whether I got the exposure I want. Then I adjust accordingly and reshoot until I like the exposure.

When I’m shooting I don't pay any attention to the actual settings for nighttime photography other than a wide open aperture and I still use a very slow film speed for maximum quality in my photos. That leaves only the shutter speed as a variable.

I know this is redundant but rather than paying attention to the settings I just watch the internal camera meter and adjust the shutter speed from experience. When you first start, just shoot at the setting that the camera shows as correct; then adjust from there.

For the pictures on this page I used a Nikon D40 [consumer grade]. Its slowest film speed is ISO 200.

The positive thing about no tripod is I don't get camera shake. If I mounted the camera on a tripod and set it for 1/4 second, invariably there is camera shake when I click the shutter button unless I use a remote release, which I don't have for this camera, or the timed shutter release, which always seems to release just as someone walks into the scene.

I use the side of my lens as a set point when setting up my pseudo tripod so using a Point & Shoot camera it is a little more difficult to find my tripod because the camera is so small.

In the next photo you can see, at the arrow, a rail. That is the rail I used to prop the camera for the shot.

Here are two more examples I got the same night out on the Las Vegas Strip.

I propped the camera the same way. I don't use any flash.

This rose sculpture is about 25 feet tall. I rested the camera on an available stone ledge and shot between living plants. You can see them blurred in the foreground; which, to me, adds to the shot.

Whenever possible I like to hand hold my camera and I avoid flash unless it is absolutely necessary. There are, however, times when a flash provides better color for a shot. That is when I use it.

This one is not one of those times. The following scene was shot inside the Caesar's Palace Forum Shoppes.

The first shot is without flash; the second, with. I liked the way the Pegasus looked when I used the flash in the second shot, so I kept it. I generally shoot both with and without a flash to see what the ambient lighting offers in comparison.

Here are a couple more from the day. Without the flash looked best.

Notice the water in the background shows motion. That comes from using a slow shutter speed.

Using flash and the accompanying shutter speed would freeze the water, make the picture harsh and typically wash out the colors. Flash would also substantially darken the background. I personally feel that this look is much warmer and more inviting.

Here is the same picture from a slightly different angle and using the camera's built in flash.


Two more without flash.

One final thought on nighttime photography; you'll notice that all my subjects are stills as opposed to moving subjects; the picture above being an exception. The people are not my subject. They are blurred but it doesn't matter.

You will not be able to crisply capture a moving subject in low light or nighttime photography unless you use a technique known as front or rear curtain sync. That requires a flash and another page which, so far, I haven't put up on my site.

I really like to shoot nighttime photography and lowlight photography. I hope you enjoy trying these techniques.

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