Shooting In The Dark

Ian Robert Knight
Travel Photographer, Canada

We all understand that we cannot make photographs without light. After all, the very definition of the word ‘photograph’ means ‘drawing with light’. And we also know that it’s not always daylight out there. Sometimes it’s dark out. So does that mean we can’t take photos at night? Of course not. It just means that we need to adjust our methods to allow us to continue shooting in the dark. That’s what this post is about – the techniques that will help you get good results in dark situations.

I’ll be quick to point out that the examples I give below won’t apply to every situation. Just like daytime photography, techniques for nighttime photography will depend on location and subject matter. As they say, your mileage may vary. However, there are several tenets of shooting in the dark that will apply in most cases.

First, it helps to understand that your camera is pretty dumb. Your camera, with all its high-priced features, has no idea what your subject matter is. It only sees light, not subject. Keep this in mind as we continue this lesson.

First, it helps to understand that your camera is pretty dumb.

Second, your camera is purposely designed to give you average photos. Part of our job as photographers is to force our cameras to give us better-than-average results. What I mean by this is that the exposure meter in your camera is designed to average the light it sees, and produce a ‘middle grey’ result. This is fine in many situations, but it’s not helpful at all in extreme lighting conditions like nighttime.

When your exposure meter encounters something white, it underexposes it, and makes it grey. When your exposure meter encounters something black, it overexposes it, and makes it grey. 50 shades of grey, if you want. But grey – or average – just the same.

 

So what’s a photographer gotta do to get a decent picture!?

So when you’re shooting in the dark, remember that your camera has no idea what your subject matter is – it only sees light. And when it sees all that black sky, it’s going to do its damnedest to make it grey. Is that what you want? Probably not. So what’s a creative, smart photographer like you going to do about it? You’re going to make your camera do what you tell it to! And here’s how.

First of all, let’s assume that you’re using a tripod, right? You’re probably going to be using pretty long exposures, so your camera can’t be hand-held. But you’re smart, so you knew that. OK, so with your camera on your tripod, there are a couple things that you can set right off the bat. Your ISO, for instance, can be set as low as it goes. Since you’re using a tripod, you won’t mind long exposures that will occur because of the low ISO. And you’ll get less noise in your photos, with low ISO, so that’s good.

In most situations, we’d be shooting landscapes, or urban scenes with some artificial lighting in it. This will allow you to focus the scene initially. But once you’ve established the focus distance, you can pretty much shut off the autofocus. You won’t want the camera to be hunting for focus each time you take the photo. Your subject isn’t likely to be moving, so set it and forget it. Also, turn off your vibration reduction or image stabilization on your lens (VR on Nikon, IS on Canon). That feature is only meant for handheld shooting. It will make your images blurry when you use a tripod.

The all-important EV Button

Nikon EV Button

Canon EV Button

And finally, we need to dial in some form of exposure compensation, so that your black sky comes out black. Remember how your camera is going to expose the black as grey? Well if you set your exposure compensation dial to -1 EV or -2 EV, this will force your camera to underexpose the image, so that your blacks come out just as dark as you see them. Generally -1 EV is a good place to start, but in many situations, you’ll need to go lower to -2 or even -3. Luckily with digital LCD panels on the back of our cameras, we can see the results in real time.

Normal Exposure (no compensation)

-1 EV compensation

-2 EV compensation

What about the Exposure Setting?

So now it comes down to exposure. How do we know what to set it to? I make my decisions based on the subject matter. For this set of images, you can see results with different shutter speed and aperture combinations. Since there is water in the image, short shutter speeds (less than 5 seconds) will show the ripples in the water. But shutter speeds that are longer (20 – 30 seconds), will give you nice smooth water, which is a much more pleasant result.

For me, the aperture doesn’t play much importance in nighttime landscapes, except that they affect the shutter speed. In order to get long shutter speeds, the aperture will need to be closed down a lot – often at the maximum of f22 or more. But in most cases, the subject matter is all at the same far distance, so aperture choice won’t matter – f5.6 and f22 will look pretty much the same.

1 second shutter speed

15 seconds shutter speed

It’s really that simple

So there you have it. Nighttime photography isn’t difficult at all once you understand the basics. And since the world is dark almost half the time, it’s something worth learning. Here’s the cheat-sheet:

 

  • Use a tripod. ‘Nuff said.
  • Use low ISO – you’re using a tripod, so why not maximize the quality?
  • Focus once, and lock it in. Your subject probably isn’t moving, so your camera shouldn’t need to refocus each time. When you move, focus again.
  • Long shutter speeds give nice motion blur on water.
  • Exposure compensation of -1, -2, or -3 will be essential.
  • Use a cable release to minimize camera shake.
  • Shut off image stabilization when you use a tripod.
  • Shoot often!

1 Comment

  1. Lagalag54

    Great information…….love your way of teaching.

    Reply

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Ian Robert Knight Photography

Ian is a professional photographer, specializing in travel editorial and street photography. Find out more about Ian's background and experiences in the bio page here.

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