Most people put away their cameras when the sun goes down. But night photography can be a wonderland of visual interest. It does require some new disciplines and knowledge, though. It’s a different world at night.
What’s to know? My camera has excellent exposure metering. I just point it at the subject and take a picture. Right?
Well, your mileage may vary. If you are taking pictures with your phone or taking jpg images, you will get pretty good results sometimes. That is because the jpg processor is making many creative decisions for you to try to render an image it thinks you wanted. If it guessed right it might do an OK job.
With night photography, more than many other types of image making, you really need to be the decision maker in charge of your images. Your intent determines how you approach each scene. The type of subject, the type of light available, whether or not movement is desired, the mood desired, weather conditions, etc. all factor in to the strategy. And most of these factors are interrelated.
Type of image
A portrait at night will (probably) require a well lit subject. This may involve external lights and/or reflectors. A star field scene, on the other hand, may have just a vague or silhouetted foreground. No lights, but you need to know good techniques for capturing the stars as crisp points. A cityscape at night may require very long exposures to streak car lights.
A big decision is if movement is desired or not. Some possibilities: a street scene with everything crisp and frozen, a street scene with car lights and people streaked, a star field with crisp points of light, a long exposure star field with obvious streaks from rotation of the sky, a portrait with a crisp subject but blurred background motion. Each of these requires a different exposure approach and different planning and preparation.
Motion is often one of the signature characteristics that distinguish night images. It is something you completely control by your exposure settings.
Mood of image
The time of day, the subject matter, and your desired treatment establish the mood of an image. Time of day? We’re talking about night. Well, “night” starts at different times. There is sunset, twilight, dusk, blue hour, and full darkness. I don’t have space here to discuss each one, but I love all of them and enjoy making images in each. Probably blue hour and full dark are my favorites, except I can seldom resist a beautiful sunset.
Blue hour probably deserves some discussion. This is the time after the sun is completely gone and the orange glow is gone from the sky. The sky is a rich, dark blue and still light enough to set off a foreground like city lights. It is a beautiful time of day. Blue hour is perfect for some city skylines and for some landscapes.
Full dark is required if you want to see the stars. It is probably necessary if you want long exposures like smoothly streaked car lights.
But all of this is modulated by the desired result. Do you want dark and gritty or more cheerful and upbeat? Is it a realistic image of architecture or an abstract?
Full manual control
You will usually need to override the auto exposure of your camera. The poor exposure system with fail miserably trying to determine what you want if you point it at an almost totally black sky. So a camera with full manual control is required. You will need to determine and set the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed yourself.
This is not as bad as it seems. You will learn some guidelines for initial settings for the scenes you most commonly shoot. And with digital, it doesn’t cost much to shoot some test shots. Since you can get immediate feedback you will quickly zero in on the correct settings.
Technology and technique
Night photography is an extension of normal daylight photography. Some new techniques must be learned. They are specialized, but most are pretty straightforward.
Night photography generally implies longer exposures. This implies keeping the camera rigidly positioned. Therefore a good tripod is almost a necessity. And a shutter release to minimize camera shake when you press the release button. And if your camera is an SLR with a mirror, you need to know how to lock the mirror up to eliminate shutter slap motion.
Let me emphasize again, a good tripod is necessary. Don’t scrimp on this. Get the best you can afford and use it all the time. I generally use Really Right Stuff tripods and heads (I get no compensation for this), but I know that Gitso is also very good. There are many good tripod manufacturers, I just don’t have first hand experience to allow me to recommend others.
Unless you are going for really long exposures, you will often need to use a high ISO at night. Many modern digital cameras have excellent high ISO performance. If you go back to film days or early digital cameras, you probably think of ISO 800 as a really fast and grainy setting. Not anymore. On the Nikon Z7 I use now, noise is hardly detectable at 3200!
Another example of a specialized night photography technique is the “rule of 500”. Like all photography “rules” it is a guideline. It can be a helpful starting point for setting up a night sky shot. For a full frame camera, set the ISO to 3200 and the shutter speed to 500 / [focal length] seconds. So using a 24mm lens, that is 500/24 or approximately 20 seconds. This is a great guideline to memorize for when you are out in a really dark place at night trying to get the night sky exposure tweaked in.
Noise during the image capture is a potential problem unique to digital sensors. At least we do not have to try to estimate reciprocity failure as we did with film. Noise in electronics is a function of temperature. Long exposures power the sensor much longer than usual, which can heat it up and increase noise (it looks kind of like grain).
Most camera manufacturers provide a setting to have the camera take a dark frame immediately following an exposure. This gives a noise sample which is automatically subtracted form the image you just took. This does a pretty good job of compensating for the sensor noise. Sometimes you will want to use it and sometime not. I usually do not, because it is often cold when I am out, which minimizes noise. The main cost of the noise cancelling is doubling the exposure time. If you set a 20 seconds exposure it will immediately follow it with a 20 second noise sample.
Post processing is almost always required, in night images or any others. It is common to want to reduce luminance and/or color noise, to make the blacks deep and full, to sharpen, and, for some scenes, increase saturation or contrast.
I mention it here, not because night photography necessarily needs it more, but to emphasize that you need to shoot RAW and always post process.
After the sun goes down
A whole new world opens up when the sun goes down. Don’t put your camera away as soon as sunset fades! Get out and experiment. Try some different things. You don’t have to go to Moab and shoot grand night sky shots of the Milky Way with arches in the foreground. Experiment in your city. Learn to be confident manually setting exposures. Practice until you regularly get the results you want.
Try it! Don’t worry about failing. It can be fun and instructive! I ended up loving some of my failures.