Tips for Night Photography

October 2nd, 2015

With my annual Moab to Cedar Mesa to Monument Valley night photography workshop coming up, here are some tips for my attendees (sold out).

TIPS FOR NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY

EQUIPMENT

  1. Camera: Not all cameras are great for night photography. I’ve had particular problems with the Canon Rebel T3i. If you have this camera you might want to consider renter a better, more recent model.
  2. Lens: You will want what is considered an ultra wide lens for most shots, something in the range of a 14-14. You may also want the next step up, something in the 24-70 range. What’s more important is the F rating of the lens. A lens in the f-1.4 – 2.8 range is best. Anything above a f4 is not suitable for night photography.
  3. Tripod: A rock-solid tripod is a necessity. If you’re using a tripod with a plastic head you may want to consider renting a better unit. If you are attending one of my workshops and think you may need a better tripod, check with me to see if I have a loaner available.
  4. Cable release or remote: A cable release or remote can help alleviate the issue of a not-so-rock-solid tripod.
  5. Filters: Remove and filters from you lens.

COMPOSITION

In night photography it’s fairly important to set a composition you like and stick with it throughout the shooting sequence of that particular location. This is because the biggest challenge in night photography is getting the focus properly set. Once the focus is set you can switch, say, from horizontal to vertical with no problem IF you can do so without touching/changing the zoom setting, but if you change the zoom setting you will need to reset the focus. If you are in the habit of frequently moving your tripod rather than adjusting the camera on the tripod head you will also have problems.

Setting the Focus: There are 2 methods of setting the focus:

  1. I will light a piece of the land-form that we are shooting. You will need to know how to move your camera’s focus point to focus on what I am lighting. With your camera on auto-focus, hold the shutter button half way down and let the camera auto-focus. Then, turn of the auto-focus. You are now ready to shoot.
  2. I often find it easier to manually focus. This is particularly easy on most Canon cameras because of their superior clarity of the LCD in low light situations.
  3. It’s important to check your focus after the first shot. Do this by using the LCD magnification button on the back of your camera. Blow the image up 2 to 4 clicks and make certain everything is in focus. If not, SPEAK UP and I’ll re-light the formation.

SETTINGS

Rule of 500: I will explain the Rule of 500 in the cause of general information so you will be knowledgeable about it, but please understand that I rarely use it.

This equation is used to determine the length of time of your exposure. It’s pretty simple:

500 divided by the Focal Length you are shooting at = Max exposure time.

If you’re shooting at 14mm, 500 divided by 14 = 36 seconds exposure

There are many if, ands and buts about this equation:

  1. It assumes an f2.8 lens at an ISO of 1600
  2. The results vary camera by camera, sensor by sensor.
  3. It’s widely stated, “Your camera may work better using 400, 450 or 600”.
  4. If your camera has a cropped sensor you will need to multiply the focal length that the lens is reading by your camera’s crop factor, either 1.5 or 1.6. So, a Nikon with a cropped sensor with an f2.8 lens set at 14mm, 14 x 1.5 = 19.6   500 divided by 19.6 = 25 seconds rather than 36 seconds.
  5. Even the quality/glass/brand of your lens can matter.

Still with me?

Now, let me tell you how I actually do it in the field. No matter what camera and lens you are using, start with these settings;

ISO 1600*     Manual Mode     30 seconds     Lens wide open (lowest f-stop number)

*Unless you have one of the very high-end cameras, say a Nikon D4s, you will need to become comfortable with a higher than normal level of noise and grain. You can correct for this with de-noise software, but at the expense of lost detail.

Start shooting at these settings and check your results. If the image is too dark you will need to go to a higher ISO. If it’s too bright you can go to a lower ISO to reduce noise/grain, or shorten the exposure to get more pin-point stars. It’s not practical to go to a longer exposure than 30 seconds. Thirty seconds is the longest you can go without getting noticeably ovaled stars.

A Caution: During the day we often have problems seeing the image on the LCD screen because the sun is so bright. The opposite problem happens with night shooting. The image on the LCD may look great, but when you load it into your computer it’s very dark, maybe even black. You will want the image on your screen at night to be very bright.

 

 

 

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