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Rule the Night: A Short Guide to Long Exposures

August 10, 2015

Photography is all about light. In fact, the word photography originates from the Greek "phōtos" and "graphe," which respectively translate to "light" and "drawing," or "drawing (or sketching) with light." 

As photographers, we use, observe, study, modify, and create light rather routinely. 

From the portrait and commercial photographers who use flashes, strobes, panels, and modifiers, to the dedicated landscape or wildlife shooters who wait patiently for the moment the light transforms the scene, light is the proverbial center of our universe. Our respect and enthusiasm for the absolutely optimal light for our particular purpose is perpetual and necessary. 

But what about night time? Some of the most stunning and beloved scenes are captured at night with long exposure photography.  Fireworks displays, city lights, stunning night skies, and fun light painting techniques can be some of the most thrilling, educational, and creative forms of photography. They also pretty often generate enthusiastic and positive reactions from viewers, clients, and peers alike!

This quick primer explores some of the helpful equipment, shooting techniques, and technical knowledge used in long exposure night photography.  It will hopefully serve to familiarize new photographers and refresh seasoned ones about this exciting and often overlooked aspect of image making. 

 

What You Need

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We love gear! Photographers, including me, seem to always be pining for newer or better equipment. It's a common condition among many creative types known as GAS, or Gear Acquisition Syndrome. Ask a musician, sculptor, painter, or other artist. It's an ailment that's rampant, but not exclusively limited to us shutterbugs. 

The good news is, if you have a working camera with manual mode or other long exposure capability, you have all that's really required for shooting at night. 

Of course, newer DSLR cameras and lenses have advanced to the point at which their ability to capture scenes in little to almost no light can now produce sharper results than ever. While that's truly exciting, there are other items of gear that will prove to be invaluable. I'd be guilty of some kind of unforgivable photographic treason if I didn't mention the tripod first. 

Tripods are the best friend of a shooter at night, and are actually a vital piece of gear for nearly any photographer of any genre. Choose a tripod that's right for you and your purposes. While there are so many to choose from, it may be most practical to find a sturdy one with either a ball head or tilt-pan head that will fit your budget, for starters. Costlier ones are typically lighter, easier to carry, and increasingly advanced, and while they might offer the most comfort and convenience, they're a luxury. That doesn't mean you should skimp, though. Read reviews and get opinions when shopping for one, and you're sure to find a suitable and stable tripod. Sometimes surfaces can provide stability when there's no tripod to be found. Articles of clothing, other photography equipment, and bean bags can all be used to keep your camera level and stable during a long exposure. 

As with any other type of photography, the kind of lens you should use depends on the kind of photograph you're making. Using a wide aperture obviously has its advantages, but isn't always a necessity. For instance, landscapes and seascapes that require a smaller aperture, slower shutter speed, and normal ISO are commonly used at night with some pretty sweet results! Just don't forget to provide stability with a tripod or one of the other objects mentioned above. Even shooting handheld at night is not as treacherous as it once was, and that's when a good fast lens and camera with high ISO capabilities come in most handy. After some experimentation and trial and error once you have what you need, you'll have some pretty cool results too!

 

How To Shoot It

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As with daytime, "golden hour," or studio photography, the technique we use when shooting at night is determined by the type of photo we're making.

A portrait photographer using strobes, flashes, and LEDs in a night environment can shoot handheld very effectively. Often, exposing for the scene, then illuminating the portrait subjects to your liking can yield some very creative and eye-catching images. 

Using a tripod for longer exposures like landscapes, fireworks, traffic trails, or astrophotography also takes a bit of precision, patience, and some familiarity with your camera's settings. 

Using a tripod properly sounds like a simple enough task, but we all commit heinous and obsequious errors in the eyes of some of our more particular peers when it comes to this commonly used (and misused) piece of gear. First, if you aren't using the entire length of your tripod's legs, start with pulling out the larger section closer to the top first. It's larger and provides more stability than if you were to pull out the smaller ones, then mounting a hefty DSLR/lens combo on it. If you must fully extend the legs, making sure you have a good, stable rubber or spiked base on the bottom of each leg will help prevent slipping. Another way to ensure more stability when setting up your tripod is to position a leg facing forward underneath your lens. This keeps any weight, especially that of larger lenses, centered over a support, which provides more safety and stability. Sometimes spatial restraints may require violating this rule, but usually it's no problem. It's also good practice, and will demonstrate to other photographers in the immediate vicinity that you're no amateur and are, in fact, a master in the art of setting up a three-legged support device. If your tripod has a center column that raises and lowers via a crank, it's typically best not to raise it unless it's absolutely necessary. The bulk of a camera and lens can be rather top-heavy when raised on a thin column higher above your support. There are also exceptions to this rule under certain conditions such as time-lapse photography where you might want a steady vertical movement. Just be mindful of the weight on top of your mount. 

Once you're set up, this is where knowledge of your camera comes in. Shooting a long exposure requires as little motion and vibration as possible, and there are a few ways to achieve that. 

First, you may find a wireless or wired remote trigger very handy in preventing touching the shutter button when shooting, which can produce a little movement, which can have an adverse effect on the sharpness of your image. If you don't have a remote trigger handy, using the timer helps. Two seconds is ample time to push the shutter release button, release it, and keep yourself clear of the camera before the shutter opens up. If your camera has a "mirror lock-up" feature, using it will raise the mirror in front of your sensor up out of the way before opening the shutter, resulting in even less vibration and even more stability and sharpness. 

Additionally, when using a tripod, turn off any vibration reduction or optical stabilization feature in your lens. The feature actually generates tiny movements in the lens to compensate for any movement caused by shooting handheld, especially with longer lenses. If turned on during a long exposure, vr/os can actually cause vibration where none exists!

Low light can present a challenge when trying to focus on a subject. Most cameras today feature a focus-assist light, which will shine forward next to the lens in dark environments in order to temporarily illuminate a subject long enough for the lens to focus on it. Check your camera's user manual and settings menu to learn how to enable or disable the feature. Focusing capabilities in low light vary with different cameras and lenses. Newer models are typically better and continue to improve and impress. Subjects that are farther away can present a little more of a challenge. The assist light won't be effective at long distances, so sometimes a flashlight, headlights, or other devices can be used to temporarily light a subject in order to focus on it. Once you've focused on your desired point, a good technique is to carefully switch your camera body or lens from autofocus to manual focus. This will keep your lens focused on that point and allow you to activate the shutter release without your lens "hunting" for a subject to focus on. The AF/AE (autofocus and auto-exposure) lock button on your camera can be used in similar fashion as well, and is a more advanced and fairly effective technique.

 

Post Processing and Finishing Up

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Often, you may want to use a higher ISO when shooting at night to increase your sensor's sensitivity to light. High ISO settings can lead to noisy, or grainy photos. Many cameras have a "high ISO noise reduction" feature in their menus. This can be effective, but will also slow down your shooting as you're waiting for the camera's cpu to do its thing after each shot. 

Most post-processing software has a noise reduction feature that can be very handy and helpful if used correctly and in moderation.

Often, processing night photos is very similar to any other ones, and is often a matter of personal preference and style. Checking white balance, proper exposure, and sharpness are all key, as is solid composition. 

Be creative, be confident, be patient, and be prepared, then you'll be ready to "rule the night," creating fun and captivating images that shine a light into the darkness!

 

Feel free to leave comments, questions, suggestions, hate mail, and brownie recipes in the space provided below!

**Hover over photos for details

 

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