The following are some basic how-to tips for how to take a still photography at night (this is mainly for a cityscape or a landscape).
1. Time of day. The time of day to take a night photograph is twilight, after sunset when the sky is still a dark blue color but not black. The photograph will have a definite appearance of nighttime but buildings and trees will show up nicely against the sky instead of fading into inky blackness. This is the time when professional night time photography is taken. You might notice if you look at some postcards sometime.
2. Sky: A clear or mostly clear sky is best if you can possibly get it.
2. Light: As in all photography, you will need a source of light. Your on-camera flash won’t help you here, it only lights up an area a few feet or meters ahead of you – not an entire landscape.
City lights are good. Outside of the city, a full moon is best but a crescent moon might also do, to shed enough light on your scene so that the camera can pick it up.
3. Tripod: You will definitely need to mount your camera on a tripod. Your lens aperture will have to be open for a long enough time to allow sufficient light into the camera and if you hold the camera by hand for that long, your camera shake will create a messy blur.
4. Low ISO (ASA) On most digital cameras, setting a high ISO (which is the indicator of how sensitive the camera is to light) will create a lot of digital noise. (Noise is the annoying ugly dots all over your photo that is so hard to get rid of). Digital noise especially shows up in dark areas of photographs, such as the night sky.
I suggest using an ISO of 100 or 200. If 100 lets in enough light, go for it. Otherwise try with 200. I usually use 200.
5. F-Stop F-Stop is an indicator of how big your camera aperture is. The lower the F-Stop number, the wider the aperture. A wide aperture lets in more light but it also decreases your focal length.
Focal length is the range the photograph that will be in acceptable focus. An example of a narrow focal length would be when everything that is between 10 feet away and 16 feet away from you is in acceptable focus but the rest is blurry.
In some cases you want a short focal length so that you can draw attention to the object you are photographing or drown out a messy, distracting background. But if you are photographing a scene, vista, house, or landscape, you probably want a long focal length.
For a long focal length, try a small aperture such as 16. Remember that different lenses create better images at one F-stop than another. This is a matter of getting to know your lens but if you are a beginner with your camera you don’t need to worry about that a lot right now.
6. Shutter Speed: Your shutter will need to be open long enough to get enough light into your photograph. With a digital camera, I always experiment and then check the image in the LCD screen. For some night time photographs I have kept the shutter open for up to 30 seconds. For others, such a long exposure wasn’t necessary. Remember not to touch or hold your camera during this time, as this will cause camera-shake and blur the photo. Check the photo and then adjust as necessary.
7. White Balance: In film cameras, we had different types of films for different lighting situations such as tungton lights, sunlight, fluorescent lighting, shade, cloudy day, etc. In digital photography, we have white balance. This tells the camera how to treat the colors and shades in the photo so that they turn out correctly (that’s my best way of explaining without going into lots of technical details).
For night time photography I usually use “auto white-balance” but you can experiment with different settings and see what result you like best.
8. Tighten your tripod: There is a little connector that attaches your camera to the tripod . It might seem tight but if the camera is able to weigh it down and move it slightly during the exposure, your photo will be a mess.
8. Summary: For a nighttime vista an example of settings you can start with would be ISO 200, Aperture 16, Shutter Speed 15 seconds. Then adjust as needed to get the exposure you want. You might try F 8 at around 10 seconds. Etc. Check the result in your LCD screen.
When you get what you think is a good exposure, take more than one shot at that exposure so that you can be sure to get a good one. You might try a few at a slightly higher or lower exposure, just in case (this is a long-time practice in professional photography, known as “bracketing.”)
Be patient and take lots of reshoots. When you get home and blow up your photo on a big screen you might notice that one shot was almost perfect but something blurred or there was an unseen tourist walking through the scene at just the wrong moment. Take lots of shots to make sure you get a good one. If the photo is important to you, the time is worth it.
Feel free to browse the photos on this blog for examples of nighttime Digital SLR photography. Please leave comments if there are any questions or if anything in this post was not fully clear to you.