Most people think of photography as a daytime hobby. When it gets dark out, perhaps you'll pop the flash up and take some snapshots, but that's about it. I've talked about how to take better photos with a flash, but this week I want to try something different: taking night photos without any flash at all. With a little practice, you can take some breathtaking photos using nothing but ambient light sources like streetlights or headlights, in effect making them the subject of your photos.
What You'll Need to Shoot at Night
First, the good news. Almost any modern digital camera can take impressive night photos. The most important requirement is that your camera should be able to take a long exposure, generally using a manual exposure mode. Ideally, you'll be able to dial in shutter speeds as long as 15 or 30 seconds. If your camera lacks a manual exposure mode, all is not lost; check to see if you have a "night" scene mode. This won't give you the same control, but it'll get you started in night photography.
That said, there's no getting around it: You'll need to bring along a tripod. Since the exposure will be several seconds long, it's essential to secure the camera like I describe in "Stabilize our Camera for Razor-Sharp Photos."
Equipped withjust those two ingredients--exposure control and a tripod--you can take photos that give ordinary scenes a whole new look when you shoot them in the evening, like this Las Vegas scene.
Taking the Shot
Now it's nighttime and you've got your camera on a tripod, pointed at something interesting--a city skyline, shops lit up for the evening, a busy highway with cars whooshing by. If you have a manual mode, use it to set your camera's aperture to a middle setting (like f/8) and pick a short 4-second exposure.
Take the shot and check the result in the LCD. If you're trying to capture motion, you might get something like this shot of a passing train.
You can adjust subsequent shots by tweaking your exposure--changing the shutter speed, the aperture, or both. You can make the lights in the shot brighter by opening the aperture (dialing in a smaller f-number), and you can brighten the background or include more car headlights by lengthening the shutter speed. You'll be able to get interesting shots with shutter speeds that range from 2 seconds to 30 seconds.
Remember, if you try using a longer exposure (to capture long light trails as cars go by, for example), your photo might look overexposed. If you see that happening in your LCD after youtake a photo, compensate for that in your next photo by using a smaller aperture setting (larger f-number).
Some Night Photo Tips and Tricks
Those are the basics; now you know enough to go take some fun, compelling night photos. But there are some things you might want to keep in mind that will make your photos better.
For starters, keep digital noise in mind. You already know that higher ISO values increase the noise in your photos, so shoot at the lowest ISO level possible. But long exposures also increase noise, so your night photos might be relatively noisier than your daytime photos. You'll get better results with a digital SLR ora newer, advanced point-and-shoot camera. If you shoot with a camera that spills noise all over the image when shooting long exposures at night, you might want to try some noise reduction to clean up the photo afterwards.
This photo, for example, was taken with a camera that generates too much noise in long-exposure, low-light photos. Check out "Reduce Digital Noise in Your Photos" for tips on reducing the effects of that noise.
In addition, night photography is one of those situations in which shooting in your camera's RAW mode (if it has one) can be a real advantage. RAW mode captures significantly more color and brightness information than it's possible to display in a JPEG image. That means you can edit your photo afterwards to bring out shadow details that would be lost if you work exclusively in JPEG mode. Check out "Using Your Camera's RAW Mode" for an example of how RAW can save a nighttime photo shoot.