To take good photos at night, like this cityscape, follow tips from Alan Hess.

Getting into Night Photography

By Alan Hess

Photography is the act of capturing light that bounces off of a subject and recording it with a camera sensor or film. This is pretty easy when there is a lot of light, but it's more difficult in low-light situations. These tips will help you get the best images possible.

THE IMPORTANCE OF LOCATION SCOUTING FOR NIGHTTIME PHOTOGRAPHY

Photographing a scene at night means working in the dark, which is not the easiest thing to do. Because the color and quality of the light changes minute by minute after the sun drops below the horizon, you need to figure out what your subject is and where you will be photographing from so you can set up your camera and tripod before the sun starts to set. This involves going around earlier in the day to scout locations that you think will make the best images later.

Night photography begins before the sun sets and preparing for a shoot requires some imagination. You need to be able to visualize what the scene will look like when the sun goes down and the nighttime lights come on. As you can see below, the scene can look very different during the daylight hours compared to how it looks after the sun sets.

Another really good reason to scout locations when it is still light out is that it’s safer than trying to navigate an unfamiliar area in the dark. Some areas that are safe during daylight can become unsafe as the day ends. You need to be aware of your surroundings. Many times, you can get a sense of the safety of an area just by looking at it closely when there is light. You can also familiarize yourself with the terrain, which will come in handy when you’re trying to move around in low light. You don’t want to trip or step into a hole while you’re setting up a shot or after you’re done photographing for the night.

During the day, this bridge isn’t all that interesting, but at night, the lights and reflections can make the scene look very different. Left: ISO 800; 1/1600 sec.; f/6.3; 20mm. Right: ISO 200; 174 sec.; f/16; 35mm.

The area under the bridge is interesting during the day because of the way the graphic elements combine, but it looks even cooler at night. I used a long exposure to smooth out the water, which makes the reflection much more defined. Left: ISO 400; 1/80 sec.; f/16; 35mm. Right: ISO 200; 120 seconds; f/11; 28mm.

PHOTOGRAPHING CITY LIGHTS

Photographs of cityscapes are what a lot people think about when you talk about night photography, and there is a good reason for that. The nighttime cityscape is a vibrant, colorful subject that can give you great results on just about any night. When you want to shoot a cityscape, there are two great vantage points from which to shoot. The first is to shoot the city from a distance, preferably over water. The second is to get up as high as possible and look down on the city.

(Left) The San Diego downtown skyline photographed from across the water on Coronado Island. ISO 100; 13 sec.; f/10; 70mm. (Right) The San Diego downtown area photographed from the 40th floor of a building. ISO 800; 5 sec.; f/2.8; 20mm.

Getting the proper exposure for nighttime cityscapes can be a little tricky because the sky progressively gets darker, and as the lights come on, the city gets brighter. Here’s what to do:

  • Mount the camera on a tripod and compose the image through the viewfinder.
  • Lock the camera in place and attach a cable release or remote.
  • Set the exposure mode to Shutter Speed Priority.
  • Set the metering mode to Matrix (Nikon), Evaluative (Canon), or Multi-zone (Sony) metering.
  • Set the ISO to 200.
  • Set the aperture to f/16.
  • Press the shutter release button halfway down and look at the shutter speed selected by the camera.
  • Change the exposure mode to Manual and set the shutter speed to the value selected in the previous step.
  • Take the photo.
  • If the resulting image is too light, increase the shutter speed.
  • If the resulting image is too dark, decrease the shutter speed.
  • Keep adjusting and checking the exposure as the sky gets darker and the city lights come on.

As I shot the set of images above, I adjusted the exposure until I got the one I wanted (circled in red).

When you’re shooting a scene with city lights, you have to wait until the lights actually come on, which may not happen until after the sky has gone completely dark. Every once in a while, the lights will come on when the sky is still light. This usually occurs right around daylight saving time when the clocks have been reset but the lights have not.

You can also use multiple exposures to create a scene in which the lights are on in the buildings and the sky isn’t completely dark. This is a little Photoshop technique that was born out of my frustration when the sky color got too dark and the city lights hadn’t come on yet.

To do this, you need two images: one with the sky at the right light level and one with the lights on in the buildings. Then you can combine the two images in Photoshop using a layer mask to create the final image.

(Left) I took this photograph about 10 minutes after the sun had set. The sky looked just how I wanted it to, but the city lights had not come on yet. ISO 100; 2 sec.; f/16; 200mm. (Middle) About 30 minutes after sunset, the sky was much darker and the city lights had come on. ISO 100; 30 sec.; f/16; 200mm. (Right) I blended the two images together by using a layer mask in Photoshop. The final shot includes both the city lights and the evening sky.

PHOTOGRAPHING THE MOON AND THE NIGHT SKY

When we look up into the night sky and see the full moon, it not only commands our attention, it can also inspire our creative side. The fact that humans have traveled to the moon and even walked on its surface is awe-inspiring. All these things make the moon a great subject, but most people who point their cameras at the moon end up disappointed with the results. The main reason is that the moon is smaller than you think when shot against the night sky.

To capture a good photograph of the moon, you need to use a lens with a large focal length, such as 600mm or more. In November of 2016 while I was writing this book, I photographed the largest supermoon since 1948. On that night, the moon was closer and brighter than it had been in 68 years. However, even the biggest moon doesn’t look very impressive in my photograph, and this was shot at 400mm on a crop-sensor camera (equivalent focal length of 600mm). Really, if you use anything less than 600mm, the moon will look a little disappointing and it will be hard to see the detail.

Even this supermoon shot with a 400mm lens on a crop-sensor camera looks small in the frame. ISO 400; 1/250 sec.; f/8; 400mm (600mm equivalent).

So how do photographers get those really cool photos in which the moon looks huge? A lot of that has to do with where the moon is in the night sky and the focal length of the lens. When the moon is coming up or going down, it looks a lot closer and bigger than it does when it is overhead. The compression that happens when you use long lenses can make the moon look closer and bigger due to its relationship to the items in the foreground and middle ground.

The moon photographed from a low angle with the city skyline in the foreground. The position of the moon and its relationship to the buildings in the foreground makes it seem bigger. Image © Daniel Knighton, Pixel Perfect Images. ISO 400; 1/30 sec.; f/5.6; 600mm.

Getting a sharp, clear photograph of the moon isn’t difficult if you understand what is going on. The moon is very bright and is always moving, so you need to use a pretty fast shutter speed to freeze it. Because the moon takes up such a small amount of the frame, the camera’s built-in light meter won’t have enough information to create a proper exposure, so it’s best to use Manual exposure mode. Start by setting the camera to ISO 400, 1/250 second, f/5.6. After you take a photo, check the exposure on the back of the camera and zoom in to 100% to examine the focus. If the moon looks too bright, increase the shutter speed. If it’s too dark, increase the ISO. If you use a shutter speed slower than 1/250 second, you run the risk of ending up with a slightly blurry moon.

The stars are another wonderful subject just waiting to be photographed, but capturing good star trail photos is a little more complicated. You need a tripod and a cable release to keep the shutter open for a period of time. You also need a clear sky without any of the light pollution you get from nearby cities. For example, when I aim the camera at the night sky in San Diego and leave the shutter open, the lights from the city start to bleed into the frame.

There are two different methods for getting images of star trails. The first is to just set the camera up, aim the lens at a part of the night sky, and leave the shutter open to capture the stars. That's what I did to capture this image, which I took in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park where there is very little light pollution. ISO 400; 600 sec.; f/5.6; 20mm.

When you use this method, the main issues you’ll face are how to determine the amount of time to keep the shutter open and what ISO and aperture to use to get a proper exposure. The best option is to use the concept of equivalent exposures to get the best settings. Start with a short shutter speed and a high ISO to get a proper exposure, and then adjust the shutter speed and ISO until you get a long enough exposure to create star trails. Follow this example, but remember that your exposure settings will be different because your night sky will be different:

  • Set the camera to Manual mode.
  • Set the ISO to 6400.
  • Set the aperture to f/5.6.
  • Set the shutter speed to Bulb.
  • Use the cable release to take a 90-second exposure.
  • Check the exposure on the back of the camera. If the image is too dark, double the shutter speed to 3 minutes. If the image is too bright, try a shutter speed of 45 seconds.
  • Take another shot and check it on the back of the camera again. Continue adjusting the shutter speed until you get the image you want.

Once the exposure looks right on the back of the camera, you can change the ISO and shutter speed to get a much longer exposure and more movement in the stars. The idea is to drop the ISO from 6400 to 200, which will require a huge increase in the amount of time the shutter is open. There is a little math here, but it’s not that difficult. The difference between ISO 6400 and ISO 200 is 5 full stops (6400 to 3200 to 1600 to 800 to 400 to 200). Each full stop reduces the amount of light reaching the sensor by half, so you need to increase the length of time the shutter is open by 5 full stops. For example, if you ended up with a proper exposure at 1 minute and ISO 6400, you will need a shutter speed of 32 minutes at ISO 200.

The second method for capturing star trails is to take a series of images of the same area and combine them during post-processing, which is what my nephew Tyler did to create the photo below.

My nephew Tyler shot this star trail photo in South Texas. To create the final photograph, he used a set of 211 images and combined them in Photoshop. Image © Tyler Torwick. ISO 800; 24 sec.; f/2.8.

The idea behind image stacking is to break up one long exposure into smaller pieces. For example, instead of an hour-long exposure, you would take two 30-minute exposures. You can then combine individual images with the statistics script in Photoshop to create a single image file. Here’s how to do it:

  • Open Photoshop.
  • Go to File > Scripts > Statistics. This opens a menu that allows you to select the files you want to combine and the method to do so.
  • Select the images you want to stack together.
  • Change the Stack Mode to Maximum.
  • Click OK, and the file will open in Photoshop and can now be edited.

To get the best results when you’re shooting star trail images, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Point the camera at the North Star (Polaris). This will give you the circles that look really good.
  • Use a long exposure time, regardless of whether you’re shooting one frame or multiple frames to combine later. You will want at least a 30-minute exposure. This allows for lots of movement, which results in longer trails.
  • The further away you can get from city lights, the better. This cuts down on any light pollution bleeding into the image.

ADJUSTING WHITE BALANCE AND USING CURVES FOR BETTER COLOR

The white balance setting tells your camera what color the light is under which you are photographing so that you get accurate colors in your images. It is really easy for the camera to be fooled when it uses the Auto white balance mode, especially when you’re shooting at night under mixed lighting conditions. Luckily, there is a very easy way to adjust the white balance during post-processing with Adobe Photoshop.

The Adobe Camera Raw module allows you to adjust the white balance in couple of different ways depending on the file type. You can use an eyedropper to pick a neutral spot of color in the image, you can use sliders to adjust the colors, or you can use a drop-down list that contains presets for the different lighting types.

The eyedropper tool lets you pick a spot in an image to set as neutral, and the rest of the colors are automatically adjusted.

(Left) You can adjust the white balance of an image with these two sliders. The top one adjusts the temperature from cool to hot (blue to yellow), and the bottom one adjusts the tint from green to magenta. (Right) The White Balance drop-down menu lets you quickly pick the type of lighting under which the shot was taken from a list of presets. If you open Camera Raw as a filter in Photoshop, or if you are adjusting the white balance of a TIFF or JPEG file, this menu will include only the As Shot, Auto, and Custom options.

Since you can open the Camera Raw module as a filter in Adobe Photoshop, you can adjust the white balance of any individual layer, but in this case, the drop-down list of presets includes only three options: As Shot, Auto, and Custom. The powerful part of adjusting the white balance of individual layers is that you can adjust different parts of the image and combine them easily by using layer masks.

I shot the photo below-left at a very high ISO, which caused some color shifts to occur, and the LED lights made the image look too warm. I used the color picker to pick what I thought would be a neutral spot and all the colors improved (see photo below-right).

Before I adjusted the white balance, this image looked too warm. The red arrow points to the spot I selected as neutral. After I did this, all of the colors in the image improved.

Another way in which you can quickly adjust the colors in an image is by using the Curves adjustment in Photoshop, which allows you to remap the colors in your image by picking a black point and a white point. You can also use this method to tone your image by purposely introducing a colorcast. The steps to do this are pretty easy, and the adjustments can range from very subtle to really blatant.

  • Open the image in Adobe Photoshop.
  • Click on the Curves adjustment layer to open the Curves adjustment panel.
  • Change the channel to Red in the Curves adjustment panel.
  • Select the Sample Black Point eyedropper and click on the area that is pure black in your image, or at least the area you want to be black.
  • Select the Sample White Point eyedropper and click on the area that is pure white in your image, or at least the area you want to be white.
  • Repeat this process for the Green and Blue channels.

The Curves properties (left) and the Sample Black Point and Sample White Point eyedroppers (right).

Excerpted from The Enthusiast's Guide to Night and Low-Light Photography by Alan Hess and used with the permission of Rocky Nook.