10 Tips for Night Shooting

While attending Wednesday’s SF Photography Meetup Group’s event at the Palace of Fine Arts, I noticed that there are a some basic tips and tricks of night time shooting that elude many people. After sharing some some a few tips here and there with people, I thought I would be valuable to share a list of tips for night shooting:

  • Tripod: This is a no brainer. Everyone knows to use a tripod at night for sharp images. However, for optimal results consider the following:
    • Invest in Quality: While the portable Velbon or Kmart blue light special tripods can work (I own a portable Velbon myself) they tend to be a bit more unstable than usually desirable. You might not notice on a nice calm night, but when there is a bit of breeze it will become apparent.
    • Keep it Short: Extending your tripod completely to it’s fullest height will make it more comfortable for you to shoot. But the higher you set it, the more unstable a tripod will become. (Call it the physics of tripod construction) Especially if you have one where the center column can be extended above the legs. This will definitely give you more shake than if you keep it down.
    • Anchor It: The higher grade tripods typically have a hook or latch somewhere. Usually it will be a hook at the bottom of the center column. Sometimes (like on the Manfrotto I have) there will be a loop between two of the legs near the top of the tripod. Use this to hang some weight on the tripod to anchor it and add stability. So, what do you usually carry with you that can be used as a dead weight…how about your camera bag? Play around with this before you get into the field to figure out the best way to attach your bag to the tripod, sometimes you might need an extra strap or piece of heavy duty velcro. You can also get creative when you don’t have a hook or latch and wrap velcro around the head of the tripod to attach your anchor weight.
  • Cable Release: A cable release allows you to fire the shutter without having to touch the camera body (and tripod). It’s amazing how much you can move the camera trying to press the shutter button! Like everything with photography, you can spend a little here or a lot. Just keep in mind that if you lock the shutter open and/or need to set the cable release down to do something (like paint some light on your subject) you might induce shake. Most cable releases aren’t long enough to reach the ground on a moderately high tripod. Letting it swing in the wind isn’t the best idea.
    • Timer: If you don’t have a cable release, at least use your built in timer to fire the shutter. This will let you press the shutter release button and let the camera settle before taking the picture. Most cameras default to 10 second timer. Some models will switch to a 2-3 second timer if the camera is set to bulb mode, which can save some time. Check your user manual for details on the timer for your camera. (That’s the little book that came with the camera that you probably never opened…at least if your like me.)
  • Mirror Lockup: When you fire the shutter there are two things that happen inside your D/SLR camera. First, the mirror that reflects light from the lens to your view finder flips up. Second, the shutter opens and then closes to expose your image. These two happen right after each other, and it’s amazing how much vibration the mirror flipping up can create for the exposure. (try placing the camera on a tripod with a cable release, place your hand on top, then press the shutter release…most of what you felt was from the mirror flipping up!). Most D/SLRs have a feature called “Mirror Lockup”. By default this is turned off. When you turn it on, you have to press the shutter release twice: first to flip up the mirror, and second to open the shutter. By separating the two and giving a few seconds between them, you can remove the mirror flip up vibration from your images. Again, check your user manual for details of where this option is and how it works. (On my Canon, it’s under the “Custom Functions” menu).

    Just remember to turn this off again when you’re done with your night shooting…or you will be standing there for a while wondering why your camera isn’t working next time you use it. (that’s experience speaking…)

  • Long Exposure Noise Reduction: Most modern DSLR’s will have noise inserted into images that are exposed for long periods of time. (It has to do with physics: electricity and what it does over long periods of time to an image sensor) Most cameras have an advanced feature to reduce noise on long exposures. This is typically off by default. When turned on, your exposure times will double. If you’re taking a 20 second exposure, the camera will capture the image for 20 seconds, then it will close the shutter and recored a “black” image for 20 seconds. This tells the camera’s brains where the noise is for a 20 second exposure under the current conditions. The camera then uses an algorithm to remove that noise from the image before recording it. This will help make long exposures a bit cleaner. Just think twice before you use this on a long exposure… Again check your camera’s manual for details on where and how to turn this feature on.
  • Red Light: Ever watch Hunt for Red October? When they enter into battle stations, typically the lighting changes to red (yes, the American sub’s battle lights are blue…just ignore them for now). This is because red light prevents you from loosing your “night vision”. Your pupils open up wider to let more light in and give you better vision in the dark. White light will cause your pupils to shrink back small…and it takes them longer to open up again. Using a red light (like a red LED flashlight, or a normal flashlight with a red lens) will let you see your surroundings, your gear, etc. but not ruin your night vision. (The red LED flashlights also work great for light painting. Earlier this year I found a pocket LED flashlight with a lens that rotates between white, red, blue, and green colors! How sweet is that?)
  • Bulb Mode: Ever see “bulb” flash on your camera as you crank the dial to increase exposure time? Bulb mode is when your shutter stays open for as long as you hold down the shutter release. Most cameras will top out at a 30 second exposure. Bulb mode combined with a locking cable release allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you want. Long enough to walk away from the camera to paint your subject with light, take a short nap for a really long exposure, or….you get the idea.

Most of these tips are designed to help reduce any shake or vibrations that can ruin a night time photo shoot. Each tip will reduce the amount of vibration by varying amounts. If you’re shooting with a long lens, reducing the itty bitty vibrations can make a huge difference. Give them a try next time your out on a night time shoot!

2 thoughts

  1. Greg,
    great night shots. It seems I missed a very good meetup this time! I particularly like the photo of the wiping willow. Did you use a flash to illuminate the leaves?

    [Reply]

  2. For the photo of the willow I used my portable strobe to illuminate the tree leaves. I thought it turned out well with the orange glow from the street light illuminating behind the tree.

    [Reply]

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