Night time photography, especially handheld can be a challenge. It can be difficult to find focus, large ISOs can lead to noisy images and often images end up out of focus.
Use a high aperture
A fast lens f/2.8 or larger can offer some great creative opportunities when coupled with city lights. The image below was captured with a f/1.8 lens. I wanted to use the distant market light to contrast the dark alleyway.
You can see the use of the high aperture allows us to use lights with the background being out of focus so we are drawn to the silhouette of the subject in the foreground.
Long Exposure Night Photography
If you don’t have a lens fast enough for handheld night time photography then you can embrace the longer shutter speeds with some long exposure photography.
The process of long exposure photography remains the same, [ learn how to take long exposure photos ] we use a longer shutter speed to allow longer time for light to reach the sensor.
Technique 1 : Writing with Light
Place your camera on a tripod so it remains perfectly still. Lock your ISO to 100 (or as low as the camera allows). Set the shutter speed to 30 seconds and the aperture to f/16. Have someone write a word into the air using a torch as you start the exposure. I find the slower you write the better the image.
You may need to experiment with the aperture, if the image is too bright reduce the aperture to f/20 or if it is too dark you can increase to f/12 etc. Once you confidence grows you can use sparklers (the challenge of limited burn time) at halloween.
It will take a couple of attempts to achieve favourable results. Once you are happy with the photos it is only a matter of flipping the image horizontally (in Lightroom or Photoshop).
Technique 2 : City Long Exposure Photography
The city at night can offer a wide range of long exposure opportunities. As always a tripod is the ideal but it isn’t always something you will have with you. In the past I have used my car roof (image below with Harland Wolff in the background), a cardboard box (image below of ferris wheel reflection) and my camera bag to lock my camera steady. A tripod is definitely easier but as your confidence grows you will learn how to adapt to situations.
Again, lock the ISO as low as possible and experiment adjusting / balancing the aperture and shutter speed. Mirrorless cameras offer a bit of an advantage as they offer a sense of the exposure via the digital viewfinder.
As a rule of thumb I tend you use the smallest aperture my lens allows and work the shutter speed accordingly. In the city environment I tend to shoot with a shutter speed of anything between 10-30 seconds. More-often than not it is the environment that defines the time. For example in the above road image I had to time between changes in the traffic lights.
Technique 3 : Fireworks
Firework displays offer some creative photographic opportunities. Again using a tripod you can use the fireworks to silhouette interesting foreground subjects.
Alternative you can use the long exposure photography technique to draw out the light lines of the fireworks.
A tripod is almost essential for fireworks photography as your camera will be pointed at an angle into the sky. With this type of long exposure you won’t need to go much beyond 20 seconds for a creative shot. Timing is everything so expect more than a few missed opportunities along the way.
Lightroom Long Exposure Editing
I generally come back to the computer with a dozen images with only one or two making the final edit. Long Exposure images don’t tend to need that much adjustment or editing. Generally I adjust the blacks and increase the contrast as the hard work is all done in camera. I have created a simple Lightroom preset for night based long exposure images that is applied on import. Contrast +2 Blacks -2.
The best way to learn is to experiment. If you are heading out at night look for opportunities to experiment with high contrast or long exposure photography. You don’t need anything special equipment for this sort of creative photography, it’s all about getting creative with the number. If you are new to photography then check out ‘Understanding Depth of Field‘