I absolutely love night photography. I can remember the first time I took some night time photos and I was blown away by what I saw through the screen on the back of my camera. Apparently, digital cameras completely transform whatever it is you’re taking a picture of into something totally different. Brighter, more visible, more interesting and more creative looking are just a few ways I can describe what cameras can do to a scene.
In today’s post, I’d like to quickly talk about three ways you can take better night time photography in so many situations. I’ll be writing a lot about this topic in future posts that have to do with a much wider array of instances, but for today, I’ll keep things geared towards subjects and backgrounds that stay still. Of course, there can be moving objects in the scene and there probably will be, but most of what’s being photographed won’t be moving. The goal of this post is to let you in on a few secrets that photographers have been using for years. Small tricks that will help give you the most clear photos possible, because as you may well know, even the smallest camera shake or vibration can introduce blur. Especially when you’re photographing something that’s far away.
Tip #1 – The Problem With Mirror Slap
You may not have ever heard of mirror slap before, but it’s a real thing. Basically, when you set up a photo and use the optical viewfinder (the little window you look through on the back of your camera) to do so, a small mirror inside your camera is used to give you visibility of your scene through that viewfinder. When you press the shutter button to take the photo, the mirror moves from the down position to the up position very quickly. When the mirror is up, the shutter moves to expose the camera’s sensor. Once the scene is captured on the sensor for the specified amount of time necessary for a good photograph, the shutter moves back into its original position and so does the mirror. The issue here is the very slight vibration that’s caused by both the mirror movement as well as the shutter movement. Since the mirror is a tiny bit more bulky than the shutter, the mirror creates more vibration. That vibration can cause blur during some types of shoots. Namely ones that use shutter speeds between 1/100th of a second to 1/4 of a second. While the blur may be slight and many of us won’t notice it at all, it’s there and it can make a difference in the quality of a photo if it’s enlarged enough.
So, how can you deal with the detrimental effects of mirror slap? Well, most photographers simply use Live View mode at night. That is, they use the rear view screen when taking a photo as opposed to looking through the little window. When using Live View, the camera positions the mirror so it stays in the up position because it’s no longer necessary to view the scene. If there’s no mirror movement, there’s no vibration caused by it.
There are also some cameras out there that offer a feature called “mirror lock-up.” This feature moves the mirror to the up position with one press of the shutter button and then takes the photo by moving the shutter with another press of the shutter button. This essentially negates any vibration caused by the mirror’s movement.
Tip #2 – The Problem With Camera Shake
I’m sure you’ve heard of camera shake before. If you’ve ever taken a photo inside or at night, you’ve most likely experienced a longer shutter speed duration than you usually do. With a slower shutter speed, blur almost always rears its ugly head. It’s for this reason the tripod was invented (I just made that up). If you have a slow enough shutter speed, it’s nearly impossible to hand-hold a camera and get a clear photo. As you may already know, slow shutter speeds can offer remarkably creative photos, so it’s important to figure out a way to deal with shake and blur.
First, when taking photos at night, you’ll likely want to use a tripod. That’s a given. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t use one at night. Also, since your camera will be sitting on top of the tripod, it would be a terrible thing for the finger that’s pressing the shutter button to introduce shake. Yes, it’s true, just the push of a button can shake the camera to a degree where it blurs a photo. As slight as it might be, it can be annoying and even costly.
What do do about camera shake caused by your shutter button pressing finger? For one thing, you can use a remote shutter release. All this does it separate you from the camera via a wire. You plug the release into the side of the camera and then press the button with your fingers. Since the plug side of the release and the button side of it are separated by a wire, there’s no way for your shake to be transferred to the camera. It’s that simple.
Some cameras also come with a shutter delay feature. You’ll need to check to see if yours does. A shutter delay delays the actual taking of the photo for a few seconds after you push the shutter button, thereby again separating the vibration caused by your body and the camera. Both are great remedies for this problem, but I would guess most people use the remote shutter release because it’s a relatively inexpensive solution and cameras that offer the shutter delay feature are likely higher end, therefore costing more.
Tip #3 – The Problem With Grain & Dynamic Range
Okay, this is a big one and it has to do with ISO. If you aren’t aware of what ISO is, please read through this post I wrote a while ago. It explains it in pretty good detail. Basically, ISO has to do with the sensitivity of your camera’s sensor. The higher the ISO setting, the more amplified that sensitivity is. Most people use higher ISO settings in darker scenarios because they need either their shutter speeds to be fast or their apertures to be small. High ISO adjustments are a great workaround for difficult situations.
The only problem is, the higher you push the ISO setting on your camera, in general, the lower the quality of photo you’ll get because of something that’s called “grain” or “noise.” You know, the little specks you see all over a photo that was taken in the dark. Grain is usually not wanted, so it’s a good idea to avoid it when you can.
A side effect of introducing grain into a photo is the reduction of dynamic range. Because the grain that’s present takes up so many pixels in the photograph, there can actually be a noticeable loss of dark blacks and light whites. Take a look at a photo that was taken in very dark circumstances for instance. You’ll quickly notice the blandness of the picture. Again, you won’t likely get the wide dynamic range we all look for in photography with a very high ISO setting.
When taking still photos at night, it’s a good idea to set your ISO to the lowest setting possible on your camera. On mine and many others, that would be ISO 100. Since you’ll be using a tripod and since you’re primary subject won’t be moving, the low ISO is fine. It’s actually more than fine; it’s preferred. Just remember, since your ISO will be set so low, your shutter speed will be markedly slower. For instance, with an aperture set to 4.5 and an ISO set to 100, it wouldn’t be surprising for the camera to automatically choose a shutter speed of eight to ten seconds. That’s actually perfect because the sensor will have all that time to soak up its environment and your resulting photo will have very little grain. If you’ll notice the photo at the top of this post, the aperture was set to 8.0, the ISO was set to 100 and the shutter speed was set to 30 seconds. This is quite common for this type of photography. Notice the water though. Do you see how silky smooth it is? And if you look very closely at the bridge, you can see the trails from the lights on the passing cars. I simply love this type of photography.
I hope I clearly explained some quick tips for better night photography. If you have any questions regarding this post, please leave them in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!