Night photography is a lot of fun, but it does pose a few challenges. It requires that you know how to operate your camera on a much higher level than you would normally need to know. It also requires that you become much more aware of your surroundings. When shooting at night, one vital sense is all but removed – vision.
In order for a camera to correctly focus on an object, it needs to see the object. Cameras focus on things by measuring the levels of contrast among the edges of those things. In low-light situations, edges are difficult to discern, making that contrast nearly impossible to see. This begs the question, if cameras need to see things to focus and those cameras can’t see things at night, how do they focus at all? Well, it’s not easy, but there are some tried and true tricks a photographer can employ to capture the sharpest shots possible.
In today’s post, I’d like to run through some of these tricks. If you’re into shooting in low-light situations, in the dark, at night or any other less than ideal scenario, please take the time to read what I have to offer below. I’ll talk about some methods I’ve had luck with in the past as well as some hints I’ve picked up along the way. The goal is to take tremendous photographs at night and in order to do that, we need to have sharp focus. Hopefully what I share below will help.
Now that we know cameras need to see things in order to focus on them, one of the best and easiest options we have a pretty good amount of control over is to use a flashlight. This option obviously depends on how close you are to your subject. If you’re in walking distance, there are no obstacles impeding your path and your flashlight is powerful enough, there’s a good chance the light you’ll shine on the object will be bright enough for the camera to pick up on some of those elusive edges. If you’re a beginner, a cheap flashlight will do, but if you’re really into taking wonderful night photography, you’ll want to pick up a powerful flashlight. Remember though, after shining the light on the subject, push your shutter button down half way so your camera can focus. Then, turn the light off and continue pushing the button down to take the shot. An alternative to that would be to shine the light, meter your camera by pushing the shutter down half way and then letting go of the shutter button. At this point, the camera will be focused and you can turn off auto-focus on the lens and shoot away.
The Flashlight – Again
If you think about how focusing works, you’ll find that it’s really not all the difficult of a concept to grasp. The camera is simply choosing a plane of focus to capture. Think about it this way; picture two people holding a huge plate of glass. The face of the glass is facing you and the two people are walking either closer to you or further away from you. Consider the glass the plane. That plane is what the camera focuses on. It’s flat and it moves either closer or further away, depending on how you turn the focus ring on your lens. With that in mind, all you need to do is to let the camera find the correct plane or you can even do is yourself in manual focus mode.
If you’re close enough to your subject and nothing is in the way, just like in the example I gave above, another option to get a good focus is to walk over to the object, place a flashlight down facing the camera, walk back to the camera and then focus on the flashlight. Since the flashlight will in the proper plane, you’ll have good focus. Of course, after focusing, you’ll need to remove the flashlight from the scene. If you have a helper, that’s all the better. Remember though, you’ll need to place the flashlight in just the right spot, depending on your aperture setting. The larger the aperture, the shallower the depth of field, so be careful.
Dimly Lit Distance Shots
If you’re taking photos of something that’s far away and there’s something else that’s relatively the same distance away, but that’s lit up, try focusing on that lit up area first and then move to the darker object and take your photo. By focusing on the lit up area, you’ll be setting your camera. Once you do that, you can employ one of the tricks I shared above; you can either meter the camera in order to focus, keep the shutter button held and then snap away or you can meter the camera and then switch your lens from auto-focus to manual focus to capture your shots.
Use Live View Mode
On my Canon Rebel T7i, I have these awesome magnifying buttons that bring a subject wicked close to me via the rear LCD screen. I can really pseudo zoom into something to make sure I’m focused as good as possible. In low light situations, it might be helpful to magnify the live view scene to get the best focus and then take the photo. Of course, this won’t work in totally dark situations, but if there’s some light out there to hook onto, you can get a pretty good idea of how crisp your focus is. You’ll likely want to stay in manual focus for this option as well because you’ll have the ability to dial in slowly and as you see fit.
PS – With all of these options, you’re obviously going to be using a tripod because your shutter speed is going to be very slow.
Test, Test, Test
Again, if you’re using live view mode, you can try taking a photo and then analyzing its focal characteristics on the rear LCD screen. Leave the lens in manual focus mode and continue taking photos every time you turn the focus dial slightly. Because cameras capture darker scenes rather brightly, you shouldn’t have an issue getting a good idea of the quality of your shots. Once you find that sweet spot (the correct plane), stick with it and keep shooting.
Use the Distance Markers on Your Lens
If you have a lens that offers those little distance markers and you know the general distance of your subject, use the markers. While they aren’t perfect, they could definitely offer some guidance. If you’re taking photos of something that’s far away, you’ll most likely want to set your infinity symbol with the indicator line on the lens. Again, these markers are there to assist, so I wouldn’t completely bank on them. Get the lens set and then revisit the section above this one; test, test, test.
Visit Your Scene During the Daytime
This suggestion goes hand in hand with the previous one. Let’s say you visit your scene during the day, focus on the object you’d like to photograph and then record the distance markers on the lens. If you did this, you could return to the scene at night and easily take your photos without having to concern yourself with focusing at all. All you would need to do is set your focal distance to what you recorded earlier and you’ll be all set.
Focus On a Bright Spot
This suggestion is sort of like the second one, where I indicated that focusing on a flashlight would help. What if you can’t place a flashlight in the scene? Well, if you’re taking a photo of a scene that has any sort of a bright spot, such as street lights or lit windows in buildings, focus on them. This suggestion is perfect for when using auto-focus because that auto-focus will love focusing on something bright in a lower-light situation.
Remember when I told you about how cameras need edges to set their focus? Well, if you try focusing on a bright object with very few edges, your camera will still have trouble focusing. Depending on how your focus is set up in your camera (I use a center focus), you can try focusing on the edge of the bright area. For me, this would mean shifting the little box in the view finder or on the live view screen just to the side of the bright area. That way, I can get what I’m after.
This topic is rather deep and there are a few more tricks that can help, but I think these will get you off to a good start if you’re interested in taking photos at night. There are even a few different camera settings that can help out in these situations, such as different aperture sizes, a more involved discussion about the lens scale, back button focus and focus lock. We’ll get to those soon, but again, this is a good start.
I hope I clearly offered some guidance on how to enjoy night photography by getting the best focus out of your camera as possible. If you have any questions regarding this post, please let me know in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!