I’ve been thinking lately about how I shoot at night and I figured it would be a good idea to share some of those thoughts here for you. Night photography isn’t the easiest of all types of photography and if you can learn a few tried and true methods for obtaining the best results, you’ll be much better off. I can remember when I first began messing with the shutter speed and aperture settings on my camera to take some low light photos – boy was that a disaster. One of my primary issues wasn’t the camera settings at all. It had more to do with composition. So once you get the settings down, you’ll need to know how to actually compose your images. And believe it or not, it’s pretty easy to do that.
I know this is obvious, but we have to remember that things are so much easier when it comes to photographing in the daylight. Composition is almost an afterthought. When you see something that should be captured, it’s not like you have to think hard about what to do. If you have even a small amount of experience, it’s almost an autonomic reaction. Get where you need to be, point and shoot. Of course, if you’re going for something much more creative than regular eye level shots, you’ll need to consider composition a bit more than that. In the daylight though, it’s still pretty easy, once you get used to things.
During low light situations (nighttime) though, the experience become a lot more complicated. The reason for this is simple. You can’t see. Even if you can pick a target with a flashlight and manage to focus on that target, the rest of the scene still needs to make sense. Below, I’ll offer a few tips to deal with these types of situations.
1. Try to choose times when there’s at least a little bit of light. If you’re shooting during one of those nights where your environment is absolutely pitch black, it simply may not be worth it. You’ll need to see at least some contrast and pitch black nights with no moon, stars or lingering light in the atmosphere from the sun don’t offer that.
2. Box off your scenes. Just like with daytime photography, you’ll need to separate the elements of your scene from one another so your brain can make sense of them. The sky is a big part of things at night, so keep that in mind. Are there mountains? Can you see the contrast between those mountains and the sky? Is there an interesting foreground? Are there objects in that foreground? Remember, even though you’ll likely be using a tripod because of your longer shutter times, you’re still mobile. Pick up your tripod/camera combination and move it around until you’re happy with what you’ll be photographing. Also, move your body around to take all the elements of the scene into account and think about what the camera will see. It’s the “boxes” that will guide you down the right path.
3. Remember your contrast. One of the most important aspects to consider when it comes to night photography is the difference between elements in your composition. Think about mountains against the sky. The mountains will likely come out pure black in your shot, but the sky above it is what people are going to be moved by. That and the edge of the mountains themselves. Also, think about trees in the foreground against the sky. Since there’s bound to be light left above from the moon and stars, that nice long shutter speed is going to give you such interesting results if you incorporate some darker shapes, such as trees, buildings, plants, branches, etc. Basically, a lot of night photography depends on how elements in your scenes relate to one another as opposed to the elements themselves.
4. Change your position. This tip relates to the previous one. Again, since you’re shots will look so much better if you situate your elements against a backdrop, such as the sky, you’ll need to position yourself to take advantage of things you may not have considered initially. Think about smaller plants and bushes that you may have passed right by previously. How would photos of these things look if you lowered your tripod all the way down or got down on your belly to take the shot? If you’ve got the sky in the background, you may be surprised with the results. I love these kinds of interesting night photos. It’s all about angle.
5. Consider previously considered elements. If you initially wanted to capture a standing landscape image, don’t forget about that just because you’re now determined to get down low to capture something smaller, such as what I just mentioned in the previous tip. Keep your original landscape idea, then get down low to place the smaller element in the shot. Take the picture so it captures both the smaller element and the landscape behind it. It can be the best of both worlds.
6. Remember your long shutter speeds. I don’t want to get technical in this post, but I just wanted to remind you that you’re going to need to take advantage of some pretty long shutter speeds. When you keep your aperture at something like f/5.6 for depth of field and your ISO at 100, 200 or 400 to keep the noise low, you’ll likely need shutter speeds of at least 90 seconds. For this, you’ll probably need to set your camera to bulb mode. More on that in later posts.
Okay, I think that about sums it up. I just wanted to give you some simple ideas I had about how to compose better photography at night. If you have any questions or comments about this post or if you have anything to add, please let me know in the comment section down below or in the Low Light/Night Photography forum. Thanks for reading!