There’s something about the photography exposure triangle that I just love. I can talk about it for hours if anyone cared to listen. It’s just technical enough to keep me interested and its concepts can be continuously applied to all types of photography. Actually, it has to be applied for decent photographs to be captured. In short, even if you use the auto modes of your DSLR camera, understanding the exposure triangle can be a huge factor in improving the photos you take.
A while ago, I wrote a few posts that have to do with taking great night photography. If you’re interested, you can read those posts here:
The three posts I just linked to primarily have to do with taking still photography at night, meaning, the photos were taken in shutter priority (a long exposure), an average sized aperture and a low ISO. Also, a tripod is used for these types of long exposure photographs. I’m sure you’ll get the idea of what I’m talking about if you browse the three posts I linked to above. Essentially, I’m referring to those types of pictures that have very little movement in them.
In today’s post, I’d like to talk about how you can best capture night photographs of moving objects. Really, this is simply going to be a post about a different combination of camera settings. The exposure triangle is one thing for night time still photography and quite another for night time photography that contains action. Or movement; whatever you want to call it.
I got the idea to write about this topic last night after flipping through a whole bunch of these types of photos. I’m not sure if I’ve tackled this specific type of situation yet, so I think it would be worthwhile to do so now. Plus, I just can’t seem to shut up about all of this, so I’ll treat this blog as my avenue of relief.
The Problem with Night Photography
There’s a real problem with night photography out there. The problem is, we need to actually know how to take good photos under low light conditions. While it’s not terribly difficult to take a regular picture of an object that’s just sitting there, it’s much more challenging to capture something in a defined way. Let’s say you wanted to see night time car tail light trails in your photos. Would your camera just take those kinds of photos without you telling it your goal? Probably not. Let’s say you wanted to capture the very defined and very focused sweat falling from a soccer player’s face during a night game. Would your camera know what to do all by itself? Again, probably not. With everyday situations, you can get away with taking ordinary night shots. In very specific situations though, you’re most likely not going to get away with things if you don’t give your camera very specific instructions.
A Definition of Movement
If you plan on taking photographs during a night time sports game that offers very low light, you’re going to have to take some very specific precautions. Both your camera and lens are going to have to be up to snuff and you’re going to need to know what you’re doing. This isn’t an easy situation to be in and you’ll likely need a lot of practice. When I think about these types of low light situations, rock concerts come to mind. Hardly and light, people jumping around, clarity is a primary concern.
For the purposes of today, I’d like to focus on situations where extreme movement ins’t in play. I’m going to imagine a situation where you’re simply walking around town, taking interesting photos of people and things. Because of the relaxed nature, you’ll need to concern yourself with having a shutter speed that’s fast enough to avoid blur, but not so fast that it’s the most primary of considerations. The goal is clarity, but there’s not excessive movement or action.
With any type of photography, there are three primary considerations. They are movement, light and blur (depth of field). In my previous posts, the greatest concern was light, so the shutter speed was decreased to a point of letting enough of it in to make a fine photograph. In those posts, I discussed the fact that since the shutter speed was slowed to such a degree, the aperture size could be reduced for a clearer photo and the ISO value could be reduced as well, to minimize noise. The slower shutter speed would compensate for both of these things.
In today’s post, movement is important, so I’d like to emphasize that shutter speed will be critical. The thing is, the lack of light is also something to contend with, so aperture size is equally important. Finally, since a higher ISO’s impact on the quality of photograph has been remarkably reduced through the years, I’ll say that we can leave that for the camera to decide.
Good Settings For Night Photography
I’m going to give you some round-about camera settings for some decent night photography, depending on how much ambient light you have available. If you’ve never tried night photography, you really should go out and experience it. There’s nothing like it and scenes are truly woken up when captured by a camera.
Okay, so, I have a few goals. I’d like my low light photos to be clear in the sense that I don’t want any movement to show. I’d like the camera to capture enough light for the photos to be relatively bright. I don’t mind bokeh (out of focus blur); I actually prefer it and really, I can’t avoid it with the settings I’ll need to choose for a situation like this. Finally, I don’t want a crazy amount of grain in my photo. I know what my camera can handle and I don’t want to push its limits.
As I mentioned above, one of my primary considerations is light. To capture as much light as possible, I’m going to need a fast lens. I’d preferably like it to be either f1.2 or f1.4, depending on how much out of focus range I can put up with. Remember, the larger the aperture, the shallower the depth of field (more blur). F1.4 is a really great aperture size with work with while walking around town taking low light photos, however, an f1.2 setting can produce incredible results as well.
Because of the large aperture size inside the lens, I’ll have some liberty when it comes to shutter speed. Depending on the movement in the scene, I can get away with a 1/400th of a second shutter speed. Ideally, I’d like it to be slower than that, in order to let more light in (which can result in a lower ISO value), so I’d much prefer something as slow as 1/200th of a second, but I could go up to 1/640 if there was still a glow in the sky from a fallen sun. This setting would be scene dependent.
As I mentioned earlier, modern cameras have come such a long way in terms of reducing grain caused by high ISO values. Because of this, I’d likely let my camera decide which value it would use during this type of photography. I would set the upper limit to 6400 though because that’s what I’m comfortable with. You should test your own camera to see where photos begin to degrade in relation to ISO values. My older camera I bought way back in 2011 began to degrade at ISO 800, but my new Canon Rebel T7i does a much better job at keeping noise out of the picture.
Here’s what I’d like to say. If you want to walk around with a camera at night without a tripod, you’re going to need to set your camera shutter speed to a value that allows you to avoid camera shake and excessive movement of the subjects in the frame. Also, because of the low light in the scene, you’re going to need a big hole in the lens to allow what available light there is, in. Finally, you’ll need to set your sensor to be sensitive enough to allow your lens and shutter to do what they do best, which is control movement and let light in. As always, testing and experimentation is key, so do lots and lots of that. It’ll be worth it in the end.
I know I sort of rambled in this post, but I wanted to get some thoughts out that I had floating around my head. I hope I clearly explained some of the ins and outs of hand-held night time photography. If you have any questions regarding this post, please let me know in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!