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Everything changes after dark. A short night-time walk is enough to literally feel the change around you. It gets quieter, the air feels different, and of course, if you’re into photography, there is a whole new world of light to explore.
Daylight’s warm sun tones and blue skies are replaced by moonlight. Colors are a lot less saturated because the light levels are lower. And unless you are in a totally isolated natural area, a lot of the light around you is coming from a wide variety of sources of artificial light.
Even with no light sources in your frame, the glow from night lighting of cities and towns is all over the place. Familiar surroundings are changed, light and shadow combine to show new shapes, shades and textures.
You’re absolutely right if you are thinking that this is a great photo opportunity. Here’s a brief, and by no means exhaustive, checklist of points to consider.
First, white balance. Unless you do a lot of studio stuff, white balance is easy to forget. Auto WB on most cameras works very well. Even experts and pros often rely on auto white balance because the RAW files they usually shoot can be adjusted in post-treatment.
In the dark, you’ll need to watch white balance more closely to get the results you want, especially if you don’t want to increase your post-treatment workload too much. Of course the night sky, is rarely a total black, especially if you’re exposing to capture some of the glow. And WB will vary depending on proportions of moonlight and various ambient light sources. Go
ahead and experiment with various settings.
Multiple light sources are the rule rather than the exception in night photography. Street lamps, commercial signs, residential lighting, indoor lights visible through windows, all combine with various intensities of direct or diffuse moonlight.
So there is actually no totally good or bad setting. Of course, most photographers try and stay away from strong greenish or magenta color casts that cover the entire frame. Take your WB off the «A» setting and test the various manual settings offered on your camera until the results please you.
Night photos are always a low-light challenge. This means higher ISO setting and slower shutter speeds. A tripod or, at the very least, a stable platform to rest your camera on is a must. To minimize movement transmitted to the camera body, use a remote or your self-timer to trigger the shutter.
If your camera is a DSLR, now is also the time to read the part of your manual that deals with locking the mirror in place to reduce vibration even more. Remember too that some automatic cameras will not trigger if the auto focus hasn’t found a subject to lock on to. You’ll need to use manual focus if this happens.
Even if sensors today are truly remarkable, they do have limits in low light. Image quality will suffer if you exceed a given ISO setting. You should test your camera’s limits. Do it some night in the comfort of your home. Keep using higher and higher values until the image quality is not what you’d want. It sure beats doing it in the field.
Even if you pay close attention to choosing the right ISO setting, there will probably be very dark areas in your images where you will observe small specks. These can be white or colored, and are caused by pixels gone awry in their attempt to record at least some light.
This is known as «noise,» a throwback to the days when audio amplifiers generated static when the signal was too weak. Some cameras have specific setting in order to reduce noise during long exposures: make sure you look it up in your manual.
Most photo softwares also offer at least a minimal amount of noise reduction. If you enjoy night photography and shoot RAW files, it’s a good idea to learn what your image treatment software can do.
Aperture is often overlooked in night scenes but needs to be considered beyond its effect on depth of field. Many night photos have point-light sources directly in the frame and choosing the right aperture can represent them as both starry reflections or soft disks of beautiful bokeh. Again, testing in the field will allow you to control this effect to get the images you want.
Yes, things do get a bit more complicated at night, but with a few basic precautions, you can learn to love night photography. You’ll get beautiful images, and with time and practice, you will become a true master of darkness!