Night Photography Tips

Night time with your EOS

Don't put your camera away at the end of the day, night time offers a whole range of opportunities to carry on shooting.
There are some useful techniques and features to understand that are covered in this tutorial.

  • Winter landscapes
  • Portraits
  • Urban landscapes
  • Night photography
  • Using filters
  • Seeing’ in black and white
  • Shooting JPEG and RAW files

Night-Shops-Lights

© Yasen Tsonev

Camera shake

It may be obvious to say, but the first thing you will notice is the reduction in light levels. You can make the camera's digital sensor more sensitive to light by increasing the ISO value. You can also shoot with wide lens apertures to increase the amount of light reaching the sensor. But the chances are that you will need to use longer shutter speeds to obtain the correct exposure.

The trouble with longer shutter speeds is camera shake. You cannot keep the camera completely still if you hold it in your hands. Longer shutter speeds do not alter the amount of camera shake, but they do increase the opportunity for it to happen. A longer focal length also increases the effects of camera shake, so one tip for night photography is to use a lens with a short focal length - 18mm or 24mm is good.

Tripods

However hard you try to stay still, you will sway from side-to-side, or from front-to-back. A sturdy tripod, set on solid ground, will allow exposure times of several minutes without any camera shake.

The main risk of movement with your camera on a tripod is the moment you press the shutter button to start the exposure. Touching the camera can introduce a slight shake. This can take a second or two to settle down and might affect exposures of a few seconds or more.

To avoid this you can use the built-in self-timer on your EOS. This allows any movements introduced as you press the shutter button to die away before the exposure is made. The 2-second delay is ideal when photographing static subjects with your camera on a tripod.

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Ray of hope- © Marco Lieberwirth 2010, Canon EOS 400D

Remote firing

If you are photographing a moving subject and need to fire the shutter at a precise moment, you can use a Canon Remote Switch. The switch has a short cable with a plug that connects to the remote socket of the camera. At the other end of the cable is a small unit with a button. Pressing the button fires the camera without the risk of moving the camera.

Night-Lion-2

Lion at night,- © Pierre Morlon 2010, Canon EOS 400D

Mirror lock-up

Many EOS cameras offer a mirror lock-up feature, set using a Custom Function. The reflex mirror inside the camera reflects light up to the viewfinder. At the start of an exposure, the mirror swings up to let the light through to the sensor at the back of the camera. However, small vibrations can be introduced in the camera as the mirror hits the foam dampers at the top of its rapid travel.

With mirror lock-up, pressing the shutter button once raises the mirror. You can then wait a second or two for the vibrations to die away before pressing the shutter button again to fire the shutter.

Move to Manual

Night scenes can be difficult to expose accurately. This is partly because there will often be large areas of darkness in the scene, and partly because different exposures can give equally good results.

To start with, take a picture using the recommended exposure. Now you can adjust one of the exposure values - usually the shutter speed - and take another picture to see if this improves the image. In only a few shots you should obtain an image you like. Do not stop at this. Keep experimenting with different exposures to see if there are other pleasing results.

Museum of Islamic Art

Museum of Islamic Art,- © Rhandy Pelaez 2010, Canon EOS 550D

Bulb exposures

You can set exposure times of up to 30 seconds on your EOS. The 'Bulb' (B) mode lets you take exposures for much longer. How to set 'B' mode varies from model to model, so check your Instruction Manual for exact set-up details.

When you press and hold the shutter button in 'B' mode, the shutter will open and stay open until you release the button. A remote switch will allow you to lock the shutter open so that you do not have to keep the button depressed during the long exposure.

With mirror lock-up, pressing the shutter button once raises the mirror. You can then wait a second or two for the vibrations to die away before pressing the shutter button again to fire the shutter.

Noise reduction

Long exposures can increase the 'noise' of an image. This begins to break up the image and destroys detail. All recent EOS cameras have a Long Exposure Noise Reduction feature that can be switched on in the camera settings menu.

Aurora and birches Norway

Aurora and birches Norway, © Stein Nilsen

The camera will now remove much of the noise as it writes the image to the memory card. However, this takes the camera as long to do as the actual exposure, so a two minute exposure will take another two minutes before displaying your image on the review screen. You will not be able to take another shot during this time.

Shooting in raw is recommended for night photography as it allows for more adjustment of the image when using Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) software than is possible with JPEG quality files. It also allows you to leave the Long Exposure Noise Reduction switched off and to apply noise reduction in DPP.

Subjects

Now you understand the techniques, you need to select your lighting and subjects.

The short period of twilight, just after the sun has set, can be very effective. The sky around the horizon is still illuminated, even though the sun is no longer visible. When the sun is low in the sky it gives a much warmer light than the overhead sun, which is why you often see wonderful colours at twilight. Similar effects are also visible at daybreak, so if your subject is not in the right position to take advantage of twilight, try getting up early and see if shooting with the sun on the opposite side is better.

In towns, lights will often become the subject. Experiment with photographing neon signs, illuminations and floodlit buildings. Shoot at different exposures to see all the possible results. Shooting immediately after a rainstorm doubles the interest as the lights are reflected from wet streets and in puddles.

Fireworks also provide a great subject. The standard procedure is to set a long shutter speed to capture the trails and bursts. Set the camera to manual (M) mode and pick an aperture between f/8 and f/16 and a shutter speed between 5 and 10 seconds. The shutter speed will largely be dependent on the frequency with which the fireworks are exploding

Although it's possible that your camera will be able to autofocus, it might struggle in the darkness, so it's best to set the lens to manual (MF) and focus on something the same distance away as the fireworks.

Night-Fireworks

Fireworks - © Maciej Blum 2010, Canon EOS 350D

Learn more

Hopefully this tutorial has given you a good understanding of how to take photos at night together with some ideas of what to take. For more inspiration, visit Canon Professional Network (CPN), which offers a huge resource of information. For example, read about Alessandro Della Bella's passion for night time photographs of the mountains in his home country, Switzerland.

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Coming Next: Seeing the world without a viewfinder

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