NEW digital night photography tips
A lot of night photography tips are outdated and irrelevant.
I did an Internet seach on the topic and, sorry to say, did not learn anything new. They all give the same, age old advice such as you absolutely must use a tripod.
Guess what? ALL the night pictures on this page and my other pages on digital night photography were taken WITHOUT a tripod.
This has been made possible by the latest advances in digital camera technology that have taken place in the past one year or two. So if you seriously want to take great photos at night, but have an older camera, here is:
Night photography tips #1: Get a new digital camera, one that was launched in 2007 or at least in late 2006, such as the Fuji S5 Pro.
Yes, I know it may not be practical for everyone to buy the Fuji S5 Pro, but it is truly a great camera that produces, among other things, beautiful colors and a wider than normal dynamic range. I have seen night pictures taken with other cameras and I can tell you that the colors of the Fuji are very much better.
Moreover, the wide dynamic range is truly useful for night photography, especially if you have strong bright lights in parts of the image. So if you do get the Fuji S5 Pro, here is
Night Photography tips #1a: Always shoot at maximum 400 percent dynamic range. Click here to learn more about and better appreciate this night photography tips concerning dynamic range.
Night Photography tips #2: Get a camera capable of taking good, low noise pictures at ISO ratings of 1600 or higher, preferably at least ISO 3200. The latest Nikon D300 and D3 cameras have ISO ratings as high as 6400 and the results are pretty clean and noise-free.
It need not be a high-end DSLR. Some of the better point & shoot cameras also feature high ISO settings. In fact, I believe FujiFilm was first to offer ISO 3200 in a point & shoot camera about two years ago. (Correct me if I am wrong.)
For those unfamiliar, the ISO rating is a measure of a film or digital camera's sensitivity. The higher the number, the more sensitive it is, meaning the more capable it will be of taking pictures in low light conditions at night or indoors.
In the past, ISO 400 was considered high. I find it ridiculous that one website offering "low light and night photography tips" recommend setting the ISO at between 100 and 400. Such advice is seriously out of date!
The picture of the Sultan Mosque above was taken with the Fuji S5 Pro (launched November 2006) at ISO 3200. It was taken at about 7:20 pm, which, in Singapore, is not yet night but twilight -- just before the sun sets. Twilight is a great time for so-called night-photography. More of that in a different article.
Because of the high ISO rating -- and because of improvements in the design of the camera shutter mechanism -- I was able to take both pictures hald-held, without any visible camera shake and without having to use a tripod. The mosque was taken at 1/9 second, the cathedral at 1/10 second.
Of course, you need steady hands. Here are Night photography tips #3, #4 and #5 to help you keep steady:
Notice that I bolded the words good and low noise. above when I wrote about high ISO. These are important. Some of the older digital cameras, including some relaitively costly and not really that old digital cameras (generally the pre-2006 models), could take pictures at high ISO but the results were not good.
There were two main issues: One, many older digital cameras produced very noisy images (with lots of colored dots) at ISO ratings higher than ISO 400.
Two, many of these cameras also produced color shifts. In other words, the colors of an image taken at ISO 400 or higher would look different -- that is, worse -- compared to the colors of the same image taken at ISO 100 or ISO 200.
To deal with color shifts, you need an image manipulation software such as Photoshop, Photoshop Elements or Paint Shop Pro. Anyone serious about digital photography should have one of these, or something similar.
Disapointly, however, the noise reduction feature of Photoshop does not seem to work very well -- in spite of Photoshop costing a considerable sum of money. Either that or my friends and I all do not know how to use it properly...
So to deal with digital noise, especially if you own an older digital camera and do not yet have the budget to buy a new one, here's Night Photography tips #6: Get an effective noise reduction software.
Two of the best noise reduction softwares I know are Neat Image and Noise Ninja. Both are very affordable at about USD$40 for a home use version with Photoshop plug-in, less without the plug-in and about double that amount for a professional version offering more capabilities, such as working with 16-bit images and doing large batch processing.
In the past I never considered specialised noise reduction software such as these and I must thank Diane Varner -- whose pictures I admire -- for mentioning Neat Image on her web page about her post production techniques.
Several of my photography buddies also do not know of them. One heard about Neat Image some years back, but never bothered to check it out. When I showed him the before and after resuts, he was impressed. I guess we all simply assumed that progrms like Photoshop provide everything we need. Not so.
My Fuji S5 Pro actually produces excellent jpeg images and many S5 Pro users do not feel the need to shoot raw. Still, I would strongly recommend it for digital night photography.
Shooting raw allows for two very important adjustments -- exposure and white balance.
With night photography, it is difficult to get the exposure exactly right -- no matter how good your camera's exposure metering is, and how well experienced you are. When you shoot raw, you need to only get the exposure more or less correct, and then fine tune later.
The Fuji S5 Pro actually allows you to be way off -- by as much as 4 f-stops over or under-exposed. Other cameras tend to produce weird colors if you try to compensate by more than 1 or 2 f-stops. But don't push your luck even with the Fuji S5 Pro. Get the exposure more or less correct.
What I normally do is shoot at automatic exposure (aperture priority). Depending on the situation, I would set the exposure bias accordingly, as little as plus or minus 1/3, as much as plus or minus 2 or even 3. I am not terribly experienced, so sometimes I get it quite right, sometimes I am quite off.
I also find that, with automatic exposure, a slight shift in the composition might affect the settings quite significantly. This happens especially if there is a very bright spot somewhere in the picture, like this night picture of the Red Dot Building above. The camera will respond differently if I compose with the street light just slightly higher or lower.
There are several ways around this:
The more important adjustment that comes with shooting raw is the white balance. Most cameras work best with the white balance set at automatic, ie AWB. This includes the Fuji S5 Pro, which, according to some reviewers, have one of the most accurate automatic white balance or AWB systems, comparable to cameras like the Nikon D2X or the new D3, which cost a great deal more money.
With digital night photography, however, you do not always want the AWB to be accurate. My first few night pictures taken with the S5 Pro generally turned out ok because their colours were not affected by the AWB. See, for example, my night pictures of Fish & Co by clicking here and the Cathay building by clicking here. The colors in both pictures are pretty accurate, except for one over-exposed pink lamp in the Cathay image. And they look good.
I realised a "problem" only when I went to take some pictures of Christmas lights -- and the AWB turned all the yellow / golden lights of Christmas trees to white!
Sorry I've erased the Christmas tree pictures because they looked boring, but here's a picture of a mother and child taking on the reflection of a yellow signboard at Ngee Ann City. The Christmas tree is in the background.
The automatic white balance has clearly done a "good" job. You might even say it did an excellent job, as you can see from the skin tones of the two girls at the back. But the Christmas tree lights have all turned white. And I could do with the two persons in front having more of the yellow light from the signboard.
This is how I prefer the picture to look. It not only conveys the "golden" Christmas mood better, but is also a more lively image overall.
Okay. Enough of technical discussions about night photography tips. With modern digital camera technology making photography -- including night photography -- that much easier, you need not worry too much about technical details. Just shoot raw, get it more or less right, and do the fine tuning later.
My next few digital night photography tips deal with the actual photo taking, which is the more interesting part.
As you can already see from the examples here and in my other pages, digital night photography need not be restricted to city skylines, fireworks (against city skylines) or streaks of light formed by moving traffic. Or even Christmas lights. In fact, almost all subjects can be shot at night time.
One unexpected subject I stumbled upon just the other night... It had rained earlier and I took my camera out just as the rain lightened and before the sun set. I was hoping to catch some brilliant skys, for it was one of those rare occasions when it was raining (lightly) but the sun was shinning brightly at the same time.
Well, I was too late. The sun went behind some heavy clouds by the time I got out of my house, and soon it became dark. On my way home, I noticed a lamp post reflected on the wet, back windscreen of a car:
I had some difficulty focusing on the water droplets rather than the reflection of the lamp post. Out of about six pictures I took, this came out the best. I won't say it is a fantastic picture, but still something unusual and worth sharing.
That got me looking out for more windscreen reflections, and I found this other one:
The camera is able to "see" more than the eye. Even when a night scene appears almost black, shoot as long as you have an interesting composition. The results might pleasantly surprise you. I had more pleasant surprises when I tried some night water reflections photography.
Night or low light photography need not always take place "at night". Start the night early and catch the sky at Twilight. The picture of Sultan Mosque at the top of this page is one example. I will show more in my page on Twilight Time Photography.
Before I write that page, her's a hint. Twilight photography need not mean cliché shots of sunset and the red glow of the evening sky. Instead, an ordinary blue or grey sky can produce a surreal effect.
If your exposure is long enough -- or if you catch enough ambient lighting -- you can make a night photograph appear as if it was taken during the day.
Consider this photograph of a lady busker along Orchard Road, performing Western tunes on the pipa, a Chinese classical music instrument:
Does this look like a night picture taken at 9:45 pm?
I had not purposely set out to make this picture turn out this way. In fact, I originally took some pictures of her using my camera's built-in flash, as I was not confident of being able to capture her performing in the semi-darkness. In so doing, I had ignored the most important of all night photography tips that I forgot to mention earlier:
Night photography tips #0: Do not use flash.
Your night pictures taken with flash will turn out looking flat, unnatural and ugly. So I decided to trying taking photographs of this pipa player without flash and, hey, they turned out much brighter than I expected.
Digital night photography can be full of surprises.
Have fun :-)