Tips to Improve Your Night Photography- Tip 2

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First off, I am by no means the authority on taking wonderful and interesting night photography. This is not a comprehensive guide, but over a series of installments I hope to share some tips to improve any night photography experience. These handy pointers aren’t new, but they are some things I have learned shooting over the past few years and I thought I could pass them along to you.

Tip 2- Don’t Blow It.

In this second installment of my night photography tips (or should I say “blue hour” photography tips), I will address the matter of proper exposure. After composition and subject matter, I find exposure to be one of the most important aspects of any photograph. Exposure can be used to communicate a concept or simply to properly convey a scene that a photographer wishes to share with an audience. Exposure is not as simple an idea as ensuring the whites are white and the blacks are black and everything in between is, well, everything in between. Exposure is, as are all tools in the hands of a proper photographer, an instrument of conveyance, a means of telling a story.

In night photography (and for the purpose of this article, let’s assume we are focusing on cityscapes and the like, although concepts discussed can be applied to a wide range of subjects), exposure can become a particularly tricky subject to approach. Achieving the proper levels of exposure on both a technical and artistic level is and always has been a much heated topic of debate, with opinions ranging widely.

I will not go into depth on reaching the proper exposure triangular balance of aperture, shutter, and iso as that would be dull and as plenty has been written about this matter already by plenty of more qualified photographers than myself. As we are discussing the subject of night photography, I will assume that the reader will be using a sturdy tripod, in most cases shooting at native iso, and utilizing an aperture that will produce the sharpest/most desired effect vis a vis DOF, lens “sweet spots”, etc. Shutter speed is the easiest and most forgiving adjustment to make in this particular environment and is what we will mainly rely on for adjusting our exposure (although this is always subject to change).

And now we address the titular topic of this article with a simple statement: Don’t blow it!

When shooting a night scene, after the legwork of finding a location, and the artistry of setting that scene into the constraints of four walls, comes the crucial step of spinning the dials and pushing the buttons to properly expose that beautiful moment in time. Too dark and the image will fall flat, with no detail and no interest. Too bright (and this is especially true with digital photography) and there will be areas of pure nothingness. And while there may be certain buddhist photographers that subscribe to this particular brand of beauty, I think that in photography, something is typically better than nothing.

If an area of a photograph is exposed beyond the dynamic threshold of a camera’s sensor, the result will be a complete and utter lack of information that no amount of highlight recovery can save. This will leave a photograph with large areas of bright white, detail-less distractions that can ruin an otherwise beautiful scene. This is known as “blowing” the highlights. This is bad. This should be avoided at all costs, and thankfully can be through several fairly simple techniques.

Use your histogram. The histogram is that neat little graph that can be found on almost every camera demonstrating the exposure levels, from the darkest darks to the brightest whites. While I will not expand on the concepts behind this modern wonder I will stress that it is very important to utilize this as the very powerful tool that it is. The tiny display on the rear of your camera can be very difficult to see, even when utilizing the zoom function, and blown highlights can often be overlooked, only to become all too evident when seen on a full size computer monitor or in print. Also depending on the situation you’re shooting in (i.e. bright street lights overhead or perfect surrounding blackness), what you see on your display may not be what you see at home, which is why you should always double check your exposure on your histogram. When viewing your histogram, pay particular attention to the left side, where the highlights are represented. If either end of your histogram looks like a scene from the Himalayas, you may have some trouble. Keep in mind, a properly exposed image should show a fairly even representation of data across the entire range of the histogram. (A quick google search can yield many examples of a properly exposed photo represented on a histogram.) Too much of a spike on either end means your photos are blown or black. While it can be difficult, especially when shooting blue hour cityscapes, to achieve a perfect distribution, there are ways to avoid an unsavory end result. Which leads us to consideration number two:

Play it safe. Underexpose. Now this particular idea can be a bit controversial in some circles. Some believe that underexposing an image can result in added noise due to the often resulting necessity to boost the shadows in post. I am of the opinion that a bit of noise is always a worthy sacrifice if it means retaining crucial highlight detail. Below you can see two photos taken back to back at differing lengths of exposure. The first photo was slightly underexposed, preserving more of the highlight detail, while losing a bit of the shadows. The second photo was slightly overexposed, retaining more of the shadow detail, but losing almost all of the highlight information. Both photos have been very quickly and basically edited in an attempt to recover some of the lost detail.

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As you can see, in the first photo most of the detail is visible, and while in some areas, at full-crop, a bit of noise is present, it is minimal and can be further reduced through post-processing techniques. Attempting to recover the highlights in the second photo proved fruitless and left the photo wrought with artifacts and haloing. Now some will argue that there are ways to more effectively recover highlights, keep in mind that once the brights surpass the limits of the cameras sensor, as can also be said for audio recording clipping, no information is recorded so no information can be recovered.

The second reason that underexposing is especially ideal with night photography is a conceptual one. Remember, you are literally trying to record the night, in all of its beauty and magnificence. Your photograph should communicate this. Having areas that remain enveloped in shadow can add a sense of mystery and intrigue to your photograph. The photo is taken at night and this should be evident.

Now underexposure is a delicate balance that should be entered into toe first and not in an all out cannonball. Like all things photography, experiment first and always take safety shots. Severely underexposing a photo can be just as disastrous as severely overexposing a photo. Start with your light meter dead center, snap and then increase your shutter a notch so that your light meter shows a bit of an underexposure. Snap and repeat. Exposure bracketing can also be useful when experimenting with this method.

In this particular photo taken in Tokyo, underexposing the overall image was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the details in the more intensely lit areas of the structure.

In this particular photo taken in Tokyo, underexposing the overall image was absolutely necessary in order to preserve the details in the more intensely lit areas of the structure.

So get out there and get wild. Play around with some of these ideas and remember when all else fails, there’s always exposure blending. (To be discussed next time.)

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