Tips to Improve Your Night Photography- Tip 1

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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 1- Don’t Shoot at Night

This particular shot at Seoul Palace was taken just after sunset with plenty of ambient light still in the sky.

This particular shot at Seoul Palace was taken not long after sunset with plenty of ambient light still in the sky.

Now this may seem a bit counterintuitive, but bear with me. Any photographer worth their salt is already familiar with the concept of the “blue hour”. Any photography connoisseur is familiar with the lovely, properly exposed and vibrant cityscapes where the sky appears a dazzling blue and the lights of the skyscrapers sparkle beneath. This doesn’t happen at night.

Let me clarify: it does and it doesn’t. When I first set out to explore the world of night photography, I would set off after sunset to wander the city streets, tripod in tow, searching for marvelous scenes to set before my lens. The problem was, when I would arrive at home the shots were never quite as spectacular as I had envisioned or even witnessed on my explorations. The end result would be a black sky, and obliterated highlights, with all of the wonderful mid-tones lost in the vast and empty darkness.

The reason for this is simple: Your eye is much more dynamic than any camera sensor. When you wander the streets at night, your magnificent eye is constantly adjusting, dilating and contracting, to adjust to micro-differences in light. Your camera is not. While in auto-mode, your camera will of course adjust the aperture, exposure, and iso to meet the proper exposure guidelines, depending on your metering preference. When shooting in manual mode (and trust me, at night always shoot in manual), the photographer will select the proper exposure based upon the light meter suggestions, metering mode selection, and photographers intuition. (a more thorough exploration of choosing the correct exposure settings will be discussed more fully in a following installment) While modern camera sensors are true titans of technology, they are no match for the human eye. While you may see before you a breathtaking scene, your camera sees lights and darks which means only one thing:

We’re talking about dynamic range, here. For those unfamiliar with the phrase, in simple terms dynamic range is the ratio between the darkest and lightest areas in a photograph. Certain cameras may vary in their dynamic range capabilities, but one thing is true for all cameras, they are no match for your eyes.

This disparity is especially evident when shooting at night. If the darks are properly exposed, the highlights are decimated. If the highlights are properly exposed, the shadows are entirely black. Now this problem can be approached through a few technical or digital means such as HDR imaging or exposure blending, but why not attack the problem at its source: Lower the dynamic range IRL.

The reason portraits shot on a cloudy day turn out so nicely and evenly exposed is because the dynamic range on a cloudy day is much lower than that on a bright, sunny day, where the brightest whites are intense and the shadows appear that much stronger in comparison. While in some instances a low dynamic range can appear a bit bland, with night photography it can be your friend. The reason: and this is especially true of cityscapes, is that the dynamic range is already quite high. So how can a photographer lower the dynamic range in real life? This is where the blue hour comes in.

The blue hour is that magical time, just after sunset when the sky is dark enough to appear as a deep blue hue, while still bright enough to cast light on the scene underneath. If a photographer waits to shoot until the sun has completely disappeared, the only light sources are the moon or artificial lights. While this can be used to some success, especially when constructing gritty, black and white night photos, it tends to detract from the overall mood and vision a photographer may wish to portray. After all, isn’t the goal to share with your viewers the amazing scene you witnessed when shooting. By shooting during the blue hour, it is possible to properly expose a photo with brilliant highlights and deep dark shadows and most importantly, those all too important mid-tones.

Now here is where we address the title of this entire article: the blue hour isn’t at night. Well, not in the traditional sense, at least. The blue hour is more of a dusk-centered phenomenon. In my experience, it usually appears within 30 minutes or less of the disappearing rays of the sun. Now here is where you, the photographer, come in. The exact time is dependent on the scene being captured and the location it is being captured in. If the foreground is very bright, such as in a city scape or shooting an artificially lit structure, it will appear earlier. When shooting a scene with no artificial light, it will appear later. When shooting on a moonless night, it is very important to capture that crucial ambient dusk light to fill some of the shadows, so shoot a bit earlier. When shooting under a full moon, you may have a bit more wiggle room. When shooting in the mountains, the dusky light of evening will stick around much longer due to the high horizon, so you may find yourself waiting for A LOT longer (read: bring an activity).

This particular shot was taken high in the mountains of Morocco, causing blue hour to be very reluctant to appear.

This particular shot was taken high in the mountains of Morocco, causing blue hour to be very reluctant to appear.

So how can you take advantage of this new knowledge. My suggestion is to scout out your location prior to sunset. You can get a good spot and explore different compositions while waiting for the sunset. (Oh, and you can capture the hopefully marvelous sunset) After the sun vanishes is when the waiting begins. Now set your camera to properly expose the highlights in the scene (in a cityscape, these would be the brightest lights) and shoot away. Usually I will start out taking a test shot every 5 minutes after the sun goes down, minimizing this timeline as the light disappears. When the image in the live view looks like it is meeting your expectations, don’t stop shooting. Take photo after photo, because it is at this crucial moment that the light will be changing very rapidly. Use your artistic intuition. Shooting at the beginning of the blue hour will create a less dynamic scene, with the highlights, mid-tones, and darks being fairly even. As the night sky darkens, the lights of the city will begin to contrast more strongly, creating a very dynamic photo. You will know you’ve lost the light when the darks have begun to blend with the mid-tones and the only way to capture them is by losing the highlights.

One important and final piece of information: The term blue hour is a bit of a misnomer. The whole experience can last up to an hour or more, but often that sweet spot you’re looking for will come and go in only a few minutes time, so be patient and don’t stop pressing that shutter (or should I say remote trigger, but you know that, right?) Good luck and don’t be afraid to experiment. I hope this helps and stay tuned for further installments of night photography tips.

Ready for tip number two? Click here!

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