Light! It's the single most important element in any photograph. Without light, you've got no image. Without the right light, you've got a bad image. In photography, light is everything.
And with that in mind, I'm going to tell you how to shoot photos in the dark.
But wait, didn't you just say that light is everything? Yes, I did. And the reason that you can still take great photos in the dark is because - with the possible exception of a very deep cave or a crevasse at the bottom of the ocean - there's really no such thing as "dark" here on Earth.
[ Top image Sandcastle on Morro Strand State Beach, with Morro Rock visible in background, after sunset 24 Aug 2009 by Flickr user mikebaird]
Light exists nearly everywhere, even at night, even when it seems to your eye as if it is completely dark. If you aren't so sure about the truth of these words, think about what your eyes do when you turn out the lights at bedtime. At first, it seems that the room is completely black. Then after a few moments you'll start to see light from outside seeping in around the curtains. Maybe the light from the digital clock on your microwave will start to show though that crack under your bedroom door. The longer you let your eyes adjust to the darkness, the more light you'll perceive.
Your camera senses light in a very similar way, except that your camera is actually more sensitive than your eye is. At long exposures your camera can pick out very faintly-lit objects that your eye wouldn't be capable of seeing, even if you spent as much time looking in that object's direction as your camera did.
Now you already know that if you have a camera with a good ISO capability you can take photos without a flash in low-light. How low often depends on how much noise you can put up with. But even a camera with state-of-the-art ISO capability can't take a short-exposure photo in a dark room. For that you need some special pieces of equipment. Well, not really "special", these are things you probably already have, or can get pretty easily.
Loch Duich from Eilean Donan by Flickr user atomicjeep
First, as you've probably guessed, you will need a tripod. To take a successful photo of an unlit or dimly lit scene, you will need to use a long exposure. And with exposures of this length you won't be able to get by with propping your elbows on something or steadying your camera against a stable surface. You'll need the camera to remain motionless for long periods of time. So you need a tripod.
The second thing you'll need is a DSLR with manual mode. There may be some point-and-shoots out there that will do OK at nighttime photography, but you'll get the most control and the best shots if you use your DSLR.
The next thing you'll most likely need is a cable or remote release. Now, this really does depend on the length of your exposure. If the shutter is going to be open for a number of seconds or minutes, having a remote release doesn't matter so much because that little bit of camera shake at the beginning of a super-long exposure isn't going to show up on your image. But for shorter exposures one can be useful - if you don't have a cable release, you can also use your camera's timer function.
Farm Wagon by Flickr user simon.vanmaele
Another thing you'll probably want to have is a flashlight. Because, you'll feel pretty dumb if you trip over that root and bust your DSLR on your way to getting that perfect in-the-dark image. But it's not just safety that requires a good flashlight, you'll also be thankful for that penlight when you need to read the dials and settings on your camera. A flashlight can also come in handy when you want to add additional illumination to parts of your scene.
Another late night Drive by Flickr user Insight Imaging: John A Ryan Photography
If you feel you must, bring an external flash. Now, don't read that and think to yourself, "Oh! Flash. I have one of those built in to my camera." Because using that pop-up flash will absolutely ruin your night time photograph. In fact, the external flash might also ruin your night time photograph if you don't use it wisely. Don't add full flash to that dark room, for example, unless you want to take away all the mood that you get from being in a dark room. Instead, aim it at the ceiling and pay attention to where the light ends up. Bouncing the flash will make it softer, and will help you avoid harsh shadows and mood-killing wash-outs.
Like your flashlight, your external flash can be useful for illuminating specific parts of a scene, but you'll need to be very careful that you don't over-illuminate anything or the result will look unnatural, maybe even unattractive.
Using an external flash will require some experimentation, and you'll probably want to use different, lower power settings rather than full power. "Sparingly" is your key word here.
Do you love aperture priority mode? Can't live without your autofocus? Now's the time to cast off those balls and chains! Because you can't use that stuff in the dark. Autofocus can't lock on to dimly lit subjects. Aperture priority? Forget it. Your meter has no idea what it's doing in the dark. In the dark, your meter is like a bat in daylight.
Untitled by Flickr user Dave Smith
You don't want to jack up that ISO, either, because you'll get unwanted noise in your image. You also don't want to open up your aperture, because you'll get limited depth of field.
Use a long shutter speed, small aperture (think F16 or higher) and a small ISO (100 will do) to get the best results.
So if your camera can't figure out your shutter speed for you, how do you do it? Well, some photographers just guess. Digital frames are free, so you have the luxury of experimenting, deleting and trying again (though with long exposures you do have some cost in time as well). But you can also cut out a lot of that trial and error by doing some basic math. If your scene has some visible ambient light, try setting your camera to ISO 6400. Take a few test shots at different shutter speeds until you get one that appears to be correctly exposed (don't worry about motion blur or any of that stuff, just worry about the exposure). Now use this little formula as your guide:
Seconds at ISO 6400 are roughly equivalent to minutes at ISO 100. For example:
- 1 second ISO 6400 is roughly equivalent to a 1 minute exposure at ISO 100
- 5 seconds at ISO 6400 is roughly equivalent to a 5 minute exposure at ISO 100
- 30 seconds at ISO 6400 is roughly equivalent to a 30 minute exposure at ISO 100
- And ... so on.
Now of course, this only works if you aren't trying to photograph people or other moving subjects. If you are, you'll need to go back to that high ISO and wide aperture, or just accept that there's going to be motion blur in your image.
So what will all this get you? Play around with these techniques for one night and look at your results. With a long enough exposure, a night time scene may look as if it was shot in the daylight. Light sources will start to look like stars. The stars themselves will create trails across the frame. You'll discover things in your environment that you didn't even know were there. You'll capture some magic on those digital frames.
[Also see 23 Outstanding Photos Shot in Darkness]
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