Intermediate Night Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

Intermediate Night Photography

by David Peterson 1 comment

If you have dabbled in night photography, you are probably familiar with the unique lighting scenarios and magical images you can capture once the lights are out. You may think of night as a black time, but streetlights, signs, and car headlights add colored light to photos that you do not encounter during the light of day. You can challenge yourself and create beautiful images capturing fluorescent, tungsten, yellow/orange streetlights, or even multi colored neon light sources. There are also natural sources of light in the moon and stars just begging to be photographed. If you have already gone to the dark side and delved into the exciting world of night photography, read on to discover some new tricks to try. Jaw dropping photos await!

Night Basics

Night photography needs very long exposures, which makes hand holding impossible, take a tripod. You will also need a flashlight, this will be a tool for some of the techniques discussed below, but in general it is helpful as you get set up and sort out your gear in relative darkness. If you have a wide angle lens (like a 10-24mm) it’d be ideal but not necessary. Also, familiarize yourself with your camera's self-timer feature or even better bring along a cable release or remote control. You want to avoid camera shake at all costs.

  • Canon EOS 350D Digital
  • 200
  • f/16.0
  • 30
  • 37 mm

sewer party by Flickr user Patrick Brosset

Mirror Lock Up

A tripod in combination with self-timer or remote shutter release is critical for sharp photos but here’s something else DSLR owners can do. Mirror lock up is a feature that you may not use often, but it is really useful in long exposure situations like shooting at night. Mirror lock up is an additional technique to improve sharpness by locking up the mirror before taking the shot. There is a mirror behind your lens that allows you to see the image through your viewfinder. When you release the shutter, the mirror flips out of the way momentarily while the shutter does its thing and then returns to its position. Believe it or not, the tiny vibration caused by mirror movement can actually have a big impact on how sharp your image is. In mirror lock up mode your camera will lock the mirror in the up position before the exposure is actually taken. Give it a whirl and see what you think.

Bulb Mode

Bulb mode is used to take photos with extremely long exposure times. Most cameras are capable of exposures up to 30 seconds long, but in bulb mode you can keep the shutter open even longer. Once you depress the shutter button, the shutter will stay open until you release it. To access bulb mode you will need to be in manual or shutter priority mode. (Some DSLRs only have this option in manual.) As you scroll through shutter speeds and continue past the 30 second shutter speed (indicated by 30") you will see "bulb" or simply "b" and you are ready to go. This is the mode you would use, for example, to photograph a fireworks display.

  • Canon EOS 1000D
  • 100
  • f/11.0
  • 90
  • 12 mm

museumsinsel berlin by Flickr user fRandi-Shooters

Situation 1: Light Trails

Early on in my photography experience I was wowed by light trail photography. It was a long time before I experimented with it at all, mostly due to logistics. I just did not often get out near roads with lots of cars at night. The criteria for this type of photography are actually quite simple: you need cars with lights and a long exposure. You’ll need your tripod and ideally a cable release or remote.

Scout out a location beforehand. Look for an area that is visually interesting, maybe a spot where multiple roads converge or lighted buildings create a nice background. If manual mode is still a bit intimidating, try shutter priority or Tv mode. In this mode you can select the shutter speed, and your camera will choose an aperture for correct exposure. To start, try a shutter speed in the neighborhood of 10-20 seconds. For this type of photo aperture is not your main concern so just choose an aperture (if shooting in manual) that is typically sharp on most lenses like f/8. Choose a low ISO setting, like 100, to reduce noise. You may also want to employ manual focus because autofocus can struggle under low light conditions.

As you shoot, check your images on the LCD screen and make adjustments for incorrect exposure. If the light trails are ok but the exposure isn’t quite right you can adjust the aperture and ISO accordingly. If the trails are too long or too short, adjust the shutter speed. If you are in shutter priority, try using the exposure compensation button to adjust one or two stops either way and shoot again. You can also experiment with bulb mode for this type of photo. The key is to experiment and take lots of shots!

Situation 2: Illumination Painting

This is a cool trick to use when you want to take a picture of something that is not normally lit at night. Imagine yourself camping with friends near a unique rock formation. How do you photograph it at night without the hideous effect of your on-camera flash? Illumination painting is the answer. In addition to rocks, architectural features like bridges, lighthouses, etc. also make interesting subjects. Transform the ordinary into something extraordinary by shedding some light on it.

Since you are shooting in the dark, literally, you will again utilize the long exposure. If you want to wow your fellow campers with this one, you must come prepared with a light source. A headlamp, torch, or flashlight will be just fine. The larger your subject, the more light you need. Choose a long shutter speed, like 30 seconds, or even longer in bulb mode and get in position to paint. This is a good technique to try with friends, particularly if the object you are painting is large. Light from the side provides the best definition, so avoid lighting from behind the camera. Try bombarding the subject from different sides and even using different colors for a striking effect. Once you’re ready with your light source(s), depress the shutter remotely and begin illuminating the subject until the exposure is complete. Check your images as you go, if there is too much ambient light and your photo is overexposed, stop down your aperture (in manual) or use exposure compensation while shooting in shutter priority (Tv) mode to correct it.

  • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi
  • 100
  • f/8.0
  • 72
  • 15 mm

Apocalyptic. Decaying Airstream trailer at Bombay Beach by Flickr user slworking2

Situation 3: Light Graffiti

This is similar to what I discussed in the last section, but with this one you quite literally write with light. Light graffiti or light writing is unique and hip and has become quite popular. It is so popular in fact that there are entire Flickr groups devoted to it, for example Light Junkies and Light Stencil. Light graffiti has dedicated followers who are serious about their craft. For most of us this is a fun trick to try (and often fail). Want to write your sweetheart's name in the sky with lights? Draw a face of light on a fire hydrant? Give your subject a halo or surround her with hula hoops of light? Move over Picasso. You imagine it, and it can be done with light graffiti! This is not a post processing effect, it is done in camera. This will rock your world.

For this technique you once again need a long exposure. You can shoot in manual or shutter priority and try a 30 second exposure, or switch to bulb mode for even more time to work your magic. Stop down your aperture or use exposure compensation to reduce the effect of ambient light in the area. You need a tripod and a light source (flashlight, sparkler, etc.) to make this happen as well as your self-timer, cable release, or remote.

  • Canon EOS REBEL T1i
  • 1600
  • f/11.0
  • 30
  • 24 mm

Painting with light by Flickr user Carlos Smith

If you are doing the graffiti then an assistant is very helpful. Set up your camera and get the writer(s) in frame then it is lights out. For name writing, don't attempt M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I on the first try. Keep it short. If your name is Bob or Sue, you are in luck. Longer words and more involved artwork require more time to complete. If you need longer than 30 seconds to finish it, then work in bulb mode.

This takes some practice, but the beauty of digital photography is you can take lots of shots and view your results immediately. If you are writing words, you need to write backwards and from right to left, while juggling. I am kidding about the juggling part, but this does require some skill. If that is too much you can write normally and use editing software to flip the image horizontally. To avoid having each letter, word, etc. connected to the next with light you will need to turn off your light source in between each part of the design and turn it back on when you are ready to write again. Check out some of the tricks the pros use, there are some amazing artists out there utilizing stencils and homemade light writers.

Situation 4: Star Trails

You probably know where I am going with this after the first tip, but the images you get with this technique are so amazing it is deserving of its own headline. Bulb mode is a necessity for this one. You will need to be patient and use a long, really long, exposure. This allows you to capture the movement of stars across the night sky. The result is surreal and truly has an other worldly look to it. What appears to be an ordinary night sky is transformed into what looks like an incredible display of shooting stars after a long exposure. This is not a beginner technique, but it is worth some experimenting.

  • Canon EOS 650D
  • 400
  • f/2.8
  • 40
  • 11 mm

苗栗 三義 龍騰斷橋 星軌 by Flickr user Bohuei

To give this a try you need to head away from the city lights. You want to eliminate ambient light sources and be in complete darkness as much as possible. You need to choose a night when the moon cannot be seen, a new moon. You do need to let in as much light from the stars as possible, so use your fastest lens with a wide aperture. You will need a remote or cable release because your exposure time will be at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours! No, that was not a typo, 2 hours! Set your ISO at 100 to minimize noise in the photo. Unfortunately there is no rule for determining the exposure time. You will have to experiment. Ninety minutes or more could be a very long experiment, so you may want to start on the shorter exposure end and see if it is enough to register star movement. If not you are in for the long haul!

If you'd like to learn more about taking photos of stars, I recommend you take a look at Shooting Stars by award winning photographer Phil Hart

The other method star photographers use is to take multiple, shorter exposures and use software to stack them. This method is very heavy on the post processing end and involves compiling around a hundred 30-second exposures to create the final image. It is probably best to start out with the long, single exposure technique. To create the swirling pattern seen in the image above, you must have your lens pointed towards the pole star. This is where an astronomer friend comes in handy, but I am sure there is an app for that!

Hopefully this has you itching to get outside and enjoy the night. If you are in a photography slump, this is a great way to get those creative juices flowing again and try something new and exciting. Taking photos at night can require extreme patience, but the end result is well worth it. Grab that tripod, embrace a slow shutter speed, and make some photography magic!

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Paul LeSage says:

    In my humble experience, I think one will have more success with Star Trails by taking a series of 30" exposures and then combining them in software. I have done several using up to 200 - 30 sec exposures and believe it is the way to go for many reasons too numerous to mention here. I use StarTrails.exe for the combination and love it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *