Night Photography Tips [IP37]

In this week's episode we talk about night photography and share tons of night photography tips.

Tip #1: Use a solid tripod.

Any little bit of wind during a long exposure can make photos extremely blurry when doing a long exposure.

Tip #2: When light painting, think about the hardness and softness of the light you create.

The larger the light source, the softer the lighting.  When doing light painting, photographers tend to forget that principle.  If you physically move around while light painting, you create a softer light than if you stand in the same place and simply shine the flashlight around.

Tip #3: Don't be afraid to step in front of the camera when light painting.

You won't show up as long as the light doesn't shine on you.

Tip #4: Do not trust the LCD screen on your camera when shooting at night.

Screens are a group of little lights that make a picture.  When it is dark at night and you are looking at the back of your camera, the screen makes the photo seem much brighter than it really is.  When you get home and look at the photos on your computer, you often find that the photos are dramatically underexposed.  Use the histogram when shooting at night–every time!

Tip #5: Don't worry about cheating down on your aperture at night.

While photographers generally want to use high apertures like f/16 for landscape pictures to get full depth of field, at night this simply isn't practical because there is not enough light.  Night photographers often shoot photos at f/4 or f/5.6.  If this isn't enough depth-of-field, you can simply take a picture for the foreground and another photo for the background and stitch them together in Photoshop.

Tip #6: Go on location before it gets dark.

Try getting there right at sunset. This will give you time to scope out the scene, get a good composition, and practice a bit with your focus. Find some interesting foreground elements to include in your photo while you still have enough light to see where you're walking. Just this little bit of extra planning will make a big difference in your photos.

Tip #7: Don't fall for the red light myth.

You may have heard that red light improves (or doesn't destroy) your night vision. The evidence for this is really tenuous. In theory, using red light could actually improve your night vision, but in a practical sense it really doesn't make any difference.

Tip #8: Use a cable release.

This is really helpful for a few reasons: 1) A cable release helps you keep your camera in the same, exact spot which is really great for multiple exposures. 2) If you are going to use an exposure longer than 30 seconds, a cable release is mandatory in bulb mode.

Tip #9: Use long exposure noise reduction.

When you use this setting, the camera takes a second (completely black) picture and subtracts the noise it sees on the second picture from the first picture. This cuts out a lot of the extra noise you will see in your night photos, especially when using a long exposure.

Tip #10: Focus to infinity.

You might think that using f/22 will make your night photos sharp. But beware – when you are photographing something so far out (like the moon and the stars), even an f/22 aperture isn't going to get your photo in sharp focus. Instead, you need to manually focus your lens to infinity. On some lenses, this is done by racking the focus all the way out. But on most, it is just before that. An easy way to focus to infinity is to auto focus on something far away (a light off in the distance, the moon) and then switch your focus over to manual to lock the focus.

Tip #11: Use HDR tone mapping to deal with the high contrast at night.

For night photography, HDR really is a useful technique because we often have a huge dynamic range in the photo. The sky is pitch black so any light source that you can see is going to be really bright. HDR is a great technique for controlling that.

Tip #12: Bring a spotlight.

You will want this light so you don't trip in the dark, but you will also want it to light up your photo. If you are shooting the Milky Way and you happen to have a building in the foreground, the light from the Milky Way simply isn't going to be enough to light up the building. You'll need some extra light. You can see a video of Jim's Milky Way shot here.

Tip #13: Shoot in RAW.

Remember that shooting in RAW will give you a lot more control over your image. There is a lot you can do in post processing if you've been shooting in RAW.

Tip #14: Think about the lighting in terms of how light changes during the night.

Lighting at noon is terrible and a landscape photographer wouldn't go out to do a shoot then. The same principle applies to night photography. When the moon is directly above you, the light isn't good for photography. Think about the lighting in your night photography just like you would if you were shooting in the sunlight. This will really help you get better photos.

Tip #15: Think about how the aperture is going to affect light sources.

Often, there are a lot of different light sources in your night photo. If you stop down your aperture, it is going to take a longer time to get the photo, but it will also create a star-burst around the light instead of just seeing a large light blob. This can make a huge difference in your photos.

Tip #16: White balance.

When you change the white balance in your camera, you can get better color in the sky of your photo as well as see some detail that may have been lost in a totally black-looking sky.

[22:22] Pricing: will I always have to keep explaining my prices to people?

One problem could be that your pricing is confusing. If this is the case, it can really help to create a pamphlet that you can give to your clients that lists specifically what they will get for each package and what the price is.

But another problem could be your own confidence. People can tell if you aren't confident in your pricing. If you apologize for it, or if you are a little nervous when you talk to them about pricing, they will (subconsciously) be able to tell. Have confidence in your pricing structure. You are worth what you are charging (as long as you're being reasonable!!!) and you need to communicate that confidence to your clients.

[27:15] What happens inside my point-and-shoot camera when I switch to Macro mode? Why is the depth of field changing?

When you switch to Macro mode, the camera is simply using a focus limiter. The depth of field will change because you are close to the item.

[31:48] Should I change the contrast, exposure, etc in Lightroom first or in Photoshop? Does it matter?

Both programs are high quality and there will not be a loss of photo quality from using one or the other first. Dustin's suggestion is to do everything in Lightroom that you can and then move to Photoshop to complete the editing process. Having a consistent workflow is always helpful, but you will be fine to do your edits in either program and in any order.

[36:07] Why are the reds so overpowering and seem to have no detail?

Color clipping can happen in any color, but red is where we see this issue the most often. Make sure you are shooting in RAW – RAW files contain much more color detail than JPEGs, and you can usually get the blown color back in Lightroom or Photoshop. But while you are shooting, turn on the RGB histogram. This lets you to see the histogram for each color channel. Look at each of the channels to make sure they aren't blown out (touching the far right). If they are, use a little bit of exposure compensation to correct this. You don't want to see a giant mountain up against the right side of the histogram, but a small amount of touching is usually not a problem.

Additionally, make sure that your monitor calibration is correct. You may be fighting a problem that doesn't actually exist.

[41:11] Would it be better to get a mirrorless camera or a wider lens?

While mirrorless cameras are cool, when you simply need a wide angle view in addition to your kit lens, it's probably best to get a wide angle lens rather than getting a whole new camera. A good lens for your Nikon D5200 is here.

[45:00] Doodads of the Week

Dustin's doodad of the week is a small Black and Decker spotlight. It's compact but has a lot of lumens. He got it for around $35 at Walmart.

Jim's doodad of the week is a really inexpensive way to get batteries for your camera: Wasabi Power. You can get two batteries with a wall adapter and a car adapter for $45-$50 (depending on what camera you are using).

[49:15] Prizes for reviews!

The winner is sSexton from the United States. If that's your username on iTunes, email us at [email protected] to get your free online photography class.

To be entered to win the online photography class each week, simply go to this podcast on iTunes and write a one or two sentence review. While they appreciate a a 5-star review, any review will get you entered to win a class for free (a $98 value).

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13 thoughts on “Night Photography Tips [IP37]”

  1. Night photography is one of those things I’ve not tried out just yet, but I’m excited to get on it! That’s what I LOVE about your podcasts… they get me excited to take another step. Thanks, guys!

    Now, if you get a chance, please go check out my website and see for yourself how you’ve made an impact on me. 🙂


  2. Thanks for all the great tips Jim.

    I disagree with your evaluation in Tip 7 — Red Light Myth.

    As a former Navy man, I spent hundreds of hours on the bridge of a warship at night. A red light is “invaluable” for retaining your night vision.

    I still use one today when I am out on a boat or camping at night.

    1. @David – It doesn’t surprise me to hear different opinions on this, but I will offer as support for my contention that the U.S. Marines switched to regular old white lights a few years ago after significant study showed little or no difference between red and white light, and certainly no perceptible difference.

  3. I think you all forgot about the enterie level DSLR market again.
    Your question about Macro\Micro mode.
    The Nikon 1000 series (3100, 5100, 7200) and the Cannon Rebel line have a Macro mode.

  4. I am a regular appreciative listener of your podcast. I also disagree with Tip No. 7 – The Red Light Myth. Having walked many miles on The Appalachian Trail at night and being a pilot, I am certain that using a red light preserves night vision. The Marines use what they are told to use, and what they are told isn’t always correct. I have served with the USMC too.

  5. Pls I will like to know what aperture or ISO should I use when shooting indoor with low light, because I on f/4.2, ISO 400 and speed on between 40,50 and 60 and it was ok but on my computer is underexposed.

  6. Hi Guys,

    I’m a relatively new listener and am enjoying the podcast each week.

    What was the link on your web site that you mentioned in the last episode about calibrating monitors?


  7. Hey Jim,

    Awesome podcast. I’m just catching up on all the past episodes. I’m so interested in this topic! I’m trying to capture the Northern Lights. Not easy. Oh and I think you might have said that the moon is light years away. 😉


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