I wrote about flash painting in one of my previous articles. It is but one application of low light photography techniques which also happen to combine slow shutter speed. You will notice that whenever you are shooting in low light conditions you are using more or less the same techniques and settings.
There may be some small changes here and there but by and large the techniques will be the same.
Table of Contents
In this article I shall be deliberating on general low light photography approach and tools with focus on the aspects that I did not discuss in the flash painting article.
1. Shoot with a Wide Angle Lens
If you intend to shoot cityscapes, fireworks, light trails, star trails and other types of low light photography pursuits you will need a wide angle lens. Wide angle lenses are very versatile in the sense that they are perfect for a wide variety of shooting needs and not just low light photography. They capture a wider area of the scene which is what you want when photographing the above.
Another advantage of wide angle lenses is that they have a faster aperture. Faster aperture means you don’t have to jack up the ISO number in order to capture more light.
2. Invest in a Tripod
I did mention about the necessity of a tripod when doing flash painting. A tripod is a quintessential accessory for shooting anything in low light. It helps you to cut down on camera-shake and the resulting blur that even image stabilization cannot counter for.
Plus, you would be shooting long exposures, which means the camera has to be rock steady for several seconds or even minutes. It is an impossibility to do by hand.
3. ISO Number
ISO or ASA refers to the sensitivity of the image medium. In film photography once you select a film you have no way to change it until you have exhausted the roll. Digital cameras gives you that luxury to change the ISO after each exposure. For shooting in low light conditions, however, you don’t always need a higher ISO number.
For shooting long exposures, only a small ISO number will suffice because the sensor gets a lot of time to be properly exposed. With higher ISO you increase the chances of noise. Noise is present in all images whether you use higher or lower ISO numbers. But at lower ISO the noise to signal ratio is smaller. Resultantly images are cleaner.
4. Setting Up Your Camera
Many times when shooting fireworks, light trails or Milky Way photos we are unsure which way to point our camera to. Each of these require a slightly different approach. For shooting Milky Way there are smartphone apps that will tell you where to point your camera, based on your location and time of the year and the hour you are shooting.
For shooting fireworks like on Fourth of July, if you are shooting with a lot of people around you, look which way their camera is pointing at. If you are at a really reclusive spot (which is a great thing) point at the general direction you know the fireworks display would be and then wait for the first few shots to fire before re-composing.
If there are major landmarks like bridges, monuments or statutes, it is likely that the fireworks would be centered on those, so keep the landmark in the frame and wait for the first few shots before re-composing.
Low light photography works best when there is twilight in the sky. This brings out textures in the sky which tends to add a bit more drama into the scene. This technique works for shooting Christmas lights, light trails an even a bit of Milky Way photos. However for fireworks and star trails a darker sky is preferred.
5. Exercise Low Light Photography
One of the concepts all beginners need to understand is that all your camera can do is capture light. This exercise will help you understand how your camera sees light. The easiest time to take photographs is during the daytime when light is plentiful. If you can take good photographs at night, you can take photographs at any time.
The city nightscape is a great place to begin with low light practice. Because of the low light settings as well as the lights the city adds to your photography, you have plenty to work with and learn about.
- Have a camera tripod ready.
- Wait until the sun has gone down. Inside and outside light is much lower once the sun goes down.
- Find a good place, such as the city lights in the distance, a darkened road, or anywhere to experiment.
- Turn your Flash off and set your camera up in a tripod or secure location.
- Meter the light (there may not be much but it’s there) and set shutter speed and aperture accordingly. Try your first shot with the aperture as open as possible.
Chances are, unless you have a lens with a very wide aperture, as soon as you block out natural lighting you’ll experience camera shake and be required to use a tripod. Not only will you need a tripod to hold the camera steady but you’ll also need whatever you’re shooting to stay still in order to take a sharp photograph.
Capturing Motion and Moving Subjects
You may find in this exercise a niche that you’ll love, where the photography embraces motion in a long exposure. The stereotypes you’ve surely seen are typically of merry-go-rounds, city landscapes at night with cars making colored red and white lines down the street. Taking pictures of the city lights can be great for learning and experimenting but don’t sell your potential short.
Be more creative than that and make the ordinary extraordinary! Realize that while your camera’s shutter is open the camera is a canvas for the moving light to paint on, use that knowledge to your advantage.
You’ll find that if you get the exposure right you can shoot a picture in the daytime and then shoot the same shot with a long exposure and the colors will be different. This is because sunlight casts a different white balance than the moonlight, streetlights, city lights, etc.