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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Nightlife

Written by Ryan Hoile.
Concepts covered:  long exposures, manual control, tripods + cable release.

The word Photography is based on the Greek terms "phōtos" (light) and "graphé" (drawing). It becomes clear then why low light or night photography is the undoing of many modern cameras.  How can we draw with light when it isn't there?  The truth of course is that light is almost always surrounding us to some degree, even if our eyes struggle to see it.  Cameras allow us to capture light over a longer period of time to build up an effective exposure providing us with unique opportunities and some interesting challenges.
  Image: Fujifilm X-E1, XF14mm, ISO200, f/8, 30 seconds

Controlling Shutter Speed
Your primary weapon for shooting at night lies with controlling the shutter speed, forcing the camera to remain open for several seconds or even minutes to gather up that small amount of light. Set your camera into Shutter Priority or Full Manual control and pay close attention to your built-in light meter as you gradually increase the length of the exposure. Keep the ISO as low as possible to minimise any noise (graininess) in the image. This works best for static subjects or when you wish to show movement over time, such as lights from cars or the rotation of the earth.

Image: Canon 5DmkII, Zeiss ZE 21mm, ISO100, f/5.6, 1 Hour!

Three Legged Friend
Longer shutter speeds become impossible to hand hold no matter how good the image stabilisation is, so you'll want a tripod. These come in all manner of sizes for all kinds of budgets but the key things to look for are:  Ensuring it's sturdy enough to hold your equipment, small/light enough to carry around with ease and versatile enough to take a range of shots.

Image: Canon 5DmkII, Zeiss ZE 35mm, ISO640, f/2, 1/400th sec

One neat option for urban photography is the Gorillapod, because even smaller traditional tripods are still big but one of these can fit inside a small camera bag. With a Gorillapod 
you can make use of your surroundings: ledges, streetlamps, tree branches and handrails become supports for your camera as well as attracting much less attention.

Image: Canon 5DmkII, Zeiss ZE 21mm, ISO800, f/2.8, 1/60th sec
With your camera on a sturdy support consider also using a remote cable release. These are quite inexpensive and available for most DSLR's and some higher end compact cameras. A cable release lets you shoot away without physically touching the camera eliminating any vibration.

Fast and Bokehlicious
Not all low light shooting lends itself to using tripods. When you need to hand hold your shot or your subject is moving, you'll want a "Fast Lens". What's that? It's a lens with a large maximum aperture such as f/1.4 to f/2, these let in a huge amount of light and when combined with a little extra ISO you'll have enough shutter speed to keep things sharp even without a tripod. BONUS! Fast lenses also have the nice ability to render backgrounds considerably blurry. If you frame some highlights in your background they'll turn into great big smooth circles of light. It's a look that will stand well above the typical camera phone shot.

Image: Canon 5DmkII, Zeiss ZE 35mm, ISO640, f/2, 1/50th sec
These are just some of the ways you can use your camera when the sun goes down.  Most locations, especially within cities look very different at night than they do during the day so be on the lookout for interesting uses of lighting... shapes, colours etc. Other night shooting options like introducing your own lighting or flash photography require further reading...

Image: Canon 5DmkII, Zeiss ZE 21mm, ISO800, f/2.8, 1/60th sec
Recommended Gear: camera with manual control, tripod, cable release, fast lens, flash/torch