Often in night photography it is too dark for reading the explanatory symbols for the controls on the camera’s body. Photographers need to operate their equipment without looking at the controls, instead locating and adjusting them by feel. You even need to be familiar with the locations of the settings of the illuminated menu system, because these can be very different from normal daytime photography, so as to be able to find them in the menus structure, because reading the manual in the dark could be difficult.
Know Your Gear
Cameras have different characteristics, particularly regarding digital noise performance and inbuilt shake reduction. Just because there is a high ISO setting available it does not mean the digital camera will produce useable images. This is often a creative decision for the photographer as to how much noise they find acceptable in each situation. This takes some experimentation with different ISO settings to find the upper ISO setting that limits noise to a comfortable level.
Various camera systems offer shake or vibration reduction systems, either in the camera body or built into the lens. This allows slower shutter speeds without the need for tripods or other supports. Their effectiveness is influenced by how steady individual photographers can hold a camera, so experiment and find the slowest shutter speed that produces sharp pictures with each system.
Normally the best image quality comes with low ISO settings as these minimize any digital noise produced in the image making process. In low light photography some noise is almost inevitable and in some situations adds to the mood. Carefully select higher ISO settings to give enough sensitivity to produce the image while balancing the amount of noise. Expect some digital noise in dark areas.
Flash Ruins The Mood And Colors Of Dim Lighting
Particularly in concert photography using electronic flash is either ineffective or overpowers subtle stage lighting designed as an integral part of the performance.
Find the Light
Rather than lament the lack of light in one location, search out spots where the light is good and make the best use of it. Sometimes this means waiting for the subjects to come to the light.
- Wide Angle Lens: Shorter focal length lenses are often better in night photography as they are not as sensitive to camera shake due to slow shutter speeds as are longer focal length lenses. A photographic rule of thumb is the slowest shutter speed for safe camera handholding is 1/focal length of the lens.
- Prime Lenses: These lenses often offer wider apertures to let in more light at a reasonable cost. For example, a 50mm f1.4 is a common choice for low light photography as even expensive zooms struggle to go beyond f2.8.
Manual Metering Mode
Auto metering modes are programmed for daylight shooting and attempt to expose for 18% gray and overexpose the shots, low light shots should be dark. Experiment and use the LCD monitor as a rough guide to aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. Take a number of shots at different apertures and shutter speeds until you get a feel for how the camera’s LCD screen displays images. It is a guide not a precision exposure meter.
Learn To Hold The Camera
If the camera has an optical viewfinder in then use it in preference to using a live view image on the LCD screen. This is start to holding the camera properly to minimize camera shake at the slower shutter speeds of low light photography. Elbows tucked into the body and camera viewfinder braced by the head is the most stable camera holding technique. Also look for solid objects such as walls fences chairs, and garbage bins help to steady the camera – of course use a tripod if possible.
Sometimes flash is useful in available light photography so long as it is only part of the overall lighting plan, such as highlighting a portion of the scene. There is more on this topic in upcoming advanced flash techniques articles.