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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Low Light and Night Photography

Night photography requires you to flex your photographic muscles and push the limits of your camera equipment. Although most cameras have a night mode that improves your chances of taking better pictures in low light conditions, it is an automatic setting that cannot account for all the variations that you may encounter while shooting at night. That's why you have to use your camera's advanced functions, such as aperture and shutter control, white balance adjustment, ISO adjustment, bulb mode, and even a remote control (if you've got one). You'll also want to use a tripod or find other creative ways to keep your camera steady.

Fortunately, you can quickly and easily learn how to take better nighttime and low-light photographs and, in the process, learn how to better control your camera so you can take better pictures in all conditions. However, digital cameras do not have a standard interface. Even though cameras from different manufacturers (and even different models by a single manufacturer) may have common features, these features are not implemented in a uniform way. Please read your camera's manual to learn which of these features are available to you, and how to use them. Also, terms may vary from one manufacturer from the next. If you don't find a feature below listed in your camera's manual, it may have another name. Look for a similar function and see if you can use it to accomplish the same thing.

Here are some things you can do to improve your nighttime and low-light photography:

Adjust your camera's ISO setting
The ISO setting determines your camera's sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera is to light and therefore less light is required to take a picture. However, increasing your ISO setting does have its limitations: pictures taken at higher ISO settings have a grainy quality to them, that is the dots that make up the pictures are much more visible. Some photographers find this visually appealing while many do not. Other "noise" or "digital artifacts" that affect picture quality may also occur. Many cameras have a noise reduction feature that minimizes such artifacts, but it takes twice as long to save pictures when it is activated, so you have to wait even longer between shots.

Most compact cameras feature an ISO range from ISO 50 to ISO 400. Digital SLRs can go as high as ISO 1600.

Control your aperture and shutter settings

Your aperture and shutter settings determine how much light your camera sees and for how long.

The aperture is essentially the hole through which your camera sees the world. The wider it is, the more light gets through, but if too much light gets through, colour accuracy may suffer (resulting in colour shift), or excessive light can wash out everything.

Your aperture setting is called an F-stop and is designated as follows: F/2.8, F/4, F/5.6, (up to F/22 on some cameras). The higher the F-number, the smaller the aperture and the less the amount of light that can get through.

Your shutter is a door that opens and closes to let light in. The longer it stays open, the more light gets through, but your camera's ability to freeze motion is reduced.

The shutter speed is expressed as a fraction or number representing the number of seconds that the shutter is open. For example: 1/25, 1/500, 1, 1.5, 3, etc.

Your aperture setting also affects your camera's depth of field. Depth of field simply means how near and how far from your camera objects can be and still remain in focus. The narrower the aperture, the sharper objects in the background appear; but at the same time, objects in the foreground may appear blurry, because you have to keep your shutter open longer to capture enough light to take the picture.

As you can see, controlling your aperture width and shutter speed is very much a balancing act, but it is essential to good night photography. Professional photographers use all kinds of calculations to figure out the relationship between the aperture and shutter settings. As a rule of thumb, the wider the aperture, the shorter the time the shutter stays open. Experiment with these settings in low light conditions to discover a range of photographic effects you can achieve. You'll be surprised at the difference that even a slight adjustment can make.

Many cameras have a function called aperture/shutter priority that lets you control one of the two settings while the camera adjusts the other automatically. This can take a lot of guesswork out of the process and can ensure that your camera gets enough light to take a picture, but it can't guarantee a good shot.

Use exposure compensation

The combination of the shutter speed, aperture and ISO setting is called exposure and determines the total amount of light and that your camera can capture, as well as its ability to freeze motion.

Some cameras allow you to fine tune your exposure once you have found the best settings for your camera. This is called exposure compensation. It is used to adjust for further variations in light conditions once you have found the optimum settings for your camera in a given situation without having to change your overall aperture and shutter settings.

Adjust your white balance
Your camera's white balance setting is like a built-in filter that compensates for variations in colour that are created by the type of light around you. While an automatic setting is fine for daylight photography, you may want to adjust your white balance manually to better reflect your lighting conditions at night.

To set your white balance manually, point your camera toward a solid white object (such as a wall or piece of white cardboard) and press the white balance control. Some cameras allow you to further tune the white balance by adjusting the red and blue levels. Please consult your camera's manual for specific instructions.

Although the white balance setting is designed to help ensure colour accuracy, you may want to use it to do exactly the opposite. Try adjusting your white balance to create a pleasing eye-catching colours in your photographs, even if they don't correspond to the colours that you see.

If you do adjust your white balance manually, make sure to check/adjust it when you go from one subject/location to the next, as it may no longer be the correct setting for what you're photographing.

Manually focus your camera
Your camera's autofocus may not work properly in low-light conditions (especially if your camera lacks a focus-assist lamp). You may want to focus manually to ensure the clearest picture.

One benefit of manual focus is that, if you're taking several shots of a single subject, you don't have to wait for your camera to automatically focus before you take the next picture. This means you can take more shots in a shorter time.

Bracket your shots
Professional photographers use a technique called bracketing to improve their chances of getting the perfect shot. Bracketing means shooting a picture at the recommended exposure then taking the same shot at the next highest and next lowest exposure in the hopes that one of the three will work well. It's a technique that is especially useful when there is too little or too much light available.

Most digital cameras have a bracketing mode that automatically adjusts the exposure level so you can take 3 to 5 shots in row to bracket a picture.

Experiment with different settings. Once you're comfortable with your camera's manual controls (or even with its built-in night mode), you can further explore the challenge of low-light photography by trying some of the following:

Use a tripod

A great way to improve your night photography is to use a tripod. A tripod will keep your camera steady and will give you further control over exposure by reducing camera shake, thus enabling you to keep your shutter open longer. Tripods come in several varieties, including table-top models that you can fit in your pocket.

If your camera has a remote control, use it in conjunction with your tripod to further eliminate camera shake.

Look for light
Even at night, you're surrounded by light, especially in cities. Streetlights, traffic lights, neon signs, office interiors and car headlights are just some of the types of light you'll find at night. And let's not forget moonlight and starlight. Dealing with the variety of available light is one of the challenges of shooting at night. With practice, you'll learn what settings work best with specific types of light.

Use reflections to your advantage
Some of the most spectacular night photography involves the use of reflections. Reflections not only give you more light to work with, but they also add visual interest to your photographs. Look for reflections on bodies of water, snow banks, windows, mirrors, cars, etc.

Blaze a trail

Create trails of light with long shutter times and small apertures. Use your camera's longest shutter time or your camera's bulb mode (if available). Bulb mode lets you keep your shutter indefinitely on some cameras, or for periods of up to 5 or 10 minutes, on others.

Put your camera on a tripod and position yourself at the corner of a busy intersection or on an overpass over a busy highway. Press the shutter release and wait. As cars pass by, they will create streaks of light that travel across your picture.

When you look at your picture, you'll see the road, you'll see the streaks left by headlights and taillights, but you'll see no cars!
That's because the cars move so fast that the camera has no time to register the light reflected off their bodies and are therefore invisible to the camera.

Create abstract images
Use your camera's limitations to your advantage and create attractive abstract images. You'll truly be drawing with light. Things like camera shake and extended shutter times can be used to generate eye-catching effects and photographs that go beyond the mere representation of reality.

Take pictures at sunset
Sunset photographs can be spectacular, but despite all the colours in the sky, fading sunlight is often not strong enough for sharp images. Use a tripod and extended shutter times for better pictures.

Use the sunset as a backlight. Objects and persons photographed in front of a sunset will appear in shadow. A dark silhouette against the blazing colours of the fading sun creates a dramatic contrast.

Explore the meaning of light
Light itself is a fascinating subject. So, why not take pictures of light? Neon signs, lit-up storefronts, streetlamps and headlights are just some of the lights you can photograph. You can even photograph a fireworks display or a lit-up Christmas Tree for a festive image.

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