A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

Night photography tips for streetscapes after dark

January 29 2015

by Philip Northeast

Night offers photographers different views of streets or buildings and modern digital cameras make it easier than ever to capture stunning streetscapes.

Image stabilisation technology in lenses or camera sensors along with improving high ISO noise performance gives digital photographers greater freedom for night photography.

For the sharp streetscape photography after dark use a solid camera support, such as a tripod, allowing low ISO and long exposure times.

Optimise the exposure by viewing test shots on your digital camera’s screen, and then adjusting the shutter speed based on the results. For night photography, exposure is a creative adjustment. The light intensity ranges from very bright to deep black, and usually the final exposure is a compromise due to the camera’s dynamic range limitations.

museum at night

The lighting highlights the colour of the old sandstone building

Often the purpose of artificial lighting is to highlight specific parts of a scene or building. Then there are colourful advertising signs.  After dark the lighting often ignores or diminishes unattractive elements of a streetscape, letting the subject stand out from the background. The dark areas add contrast and silhouettes change the everyday perception of  subjects. The attraction of photographing streetscapes after dark are their uniqueness and the challenges they provide to photographers.

Forget the light meter 

Photographers, your digital camera’s exposure system works best for daylight photos. For night photography it  tends to  overexpose the brightly lit areas  in an attempt to find an exposure setting for the dark shadows created by the bright artificial lights.

There are no rules 

I start by taking test photos and then reviewing their exposure on the digital camera’s monitor screen.  This includes checking the histogram for the amount of blown highlights.

The temptation is to use a wider aperture to make the most of the limited light. This produces a photograph with a  shallow depth of field, with only some of the scene in sharp focus. The effect on depth of field means aperture is a compositional decision rather than an exposure function, because there are other ways to adjust the exposure.

Lens performance is another factor in selecting an aperture setting.  The image quality in many lenses, particularly budget zooms, drops off when they are used at their widest aperture settings.

Even with exceptional low noise digital sensors I use the lowest practical ISO setting to keep digital noise to a minimum. Also most digital cameras have their widest dynamic  range at their lowest ISO setting. For night photography the artificial lights often produce a large range of brightness that can exceed the dynamic range of your camera.

My standard exposure  settings for the test photos are a shutter speed of 0.5 seconds, with the aperture set to f 7, and the ISO set to 80, the lowest setting for my main DSLR.

Forget the flash

Don’t use the automatic flash in your digital camera. Electronic flash is only effective over a short distance, and it will overpower the existing light and turn the scene into simulated daylight. This loses the original point of the photo.

silhouette of  waterfront hotel

There is enough light in the sky to produce a silhouette of the waterfront hotel

Camera Shake

Photographers using long exposures for night photography need help keeping the camera steady to avoid  a blurry photograph. A good tripod is the best solution.

Adding a tripod to the load of camera and lenses may be inconvenient but it must be better than wasting time taking poor night photographs.

Even with a tripod some photographers worry about camera movement caused by the small vibrations  from operating the camera. I use  Live View in combination with a two  second delay timer. This prevents any camera movement when I press the shutter release from moving the camera while it records the image.

Live View combats  another possible source of vibration in DSLRs.  This is caused by the mirror moving out of the way.

Focus

Sometimes your  digital camera’s autofocus system may struggle in low light. A basic rule of thumb is if the aperture is set to about f8 then manually focus to infinity  (? ).

HDR

I find High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing a bit hit or miss and use it with caution.  It struggles in night photography when there are two main conditions, deep black surrounding a brightly lit subject. In twilight conditions where there is mixed lighting it is worth a try.  Using my single shot HDR technique the original image file remains unaltered so you have nothing to lose.

waterfront at night

HDR processing brought out detail in the sky over the waterfront buildings

Colour Balance 

Artificial lights do not produce the same colours as sunlight. When we look at a scene we automatically  compensate for small changes in light colour. Colour temperature is a measure of this difference in the  colour of a light source.  Normal daylight is about 5700 degrees Kelvin. Higher colour temperatures produce bluer or colder looking scenes, while light sources with lower colour temperatures produce yellower or warmer looking scenes.

Lights

A variety of light sources help give a pleasant warm colour to the concrete

Digital cameras have a colour compensation feature called Automatic White Balance (AWB).  Some photographers prefer to set the White Balance manually before taking a photograph. It is adjustable in processing for both JPEG and raw formats so I usually leave it until then.

It gets complicated when there is more than one type of light source in scene.  This takes careful adjustment to get the right colour in the area of main interest. Sometimes the colour difference from daylight is part of what makes the scene interesting and why you are shooting at night instead of daylight.  There are no rules, it is part of the creative process.

 

 

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