Monday, February 21, 2011

Tutorial: Night Photography Tips

Night time changes even the most familiar scenes. This creates an opportunity for a whole new range of photos. So put your coat on, take your camera and investigate the exciting world of night photography with our tutorial.

To help you capture the best of night light, this tutorial will cover:

• How to overcome lower light levels
• Getting the exposure correct
• When to take shots
• Suggestions for photographic subjects

Night vision
The digital sensor in your camera has some similarities to the human eye. As light levels drop, you need to get more light to the sensor. This is done by setting a wider lens aperture. The sensor is made up of millions of photo receptors, or pixels (short for picture elements). The sensor can be made more sensitive to light by increasing the camera’s ISO setting. This amplifies the light signals after they have been received by the pixels.

Unfortunately, amplification of the light signals can have a disadvantage. Unwanted background signals are also amplified and above certain levels these show up as ‘noise’ – coloured speckles across the image. The latest Canon compact digital cameras feature the HS System which lowers noise levels by up to 60%. Discover more about the HS System.

Even with the higher ISO settings available with HS System, you will still find that shutter speeds will be significantly slower at night. A tripod or camera clamp are the best options to keep your camera steady during the exposure. But if you do not own either of these, then make sure that you rest you camera on a flat and stable surface such as a low wall, a seat or the roof of your car.

Flash control
One obvious way to cope with low levels of light is to add more. Electronic flash is built in to most cameras for this purpose. It is useful when photographing people indoors and out, but less effective for general night photography. First, the power of the flash is too low to illuminate street scenes or general views. Second, the attraction of many night scenes is their existing illumination – adding further light will often ruin the atmosphere.

Many cameras automatically fire the flash by default in low light. If you are serious about night photography you should switch the flash off. Compact digital cameras usually have an ‘Off’ setting for the built-in flash – check your user manual for details on your camera. EOS cameras only activate the flash automatically in the Full Auto (green square), portrait and macro shooting modes – avoid these for night photography.

Exposure time
Night exposure can be a tricky business.
There are often large dark areas in the scene, with a few bright areas. The auto exposure metering system of your camera can get confused and give an image that is too light or too dark. This is not really a problem with digital cameras. You can take the picture using auto exposure and view the image on the LCD. If the exposure is not correct, simply apply exposure compensation and shoot again.
Most cameras offer exposure compensation in the range of +2 to -2 stops. If the first image looks too dark, apply +1 or +2 stops of compensation. Use -1 or -2 stops of compensation if the image is too light. You can experiment with different settings until the image you take appears to have the correct exposure.

Twilight zone
One of the best times for night photography is just after sunset. Although the sun is below the horizon, it still provides some light. Whilst the sky might look quite dark to your eyes, your camera will pick up this light during a long exposure to give a deep blue background to your main subject. Once you are passed the twilight period, the sky in these photographs will be black.

Sunset sequence
One way to appreciate the power of twilight is to shoot a sequence of pictures from an hour or so before sunset to an hour or so after. This needs a couple of hours of your time, but the results will demonstrate how the sky changes.

Try to find a scene with an interesting subject in the foreground or middle distance. A building, statue or rock formation is ideal. Have your camera on a tripod so that it does not move between shots. However, this is not essential, providing you shoot from about the same position for each exposure.

You need an evening with a fairly cloudless sky. Take the first picture about an hour before sunset, then shoot at 10 or 15 minute intervals. Keep shooting until an hour or so after sunset. When you view the images in sequence you should see the sky change from blue to red to dark blue to black.

Firework bursts
Taking good photographs of fireworks can be difficult so consider the following points:
- PowerShot and IXUS cameras have a Fireworks setting. Check your user manual for details
- Set the camera focusing to manual, if available, and focus on infinity
- Select manual shooting mode and set an aperture of f/8. The shutter speed can be around 1/60 second (for a handheld camera) to 5 or 10 seconds (for a camera on a tripod) at ISO 400
- Switch your camera to movie mode and capture the action as it happens.

City streets
City streets take on a completely different appearance at night. Shop windows glow, neon signs add colour and even ordinary street lighting can make buildings look romantic. If you are able to shoot after a rain shower all the lights will be reflected from the roads and pavements, adding impact to your images.

Magic movement
You can keep your camera steady during long exposures, but what about your subject? Most of the subject is likely to be static – buildings and foreground, for example. The parts that move will mostly be vehicles and people. At night, vehicles will have their lights on – these will leave attractive light trails across the image during an exposure of several seconds.
People who move across the scene at night will often appear as elongated ghosts – you will be able to see through them because the background behind them will have been exposed for some of the exposure.

Enter the Gallery
So just because there is less light, do not think there are less photographic opportunities. Take your camera out and try some night photography using the advice in this tutorial. Then enter your favourite shots on our Facebook page and next month your photo could be displayed as one of the best!

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