First, it helps to understand that your camera is pretty dumb. Your camera, with all its high-priced features, has no idea what your subject matter is. It only sees light, not subject. Keep this in mind as we continue this lesson.
When your exposure meter encounters something white, it underexposes it, and makes it grey. When your exposure meter encounters something black, it overexposes it, and makes it grey. 50 shades of grey, if you want. But grey – or average – just the same.
What’s a photographer gotta do to get a decent picture!?
So when you’re shooting in the dark, remember that your camera has no idea what your subject matter is – it only sees light. And when it sees all that black sky, it’s going to do its damnedest to make it grey. Is that what you want? Probably not. So what’s a creative, smart photographer like you going to do about it? You’re going to make your camera do what you tell it to! And here’s how.
First of all, let’s assume that you’re using a tripod, right? You’re probably going to be using pretty long exposures, so your camera can’t be hand-held. But you’re smart, so you knew that. OK, so with your camera on your tripod, there are a couple things that you can set right off the bat. Your ISO, for instance, can be set as low as it goes. Since you’re using a tripod, you won’t mind long exposures that will occur because of the low ISO. And you’ll get less noise in your photos, with low ISO, so that’s good.
The all-important EV Button
What about the Exposure Setting?
So now it comes down to exposure. How do we know what to set it to? I make my decisions based on the subject matter. For this set of images, you can see results with different shutter speed and aperture combinations. Since there is water in the image, short shutter speeds (less than 5 seconds) will show the ripples in the water. But shutter speeds that are longer (20 – 30 seconds), will give you nice smooth water, which is a much more pleasant result.
For me, the aperture doesn’t play much importance in nighttime landscapes, except that they affect the shutter speed. In order to get long shutter speeds, the aperture will need to be closed down a lot – often at the maximum of f22 or more. But in most cases, the subject matter is all at the same far distance, so aperture choice won’t matter – f5.6 and f22 will look pretty much the same.
It’s really that simple
So there you have it. Nighttime photography isn’t difficult at all once you understand the basics. And since the world is dark almost half the time, it’s something worth learning. Here’s the cheat-sheet:
- Use a tripod. ‘Nuff said.
- Use low ISO – you’re using a tripod, so why not maximize the quality?
- Focus once, and lock it in. Your subject probably isn’t moving, so your camera shouldn’t need to refocus each time. When you move, focus again.
- Long shutter speeds give nice motion blur on water.
- Exposure compensation of -1, -2, or -3 will be essential.
- Use a cable release to minimize camera shake.
- Shut off image stabilization when you use a tripod.
- Shoot often!