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Shoot great photos after dark using your digital camera

Added on Monday 1st of November 2010 03:54 am EST



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Shooting under low-light conditions may be challenging when using a digital camera, but it’s certainly not impossible. Using low light level exposure techniques, you’ll be able to get the results you want for great after-dark photos.


To show you how to take great photos after dark, we’ll:

     Identify the problems associated low light level photography so you’ll know when to apply these techniques.

     Cover what to bring to a nighttime shoot so you'll be prepared.

     Go over several alternative techniques you can use to achieve a variety of results.

As the day turns to night, the rods in your eyes take over as you try to see in the low light. While the cones provide your brain with most of the color information, the rods show the world in grayscale, with only subtle hints of color. Unlike your eyes, an image sensor such as the one in your digital camera doesn’t have rods and cones, so it still sees the world in color, even in low light. While there may not be much light available, taking long exposures of a scene allows light to build up and reveal a colorful nighttime world, as shown in Figure A. To capture great low-light shots, you need to take some steps to make sure your dark scenes come out bright.




After the sun goes down

When photographers talk about night photography, they aren’t talking about shooting without any light at all. Light must reach the image sensor for an image to be produced, so having a light source is an absolute necessity. However, this light doesn’t have to be very bright, as long as it’s somewhat predictable.

For example, the low-light photographer’s best friend is the full moon, or at least a partial moon. On a clear night when the moon is rising, the full moon is usually bright enough to light almost any scene, provided you use a longer exposure.

We use the term low-light photography here because calling it simply “night” photography can be misleading. Some of the best shots are taken in the hour or so after sunset, when the light of the sky is fairly bright and relatively even, as shown in Figure B. For the best natural light, shoot when the moon is rising or soon before or after dusk. Those are your best times for getting good color and detail in your low-light shots.





Digital and darkness

There are a few unique challenges you’ll meet when using a digital camera for low-light photography. Digital cameras still have a way to go when it comes to shooting in low-light settings, mostly because the shutter must remain open longer to let in enough light to form the image.

When the shutter is open, the pixels on the image sensor receiving the light tends to heat up, which can cause thermal noise. It appears in your image as off-color or white spots, the result of a toasty pixel (or two or three) misreading the information, as shown in Figure C.




How do you avoid this? There are a few techniques for keeping your pixels cool and comfortable:

        First, nighttime is usually cooler, so it takes longer for pixels to warm up. Shooting in colder winter weather extends this time even more. The image shown in Figure D, which was taken in sub-freezing weather, took much longer to develop noise. The image shown in Figure C was taken at 65 degrees, so the sensor heated up much faster.

        Second, take your longer exposures as soon as you turn your camera on. If you have to take consecutive shots, turn the camera off and give it a chance to chill out before you start another exposure.

        Finally, set your camera’s ISO setting for ISO 100, or the lowest you can get. Higher ISO settings increase the sensitivity of your image sensor and can lead to a fast build-up of noise.




What to bring to the night shoot

A nighttime shoot is a little different from taking snapshots at the company picnic. First, forget about handholding your camera. The steadier the surface you provide during the longer exposures, the less likely your shots will be blurry from camera movement. The slightest shake can ruin a 30-second exposure, so make sure you have a tripod or some other stabilizing device like a beanbag to keep the camera steady.


Hands off!

For the same reason, you’ll want to reduce your contact with the camera as much as possible. Even pressing the shutter button can cause movements that can show up in your shot, so use other ways of activating the shutter if possible:

        If your camera has a remote control, by all means use it (but make sure the infrared beam doe...


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