I have gotten a few questions on how to set the camera up for good night shots and there is really nothing to it this is what I normally do is very simple things. If you check your camera manual you should be able to follow the same settings.
Here is an example of a night shot that I have taken with my old Nikon D70s:
The most important tool of night photography is the tripod. If you do not have one, or can not take one to the place you wish to shoot from, then you should seriously consider again if it is not possible. Perhaps you can get someone to help you with it if the problem is carrying it. Perhaps you can get one of these small tripods or perhaps a gorillapod to use instead?
Another useful item is the bean bag which is basically a fabric bag which has been filled to 2/3rds with rice, small beans or some other such useful type of grain. This bag is great because you can use it anywhere, it forms an cushions your camera nicely and it will help you also with macro photography. You need usually two bean bags, one under your camera house, the other under your lens as support.
The next very useful item is the remote release for the shutter. If you don’t want to invest in a remote shutter release cable or IR remote for your camera you can use the timer on the camera to delay the actual photo taking between 5-20 seconds. This is because you want the camera to take the picture and be completely shake free. If you are using a cable release then make sure it is not tight when you shoot so you are pulling the camera. Using the IR remote is usually never a problem, but does require batteries and they don’t work with all cameras. Almost all cameras have the timer though and putting that on say 10 seconds delay is usually quite enough to make sure the camera is not shaking when the picture is taking.
If you are using a digital SLR camera (dSLR) then you should also consider the mirror lock-up mode that many cameras have now. The mirror when it moves produce vibrations and they can be very difficult to get rid of especially if your shutter time is in the region of 1/30 s down to 2 s. The remote release or timer release does not help here. So if your camera do not have this feature try to avoid this region of shutter times completely to avoid the mirror slap to shake the camera and thereby produce a blurry picture.
The ISO setting on the camera should be the setting that produce minimum noise. This is usually the lowest ISO setting on the camera although in some cases the camera sensor can be optimized for a slightly higher ISO as the premium in regard to noise. On the Nikon D300 for example the recommended lowest setting is ISO 200 although the camera can go -1 EV down from this (one full stop) that means ISO 100 the manual actually state the quality of the photos are usually better at ISO 200. Consult your manual. Always turn off the auto iso mode because otherwise the camera will increase the ISO setting automatically when it sees your dark frame when you are trying to take a picture.
Never use high ISO if you can avoid it. The pictures will be noisy and or grainy. However if you don’t have the tripod or just want to experiment you can set the ISO to whatever you want and have a blast. Here is an example of handheld shooting in the middle of the night with very high sensitivity on the camera, ISO 3200 which does produce quite a bit of noise but in this case it was not too bad for the picture since it was quite foggy anyway:
Turn off Active D-Lighting or high dynamic range if your camera has such features. They are designed to ”compress” the dynamics in the image by increasing the luminance in the dark parts and decreasing it in the highlights. The decreasing of highlights is not bad for this but the lifting of the shadows does produce a fair amount of extra noise. Make sure these features are turned off before you go shooting in the dark your you may be very disappointed with your camera.
Use a sensible aperture, something like f/8 is usually great, it gives you a good depth of field DOF or focus depth to work with and it allows you to take pictures that are sharp from a few meters away all to infinity. So even if you miss the focus slightly your pictures will still be sharp.
Use spot focusing on a single point and pre-focus before you actually take the shot. Use the autofocus if it works, with some cameras it can be difficult to get it working well in darkness, but there is usualluy some contrasts the camera can work with. Then flip the focus to manual so it will not auto-focus at all then then use the time or cable release to take the picture. The reason for this is to avoid that the camera starts ”hunting” for focus and misses what you are trying to photograph or get a very bad out of focus picture.
Use sensible focal lengths. Usually you can leave the 600 mm behind, somewhere from 12-300 mm is your useful focal range when working in the darkness. Wide angles can be effective, so can telephoto lenses but they are more difficult due to their extension and heavy weight. You need a very good tripod to use a 300 mm in the night with 15 seconds shutter time.
I also recommend that you take fresh batteries, at least here in Sweden it is getting rather cold at night and batteries that are not fresh may stop working suddenly when the temperature drops. Charge everything during the day before you go on a night shoot.
Set the camera to aperture priority mode (A) and then select an aperture somewhere around f/8 is a good starting point for most night shots. A too wide aperture and you will get a very shallow focus field which means that you have to work hard to get the focus where you want it, the cameras autofocus is often wrong in bad light.
Set the camera to single shot mode. With the exposures you may expect it just don’t make sense to set the camera to continuous shooting mode.
Use raw mode. This helps a lot, whatever mistake you do you have a much better chance of fixing it if you shoot raw and use your cameras software to convert that into whatever format you are happy with using. Lots of post processing software from the free Picasa program to the more expensive Adobe Lightroom can also read and use camera raw files directly from the most well known brands!
If you have various settings on your raw, use raw without compression (or non-destructive compression) and the highest bit rate you can afford.
- White balance to auto or to daylight neutral. You may experiment with this because neon lights have very different light temperatures.
- Use the mirror lock-up mode when available, especially if you are shooting in the 1/30 – 2 s range.
- ISO 200 – Auto ISO must be turned OFF, or the camera will try to increase the ISO automatically.
- Turn off Active D-Lighting and other such features
- Use only RAW, set it to 14 bits and no compression if you can
- Single shot mode
- Aperture priority (A) mode with f/8 or a similar aperture. Useful apertures range from f/4 to about f/11 in most cases.
- Tripod – your important tool, bean bags or similar
- Cable release or IR release