Night street photography is an exciting genre. It encompasses a variety of photographic opportunities including but not limited to light trails, fireworks, light painting, cityscapes and even portraits. However, night street photography isn’t without its challenges. Today, we are going to discuss some of those challenges of shooting night street photography; as well as how to overcome those challenges using the right combination of gear, shooting and post-processing techniques.
Night Street Photography Tips:
Night Street Photography and Its Many Challenges
Night street photography is considered as a major challenge in photography because of several reasons. Most importantly it is due to the increased amount of image grain captured in the images. This happens as the camera tries to amplify the signal for better exposure and in the process ends up amplifying the static with it.
To add to that there is the challenge of using a slow shutter speed and the inherent issues of image blur. Plus, there is also the issue of autofocusing failure. Camera AF systems struggle in low light situations like these.
Night Street Photography Tips and Tricks
1. The Tripod Is Your Best Friend
The first piece of gear that goes with you on a night street photography outing is your tripod. Tripods come in various shapes, sizes, leg types, and material quality. But evidently, they all do the same thing. They provide a platform for your camera to use a slow shutter speed without risking image blur.
If you want to make sure you’re getting a sturdy tripod, going into a store to physically test them can be a good way to see if a certain tripod fits your needs. If you live in a windy location, a slightly heavier tripod will get you better images than a lightweight model that might be just fine for somebody in an area with little to no winds.
2. Choose a Camera with a Low Noise Threshold
A camera with a low noise threshold is one that does not bring in a lot of noise in the image in the first place. That means if you shoot at a lower ISO and then push the exposure up in post-processing there is not going to be a huge amount of noise in the resulting image.
You will also hear the phrase ISO Invariance in connection with nighttime photography. ISO invariance is a term that suggests that the camera does not add any extra noise to an image during post-processing. If this is how you intend to achieve well-exposed images, an iso-invariant camera model may be a wise purchase choice.
Doing so gives you an advantage. You can retain details in the mid-tones and the shadows (your highlights are light streaks, and they will be blown anyway). In post-processing, you can always salvage your shadows. These days most cameras come with incredible dynamic range along with the ability to retain a lot of detail in the shadow areas provided you have captured the image as a RAW file.
3. Use a Fast Lens for Fast Shutter Speeds at Night
One of the lesser-used night photography settings is to use a wide aperture. In other words, use a fast lens. Yes, a wide aperture will always result in a shallow depth of field. But when you are shooting at night much of the frame will be obscured and have very little discernible detail. So, even if those details are out of focus, it really will not matter.
With the lack of light, your options are – slow down the shutter speed, increase the ISO number or use a wide aperture lens.
At times you might be forced to use all of them. But oftentimes, you can make a choice. Using a higher ISO number, especially, if your camera does not have good low light performance, is a risky thing to do. The resulting photo may have too much noise and you may not be able to salvage that photo.
Using a slow shutter speed may be a good technique. But you need to have a tripod to hand. What if you don’t have a tripod available? What if you were not planning to shoot nighttime photos but the opportunity presents itself to you anyway?
A wide aperture lens is the best bet in most night photography situations.
4. Experiment with Reflections
Day times are great for shooting beautiful waterfront images of cityscapes. But did you ever think of experimenting with cityscapes at night? Try and shoot at the blue hour when the city lights are starting to turn on. You can also shoot when it is completely dark so that the lights have taken effect and you can get a beautiful reflection of a city’s skyline against a waterfront.
We recommend a tripod with a slow shutter speed, to maximize the effect. You can also experiment with the same technique using a puddle of water to shoot reflections.
5. Try Bulb Mode
Every digital camera will have this mode. At least the interchangeable lens cameras do. In this mode, you can press the shutter release button and hold it pressed down to keep the shutter curtains open for as long as you want. This allows the sensor to keep receiving light from the scene.
This mode is ideally suitable for when you are using a tripod or when your camera does not have a dedicated shutter priority mode. This mode will help you shoot long exposures in night street photography.
6. Experiment on a Full Moon Night
Growing up as a photographer one of my personal favorite photos has been the Moon and Half Dome by Ansel Adams. This image has remained one of the finest examples of Ansel Adams’ understanding of exposure. A testimony to the fact that he was able to capture details of both the moon and that of the partially sunlit Half Dome.
A scene where the moon features is usually a difficult one to capture. This is because the details of the moon are hard to capture without compromising the rest of the frame. On the contrary, if you want to show details in the scene, you will end up shooting a bright disc in the sky with no discernible details.
This is tough but not entirely impossible. As Ansel Adams had done when he did light reading off of the Moon and then placed the scene on Zone VII of his system.
7. Use a Mirrorless Camera for Nighttime Photography
Don’t get me wrong I love DSLRs and everything that is associated with those big camera designs. But when it comes to shooting nighttime photography mirrorless cameras have a slight edge over their bigger cousins.
Why? Because they are mirrorless, that is why. Let me explain this in detail. Mirrorless cameras do not have a reflex mirror inside them. Yes, we are all aware of that. But how does that help? Well, the reflex mirror accounts for a lion’s share of vibration that occurs inside a DSLR camera during and after the process of image-making.
When you press the shutter button, a series of mechanical and electronic processes happen in a sequence inside the camera. I am not going to go deep into each one of them. Just know this much – that the reflex mirror that normally sits in front of the sensor and bounces off light up towards the optical viewfinder, flips up and away from the path of light coming through the lens barrel. By doing so light coming in through the lens now hits the sensor directly.
But this process of the mirror flipping away makes a vibration. And this vibration does not help when capturing sharp nighttime photography.
Compared to that a mirrorless camera which doesn’t have the reflex mirror. It is dead silent when making an image. And that means when they fire an exposure there is nothing mechanical moving inside them. Resultantly, the images produced by a mirrorless camera are sharper.
8. Use the Night Mode on Your Smartphone
If you shoot predominantly with a smartphone and feel that night street photography is not in your domain, think again. You might be surprised to know that your phone already has a few night photography settings built into its software. One of them is the Night Mode. This mode takes a long exposure of the scene at a low ISO number but at an extended shutter speed.
Normally, when you shoot using the photo mode the shutter speed is sped up and with it, the ISO gets pushed. The night mode takes an image at a low ISO. Therefore, the resulting image is a lot cleaner and retains a lot of detail compared to a normal shot.
9. Use Mirror Lock-Up Technique if Using a DSLR
To avoid the issue of the mirror vibration in cameras, photographers use a number of techniques. One of them is the built-in mirror lock-up function. This is one of the most effective night photography settings you can incorporate in your process. The way it works in Nikon systems is as follows. The system in use in Canon cameras should not be too different.
To activate Mirror lock-up mode from the main shooting dial you switch to the M-Up function. You focus and compose normally as you would. Then when you press the shutter release something different happens.
Normally, when you press the Shutter Release button, the camera would instantaneously move the reflex mirror out of the path of the incoming light. It will also open the shutter curtains. Finally, the light reaches the sensor where the optical magic happens.
But in this case, when you press the shutter release, the mirror flips out of the path of light and gets locked up in an ‘Up’ position. The exposure does not happen immediately. You need to press the shutter release button again in order to complete the shutter cycle and with it the exposure.
The advantage of this technique is that the mirror settles down after experiencing vibration. By the time you are ready to press the shutter release again, there are no vibrations inside the camera. Therefore there is reduced image blur.
10. Use Manual Mode
If you are not using the manual mode on your camera already, you are losing out. The manual mode is the ultimate creative shooting mode on your camera. In manual mode, you can control your exposures. You can control what to expose for, how much of the shadow you want to brighten up and do a lot of basic exposure stuff in-camera before you open your photo on editing software. It also gives you the freedom not to use too high an ISO number and thereby not induce too much grain in your photos.
11. Use Manual Focusing
Low light is often the bane of most camera autofocusing systems. Autofocusing systems have improved quite a lot these days. Regardless, in dark conditions, especially where there is no contrast to grab on to, autofocusing can really struggle.
Let us say that you are setting up to shoot fireworks. You plan on using long exposure method. Unless there is something at a distance, something that can work as a reference point, you cannot set the focus of your camera. Autofocusing will keep hunting for focus for several seconds if you attempt to lock focus during the fireworks. Manual focusing can help you avoid focus hunting and other issues in such circumstances.
12. Use Focus Lock Technique
The first thing we do when we compose is to ensure whatever we need in the frame has been included. But what about the focusing bit? During the daylight, this is rarely a problem as we can always half-press the shutter button and lock focus.
But that technique does not work at nighttime.
If we try to acquire focus, such as during a fireworks show, the camera will struggle.
The key is to acquire focus before the show begins and lock it. The process of acquiring focus using manual focusing mode has been discussed in the previous tip. But you want to make sure that focus does not change accidentally, between shots. The focus lock button ensures that. There is a focus lock button on most cameras and that easily does the job.
13. Try and Experiment with Film
Very few people use film cameras these days. Almost no one looks for film cameras or film stock these days. This is a dying art form that desperately needs attention. If you are one of those rare people who still has some film stock left or knows where to get some from, using them to shoot nighttime photography can be an interesting experience.
Nighttime photography uses the fundamentals of the exposure triangle. Once you have a grasp of the same, you can master nighttime photography and capture interesting images. Apart from the basics of the exposure triangle, you can also get a grasp over how image noise happens and how to overcome that while shooting and when editing. Try and mix up the scene. Incorporate light in an interesting way. Use additional accessories like a tripod. Using the above tips you will soon be shooting fantastic nighttime photographs that will wow your audience.
Do you have a tip of your own to share with the rest of us? Feel free to speak your mind in the comment box below.