A Short Course Book
Using Your Digital Camera
A Guide To Great Photographs

Photographing at Night

Many cameras have night landscape and night portrait modes for taking photos at night.
Fireworks can be dramatic, but are difficult to capture. You need to experiment and a digital camera is perfect for that because you can instantly review your results.
A typical bulb icon.
Candlelight provides a very warm glow to whatever it illuminates.
The U.S. Constitution lies floodlit in Marblehead Harbor.
The full moon taken with a telephoto lens on a digital camera.
You can photograph many different things outdoors at night, so don't put your camera away just because the sun is gone for the day. Light sources (street lights, automobile lights, neon signs, or fires) or brightly lit areas (illuminated buildings or areas under street lights) will dominate pictures at night because they stand out strongly against darker backgrounds. Plan to use these bright areas as the dominant part of your picture. A tripod will support your camera during long exposures and prevent blur caused by camera motion during the time the shutter is open.

Urban areas are full of bright lights that can be used to illuminate nighttime scenes.

Many cameras have a night portrait or night landscape mode that captures a foreground subject against a night sky or cityscape. It illuminates foreground subjects with the flash and the shutter speed is set slow enough to lighten the background. Since a slow shutter speed may be used in this mode, you need to support the camera. Also, if people are in the foreground, ask them to freeze until a few seconds after the flash has fired so the shutter has time to close, or they may be blurred. The flash is set to slow sync although you can select other flash modes.

To capture interesting images of fireworks, put people or water in the foreground. It also helps if there are identifiable objects in the image such as an illuminated building or monument to give the viewer a sense of place. Get upwind from the show since fireworks generate a lot of smoke that can become a problem if you are downwind. If you are upwind, the smoke will become part of the image, illuminated by the fireworks. Automatic exposure doesn't work well with fireworks. Try a series of exposures of different bursts because there is a certain amount of luck involved. You might also use flash or slow sync to illuminate foreground figures.

Set your exposure for fireworks by switching to aperture or shutter-priority mode and use a setting of f/2.8 at 1/30. You might also want to try increasing sensitivity, use exposure compensation, and try different combinations of aperture and shutter speed as well as those mentioned here.

At night you often use long exposures and some cameras have a bulb mode, available in the manual exposure mode, for this purpose. In this mode the shutter remains open as long as you hold down the shutter button. If it's open for more than 1 second, noise in the form of randomly-spaced, brightly-colored pixels may appear in the photograph. To reduce noise at slow shutter speeds, turn on noise reduction.

Use automatic exposure at night if brightly lit areas take up most of the scene visible in your viewfinder. If they do not, use exposure compensation to reduce the exposure and darken the image so bright lights aren't overexposed.

This picture of Chicago was taken just after sunset through an airliner window. A few minutes later the scene was too dark to capture without blurring due to long exposure times.
There is a time at twilight and dawn where there is enough light in the sky so it has the same tonal value as the foreground.

The Moon

The moon, especially when full, adds a lot to an image. The best time to capture the moon is when it's near the horizon. Because it is close to foreground objects at that time, it looks much larger than when it's higher in the sky.

Keep in mind that the moon is relatively dim and usually requires long exposures. Since it's moving relative to the Earth, longer exposures can actually blur it, giving it an oblong shape. To reduce the chances of this happening, shoot just before sunrise or just after sunset when there is still some light in the atmosphere from the recently set sun. (It bends around the Earth's curvature due to refraction in the atmosphere).

The rising full moon, and the trail it leaves across the water, adds a lot to this photo of an old-fashioned coalburning power plant on Salem Harbor.

Long exposures on bright moonlit nights can be very attractive. Just keep in mind that the moon does move so exposures longer than a minute or so may show it elongated.

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