Capturing the Beauty of the Night – Part 1

October 02, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

We have all seen those wonderful night time shots that photographers around the world have captured and brought to life for us. Surreal, beautiful, a wonder to behold. Everything ranging from dramatic cityscapes to exquisite images of the Aurora Borealis, spiraling stars in the heavens above, and the ever popular band of the Milky Way Galaxy shining brightly upon us, reminding us of our place within this massive universe.

“But how!?” One might ask, when inquiring about an image and how it was captured. “What are your settings? How did you make the stars swirl? How do I take a shot like that?” These questions and many more I have heard ever since I became a photographer. In the beginning I did my best to answer as best I could with the little bits of knowledge I had gleaned from other photographers, but truth be told, there is no substitution for practice, practice, practice. That being said, in the next few paragraphs I will do my best to explain the techniques and tricks that I personally use to capture the beauty of the night.

First off you need a camera (well, duh!), but not just any camera. You need a camera that you can control the shutter speed and f-stop. Generally speaking you need a DSLR (Digital SLR) camera. However, there are several “point and shoot” types of cameras out there that have given the users the ability to modify your shutter and f-stop. So, whatever your camera of choice is, as long as you can modify these settings, you should be good to go!
Second, you absolutely MUST have a tripod. Yes, preferably a nice steady tripod and not some flimsy $15 dollar one, but even that is better then nothing.

“Ok, ok… I get it… a tripod and camera! Check! Get on with it Stephen… sheesh!”

OK, here goes… something…

The first type of night photography I would like to explain is Cityscapes. Capturing a night scene in the city can be thrilling, and challenging all at the same time. If you want to capture an image like this:
Stuttgart Volksfest Cityscape
Stuttgart Volksfest Cityscape

You need to adhere to THREE basic principles. In fact these principles will hold true throughout this post. Those principles are: Shutter speed, f-stop (or aperture), and ISO. This is the trifecta that signifies the amount of light allowed into your camera and onto your sensor (or film, if shooting a film camera… though with film the ISO is set by the type of film purchased and is not changeable).

If you use a light meter, or the light meter in your camera for night shots, just know that IT WILL LIE TO YOU! “But how do I know how long to set my shutter speed for? And what should I set my f-stop to?” Well, first off you want to set your f-stop to the “sweet spot” for your lens. This is somewhere between f5.6 and f9 or f10. Once you have your f-stop set, you can then figure out the shutter speed. Follow these easy steps (WARNING: some minor math calculations are involved):

1. Adjust your ISO to a higher setting (say 3200)
2. Set your shutter to a few seconds (between 2-10 seconds)
3. Take a test shot! “OMG everything is blown out, it’s so bright!!!”
4. OK, take a deep breath, adjust your shutter to a faster speed (if at 10, then go to 1)…

Once you’re happy with the lighting and the way the scene looks on your LCD you want to then adjust your shutter and ISO for optimal resolution
As an example, let’s say you set your shutter to 2 seconds, with the ISO set to 3200. Optimally we would like to have the ISO at 100 (or even 50) for better clarity and less noise in the image. This is where that dreaded math comes into play… If we adjust the ISO to a lower number then our shutter speed must increase… but by how much? Ah, now there’s the key!

The ISO scale is as follows: 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600, 3200, 6400… and so on. Basically doubling for every full stop. If I want my ISO to be 100 (in this instance) then I must double my shutter for ever division of ISO. “YIKES! That sounds complicated Stephen…” Well, it’s not that bad, just bare with me…
Given our example: ISO 3200, 2 second shutter, at f8… If we then go to ISO 1600, then our shutter doubles to 4 seconds. If we adjust it to 800, then our shutter goes to 8 seconds, and if we adjust to 400, then our shutter goes to 16 seconds (see the pattern?)

POP QUIZ! What will my shutter be at ISO 100?
Answer: 64 seconds

Want another example? If so, drop down to the end of the blog post and I’ll share a few more with ya…

Once you have your shutter and ISO set then it’s time to take that beautiful nightscape… easy eh? Well, it sounds more complicated then it really is, but once you practice a few times you’ll get the hang of it. Also, dialing in your initial settings becomes easier as you become more familiar with your gear, and with the ambient light surrounding you.

In this example, we end up with a 64 second shutter speed. Even though you may be able to adjust your shutter, you might not be able to put the camera into “Bulb” mode to take longer then 30 second exposures. Or if you can put your camera into bulb mode, maybe you don’t have a shutter release cable… In order to resolve this issue, we can adjust the ISO back (no recommended), or we can adjust the f-stop. The same rules apply… if I adjust my f-stop down to f5.6 then my shutter speed can decrease by half to 32 (and setting it to 30 should most likely be fine in this instance).

The key point to remember is that ISO, fstop, and shutter speed all affect each other. If you ISO drops by a stop, then your shutter speed doubles, or your f-stop needs to be dropped a stop (i.e. from f8 to f5.6).

This has been part one of “Capturing the Beauty of the Night”
Part 2, 3, and 4 will follow in the coming days. I hope you have enjoyed this brief tutorial. If you have any questions, feel free to comment on this post and I will do my best to answer in a timely manner. If the question warrants it, I will modify the blog to add additional information.

ADDITIONAL EXAMPLES:

Example 1:
F8, ISO6400, 10s –> We want ISO 200, what is the shutter speed?
ISO 3200 = 20s
ISO 1600 = 40s
ISO   800 = 80s
ISO   400 = 160s
ISO   200 = 320s = 5 min 20 s exposure

Example 2:
F3.5, ISO 1600, 5s –> We want ISO 100, what is the shutter speed?
ISO 800 = 10s
ISO 400 = 20s
ISO 200 = 40s
ISO 100 = 80s = 1 min 20 s exposure

Additional Cityscape images at night:

Capitol Building at Night San Diego Skyline



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