Introduction to Night Photography with Mark Upfield {guest post}

Reason number 567 to adore Flickr: you can meet amazing artists in your area and get new inspiration for photographing where you live. I happened upon a Flickr group dedicated to the town where I live and saw some of the most astounding landscapes I’ve ever seen. I messaged the photographer just to say I admired his work and we got a’Twitterin.

So when a reader wrote and asked me about night photography, I emailed back to say that I wish I could get out at night and take photos, but my kids have other plans. Although I did know a talented landscape photographer who I could get on the case. And so without further ado, here is Mark Upfield on the topic of night photography.

P.S. If you leave some love in the comments below, he might write for us again! :*)

f/5.6 Exposure: 859 seconds

Most of us landscape photographers are aware that shooting in the day is all about waiting for the light or that perfect sunset. When shooting in pitch black or an area with some ambient light but not a lot, is fairly different.

Basic Equipment:

  • Camera (sure we all know that)
  • Lens (I use a Sigma 10-20mm on my landscapes)
  • Tripod
  • Remote release
  • Phone/Stop watch (something to time with)

Extra Equipment:

The extra equipment list is not essential but may help you or make it easier. Hyper focal lists are a way in which to focus your camera using a formula depending or what aperture you are using, the lists vary but a basic sheet can be found here.

I always turn up or look at the location in daylight to work out the composition and shot ideas without struggling with a flashlight and equipment in the dark. Overtly there are many different ways in which to shoot night pictures depending on your own photographic style. I have found myself at a stage now where I am shooting 90% of my images in camera and spending 10% of my time on the computer (digital darkroom). However, some people like to use the Digital darkroom a lot more than me, which is fine, but it’s down to the way you prefer shoot. OK BORING PART OVER!!!!!

When setting up you camera for night images I would advise using manual mode not aperture or shutter priority. Only because then you have full control over your exposure times and light being let into the camera. I would usually use f5.6 and the hyper focal settings to get a sharp image from front to back letting the most amount of light in, on an iso 100 or 200.

Once you have your camera set up in a good composition I would advise using an extremely high iso just to make sure the image looks how you want (It will be grainy/noisy but then it saves you waiting for a 20 minute exposure being let down with the composition you have picked).

If you are now happy with your image, knock your iso back down to 100/200 and test how much light is being let in. After you have this test image try and guestimate how long you will need to leave the shutter open for by looking at the histogram. Now set your shutter to “bulb” and time the time you have guestimate on your phone or a stop watch, may take a few attempts but will be well worth it once you have that image you are happy with.

This (photo right —>) is the result of using these basic settings and techniques, I did on this image use a coking 2 stop hard grad filter on the sky just because the light from the Isle Of Wight was causing a lot of blow out.

Would also advise shooting in RAW so that you can control any white balance afterwards or if you are shooting in JPEG use auto white balance.

For impromptu night images for which you haven’t dedicated loads of time researching locations or for beginners who aren’t yet into filters, remote controls and whatnot, the general idea of photographing in low light is that you need to keep the shutter open for longer to allow more light to flood into the camera and hit the sensor. And for slow shutters, a tripod is a must-have. And not just a light, compact tripod either. Because the slightest breeze could cause your camera to shake enough to cause blur. So get yourself a nice heavy tripod and go out experimenting with slower shutter speeds.

Mark Upfield is the lead photographer in a Hampshire photo studio. His photographic passion is landscapes. You can visit Mark online at MUphotographic.

  • Adriana Hernandez

    WOW! really great article, LOVE your pics!! thanks a lot!!

  • Stefan

    “After you have this test image try and guestimate how long you will need to leave the shutter open for by looking at the histogram.”

    That is the most important part of the whole article and yet it’s too vague.

    Would be nice to get some details here. How exactly do we estimate the time ? How is the histogram helping in this case ?

  • Mark Upfield

    There are two ways to do it…

    Best way is to pump it up to ISO 800 and use a 30 second exposure if it looks right then drop it back to 100 and times the 30 seconds by 4. Another way is simple trial and error. Keep changing the length of the shutter until it works. Only problem is if you do a 20 minute exposure and its still under expoposed you may have to do one after it at 30 minutes so rather than a 30 minute exposure in the cold, otherwise you will be there for 50 minutes.

    Everytime you up the ISO you are doubling the exposure time.

  • Duncan Clarke

    Just to clarify, there’s a small error in your calculations above. If shooting at ISO 800 for 30 seconds gives you the correct exposure, then dropping down to ISO 100 will require a 4 minute exposure (8 times) for the same amount of light to enter.

    The most imporant thing in getting your exposures right is to understand the concept of “stops” of light. 1 stop = double the amount of light. This takes 3 forms:
    – doubling (or halving) the exposure time
    – doubling (or halving) the ISO
    – dividing (or multiplying) the aperture by 1.41

    The last is the most difficult to get your head around, but basically 2 stops = double the aperture. It’s also backwards as higher f/stop = smaller aperture and less light. Going from most light to least, it’s roughly:

    f/1, f/1.4, f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22

    Remember though that each change to aperture, ISO and exposure time comes with its own issues. It’s a complicated issue, but the best way to learn is to know a little and practice a lot.

  • Mark Upfield

    Thank you Duncan I know how to do it just not very great with all the technical jargon lol where are you from? I recognise your name I know a skate photographer with the same name really well :D

  • Mark Upfield

    Just seen it is you what a small world was at slamm jam with you a couple of years ago then we went to stock on trent after :D

    Good to hear from ya buddy :D

  • Stefan

    Great, thanks for the explanation guys :)

  • kate si

    Haha. I went out the other night trying to do this. Totally remembered my tripod, totally forgot the quick release plate was not on the bottom of the camera anymore. I tried anyway using my car and my shoe to balance it on and somehow I still managed to catch some stars just a bit blurrier than I expected…

  • elizabethhalford

    @Kate let’s see it!

  • Mark Upfield

    Come on Kate share :D I wanna see it

  • kate si

    When they’re up! I am so far behind on processing it’s not funny. Who knew you could take too many?