Mastering long exposure night photography is a brass ring for amateur photographers. And why not? Who doesn’t want to capture the unbridled majesty of a spinning starfield at night or a glittering highway showing the beating heart of a city?
The good news is that with the right tools, approach, and a little bit of effort, anyone can learn this sublime trick of photography. Here are a few tips to help get you there.
1. Start with a Great Tripod
It’s the nature of long exposure photography, where the lens is open for significantly longer than a candid snap, to need to be steady.
This is especially true of long exposure night photography, where the available light is extremely limited.
So you need a dependable tripod to keep the camera steady. It doesn’t have to be an expensive tripod, mind you, just sturdy enough to handle the shutter being open for 30 seconds to 10 minutes at a time.
2. Find The Right Exposure for Your Photos
This is going to require some trial-and-error, but that’s all part of the fun.
First, to give yourself flexibility, you’ll want to keep your camera in Manual Mode so you can adjust the f-stops and ISO as needed.
Next, think about your ISO levels. A 100 ISO (the standard lowest amount for many digital SLRs) lets in the most light and is perfect for night photography, but you may want to adjust this up if there’s still some ambient light (say at dusk).
Next, you’ll want to adjust your f-stop depending on the kind of shot you’re trying to get. Smaller f-stops will keep most objects in Smaller f-stops (f/8, f/16, and higher) will keep most objects in focus while adjusting the time the shutter remains open will give you more of those fun light streak effects.
Just make sure you keep the aperture open for at least one or two seconds to capture those motion streaks.
3. Anchor Your Long Exposure Night Photography with Stationary Objects
Now that you’re ready to start shooting, one way to make it a little easier is to choose a location where everything except the objects you’re trying to capture in motion is static.
In other words, if you’re trying to get a beautiful starfield, go out to where nothing’s likely to be moving (i.e. some beautiful rocks, trees, etc.) and it’ll be a lot easier to get the right shot.
The fewer variables when starting out, the easier it is to get a pleasing result.
4. Get a Star Tracker for Perfect Shots of the Night Skies
Once you’re tired of those beautiful 360-degree star trails, it’s time to get a star tracker.
This little servo-motor device will track the stars in the night sky so that you can take full, static star fields in all their glory (as well as capture stars you could never see with the naked eye).
Some folks have put together some pretty great DIY star trackers that you can start with before moving to a professional or prosumer-grade equipment.
5. Learn How to Manage Long Exposure Noise Reduction
Finally, one of the drawbacks of taking night photos is noise. Low ISO shots mean more noise, which means learning how to manage noise reduction is key.
Many DSLRs actually have this feature hidden (in Canon cameras it’s under Custom Functions, Number 4), but if not, you can put the lens cap on after your long exposure for a second black frame and then do your noise reduction in Photoshop.
Ready to go? Before you know it, you’ll be creating great long exposure night photography.
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