Night Photography – secrets uncovered

It was my love and obsession of capturing the Aurora Borealis, which uncovered a new passion… night photography.

Aurora over þingvellir

A secret landscape is unveiled to the night photographer, the seas turned to milk, the street light adopt an eerie glow and the colours are amazing. In the days of film we had to battle with reciprocity failure were the film emulsion would stop being reliable over a certain time. Then the was Fuji Provia with no reciprocity failure up to 4 minutes and then there was digital with no reciprocity problems at all. But digital brought it’s own set of electronic issues.

White Balance

White balance is the way a digital camera analyses a scene and decided what is true white (or more accurately true grey) the problem at night is that a camera cannot see anything except maybe some street lamps or the moon. The solution to this is to shoot in RAW mode if your camera allows it and then adjust the white balance when you process the files.

Battery life

Another short coming of the digital age is the fact that longer exposures require more battery juice. My old Olympus OM1 could sit with her shutter open all night and not require any power. Digital cameras are limited to around an hour depending on the camera.

Thingvellir National Park at night

Equipment

strong Tripod:

I have to get as low as possible for better details in the foreground so no center column are really nice features to look out for choosing your tripod. Stabilize your tripod so it is sturdy. Moving the Magic Cloth can introduce vibrations. But, this is good practice for fine art long exposure photography.

Try to avoid heightening the center column unless you really need to. The center column is the least stable part of the set up.

Sometimes your tripod has a hook between the legs, suspend something from it to help with extra stability. Many professionals carry an empty “rock bag” that they can fill with stones to give a heavy weight which will hold the tripod well – fine for Magic Cloth photography.


Cable Release

Most digital cameras can be programmed for a 30 second exposure, but you will need a cable release for longer periods. These can be expensive and you have to find the right one for your camera, but you can find many third party replacements on ebay if you just want to dabble.

Spare Battery

Your battery is not going to last long on a cold winter night. Take a spare and keep it in an inside pocket. When you battery dies, switch them and put the dying one in your pocket – you will recover half its life again by warming it up.

Warm clothes

For a cold winter night, you will be standing around for long periods of time so don’t under-estimate the power of the cold. Layers are best!

Camera

Don’t leave home without it!

Procedure

Set your camera up on a tripod and program 30 seconds and press the shutter button. Take it from there. Have a look at your settings; iso, aperture. Is your picture too dark? too light?

OK, this might not be the picture you wanted but from here you can make all the adjustments you need. My best way of working in a pure night environment(no artificial lights) is to take my test shot around 1 minute and with an iso around 1600 this will give me a low quality image with too much grain to use, but I will be able to see things. I will be able to see the landscape I am trying to compose. I will see if it is too dark of too bright. Then when I have adjusted the composition and exposure I do the maths. 1 minute at 1600 = 2 minutes at 800 = 4 minutes at 400 = 8 minutes at 200 = 16 minutes at 100 0 32 minutes at 50. So if I want a super quality image with 50 iso I will need to expose for 32 minutes. Next question is, what do I do for the next 32 minutes?

Ice on the banks of Jökulsárlón

This picture was taken in Early April at midnight. The exposure was 16 minutes at 200 iso. This required a lot of advanced noise reduction during processing. As you can see, there is a blue cast from the white balance which I decided to keep as it reflects the cold atmosphere.

Night photography gives you an opportunity to see the world differently, you might want to shoot an urban street scene or a dark landscape, whatever you shoot at night, you will have a very different result than if you shot during the day. Take advantage of the long exposure that can turn any waterfall into milk and can calm the most violent seascape.


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