The Winter Solstice will be upon us next Friday, and since it’s the longest night of the year, I decided that I will take the time to talk about night time photography. Night photography, can be some of the hardest photography, but reap some of the heaviest rewards. The usual Photographer’s Triangle of ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed becomes an even harsher mistress at night.
For the purposes of this blog I’m lumping all photography after the sun dips below to the horizon at dusk until it peaks over it again in the morning as “Night” Photography, even though we will be including dusk/dawn shots as well.
For any photography that takes place during these lowlight hours you’re going to want some means of keeping your camera stable and steady. Preferably this requires a tripod, but even the old standby of nestling your camera into a beanbag on a table will work.
As always we want to keep our ISO as low as possible to prevent noise. This becomes increasingly harder the darker it gets, but by keeping the camera on a tripod you can lengthen the shutter speed to make up for it.
One of the other things that we will have to keep in mind concerning shutter speed, is where our photo is being taken. If we’re taking it in an urban area that has lots of lights, we can reduce the shutter speed, but if we are out in the middle of the desert in Arizona we’ll need a longer shutter speed.
Speaking of ambient light, we’ll also need to pay attention to what phase the moon is in. During a new moon, we’ll need a much longer exposure time than we will need during a full moon. Next week during the Winter Solstice the moon will be in the Waxing Gibbous phase so it’ll be fairly bright.
You’ll also need to take into consideration the subject of your photo. Are you taking a photo of the moon itself, or the landscape lit by the moon? Taking a picture of a grassy field lit by a bright moon will be a lot different than taking a photo of that same field covered in snow. Growing up in Buffalo, if there’s one thing I know it is snow.
One of the hardest things I had trouble figuring out when I got started was what white balance to use. During a sunny day it is obvious, you would use the sun setting. If it’s cloudy use cloudy. One trick a lot of photographers use is during twilight switch to either the shady or cloudy setting to bring out the rich tones of the setting sun.
What happens when the sun actually sets though? Switch back to daylight. I know it seems counter-intuitive because it’s dark out, but one thing you can use to remember this is that the light of the moon is actually the light of the sun being reflected.
Speaking of white balance, if you are taking photos of the moon, you will have to manually adjust your light meter and underexpose your photo if you want to get all those wonderful craters to really pop out at you instead of having a bright white disk on a black background.
The first part of the Photographer’s Triangle that we will consider is ISO. The lower the ISO, or film speed, the less noisy it will be however we need to make sure it gets a proper exposure so we can’t have it too low either. Growing up with film I was always told that indoors you need an ISO of at least 400, preferably 800. Outside on a sunny day gets 200, cloudy days 400. This is still a fairly decent guideline to use, except that you have to remember that it’s just ISO that you need to consider. These numbers are based on the objective that the camera will be handheld and would need to have a fast enough shutter speed to combat camera shake. We’re using a tripod so we can cheat a little and go with a slower ISO since we can lengthen our exposure time. For this example we’ll take a picture of the moon itself. Since it is dark out, but we’re using the light of the moon, we are going to stick with an ISO of 400.
The next part of the triangle to consider is Aperture. Again, I had a lot of trouble wrapping my head around this when I first started. For those of you into photography you know that the wider the aperture (and lower the f/number) the more light gets let it). This is akin to the irises of our eyes widening in the dark to let more light in. The problem is it lets more light it in, but that light is unfocused. Our brains will interpret the light patterns, and let us focus, but the camera doesn’t have that option. When I first started out I kept leaving my aperture wide open thinking that it would let more light in. The problem then became Depth-of-Field and not being able to focus properly on what I wanted. And of course with the small screens on the back of a digital camera, slightly-out-of-focus doesn’t look out of focus until it’s already downloaded to my computer and I begin swearing at myself. So, long story short, keep your f/number where you would for your subject in the daytime. Since we’re technically doing a landscape photograph, we’ll leave it between f/11 and f/16 which are good “landscape numbers” that provides a great depth-of-field and will allow us to focus with a greater margin of error.
The third part of the triangle is shutter speed. Here again, things get tricky. It needs to be slow enough, especially for landscapes that you can capture the image, but fast enough that you don’t get blown out highlights either. Or in the case of our moon photo, slow enough to capture and bring out the details of the moon, while still being fast enough that it doesn’t become the white disk I mentioned earlier. With a Waxing Gibbous, 1/500 sec should be spot on (providing that the other two sides of the triangle are set accordingly).
Another tool we need for night time photography is a way we can see what phase the moon will be in. A quick Google search for “Moon Phase Calculator” will bring up numerous options to use with varying degrees of usability. I prefer the United States Naval Observatories site which can be found here:
I am in no way endorsed by, or am endorsing this site, but it’s what I use.
Keywords: Ambient, Aperture, Calculator, Dawn, Dusk, ISO, Landscape, Lowlight, Moon, Moonscape, Night, Noise, Phase, Photographer's Triangle, Photography, Settings, Shutter, Solstice, Tips, Tripod, Twilight, White Balance, Winter
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