The high ISO capability of today’s new camera models is a true game changer. It opens up a range of light previously unexplored in the history of photography. Fearing noise, many people unnecessarily limit themselves to the lowest ISO setting and never explore this incredible range of light with all of its unique qualities—and surprises. (Don’t fear noise. Instead, read my series of articles.) Try night photography, and you’ll quickly realize the camera eye now can show you more than the eye can see. There have been many times now when I make exposures just to see what’s out there. Practice the art of night photography, and you’ll learn to see in new ways.
What settings should you use when making exposures in low light or at night? Use a tripod and cable release, set ISO to 800 (or higher), open up to ƒ/5.6 or wider, focus at infinity, and keep exposures below 20 seconds. While this is a good starting point, that’s all it is, as you’ll need to modify settings based on the specific light(s) in a location, the equipment you’re using and the effect you want to produce. Instead, ask yourself what concerns do you need to be mindful of, and what points of control do you have when making low-light or night photographs? Develop your sensitivity to these factors, and you’ll know why and when to improvise and even what more you can explore. These tips will give you a solid foundation from which to begin your explorations in low-light and night photography.
1. Use A Tripod. Tripods are essential for long exposure techniques. The tripod head you use is at least as important. It pays to invest in good gear. Remember, the best gear is not only dependable, but also easy to use. That said, when you don’t have to use a long exposure (longer than 1/60th of a second) or are exploring camera motion (be bold), you don’t have to use a tripod.
2. Use A Cable Release Or An Intervalometer. Minimize camera motion by using a cable release to make exposures. In a pinch, you can use the self-timer mode to delay exposure at least two seconds after you touch the shutter release. Once you’ve composed an image, touch the camera setup as little as possible. If you’re stacking multiple exposures to create star trails, use an intervalometer to automate timed exposure sequences.
3. Use Bulb Mode. Bulb exposure mode is the only mode you can use to make very long exposures. Most other camera modes won’t exceed 30 seconds.
4. Use Mirror Lock-Up. Further reduce motion blur by using the mirror lock-up function on your camera. Alternately, increase exposure for two seconds and block the lens for that time period. When you’re shooting on a tripod, don’t use image stabilization; it will reduce rather than increase sharpness.
5. Use A Good Fast Lens. Fast lenses reduce exposure times. Each ƒ-stop offers twice the amount of light as the previous one, which translates into an exposure that lasts half as long (reducing motion artifacts) or one lower ISO rating (reducing noise). If you can, pick up the speed you need with high ISO (without noise becoming unacceptable) and higher apertures. The sharpest aperture on most lenses is typically either ƒ/8 or ƒ/11. Confirm this with an individual lens by testing it, preferably before making exposures at night.
High-quality lenses reduce artifacts like chromatic aberration (color fringing easily corrected in postprocessing) and sometimes coma aberration (distortion that’s impossible to correct without substantial retouching).