Recently I’ve become completely enamored with shooting at night. It ups the creativity factor. Shooting at night presents a whole new list of challenges we must overcome. Each night is like a new scenario, and each time I shoot at night I learn something new. So what challenges do we face? Ambient lighting, no lighting, strong moon lighting, light pollution. How about if shooting in an urban situation? Street post lamps, passing cars. These are all possibilities. How do we overcome these challenges? Experimentation! Have a starting point in your mind, and have a vision of the end result of the photo.
I am going to compare two of the recent situations I was in. Each was vastly different and had their own challenges.
Three weeks ago, I went to shoot the Leonid Meteor Shower (See that post Leonid Meteor Shower 2012) In that post I outlined a quick formula that can be used to find your shutter speed. This was related to not blurring the stars. That night was also entirely different then shooting in a close by urban park. For one, I had a clear sky, the moon set well before my 3am shooting time and I was in a rural area with no light pollution.
Last night, I was shooting in a urban park. There was light pollution, ambient light from street posts, and the bright moon overhead. It was cloudy, which acted like a diffuser for the moonlight. What I found was some of my photo’s looked like mid-daylight. I also found that my starting point for my ISO was different, which in turn makes my shutter speed and f-stop different.
Shooting the Meteor shower saw my ISO at 3200 and adjusting from there. My f-stop was f/4, and shutter speed calculated to 25 seconds. Shooting in the rural park I started my ISO at 3200 and f/4 with shutter speed set accordingly to zero the image (I will explain that further in the article). To much light! I then took my ISO down to 1600, But I halved my f-stops to f/8 and set the shutter speed to zero the image. I performed the same exercise until I got my ISO down to 400, keeping my f-stop at f/8 and zeroing out my shutter speed. With the ISO down to 400, seemed to be the settings I like (before processing). The reading from the lcd screen with the higher ISO’s kept telling me my images were to bright. There was definitely experimentation going on. On this particular night to deal with all of the different lighting situations, the lower ISO was necessary. I choose to keep f/8 to get sharpness throughout the scene. Remember the first series of shots I used f/4, you can notice some background separation.
As for zeroing the image. I did this because I was also experimenting with HDR bracketing at night. With all of the light from multiple sources, and the leaves noticeably on the ground, I wanted to see if I could pull the detail out. All of the exposures were taken +2ev to -2ev for the 5 shot brackets and +1ev to -1ev for the 3 shot brackets. Just another added element to shooting at night.
I hope this helps answer some questions about what settings to use when shooting at night or a low light situation. It all depends on your light or lack there of. Experiment, experiment, experiment is all I can say. And remember HAVE FUN!
Images start at ISO 3200 to ISO 400.