A shot in the dark

As temperatures reach a maximum during the month of August, day time is now pretty much out of the question for great photos for a number of reasons. The first, and most important, is the harsh light of day and the second is the discomfort this inflicts on the photographer. But August doesn’t mean you should put down your camera. Dawn and dusk are still great for taking pictures and this is the perfect excuse to practice those night time shots.

Photography is really about light. Night photography is just like any other type of photography, except you don’t have the sun to help you light up your pictures. To start with, you generally have to understand “mixed light”. Often in a scene there are two (or more) types of light. One might be fixed (moon light, city lights) and another is variable (fireworks, flash lights, on camera flash). The goal is to balance them. Ironically, balance rarely means equal – generally you want the exposure of one light to be roughly 1/2 to 1/4 of the other. Here are some tips to help find the right balance, depending on your subject matter.

Tips for night photography


Cities (30 seconds or less)

Cities have a little bit of everything in the fore-light. They are generally pretty simple to expose – you are balancing the city against another element – generally a sky or a foreground element. Generally you are trying to pick up as many colours as possible. Of course you need a tripod or solid support for any photo this long.

Fireworks (4 – 12 seconds)

One of the most fun types of night photography is taking pictures of fireworks. Try the formula of f8 for 100 asa film with a 4 to 12 second exposure. The exposure is hit and miss – using the bulb feature on the camera and a cable release, open the shutter when it looks like the fireworks will be good and hold the shutter open for as long as you need to fill up the image. (A tripod is a must – a clamp works in a pinch. If you can’t support the camera, don’t bother). Blue fireworks are difficult to capture (they are dim) and green fireworks are generally the brightest. Ideally, you want to combine low and high fireworks in one frame, but they don’t have to be shot at the same moment – just inside the 4 to 12 second window you have the shutter open. If you are using 200 speed film, use f11. 400 speed film, use f16. If you get the aperture wrong, the fireworks will burn in too much or be too dim – you can’t compensate by longer or shorter time. Like anything in photography, once you get good, get closer. Here that means zoom in. We are still at f8, but now we are in the < 4 seconds range.

Sparklers (3 seconds) 

Another fun pyrotechnic source of light is sparklers. Try exposures of about 3 seconds long at f16 on 400 speed film. (f8 on 100 speed film). The trick here is to use a flash set on rear curtain sync (the flash fires at the last moment before the shutter closes).

Campfires (6 – 30 seconds)

Campfires provide a nice light. If there is no other source of light try taking photos of about 6 seconds in duration on 50 speed film at f1.4 – just enough to light up the people around the campfire. But it doesn’t have to be that dark. You can use a bigger fire and mix other light sources. First, taking photos just after the sun goes down, you can pick up the residual light. Second, you can hide a lantern to light people up. Or you can just expose longer. Using 100 speed print film, f4 at 30 seconds yields a very different picture. The people have blurred out a little but the background has been lit up by the ambient light.

Star Light (300 seconds) 

Stars aren’t very bright this far away. Use long exposures of 5 minutes at f1.4 on 50 speed film. Unfortunately, city lights often overwhelm stars so getting a good photo of the stars is often an issue of geography. The trick is to keep the aperture at maximum – stopping down will make most of the stars disappear. The longer the exposure, the longer the trails.

John Borg