Photography How-To: Shooting In The Dark

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Hey, I was looking through my facebook pics the other day looking for a supporting photo for a post planned for Sunday, when I became aware that I take a lot of pictures at night.  You may have heard that the worst time of day to take a picture is “high noon.”  This is because shadows are harsh, lighting is too bright, and pics just don’t turn out as well.  There’s this thing called “Magic Hour” or “Golden Hour” which is really the hour (or two) after dawn and before sundown.  The light is even, the golden hues make everything look better, and the shadows are more forgiving.

Me?  I love shooting after dark.  I get a kick out of taking pictures either at very slow or very long shutter speeds.  I love taking freeze frame action shots in lots of light, but I get a bigger kick out of shooting when it’s pretty dark out.  Here’s how.

Things you’ll need to do it right:

1.  Tripod (or other stabilizer).  If you’re too cheap to buy a decent tripod, a sock filled with rice makes a good, stable place to set your camera.  Rice socks fit better into your backpack, too, by the way.

2.  The ability to adjust shutter speed on your camera.  If you have a DSLR, you probably have four buttons you’ve never used: P, A, S, M.  They’re around the dial past “auto.”  Don’t be afraid to experiment with these.

P: Stands for program mode.  This is the camera’s attempt at being artistic.  You can toggle the dial and get different versions of “artsy.”

A: Aperture mode.  This lets you pick the aperture, and the camera will automatically decide a shutter speed for you.

S: Shutter speed mode.  This lets you pick the shutter speed, and the camera will automatically decide an aperture for you.

M: Manual.  You get to pick both the shutter speed and aperture.  Full control!

Shooting at night is best in Shutter Mode or Manual.


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When I first muddled my way through shooting fireworks at our local Fourth of July celebration, it took me almost the whole show to get a basic idea of what I was doing.  A year went by, and I again wasted half the show remembering what to do.  This is an excellent time to mention that once you figure out a skill, write it on a note card and keep it in your camera bag for easy reference.  Here’s the trick.  Use bulb mode.  Bulb mode?  It’s a little secret in Manual.  Pick a mid-range aperture, something between 8-11, then keep turning the dial on the shutter speed until  you get to 30 seconds.  One more click and the camera will say “BULB.”  What this means is that if the button is pushed, the shutter is open.  No more shooting in 3 second burst, hoping to the cool explosion will happen during the three seconds you’ve chosen to capture.  When the rocket is headed up, open the shutter – wait for the cool effect, then release.  Perfect every time.

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The second picture is a wonderful example of the magic that can happen at the end of the show.  Isolating the explosion is nice, but some perspective is better.  The longer you wait to take your “money shot,”  the more smoke will be in the air.  More smoke can give you a nice effect.  You’ll notice I also managed to silhouette some of the cars that lined the road.  Makes for a nice shot that’s well framed.


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Faster shutter speed – early in the evening, not too dark.

Sparklers are more fun to shoot than fireworks for a couple of reasons.  One, they’re cheaper and more frequent than fireworks, so there’s usually greater opportunity to experiment.  Two, you have some control over them.   Bulb works well here too.  A tripod or other stabilizing surface is super important here, too.  Since you’ll have the shutter open for a long time, any movement of the camera will lead to lots of blur.  Have the kids (I assume it’s kids who are playing with the sparklers) twirl them in circles, or spell things, or just jump up and down waving their arms – the possibilities are endless.  Add a campfire in the background, and things get wicked cool.

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Slower shutter speed, more kids running rampant through the scene making a chaotic image. The sparks really add to the image!

The moon:

The moon’s a tricky subject.  It’s night, so you’re expecting to use a slower shutter speed.  But, the moon’s reflecting lots of light, so you need a higher shutter speed.  It’s a Catch-22.  I was home watching the kids when Beth returned from play practice one night and alerted me to the great big moon. I got out a little late – the shots would have been better if I’d have been 45 minutes earlier.  To maximize your image, if you don’t have a super-telephoto lens, grab something else in the foreground.  Earlier in the evening I could have gotten more trees, a building, whatever; as is, all I had left was to try and get a silhouette of a tree.  The moon’s a little blurry, and it’s almost too late to see the difference between black tree and really dark blue sky.

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Hope the tips help.  Remember, with digital photography, it doesn’t cost anything to experiment.  Make mistakes, learn from them, come back stronger next time.   Hey, that’s good advice.  Happy shooting!

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