The camera never lies… Or does it !?!?…

Low Light Guest Blog

The following is a little guest spot I prepared for Spud’s newly founded “Camera Club” on her website on the basics of shooting in low light situations… It was supposed to be the real basics, so please excuse the content if you already know what you’re doing…


So this weeks little saunter in to the “learnin’ stuff” corner is going to cover a few topics so I hope you don’t get bored, but ultimately they’re all linked (fortunately) and all involve getting the most amount of light in to the camera, from ultimately low light situations…

So we’re going for light trails / night photography and fluffy water… Best off I guess is to start with the topic of night photography.. Night photography tends to express a certain something that can be missing from daytime shots, almost regardless of the subject, and when done right they certainly attract attention… Now I’m not by any means an expert in night photography, but that’s mainly because I’m a big scaredy cat when it comes to going out late at night loaded up with camera gear… but I’ve done a fair few, and luckily we’re only going in to the technicalities, and therefore I don’t need to show evidence.. lol

Night Photography

So very firstly, for those who want to cheat, and don’t think it’s important to read all the “stuff”… Here’s a few initial tips… But you’ll need to read the rest to get the BEST tip of all…

  • Make sure you have fully charged battery
  • Take a tripod
  • Know WHAT you want to shoot, and from where
  • Set your camera to AV and set to approx f8 or lower for starters
  • Keep the ISO low (100 – 200)

So now secondly first off, poor night shots can sometimes appear blurry or may not even come out at all.. which may be what those who have tried and not “yet” succeeded have experienced..  Hopefully we’ll be able to cover some tips to improve this.. but it basically comes down to getting enough of the available light in to the camera, whilst ensuring the camera is kept still.. therefore in pretty much most occasions a tripod is needed (or at least somewhere solid to stand the camera)… And although more expensive cameras don’t necessarily automatically achieve better night shots, it still has to be realised that some of the cheapest cameras won’t be capable of taking amazing night shots either

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Sometimes too the best time to take dramatic night shots isn’t always necessarily at night.. A good tip is to try to shoot at dusk, or even dawn (for those daft enough to get up early).. The best time is a window of about 30 mins from sun up or sun down when there’s enough colour in the sky for some real dramatic effects..

If you’re opting for the sun up / sun down window though, then planning the shot first is key, due to the relatively limited time available to get the shot, so make sure you get there with plenty of time to spare to pick the best shot…

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So the gear… Tripod / fully charged battery and maybe even a torch too… Oh.. and a camera comes in handy… A fully charged battery is a must, as depending on your camera and the shot you’re taking your shutter may be open for 30mins or so… and a partially drained battery dying part way through the ultimate night shot isn’t too amusing.. And you can guarantee that if your battery dies it WOULD have been the best night shot ever…

So now you’re no doubt bored witless with my waffling’s, lets get in to the more techy stuff… The whole concept of night photography, as I said before, is getting the limited available light in to your camera, and this is achieved by extending the length of time the shutter is open and absorbing this available light.  In real basic terms I’d liken night photography to filling a bath through a straw… During the day you can fill it normally using the taps… At night though, you still need the same amount of water, but you can only fill it through a straw so it takes a lot longer to fill… Hence at night you need to allow the camera more time to absorb the available light (or get a bigger straw)… Doing this also requires you to hold the camera perfectly still for all of that time (not sure where the straw comes in to this one though, but make sure you don’t drop the camera in the bath)… For this you need to mount the camera ideally on a solid tripod, or at the very least a solid base like a wall… Any movement of the camera during a 2 second or 30 minute exposure will blur the edges in your shot and potentially ruin it… Also you may find it useful to focus on the main subject, and then switch your cameras focus to manual and only then compose your shot. This helps to limit any confusion the camera might experience trying to auto focus at night… Oh and a cable release or remote release is very useful too, but if you don’t have one then try using the camera’s timer function. This will prevent you shaking the camera as you press the shutter button, and stop you from blurring the shot… Or just have a few drinks first and then the blurred shot will look normal..

You can alter (shorten or even lengthen) the time required by changing the aperture or ISO speed… Be warned though that if you set the aperture too high (say f22) then the camera will struggle even more and take even longer to absorb light, and this will result in more noise and a higher risk of blurring the shot as it takes longer.. Similarly if you set the ISO speed too high (400 or above) then you’ll likely notice film graining of the image..

I’d recommend setting your ISO to 200 or below, and keeping a relatively wide aperture, such as f8 or lower… Another recommendation is to “bracket” your shots..  which will take a series of images at differing exposures.. Some camera’s will have an “AEB” or Auto Bracketing feature, and if you’re going to use this I’d personally recommend setting the camera on aperture priority “AV” and then auto bracket.. Doing it this way will then only extend / shorten the time the aperture is open and not adjust your depth of field (the amount of stuff that’s in focus)…. For those that don’t have cameras that can auto bracket, you can do this manually by setting the (EV) exposure compensation..  This will be a little +/- symbol on the camera, and is usually selected in increments of 1/3 EV… Positive adjustment will allow more light in to the camera and will brighten a dark image… Negative adjustment will naturally have the opposite effect…

You may also find that on some cameras you may even have a “Night” mode… in which case ignore everything I’ve said so far, and skip straight to this bit… Oooh… Guess I should have put this bit first… but where’s the fun in that… lol… So study your manual to see if you’ve got one… It will most likely be a symbol like a half moon… and then give that a go and mix it in with exposure compensation too…

Also, as a general rule… forget trying to use your flash for night time scenic shots, as it will only illuminate the immediate area within a few metres, and you’ll see nothing else of the scene you actually want…


One more bit too for those who don’t want orange photo’s… You’ll find you also will likely need to manually change the White Balance “WB” if you’re shooting after dark where street lights etc are visible.. Check how in your manual but you’ll need to set this to the “tungsten” setting for most night shots, which is normally depicted by a graphic of a wee light bulb..

So there you go… There’s an introduction to night photography, and for those that were lazy (like me) and missed the main points… cos lets face it – who reads everything…

  • Go fully equipped with full batteries and a tripod
  • Use a remote / cable release or try to use the timer function
  • Allow yourself plenty of time to set the shot up
  • Setting your camera to manual focus once focused will help for DSLR users
  • Set the camera to semi manual (such as aperture priority)
  • Stick with relatively wide apertures (f8 or lower) to keep the shooting time shortest
  • Keep the ISO setting low (100 to 200) to reduce noise
  • Set the “WB” White Balance to Tungsten for after dark shots
  • Take bracketed shots
  • Cheat and put the camera on “Night Mode”
    So now the ultimate tip you’ve been desperately waiting for…
  • If at first you don’t succeed, try try again, and only then give up and go home… ;)

The REAL benefit of digital though is that you’ve got instant results, so can see if your tinkerings have paid off… and if they haven’t.. tinker some more and go again…

Light Trails

So that’s the basics of night photography, and if you’re still awake then lets cover light trails… Now this still involves shooting in low light situations, and ensuring that the camera is recording the image long enough for any movement of light to blur in to a continuous stream, such as headlights of cars, or the lights on a fairground attraction.. You will most likely still need a stable base unless you’re going for the more surreal handheld approach to light trails which can yield some amazing results too..

Essentially though shooting light trails tends to be a case of trial and error.. You need to decide how long you need the camera to be recording for to capture the amount of light trails you need to make the shot impressive… This can be anything from 1 or 2 seconds (for a fairground ride) to 30 seconds or more (as per my car shot)… The way to set up is to decide on a suitable time you think you want, set your camera to “TV” shutter priority… and then set the time you want manually, and also keep the ISO speed as low as you can. The camera will then decide itself what aperture you require to keep the shutter open for the required amount of time.

I say this is trial and error, as you may find the camera has been fooled as to the available light, and hasn’t therefore calculated correctly… In this case you can either adjust the “+/-“ exposure compensation to let in more or less light, or be really brave and switch to fully manual… and set both the shutter speed AND the aperture… Depending on the light though you might not be able to achieve the desired time, and may need to opt for a shorter time if your images appear too light…

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Remember though… The longer the shutter is open, the lighter and brighter the resulting image will be.. And also low “f” numbers let more light in too, and mean the shutter doesn’t need to stay open as long, so for the same exposure time you’ll also get a brighter and lighter image… And the converse applies if you need to darken the image… Shorter shutter speed and / or a higher “f” number…

IMG_8269_2 sAnd also, speaking of light trails, be sure to check back in regularly, as I hear there’s an amazing blog coming up soon on how to do star trails, by a certain very good friend of mine. And if her star shots are anything to go by, then her guest spot will be amazing too. :)

Lastly – if you fancy trying something like my car shot… The settings I used were 30 second exposure / f11 / ISO 100 / manually focused on the A-pillar… And also essential for this shot is a VERY stable tripod…

Soft Water

Now the last bit… then you may sleep… This too comes down to shooting in low light conditions, or at least “simulating” low light with the use of ND (Neutral Density) filters… ND Filters are dark grey filters of varying “darkness”, that make the whole scene appear darker to the camera, and allow you to leave the shutter open longer without actually having to wait for it to get dark… As they are “neutral” though they don’t affect the colours in the scene…


To make the water soft and fluffy, you need to be achieving shutter speeds of anything up to 30 seconds, but it’s best for water to achieve this by setting your camera to “AV” aperture priority, and letting the camera decide on the shutter speed, or you may tend to find the highlights in the water may blow out (are too bright) and you’ll lose detail. You can then adjust the “f” number to alter the shutter speed… A higher “f” number will increase the length of time the shutter is open, and for the soft water effect you’ll likely need to choose something quite high, like f22… and the longer the shutter is open the softer and fluffier the water will end up..

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If you can’t achieve the shutter speed you need, even when shooting at f32 or higher, then you’ll need to fool the camera by using ND filters… These can be expensive though and are really only available for DSLR cameras… Or just wait a while for it to get darker… lol…

You may also notice a touch of “post processing” on a couple of these shots, specifically the sunset and waterfall shots.. These are HDR, and this process was briefly mentioned earlier in Aswirly’s guest spot, and can really bring an image to life. It’s a complete topic on its own though when you’re all feeling brave..

So there you have it.. here endeth todays lesson, and if you actually made it this far then you do realise that you’ll need to forget all about night photography for a while, as you’ll likely sleep for a week after reading this… :)


7 responses

  1. Aswirly

    What a well written article jam-packed with useful info and tips. It is no wonder you were asked to write on these subjects and I”m glad you included the post on your blog as well. It’s quite helpful and the images are stunning too!

    September 2, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    • Funky Slug

      Thanks you… Real glad you liked it… Means a awful lot to me does that… :)

      September 2, 2009 at 6:44 pm

  2. Jayne

    This was great. I use the AV settings on my night shots but results still seem a bit potluck. It’s good to see in black and white what works for you.

    I came to this page hoping to see what you do to achieve your HD shots. Multiple exposure? …Or a program like Topaz Adjust. I have Topaz but have hardly used it so far. Like you, I prefer subtle HD and the standard Topaz HD setting just look so false. I undoubtedly need to alter settings but it’s another thing to get my head around, so I haven’t bothered yet! Anyway, if you felt like doing a beginners’s guide that would be greatly appreciated. :)

    October 6, 2010 at 9:03 am

    • Ahhh… Well I’ve also learnt a few more tricks since writing this, especially with regards doing HDR at night… although I do find that I have just as much success photographically at night by just doing single exposures…

      As for HDR… Well I do use 3 exposures normally… but not always… lol… And I use Photomatix to process them, and Photoshop to finish the editing… Never tried Topaz at all though…

      It’s a thought about doing a mini tutorial… The only reason I’ve not bothered in the past is that very few of my contacts are in to HDR, so I didn’t think there would be much interest in how I do them… but as you have asked I’ll certainly give it some thought… Thanks Jayne… :)

      October 6, 2010 at 9:40 pm

  3. oh, wonderful! :D I’ve never seen this page before! surrealistic effect is very eye catching. especially the clouds and water! great job

    November 4, 2010 at 11:27 am

    • Thanks Irina… Night photography is something I really don’t do enough of though… I must try harder… lol..

      November 5, 2010 at 9:11 pm

  4. Val Erde

    The photos in this are fabulous (hadn’t spotted this page before). I’ll read it properly when the ‘bear of little brain’ has left my body…

    February 25, 2011 at 10:53 pm

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