I received a question about night photography the other day, and thought I’d throw it over to Jeff Kauffman to get his take on it. I asked if he could provide a few examples and explanations of his process. Here’s what he had to say:
The first challenge in night photography is getting a proper exposure. The technique I use is to spot meter (with a reflected light meter, such as a camera’s meter) on a brightly lit portion of the scene. Exposing for the highlights keeps them from blowing out. I check the preview/histogram and adjust the exposure to be what I like.
I will often open up a half to a full stop to bring the mids and shadows up, while putting the highlights back in the white zone. Really bright lights in a scene are a bugger to keep under control. Sometimes you’ll have to compose to hide the over-powering light.
I shoot in manual mode most of time. A tripod is required for long exposures.
Shutter Speed, White Balance (WB), ISO
Long exposures (greater than 1 sec) are fun, but again you need to keep the contrast range small or you’ll get blowouts and halos, referred to as hot pixels.
Another challenge in night photography is managing white balance. Artificial lights at night are all different color temperatures. When shot on Daylight WB, the scene will likely be warm (orange) on the image. If you shoot on tungsten WB, the scene will be cold (blue) on the image. I usually shoot on Daylight WB and tweak the WB in Lightroom to suit my eye. There are just too many varied color temperatures in a night street scene to try to balance it in camera.
For ISO, I use the lowest I can get away with on the particular camera. High ISO settings can produce digital noise in the shadows and sky, which I don’t care for. On my D300 I rarely go above ISO 1600 because of noise. On the D800… well, what’s noise?
Seeing light at night and how it behaves is also fun to discover. There many more visible reflections at night than during the day. The subtle shading and spill is fun to look for at night.
A series showing exposure at night. On Figure 1, I believe I spot metered on the XX sign and shot at 1/80 at f/4, ISO 1000. I felt the lights were bleeding too much, so I stopped down, decreasing exposure about a stop to 1/125 at f/5 for Figure 2. I also liked how the final exposure put the bartenders into silhouette. Figure 3 is the finished image with the colors de-saturated a little bit, along with some sharpening and other finishing touches.
Summary: Meter for a highlight and adjust after a test shot. In this example, the adjustment was less exposure. Had I metered on the yellow window under the XX sign, the exposure might have been more acceptable on the first shot, as the bright yellow sign was brighter and the meter would have read less exposure.
Another series showing exposure at night. This time, the adjustment went the other way. My goals were twofold: don’t blow out the highlights too much, and show some motion.
With a variety of light intensities and colors in the scene, where do you start? I used center-weighted metering to get an average reading and then, through a few test shots, settled on .6th sec at f/8 ISO 400 for Figure 4. The lights on the Ferris wheel seemed to be under control. The lights on the A-frame on the left were almost blowing out. The roller coaster loops in the middle didn’t have quite enough light. The motion capture looked ok. Overall, the image lacked “life.” So, I increased exposure to see what it would look like.
Figure 5 was shot at 1 sec at f/8 ISO 400 (.3 stop more exposure). The motion capture was better, the roller coaster was better, the Ferris wheel was now on the edge of blowout, and the A-Frame was definitely blown. I was happy enough looking at the preview on the camera. And besides, I was getting cold and impatient!
I later added another .5 stop of exposure in Lightroom for the final image (see Figure 6), for a total of .8 stop more than what the “base” exposure suggested.
Summary: This is a rather challenging scene to get everything “right,” as your eyes see it. Artistic compromise is necessary to sacrifice part of the image to gain another part. Had I quit with the initial exposure (Figure 4), the A-frame wouldn’t have been blown out, but the roller coaster was lifeless. As it turned out, I thought the swinging boat on the A-frame looked kind of cool so I stopped worrying about the blowout. With the bit more exposure in Lightroom, I saw the reflections in the water come alive. The shot became acceptable to me overall, without combining multiple images or going HDR. I have a 16×24 metal print of this image hanging in my home. It was also juried-in to the 2014 Art of Seeing art catalog published by Alcove Books.
This is an example of high-ISO, long exposure, and white balance. Because of the varied lighting in the scene, I used center-weighted metering to get a starting exposure and settled on 15 seconds at f/20, ISO 3200 for both shots. I chose f/20 to maximize DOF. The high iso and long exposure with the Nikon D300 created a lot of noise, as seen in Figure 7. Using Lightroom, the noise was removed (Figure 8).
All of these images were shot on Daylight WB. I kept the daylight balance for the version shown in Figure 8, and changed the WB in Lightroom to be approximately tungsten WB for the version shown in Figure 9. After noise reduction, sharpening, and cropping these last two are the finished images. In this case, I prefer the daylight balance.
Summary: As with the amusement pier shots, we have mixed lighting and high contrast. Without using HDR techniques, compromise is necessary to accept the parts you like and not worry too much about the others. My goal here was to experiment with high ISO and long exposures on the D300. Turns out, that camera is not so great in low-light, long exposure situations, unless you like the grainy antique look.