Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Night Photography: Why this is my favorite time to shoot (and my tips on how to do it best)

From the very start of my photography career I have been fascinated with night photography. I started shooting in the later hours of the day for many reasons. Firstly, I was traveling around the world and busy for most of the day, with only after business hours that I got "my time" to go and shoot what I wanted. And for those of you who photograph for a living, you know the difference between shooting images for a client and shooting images purely for the enjoyment of it. I thoroughly enjoy my evening shots and find it really rewarding, not in a monetary sense, but strictly for the excitement of capturing the beauty that can only be seen one the sun has set.

This is one of my favorite night images. I took this in Bristol, England from a freeway overpass. I had finished my daytime work and had heard about their infamous suspension bridge, which goes from one peak to another without any support in the middle. I wanted to get a shot of this, and paid a taxi to take me there. After driving around for a while and not finding a suitable shot, my driver started to leave the area. As we were driving over a freeway overpass, I saw my shot! I asked the driver to pull over where it was safe and proceeded to walk back to that spot (and yes, there was a walkway). I ended up sitting on this overpass for almost 3 hours as the sun slowing dropped from the sky. But it was well worth the wait and I was rewarded with a clear evening and wispy clouds.

I took this image a couple of months ago in Boston, MA during an overcast evening. I was walking through the older section of town and loved this intersection. This was a 6 second exposure with an aperture of f9. And of course, with this long of an exposure, it is critical to have the camera perfectly still. Here is how I take most of my night shots.

* I set up my camera on my trusty Gitzo GT1540 tripod with the GH1780QR head. I love this combination because this is small enough to pack in my carry on luggage, but also provides great sturdiness to avoid any camera shake. People really underestimate the importance of a good tripod!

* I will typically set up my Canon camera in timer mode or use a cable release. You really do not want to press the shutter button as this will cause slight movement of the camera, resulting in a less sharp image. People never believe me when I tell them this, but just that little bit of movement from your hand on the camera can make a difference.

* I usually shoot in aperture priority and try to use the lowest ISO possible. Most of the images taken here were taken between ISO 100 and 400.

* I turn off any image stabilization on my lenses since I am shooting from a sturdy tripod and the image stabilization sometimes get confused and may induce shake.

* I generally shoot with the camera in "Live View" mode so that the mirror is locked in place. This allows me to frame my shot using the LCD on the back of the camera and also avoids any motion that might be caused by the mirror flapping in the camera.

* Many times I will shoot at -1 stop, since I find that the digital cameras tend to over compensate for the lack of light.

While visiting New York City in 2008 for the PhotoPlus trade show, I went out for a night hike and took this shot along Wall Street. I shot this at ISO 200 so that the shutter speed (at f9) would be one second. I did not want to blur the 3 lower flags too much and any longer speed would have created too much motion for my liking.

I was on a very quick trip to Washington D.C. in November of 2008, and had only one night to grab images. The advantage of shooting night images along the mall, is that parking was wide open so that I could easily drive from one memorial to another and park right up front. This allowed me to shoot many sites in a limited amount of time.

The other advantage to late night photography is that very few people will be in your shots. I took this photo around 11pm and I had the place to myself. I set up my camera on my tripod, and took a 30 second exposure, with me running around and popping my flash at each statue to give them a little more light in the final shot.

Taken during my trip to Cologne, Germany for the photokina trade show in 2006. I was sicker than a dog when I took this, but it was my last night there and I was bound and determined to get this shot before flying home.

I took this shot of "The Met" in New York City in 2009. I remember this well because I was approached by the police and told that I could not use a tripod on the premises. I really hate this rule, since the police never have a good answer as to why tripods are not allowed. Luckily I got enough good shots before his sergeant arrived, that when approached by the big guy, I packed up and left.

In 2007 I was teaching in the city of Toronto, and soon as I completed my work, I hopped in my rental car and headed for Niagara Falls. I had researched this on the Internet and knew that the falls were lit until 11pm, and took full advantage of this. I literally shot images until the lights were shut off.

This is another shot of Niagara Falls taken on the same evening. What I like about this particular photo is that it is different from what most people shoot. I isolated one small section of the falls and made sure to include the mist covered rock on the bottom right. In order to sufficiently blur the water, I used a 4 second exposure.

I have made countless trips to Australia, but I never get tired of Sydney. It is my favorite city in the world, and nothing says Sydney more than the opera house. The interesting thing about shooting images like this over water, is that the human eye does not really see the reflections as clearly as the camera picks them up. I learned this early on, and take full advantage of this whenever the opportunity arises.

While on vacation on Maui (in the Hawaiian Islands) in 2009, I shot this image of a fire juggler during a Luau. I was a guest at the hotel and saw this in the distance from the pool area. I grabbed my 100-400 lens and shot this image at 400mm with the ISO cranked up to 3200. I lowered the exposure compensation to exaggerate the darkness. I used only the ambient light from the fire to light him. If I had used a flash, it would have totally ruined the shot. This ended up being one of my favorite shots of the trip. Not only did I like it, but I showed it to the promoters of the Luau and was asked to shoot some more on the following night. The last night of the trip, the whole family was invited as the guests of honor at the show.

These next two shots were taken during the opening ceremonies at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Like the Sydney Opera House photo, I used the one vantage point which had water in the foreground to add a nice reflection to the image.

The blue color that you see in the sky above the Bird's Nest is the remaining smoke from fireworks which had just gone off. The blue lights inside the stadium helped illuminate the smoke, giving me this really cool effect.

Yep, this is from yet another trip to New York. I go there quite often to speak at the large photo stores and usually stay pretty close to Times Square. I shot this photo with a 2 second exposure to give me good trailing lights from the automobiles. Without the lights from the cars, this image would have been unbalanced with bright lights in the upper portion of the image and darkness below.

As you can probably tell, I rarely go anywhere without my camera. In 2007, while on a family camping trip, I asked my nephew to go inside the tent with a flashlight and move it around. I wanted him to evenly light the whole tent so that it would show against the night sky. Keeping the shutter open for 3 seconds, he provided just the right amount of light and movement. The deep blue sky in the background tells me that this was taken approximately 20 minutes after sunset.

One of my favorite tricks when shooting night photos, is to roll the zoom during the exposure. This is a 3 second exposure of Times Square where I left everything alone for 2 seconds and then rolled the zoom on the last second.

To get a good example of how the zoom effect can create a totally different image, from the same vantage point, check out these two photos of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The first shot is a 13 second exposure with everything perfectly still.

This shot was a 15 second exposure, but this time, I rolled the zoom for the last couple of seconds of the exposure. It is different from what most people take and it adds a dynamic effect to the image.

I hope that I have inspired you to take more photos after the sun has set. Maybe I will see you out there with my tripod in hand.


Kim Russell said...

I love these shots. What do you do to "roll the zoom"? Thanks for sharing.

Unknown said...

Great post!

Jeff Cable Photography Blog said...


You literally twist the zoom ring of your lens (assuming you have an SLR with a zoom lens). It is very simple to do.

dereiziger1979 said...

zoom bursts have to be one of my favorite night time photography tricks...

a few of mine just for fun:

bevybun2002 said...

Thanks sooo much this gives me a lot of ideas and new tricks to try!

Jeff Cable Photography Blog said...

Dereiziger1979 - I checked out your site - very nice stuff. I love the effects that you have captured. You are very well traveled!!! :)

Janie said...

I love night photography and your images are stunning! I have never heard of 'roll the zoom" and I am very excited to try it out..:) Does it matter if I zoom in or out? Thank you.

Jeff Cable Photography Blog said...


It does matter whether you zoom in or out, and I always try both to see which I like better. More to try and more fun to see what you get!


Phil Brown said...

(I apologize if you get this twice. I tried to post it earlier but got several prompts to fix my password so I am not sure it ever got to you.)

I enjoyed this article. My question is, how do you know where to start on how many seconds of exposure to use? Your examples run from 2-3 seconds up to over 10 seconds. Can you please give some guidance?


KG2V said...

RE The Met - They really don't NEED a reason, as it's private property (believe it or not). Now go out on the sidewalk, and you're cool. I used to work across the street

canvas prints said...

some really cool images here, you got the gift with the camera.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I love your night pictures! I was wondering how you light up the statues in DC with a flash. I cannot for the life of me figure out how to do that on a long exposure. Thanks!

Jeff Cable Photography Blog said...

While the camera is taking a long exposure, I am literally walking with the flash and popping it at each statue. I could also have used a flashlight to lightpaint them. :)

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