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Night Photography Lesson (Posted On: Tuesday, June 23, 2009)

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Have you ever wanted to make photographs at night, but you were not sure how to go about it?  In this session, I’m going to discuss how to create awesome images of fireworks, night scenes and outdoor light festivals.

You will need three things to start. A film or digital camera with which you can adjust the shutter speed, a remote control (or cable release) and a sturdy tripod. My suggestion is to buy or borrow a single lens reflex digital (DSLR) or film SLR camera. Point and shoot cameras may not be suitable for some night photography since most of these models will not allow you to adjust the shutter speed. 


There is nothing more awe-inspiring than watching the bursting streams of fireworks overhead in the night sky. To capture the excitement of these colourful streaks of light, set up your tripod making sure it is extremely steady. Then mount your camera along with a 24-70 mm or a 50 mm lens. Attach your cable release or wired remote control to the camera. Set your ISO to 100 (the lower the better) and your camera dial to the ‘shutter-preferred’ setting (TV) at a shutter speed of 30-45 seconds. Your aperture, or f-stop, will automatically increase toward f-22 for greater depth of field. Observe the first few fireworks as they rocket skyward, looking through your SLR optical viewfinder, which shows you the scene as the lens sees it. Position the camera and zoom lens to show all of the light bursts within the frame, keeping the wired remote control away from the front of the lens.

Wait for the next bursts to start. Press your remote control or cable release to activate the camera shutter while trying not to move or shake the tripod and camera. Since the shutter will be open for 30-45 seconds (you may need to increase or decrease the exposure time), the camera will record all the bursts it sees during that time. Your pictures will be quite interesting with several layers of different colours and unusual shapes of light. If the final picture becomes too bright, then reduce the shutter speed time to 10-20 seconds.

If you prefer to capture a single colourful burst, then turn your camera dial to ‘P’ for Program. This sets the shutter speed and aperture for you. After you press your remote control/cable release, the camera will keep the lens open until it has received enough light for a good exposure. Your viewfinder will go black until the exposure has been completed, then it will become clear for viewing again. Some DSLR cameras have a Live View function, when activated, this will allow you to see all of the action through the LCD screen as the scene is being recorded in the camera.

If you have the opportunity to shoot fireworks photos over a water surface, you will be amazed at the colourful reflections you can create from the fire in the sky.

Neon store signs make excellent night pictures as well. In order to create special effects photos with your camera, tripod and zoom lens, set up your camera and tripod on the opposite side of the street to the neon sign. Set your shutter speed (TV) to an 8-10 second exposure. Depress the shutter using your remote control, while the lens is making the 10 second exposure slowly zoom your lens in toward the sign while the shutter is open. Then try another shot zooming the lens away from the sign and back toward your camera.

To get a good zoom effect try to coincide the exposure time to begin and end at the same you complete the zoom. You should get a series of coloured lines moving in a perspective pattern either toward or away from the centre of the neon sign. I always enjoy making photographs with the effect of zooming neon signs-all done in camera , no photoshop. They make wonderful abstract images against the contrasting black night background.

When shooting night street scenes or cars traveling, make sure you do it after a rain has just washed the streets. The streets will be vibrant with reflected, patterns and colours of car lights, store signs and street lights. You have probably seen the streaking red tail light effect of fast moving cars. Once again your camera will be set at a 30-60 second exposure (just a guideline- you might try various time exposures). Even though you may be able to create these special effects in Photoshop, it’s more fun to capture them in the camera.
Chinese Lantern Festival

In my view, the ultimate night photography adventure is the annual Chinese Lantern Festival at Ontario Place in Toronto. As you walk around the colourful display of life size world famous buildings, statues, animals and cartoon characters, which are crafted from wire and silk, the light emanating from inside these various shapes makes for wonderful colour contrast and water reflections in the dark night.Once again, make sure you bring your tripod, remote, wide angle and telephoto lenses.

A good book to read is: The Complete Guide to Night & Low Light Digital Photography
By Michael Freeman (Lark Books, 2008, ISBN 978-1-60059-206-5)

If you focus on having fun with your night photography, then you will be certain to capture some very exciting images you can be proud to display.

Happy snapping!

Bryan Davies Photography
3B Caroline Street West
Creemore, ON Canada
L0M 1G0

Bryan Davies is a professional fine art photographer with 32 years of experience.  His passion for photography started when he was 12 years old. Bryan has exhibited his body of work at McMichael Gallery, Kleinburg, The Lennox Contemporary Gallery in Toronto, MacLaren Gallery, Barrie and is a founding member artist at Mad and Noisy Gallery in Creemore.  He has also written, photographed and published a book on Classic Cars with a second book due for release in September 2009 titled Light, Form, Vision. You can check out Bryan’s blog on his website


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