10 night photography FUN tips

[written & photographed by Bluffname]

Fujifilm FinePix cameras are ideal for night photography. They are so good that it is often possible to take good pictures at night (and in low light conditions) without having to use a tripod. Many models of FinePix cameras are capable of producing good, low noise images at high ISO ratings of up to ISO 3,200 – high enough to take a candle-lit photograph hand held, without the support of a tripod and, of course, without camera shake.

Fujifilm FinePix’s gorgeous colours make night photography that much more FUN. Then there is the wide dynamic range of its Super CCD and now Super CCD EXR sensors – which produce a wider range of tones between absolutely darkness and absolute brightness. This is very useful for night photography, when the images often include very bright light sources, for example, street lamps and spotlights.

Here, I would like to share some night photography tips for the new digital age, using cameras such as the FinePix. This is adapted – and updated – from an article I wrote that was published in Issue 19 of JPG Magazine, at end-2008.

1.  Get a new digital camera

Ideally, get a camera that was launched after 2006, such as the Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro, which I use. Many of the Fujifilm FinePix compact cameras, starting with the 2006 models F30d / F31d to the 2009 models like F200EXR and S200EXR, also give very good high ISO performance.

(The current EXR models have better dynamic range, but lose out slightly on low-noise high-ISO performance compared to some older models like the F30d / F31d. However, the high ISO performance is still better than that of many other brands.)

Notice that I used the phrase “good, high-ISO performance”. This is important. Some digital cameras, including some relatively costly and not so old digital cameras, can take pictures at high ISO but the image quality is not good. As a result, many digital camera owners seldom shoot at above ISO400 or ISO800. For night photography, you need to go much higher.

2.  Steady your hands

Of course, even with high-ISO you still need steady hands.

Here’s how: If possible, lean agaist a wall, lamp post… or rest your hands / elbows on a solid surface to keep steady. If not possible, press the sides of your arms against your body.

Then take a breath, BREATHE OUT and press the shutter.

3.  If necessary, purposely underexpose

If the light is still low, you may want to purposely under-expose by one or two f-stops, so that you can use a faster shutter speed and avoid camera shake.

This is yet another reason to get the Fujifilm FinePix. It allows you to under-expose by as much as four f-stops and still get relatively decent results when you compensate. Other cameras might produce weird colors if you do that.

But don’t push your luck even with the FinePix. Two f-stops is about the most I would go. Or else I would under-expose further and be prepared to junk the image if it does not turn out good.

When you brighten a dark image, inevitably there will be an increase in digital noise. So this brings us to the next tip…

4.  Get specialized noise-reduction software

Disappointingly, the noise reduction feature of Adobe Photoshop does not seem to work very well. Either that or my friends and I all do not know how to use it well…

So to deal with digital noise, get an effective noise reduction software, such as Neat Image, Noise Ninja or Dfine by Nik’s software. They are not costly. Neat Image and Noise Ninja both costs about USD$40 for a home use version, while Dfine costs under USD$80.

In the past, I never considered specialized software such as these. Several of my photography buddies also do not know of them. I guess many of us all simply assume that programs like Adobe Photoshop provide everything we need. Not so.

5.  Shoot RAW

Raw files allow greater adjustments without loss of image quality – and without weird results.

With night photography, you may need more adjustments than usual because it can be hard to get perfect exposure, no matter how good your camera is, no matter how experienced you are.

Apart from exposure, the more important adjustment that comes with shooting raw is the white balance. However, newer software like Adobe Lightroom 2 also allows white balance adjustment on JPEG and other processed files.

Most cameras work best with the white balance set at automatic, ie AWB. With digital night photography, however, you do not always want the AWB to be accurate.

I realized this “problem” during Christmas when I went to take some pictures of Christmas lights – and the AWB turned all the yellow / golden lights of Christmas trees to white! The AWB has clearly done too good a job. So be prepared to make white balance adjustments.

Okay. Enough of technical discussions. With modern digital camera technology making photography – including night photography – that much easier, you need not worry too much about technical details. Just get it more or less right, and do the fine tuning later. My next few digital night photography tips deal with the actual photo taking, which is the more interesting and fun part.

6.  Explore a wide range of subjects

As you can see from the examples here, digital night photography need not be restricted to city skylines, fireworks (against city skylines), water reflections (of city skylines) or streaks of light formed by moving traffic. Or even Christmas lights.

In fact, almost all subjects can be shot at night time – architecture, floors, walls, grafitti, shop windows, people, performers… even humour.

One unexpected subject I stumbled upon soon after I bought my FinePix… It had rained earlier and I noticed a street lamp reflected on the wet, back windscreen of a car. I had some difficulty focusing on the water droplets rather than the reflection of the lamp post. But one image did turn out okay.

7.  Don’t wait for nightfall

An excellent time for ‘night photography’ is actually twilight, just before the sky turns dark.

I am not talking about sunset scenes here, just ordinary scenes with the sky dark but not too dark. At times, the effect can be surreal, like in the image of the Buddhist temple.

8.  Don’t let darkness stop you.

The camera is able to “see” more than the eye. Even when a night scene appears almost black, shoot as long as you have an interesting composition. The results might pleasantly surprise you.

Consider this photograph of a lady busker along Orchard Road, performing Western tunes on the pipa, a Chinese classical music instrument:

night photography tips

Does this look like a night picture taken at 9:45 pm?

Your night pictures taken with flash will turn out looking flat, unnatural and ugly. So I decided to trying taking photographs of this pipa player without flash and, hey, they turned out much brighter than I expected.

Digital night photography can be full of surprises.

9.  Appreciate imperfections

One thing I’ve learned to do only quite recently, after about 30 years of photography, is to appreciate imperfections – darkness, blurs, camera shakes, movements, off-colors, etc.

Isn’t this how we actually see images at night? Sometimes dark, sometimes blur, sometimes with strange colors?

The percussionist, captured at a rock / jazz / pop concert, is one example. The image is dark, the man is blur and his skin color is red. Everything seems “wrong”. But try to correct all these “faults” and the image will not have the same quality.

[photos: bluffname]

One easy way to correct weird colors, for example, is to convert the image to black and white. I tried it on this image and took less than five seconds to decide that I should leave him looking red.

Without resorting to Adobe Photoshop adjustments, there is another way to achieve supposedly perfect images at night. And this reminds me of a very fundamental night photography tip that I forgot to mention earlier. It is so fundamental that I feel it should not be numbered “10”.

So let’s call it new digital night photography tip number…

0.  Do not use flash

It simply spoils the night mood.


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