Night Photography – Not Always Easy

Aerial Image of Sandton by Dave Estment of OV&P

We’re often asked to do low-light or night photography, either in the bush, close to nature and the stars, or when our property development clients want to showcase their architectural creations, for example. The images above and below are classic examples of low-light photography, the first using a 3 Axis gimbal to stabilise the camera on an aerial drone and the second using a tripod.

The first thing that tends to pop into people’s minds when talking about night or low-light photography is that it’s difficult because the shutter speed, aperture and ISO settings are dramatically compromised due to the reduced available light. This can easily result in blurred images because of camera shake and not having enough shutter speed. In some ways they’re right, because it doesn’t matter how technically correct the image may be – if it’s blurred, it’s useless. Period.

Key Camera Settings

So, how do we produce perfectly exposed, pin-sharp images in near darkness? First, we need to stabilise the camera so that it stays rock steady while the shutter is open, sometimes for up to 30 seconds or longer. One of my golden rules when doing low-light photography is to use the lowest possible ISO setting, as this will minimise the graininess of the image. So if your camera has a low ISO setting of 100 and a high ISO setting of say 6400, ALWAYS choose 100 as your default when possible.

The second factor to consider is the depth of field you want to achieve in the shot. The larger the aperture, the shallower the depth of field, but the more light is allowed onto the sensor. What if you want a deeper depth of field where everything appears to be in focus? Simple. Use the aperture setting that will give you the depth of field you require. Then let the last setting that you need to consider compensate for the lack of available light, while ensuring correct exposure and depth of field. What’s this last setting? Shutter speed!

The Game Changer

Once you have stabilised the camera on a tripod or a three-axis gimbal in the case of a drone, you’re free to use the slowest necessary shutter speed to control how much light is allowed to reach the sensor. Stabilisation is the game changer. In general, it’s the answer to the problem, but there is another factor that creeps into the equation. What if you have areas of the image that are brighter than other areas, like a brightly lit lounge or bedroom in a house that is otherwise pretty dark by comparison?

Night Photography of Home by Dave Estment of OV&P

The Golden Rule

The golden rule here is to expose correctly for the brighter areas, because if you overexpose these, you will completely “blow” them, leaving no information there to “pull back” in post production. When you correctly expose the brighter areas of the image, which will in turn underexpose the darker areas, there is still a much better chance of brightening the darker areas in post production (since these tend to contain more information), provided they are not completely black.

The Next Level

It helps to use artificial light like a speed-light or studio lights to balance the available light in the darker areas of the image. This is where it can get tricky, and it’s probably a good idea to call in a pro in situations like this 🙂 The same principles apply whether you’re in the bush or in the “Big Smoke”. It does take more planning and time to execute a correctly exposed, pin-sharp low–light photograph, but if you use these guidelines, I’m sure you’ll be thrilled with the results.

Please feel free to contact us for your low-light projects and any other video and photographic requirements that may call for more experience. In the meantime, SHOOT SHARP.

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