Taking Good Portraits at Night

During summer many of us--especially in warmer climes--tend to stay out later in the evening. Inevitably, that means you'll be taking more photos at night. If you've ever tried taking a picture of someone outdoors at night, you've probably discovered the results can be less than awesome. Just a few weeks ago, I explained some techniques for taking better pictures in low-light situations, but this week let's take a look at taking portraits of people at night in particular.

Modern Cameras to the Rescue

Just like a few weeks ago, when we looked at some cameras' handheld low light modes, we can take some inspiration for night portraiture from the built-in scene modes in many point-and-shoot cameras.

Night mode settings are nothing new. Virtually every camera with more than a handful of exposure modes comes with some variation of a Night or Night Portrait mode. They pretty much all work the same way. When you press the shutter release, two important things happen: You get a long exposure and the flash fires.

It's not hard to see why. This mode is mainly used to take pictures of people at night, so the flash is designed to illuminate the person in front of the camera. Of course, the flash is useful only up to about a dozen feet in front of the camera, so the extended shutter lets the camera soak up light from the background, giving you a better exposure of stuff further away, out of range of the flash.

This camera mode generally works pretty well, and tends to produce photos like the one on the left of my daughter.

Mimicking Night Mode on Your Own

You might have tried taking portraits of people at night with your camera on its usual settings. If so, you probably got something like this shot taken in Paris. This is a photo that a friend--who was trying to be helpful--took with his camera while my wife and I and some friends stood in front of the Eiffel Tower. His heart was in the right place, but it's hard to tell anything is back there at all, much less Paris's famous landmark. To take a better night portrait, we'd need to make some adjustments, obviously.

So what if your camera doesn't include a Night mode, or you just want to experiment on your own? For starters, you'll want to use a slower shutter speed than the standard 1/60 second. With your camera on Shutter Priority or Manual mode, dial in a shutter speed of about 1/15 second. Also, make sure that your flash is set to fire. You might need to change the flash's setting to "always on" or "forced flash" mode--check your camera guide for details.

That's pretty much it. Take a picture and check the results. Depending upon how much light there is (are you shooting at dusk or well after dark? Are there Vegas-style lights in the background?), you might need to tweak the aperture to prevent under- or overexposing the photo.

Remember that since you are using longer shutter speeds, you should be on your guard to prevent blur from ruining your photos. If anything is moving in the background--especially cars or other lighted subjects--then you might get some light trails in the photo (actually, that can look pretty cool).

More worrisome is getting blur in the person you're photographing. Most of the exposure will come from the flash, but since the shutter stays open after the flash has fired, then you can get some "ghost trails" of the person if they aren't quite still--especially if it's around dusk and there's still a fair bit of light in the sky. Ask your subject to stay still, or you might get something like the picture on the left.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 800 by 600 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Purple Tulip" by Len Taubman, Williamsburg, Virginia

Len writes: "I volunteer at Colonial Williamsburg and frequently take pictures of the many flowers in the wonderful gardens. This purple tulip intrigued me because of its color, shape and interesting features. I took the picture with my Canon 60D and a 60mm macro lens, using the spot meter mode."

This week's runner-up: "Salome Saguaros" by Kathy Sharp, Glendale, Arizona

Kathy says: "I was hiking back to my car after a long day playing in Salome Creek, which empties into Roosevelt Lake here in Arizona. At one point, the lighting on the Saguaro cacti through the late afternoon clouds was breathtaking. I quickly pulled out my little point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot D10 and captured the moment, using the rule of thirds for placement of the main saguaro."

To see last month's winners, visit our July Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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