Nighttime is a wonderful time to take stunning photographs. Equipped with a tripod and your camera’s long-exposure mode, you can capture light trails from passing cars and illuminated cityscapes. Because the only lights in the scene come from your subjects, the experience of night shooting is a lot like painting with light. At night, there’s no such thing as the one perfect exposure. Instead, you can experiment with camera settings and try a variety of exposures until you find one you like.
Steady the camera
The foundation of any night shoot, of course, is a good, solid camera support. Generally, that means a tripod. The reason is obvious: It’s impossible to keep your camera steady throughout an exposure that lasts for several seconds. You can opt for a high-end model, such as a carbon fiber tripod with a professional ball head (a tripod like that costs a few hundred dollars), or you can invest in an inexpensive aluminum tripod for just a few bucks. Higher-end tripods generally deliver lighter weight and smoother operation; but if you don’t use a tripod much, a cheap starter model is fine.
If you don’t want to lug a tripod around, you have some other options. If your camera is small enough, consider carrying a tiny tabletop tripod–they’re virtually small enough to fit in a pocket. Alternatively, photographers sometimes brace their camera on a rock, a beanbag, or the like. If you’re on a scuba-diving trip, pull a soft weight (one of those small bags filled with lead shot) out of a weight pocket and rest your camera on that. Or try something like The Pod, which is a bean bag with a built-in tripod bolt.
No matter which method you choose, it’s important to make sure your camera is absolutely still for the entire multisecond exposure. Even the jiggle caused by pressing the shutter release can be enough to blur the photo, so you might want to get a remote shutter trigger–an inexpensive cable that lets you trip the shutter without touching the camera. Notice in this shot that the foreground is razor-sharp—only a steady support can get you that kind of image when you leave the shutter open for any length of time.
Check your camera guide to see if your model is compatible with such a gadget. If it's not, there’s a free and easy way to get a similar result: Use a self-timer. Every camera has one; trigger it and step back from the camera so it can take the shot without being touched.
Set the camera exposure
Now that you know how to secure your camera and take the shot without jiggling and ruining the shot, let’s talk about setting the camera’s exposure mode.
Obviously, we want to take a long exposure (lasting at least a few seconds). That will let you get rich, interesting lights in your shot and perhaps even capture some motion, such as the headlights and taillights from moving cars. Your camera’s Auto or Program mode won’t help you. For the best results, do what the crew of the starship Enterprise always had to do: Switch to manual.
In manual mode, you can control both the shutter speed and the aperture simultaneously. That’s in contrast to Shutter and Aperture Priority modes, where you can control only one or the other. For starters, dial the aperture to f/8–that’s generally right in the middle of the aperture range–and set the shutter speed to 4 seconds. Take a shot and see what you get. Once you see your first photo in the LCD display, you can decide how you want to tweak the settings for your next shots.
The aperture has the biggest effect on the brightness of the lights in the shot. If you're taking a cityscape photo, for example, and want the lights to be brighter, open the aperture by changing it to f/5 and shoot again.
Shutter speed, on the other hand, more directly affects the overall exposure of the scene. The longer you expose the photo, the brighter the background will be. Longer exposures also contribute to more digital noise, while larger apertures don’t affect noise much at all.
You can get some great photos by exploring shutter speeds from 2 seconds to 16 seconds (assuming your camera allows you to leave the shutter open that long). If your camera has no manual exposure mode, you probably have a Night or Light Trails scene mode–give it a try. You’ll still be able to get some good results, although you won’t have as many opportunities to experiment with different exposures.