Get Great Shots When the Sun Goes Down

Follow these tips to take great night-time photos of people and landscapes, and to improve night shots that need a little help.

Making the Most of Light at Night

Vampires may shun the daylight, but that's where your camera tends to do most of its best work. As the sun sets, your camera's unquenchable thirst for sunlight drives the needs for slower shutter speeds, wider apertures, and a big, bright flash.

So what if you love to take romantic twilight portraits or dramatic nighttime cityscapes? Don't worry--they're well within your grasp as long as you know how to feed your camera the light it needs, even in the dark. You can learn how to take photos at night and in dark settings like concerts by reading "Take Great Photos at Night," and keep reading for more low-light tips.

Capture Fading Light

Here's a cool effect: You can find a subject that has its own lighting and combine it with the warm, glowing light in the sky by using a lengthy shutter speed that allows both light sources to influence the photo. This is one of my favorite ways to use sunset lighting. Check out this shot of a ferry at Blake Island in Washington state; the artificial lighting is a nice contrast to the warm, dusky sky.

As with most twilight or night-time photos, exposure settings are more art than science; I used 4 seconds, but you can try as much as 8 seconds with a fairly small aperture, like f/16. You can make the points of artificial light brighter and larger by opening up the aperture.

Put a Person on the Scene

What if you want to put someone in the shot? If you take an ordinary photo late in the day, the flash will fire, but the brief exposure will render the background dark and muddy--you'll lose the gorgeous colors of sunset. You can solve that problem using the technique I discussed in "Two Ways to Freeze Action With Your Flash."

The easiest approach is to put your camera in its slow-sync mode, in which the flash fires, but leaves the shutter open longer than usual. (Check your camera's user guide to see if it has this mode and how to use it.) You can get better results by putting the camera in manual mode and dialing in the shutter speed. In this photo, for example, I used a shutter speed of 1 second and an aperture of f/4, and I let the flash fire to exposure the subject.

Use a Photo Editor to Brighten a Dark Shot

If you've taken a photo at night and the result was somewhat dark and underexposed, one way you can improve it is with your photo editor's Levels tool. Open the photo in your favorite photo editor and choose the Levels or Histogram Adjustment tool. Grab the slider under the right side of the histogram and drag it towards the middle. As you do that, you should see the photo get brighter, improving the exposure of your photo. Beware, though: You'll only get marginal improvements before the overall quality plummets, so use it sparingly.

Screen Layers to Improve a Shot

You might also try taking advantage of a little trick you can find in most image editors' Layers palette. Do this: Open your night photo in a photo editor and duplicate it in a second layer (in Photoshop Elements, for example, choose Layer, Duplicate Layer, and click OK). Now, in the Layers Palette, make sure the top layer is selected and change its style from Normal to Screen. The entire image will brighten, potentially improving the shot. If that didn't quite make the grade, you can continue to add new duplicate layers and screen them until you are satisfied. But just like the Levels trick, Screening your photo layers should be used sparingly.

Fake a Long Exposure With Image Stacker

You can use a photo-stacking program to combine multiple photos of the same scene to generate what looks like a long exposure. To try out this technique, install a program called Image Stacker. There's a free trial available, but it is limited to photos that are 640 by 480 pixels or smaller (the full version costs $17). That means if you want to fiddle around with Image Stacker, you'll need to resize your photos in a photo editing program first.

To use Image Stacker, just drag several photos into the program window, specify the output file, and click Create. You can experiment with various blending options, but I've had good results with the default Stack setting--as you can see in this photo.

Shoot Beautiful Star Trails

The trick to capturing star trails is to shoot an exposure that's long enough to show the motion that stars make as the Earth rotates on its axis. The best way to do this is to combine many short exposures and "stack" the photos together on the PC afterwards.

To try your hand at this, set your camera's ISO to 400 and open your camera's aperture to its largest f-number, such as f/4. Set your shutter speed to 30 seconds and mount the camera on a tripod. Then set your camera to take a continuous series of photos for about the next 90 minutes using the camera's "intervalometer" mode (see camera's user guide for details) or a remote trigger that you can lock in the "on" position. When you have a hundred (or so) photos, you'll need some stacking software, like the aforementioned Image Stacker or StarStaX.

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