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Tips For Night Pictures (II)

Self-Portrait in Nantes, France

A lot of you have been asking me questions about photography and how to achieve certain effects. While I’m by no means an expert, I’m an avid photographer and I had to chance to experiment a lot. I’m also always a teacher at heart and yes, I like talking about photography, because I’m sure I can give you some tips and learn from you as well.

So I decided to start the Saturday Series again, this time with a focus on photography. A new “lesson” will be published every Saturday, for a total or ten posts. Enjoy the “Ten Photography Tips“!

London, Paris, Toronto, Ottawa, Nantes, Beijing, Buenos Aires… I love roaming around at night. It’s a chance to capture a different atmosphere, to show the other side of a city.

But taking good night pictures is challenging at first. Pictures can be too dark, too bright, hopelessly blurry… Been there, done that!

So here are my five tips to take better night photo:

Stop using your flash: a lot of people think the key to good night pictures is to use the camera built-in flash. But in fact, it doesn’t help at all, especially when you are shooting a scenery or a city skyline. Indeed, a small flash unit cannot reach over large distances. Worse, it may bounce off a closer object and show an annoying burst of light. The only time I use a flash is for night portraits. The rest of the time, disable your flash and make good use of the light available to you, such as lampposts, neon, cars etc.

Long exposure: because there is less light at night than during the day (duh!), you need to leave your camera “open” for longer than you would normally need in daytime conditions. This is why you need a slow shutter speed. On compact cameras, you usually can’t control the shutter speed but you will most likely have a “night” setting, or even a “fireworks” setting you can use. On DSLR, select shutter priority and set your shutter speed according to the amount of light available. For instance, to take this series of pictures, I set a 15 seconds aperture. It’s pretty hard to calculate the aperture needed so I usually bracket exposure: I take several shots with different exposure times and see which one works best. With a lot of practice, you will learn to better guestimate.

Watch for camera shake: because the shutter is open for longer than usual at night, your camera must be really steady, otherwise you will see some camera shake, and your pictures will be blurred. While some blur can be artistic, it may not be the effect you are looking for! It is best to carry a tripod for night pictures, but you can use any stable surface to put your camera on: guard rails (I love when they are flat and not round!), a bench, a table, your friend’s head… Note that if you have steady hands, you may be able to snap good hand-held night pictures: for this shot of Yonge Street in Toronto, I set the exposure at 1/30 and somehow managed to get a clear picture. Takes some practice though!

Shoot at dusk: shooting at dusk can be extremely rewarding. First, there is still a little bit of light so the exposure time doesn’t have to be as long. I also find my pictures capture more details, and you can even shoot hand-held because the shutter setting can be faster.  Finally, you may get a perfect midnight blue sky, and that alone enhances the picture!

Experiment: night photography is all about experimenting. For instance, you can try to capture motion, such as car light trails, tramway leaving or anything fast. You can take picture of “ghosts”, people moving fast around you: can you spot Feng in that picture? You can also set your camera out-of-focus and produce some cool bokeh, some people find it very artistic.

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