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Just because the sun has gone down doesn't mean that you have to stop taking pictures. As long as your camera is capable of making exposures of several seconds, you can enjoy the world of night photography.


Normally, our eyes are very good at seeing colour, but when it gets dark, we have a back-up system. This allows us to see fairly well in low light. Not as well as a cat, for instance, but quite well nonetheless. The only problem with our night vision is that it's in black & white.


Night & firework photography

Not so the camera. If you record an image with your camera, no matter how dark it is, the picture will be in full colour. However, you have to bear in mind that most street lighting, especially sodium lights do not actually have what it takes to illuminate something in full colour. So, anything lit only by this type of light may not reproduce colours the way you might expect.


That's about the worst thing that can happen and, to be honest, it's not usually that much of a problem. The yellow light of sodium lamps will come out yellow, but if they are shining on something with a strong colour, that may look quite different than it would in daylight. On the other hand, most night photographs reveal a world of colour that you really can't see with the naked eye.


It does not require a highly sophisticated camera for successful night photography. In fact, the exposure meter in digital cameras (or any other type, for that matter) is of no use at all here. Apart from slow shutter speeds, the only other useful camera function is fully manual exposure. Some cameras do not have shutter speeds of several seconds but do have a "B" setting for the shutter. This can work just as well. You just have to hold the shutter button down while you count the seconds.


If your camera doesn't have the option of fully manual exposure, you can still have a go at night photography. Auto exposure systems have a tendency to over expose in these situations. Technically, they don't actually over expose, it's just that the "correct" exposure is usually too bright and can spoil the mood of a night shot. You need to just experiment with different negative settings on your exposure compensation control if you can't go fully manual.


Given the long exposures involved, one thing you will definitely need is a tripod. Or at least some way of keeping your camera absolutely rock steady for several seconds. It doesn't have to be a heavy professional model. A "table top" tripod can work quite well with a small lightweight camera, as long as you can find a suitable solid surface to place it on. A "bean bag" is also a very practical option.


Tripods needn’t cost a fortune. Take a look at a range of good quality inexpensive tripods.


Just because you are using a tripod doesn't mean that you are guaranteed to have absolutely no movement in your shot. The very act of pressing the shutter button is enough to slightly move the camera, especially if it and whatever is supporting it are quite light. Also, if you have zoomed in to any extent, this will greatly magnify any camera movement.


The answer to this problem used to be the cable release, but very few digital cameras are designed to work with one. The modern equivalent of the cable release is the remote control. If your camera has one of these, use it. Failing that, you can use the self timer on your camera. That way, any movement induced by the pressing of the button will have died down to nothing by the time the shot is actually taken. Some cameras have a short self timer option for exactly this purpose.


For cameras that don't have slow shutter speeds, but only a "B" setting, it will not be possible to use the self timer option. You need to actually be holding the shutter open to expose the shot. In these circumstances the best thing to do is use the widest angle you've got and be extremely gentle when pressing and releasing the shutter.


So, that's the tools you need, now how do you set up the camera. First of all, don't use a high ISO number. It might seem counter intuitive to make your camera less sensitive to light when there isn't much of it about. But the problem with high ISO settings is noise. Not only that, but as most night photos will have large areas that are dark, any noise is likely to be even more visible than usual. An ISO setting of around 100 is ideal.


Choose an aperture setting of around f/8 - f/11 to start with. You can actually use any aperture you like, but at those settings most lenses will be producing their maximum quality, which is a good thing. The next thing you need to check is focus. On the one hand, many cameras can't focus too well in low light, but on the plus side, small digital cameras will probably have enough depth of field at these apertures for focusing not to be an issue.


You could always focus manually and, if you really want to be absolutely sure about focus, take several shots, slightly adjusting the focus between shots. If there is nothing in your frame that is closer than 20 or 30 feet, or at least nothing that you want to have in focus, then setting your focus to infinity will probably work fine.


The only thing left, after framing up your shot, is the shutter speed. It's impossible to tell exactly what speed you will need, but a good starting point is around 4 - 8 seconds. Altering the shutter speed will, of course, affect the exposure. However exposure has a completely different meaning when it comes to night photography. This is mostly because there is no such thing as a "correct" exposure for a night shot.


There are just different effects created by changing the shutter speed. With a faster speed (lower exposure) you will still see any light sources and the pool of light they create. If it's misty, you will also see the rays or shafts of light coming from them. With longer shutter speeds, more and more of your image will be visible and eventually you won't even think the shot was taken at night, almost.


So, rather than trying to find the best shutter speed, it's much better to take several shots to see the effect this has and to decide on the best one when you get home. If you haven't moved the camera at all between shots, you might also be able to combine two (or more) of these exposures in your final image.




The above guide for night photography applies equally well to taking shots of firework displays. The only difference is a question of timing. Exposure is even less of an issue with fireworks because of their movement. A longer exposure will simply give you more of the firework's trail, rather than having any effect on the overall brightness of your picture.


Firework displays are always designed to be viewed from a certain angle, so it's best to set your camera up somewhere near the audience. The other thing to consider is the wind direction. It is best if you are upwind of the display. This is so that the smoke will be blowing away from you. Otherwise you could find yourself having to shoot the display through a haze.


Because of the unpredictability of fireworks, you can't actually frame any shots. If there are some interesting lit buildings, by all means include them in the frame, but it's much easier to have nothing in the frame except sky. Using a wide angle lens will also make your life easier. You can do the final framing by cropping the shot in editing. If you want to include something like a building, take a separate shot of it without any fireworks and create a composite shot. That way you have complete control over the framing and composition.


You can try to time your shots, but it's a very hit and miss affair. As firework displays only usually last a few minutes, you might be better advised just to take as many shots as you can. Try some at about 3 seconds or less and others at about 7 - 10 seconds. Remember it's not exposure you are adjusting here but how much of the firework's trail you will capture in the shot.


If you want to have a go at a timed shot, then it's best to use a "B" shutter setting. Make sure you're on your widest lens and be very gentle with the shutter button if you don't have a remote. It also helps if you can open and close the shutter when the sky is clear. If you can hear the sound of a rocket going up, that's when to open the shutter. When you release the shutter button is up to you.


Night and firework photographs are amongst the most spectacular types of shot you can take. If you follow the guidelines above you will find that they are also amongst the easiest to take, even with a very simple digital camera.


If you would like to read more about taking good photographs, even in the most challenging of circumstances, then you should take a look at the collection of books written by Amy Renfrey called “Digital Photography Success”. Her books cover everything you could possibly want to know about taking excellent digital photographs, all written in an extremely simple and straightforward style.


Read more about “Digital Photography Success”