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Top 9 Tips for Night Photography

One of the hardest and most rewarding types of photography is night photography.  Get it wrong, and you could be spending a lot of time trying over and over again, do it right, and you'll have some amazing shots with great light bursts or trails.  So here are the top 8 tips to getting great night shots.

1.Put your camera down
The biggest killer of a good night photo is almost always camera shake.  You are more likely to shake when you hold a camera, so find somewhere to put your camera and set a timer for images.  If you have a tripod or a mini-tripod, use it.  Otherwise, get creative, stick your camera at the foot of a statue, or in some grotto, even shoot from the ground.  Just make sure it's in a safe place.

2.Watch your ISO
This is very hard to do in the dark because if you're shooting in an auto mode, your camera might not be able to reach its maximum iso limits if you've set a threshold, or worse, if you haven't set them, your camera will automatically jump to an iso that adds way too much noise to your image.  In order to make sure this isn't happening, review your photos often, and even better, shoot in the live view mode rather than through the viewfinder.

3.Set up around lights
This kind of goes without saying, but if you want to be in a night picture, you need to be in the light somehow.  The easiest way to do this is to set up the camera in front of a street light, and then make sure to stand under the light for the picture.  But also make sure to use lights to your advantage in night photography.  A close light can work wonders for depth in a shot, but if it's too close, it can also ruin your image with flaring.

4.Use manual focus
This can be especially painful if you're shooting through live view.  Oftentimes, a camera will focus better through the viewfinder because it is processing the image differently, but at night, even this can be problematic.  This is why it is important to use manual focus because your camera can and will only focus on what is currently lit up.  This means that if you are using a low aperture your camera might focus on a close bridge and completely miss the rest of the shot.  Of course manual focus at night is no simple matter.  If your lens doesn't show where the infinity focus setting is, the easiest way to do it is use live view and find a small light in the distance and focus on that, and then tinker with it once you've taken a photo.

5.Pay attention to aperture
Aperture is an easy setting to forget when shooting night photography as much of the time you just want to get as short an exposure as possible, but sometimes high aperture settings are ideal, especially if you are looking for longer exposure times for traffic or want to capture light bursts. 

6.Play with long and short exposures
Most of the time, you will want to get as short an exposure as possible.  The reason for this is that the longer light enters your camera, the more flaring and noise appear.  Exposure time, however, is the last culprit for poor night photos.  Always extend exposure time first before trying to up the iso above 800 or drop the aperture below 4.

In the event that you want a long exposure, keep in mind that there will be a lot of color noise entering from the shutter being open so long.  A common trick photographers will use to get around this is by photo stacking through brackets, to set a noise threshold for images.

All of these exposures were for longer than 60 seconds, but on 1 and 2 it worked out, the light from the car cut out the noise from the other lights, but on the very dark second shot, on 3 and 4, the camera wasn't able to get good light, and the long exposure resulted in a high amount of noise.

7.Make good use of bracketing
Bracketing can save your night pictures, but in many models you need to turn on a timer to manage to take three pictures in a row.  On Canon models you turn on bracketing by entering the exposure compensation button and then moving the top dial near the shutter button.  Three boxes should appear instead of the one.  Once again if you push the shutter after setting this up, it will only take one picture per shutter press.  If you set a two second timer it will take three in a row: one at the normal exposure, one overexposed, and one underexposed.

8.Use any lights you have
This is your chance to get creative.  You want to write something in a picture with lights?  Get out your camera light and write like you're writing with a sparkler.  You want to put extra light on an object, do the same thing, set a long exposure and walk up to the object and shine your light on it.  Just make sure to keep moving.  The longer you stay still the more likely you are to be in the picture.

9.Watch Movement
Long exposures mean moving objects are going to blur.  This is great if you want to shoot highways, or if you want to get rid of tourists at a site, but if you want to be in a picture, you have to remember to stay perfectly still for however long the shutter is open.  Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't, keep trying til you get it right.
Here you can see my mom's legs disappeared because of the long exposure
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