Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Night Photography??? A Crash Course on Those Pesky Manual Settings

Night Photography?
Today, I want to talk about something which I've always found both exciting and difficult:


I particularly love night photography, which is possibly the most difficult of all. You can't see a thing, it's entirely washed out, or you get these funky floating lights. It doesn't matter what kind of camera you're usingiPhone, point-and-shoot, or (D)SLR... It's just not easy to take a good picture at night! If you follow me on Instagram or take a sneak peek at my phone's camera roll, you'll find that I'm something of a contrast junky in my photos. If the shadows aren't darker than a vampire's soul and the highlights aren't lighter than a feather, there's not enough contrast. Armed with that fierce love of contrast, I'm not afraid to pull out the ol' camera and try out a few night shots.

Cininnati Zoo Christmas LightsRecently, I went with my family to the Festival of Lights at the Cincinnati Zoo. Every year around Christmas, the zoo opens in the evening for visitors to enjoy millions of Christmas lights decorating every tree and animal enclosure. All the refreshment kiosks are stocked with sweet hot cocoa, you can get pictures with Santa, meet his reindeer, and enjoy a light show on the lake. It's a great time for family and friends, or a romantic date night.

Christmas Tree at NightAnyway, we went to the Festival of Lights and I thought I'd bring my camera. I went once before this Christmas season, and it was about 20 degrees out that night... This time, however, it was 35 degrees, which would be much kinder to my camera!

I did my research and determined a few different camera settings I'd try out. I have a Canon Rebel T3, a high school graduation gift to myself, which has provided nearly all the photos I use here on my website and in my Etsy shop. Thanks to some kind photography souls online, I ventured out. Walking into the zoo, I took some test shots with different settings. The photo to the right is the final test shot.

What I settled on:
ISO: 3200
Aperture: F13
Shutter speed: 1/50

But wait. What does all that alpha-numeric photography code gibberish mean??? I'm a beginner, too, but teaching is the best way to learn! So, allow me to give you a quick run-through of your camera's manual mode:


ISO ranges from 100 or 200 up to 3200, 6400, etc. An ISO of 100 means it takes 1 second gather light for the shot. 200 is 1/2 a second, 400 is 1/4 of a second, 3200 is 1/32 of a second. ISO is most important as it relates to speed. If you want to take an action shot with little or no blur, you'll want a high ISO. It's also good to set the ISO pretty high for low-light situations, otherwise any shake in the camera will result in a blurry image. The problem is, a high ISO might make your shot look grainy. You'll need to find an ISO that strikes a good balance of light and clarity.

Shutter: 1/8; f/5.6; ISO 100
Shutter: 1/8; f/5.6; ISO 6400
These two photos are the same image, on opposite ends of the ISO spectrum. There's a really obvious difference between the two! For shots like this, I might normally set the ISO at about 400 or 800.


Aperture acts like the camera's pupil. When there's a lot of light, the pupil of your eye becomes smaller so that it doesn't overwhelm the retina with light. It's the same with a camera: when there's a lot of light, you want your aperture to be smaller so you don't end up with a washed-out picture. Unfortunately, it can get pretty confusing when you start setting the aperture. On your camera, you'll find it shown as an f or f/ followed by a number. The higher the number, the less light you're letting in. The lower the number, the more light. Each step up is 50% less light.

Shutter: 1/50, ISO 3200, f/5.6
Shutter: 1/50, ISO 3200, f/32
These two photos are the same image with different aperture sizes. In the shot on the left, the f-stop was 5.6. In the shot on the right, it's 32. The aperture and f-stop makes a serious difference in the brightness of the shot!

To make things more complicated, aperture also affects the depth of field. The wider the aperture (lower f-stop), the shallower the depth of field. So a very low f-stop would mean a wide aperture, which lets in lots of light, but only very close subjects would be in focus. A high f-stop means a narrow aperture, meaning less light comes in, but the whole thing will be in focus.

Shutter Speed

Shutter: 1/500; f/5.6; ISO 6400
Shutter; 1/60; f/5.6; ISO 3200
The final setting is shutter speed. The higher the number, the faster the shutter will move. Like ISO, this means that when the shutter is moving slowly, the photo will "take" slowly, so action shots will be blurry. The faster the shutter speed, the more action will freeze. Shutter speed works with aperture to determine how quickly the photo will be taken. You can take an action shot with a fast shutter speed, but if the aperture is too small (aka, the f-stop number is too high), it will still be as black as that second shot of my bookshelf. Of course, adjusting the ISO up or down would further affect the light!

blue bokeh[returning to my nighttime photography adventure]

Once I reached those settings, I spent the rest of the night playing with manual focus.

I would love to try some long-exposure shots sometime. That is, slow down the shutter speed and allow plenty of light to hit the sensor. I'd also like to go out some evening and use the flash, which I'd turned off for this outing.
multicolor bokeh
My goal was to have a few good "stock" photos to add to my stash, mainly to use here on my website. I love a good "bokeh" shot, where the lights are just little dots, like the pictures to the left. All of these photos are unedited, straight from the camera.

white and blue tree bokehI definitely need to work on my understanding of ISO, shutter speed, and aperture in order to get really great pictures in manual mode. I've continued to read up on good nighttime settings, and there are a few changes I want to try next time.

Overall, I'm no photography expert. I'll readily admit it! I spend a lot of time in full-auto mode to photograph my artwork. But, it's fun to switch to manual and try out different settings and combinations. Honestly, there's no way to guarantee a good shot. It takes lots of practice and time spent manipulating the settings in order to build a good understanding of how it all works together. Hopefully, this mini crash-course will help you brave the manual settings on your own SLR or point-and-shoot (yes, even many point-and-shoots have these settings, though you may have to do some mental interpretive dance moves... read your user manual, press some buttons, and try looking for "low light", "night portrait", "long shutter", etc.).

Finally, here are a few helpful articles I've found for understanding ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and how they work together:

The Rule of Equivalent Exposure
Understanding the Sunny 16 Rule
Christmas Light Photography Tips
Taking Photos in the Dark


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