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I have Canon Rebel XS (EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Autofocus Lens). I have been trying to take decent night photographs for a while. But it seems to take a lot of effort. Can we take good night shots without a tripod? Also a slight motion in subject is leading to blur due to high exposure times. But if I reduce the exposure time, I cannot properly capture the landscape behind. Can you provide some guidance for taking great night shots?

EDIT: I am looking for scenario where downtown is in the background and person is in front. I am not much interested in taking pictures of moon and stars. I would be also interested to know how we take good shots of landscapes just with moonlight.

EDIT: I am including the picture I took with Chicago downtown in the background and my friend in the foreground. It came out decent, but it took a lot of effort and even then it was blurry. Hope this gives you a good idea of the kind of picture I am trying to take. alt text

EDIT: Thanks guys for all your detailed responses. Obviously there is no one right answer but for just what it's worth I am picking one of them.

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What kind of night shots, exactly? Landscapes and a person in front? The moon and stars? Highways where you can see taillight trails? –  mmr Oct 11 '10 at 3:15
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Welcome to photo.SE! As @mmr notes, though, we need some more info to properly answer your question. You will see an "edit" link below your question, and you can use that to edit it and add more detail. –  Reid Oct 11 '10 at 3:41
    
Ditto on what MMR and Reid said. More more more! Info is KING! –  jrista Oct 11 '10 at 3:45

10 Answers 10

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I too am keen to see some more answers to this, in the mean-time here is my contribution:

A tripod (or at least some sort of support) has got to be a "must have" for this sort of night photography:

  • Reduced camera shake means sharper images
  • Lower ISO settings mean less grainy images
  • Longer exposure times can also give interesting effects (for example with car lights)

I don't have any fast lenses so I can't say how much of a difference a fast lens will make, however I know that proper support makes a big difference! :-)

I've seen bean bags suggested as a suitable tripod alternative for when travelling, also depending on where you are you might also get away with resting your camera on walls or benches (however you will find that your photo opportunities are far more limited)

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I though higher ISO means more grain, not less ... –  Guillaume Oct 12 '10 at 6:53
    
@Guillaume - Whoops! Thanks for pointing that out! :-) –  Justin Oct 12 '10 at 7:00
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Actually for the same exposure higher ISO means lower noise in images. This is a frequently misunderstood concept. Lowering the ISO only results in less noise if you get more light down the lens to compensate. –  Matt Grum Oct 12 '10 at 9:57
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ISO is a measure of sensor gain. The higher it is, the more amplification you're giving to the various types of sensor noise. For one body, one EV, you will see less noise for a lower ISO. This is easy to see for yourself and the physics is straight forward. –  philw Oct 16 '10 at 14:03

One of the secrets to take great night shots is: Don't take night shots at night. There is a short period of time between day and night, when the sky is not dark yet and when the city lights are already on. This is the best moment to take night shots.

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The hour before sunset is called the blue hour and gives you very rich dark blues in the sky. Using long exposures, you get a colorful mixture of city lights and natural light. The same is true for the hour before sunrise. City life just seems to be more buzzing in the evening, though. –  gclj5 Oct 11 '10 at 18:30

For your scenario: "downtown is in the background and person is in front"

The approach that would give you a nice effect is combining flash with long exposure. Using flash will ensure that you have the main subject sharp and well lit and the long exposure will allow you to capture the background.

You can use this method both with and without tripod. When using tripod you should get well rendered sharp background, when shoting hand-held the background will be blurred - but you can use it to your advantage, for example light paining - it adds a more dynamic feel to the photo.

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There are four things that you can do to take properly-exposed pictures in low light:

  • Increase exposure time. As you mentioned, this can lead to motion blur. You can reduce or compensate for camera motion with a tripod or image stabilization, but this won't help if your subject is moving.
  • Increase aperture size. You may have to buy a new lens to get a suitable size. Also, you lose depth of field with a large aperture. This effect can be used creatively, but sometimes it is an annoyance and can ruin pictures, e.g. when autofocus chooses the wrong spot to focus on, or you want multiple subjects in focus, etc. At f/1.8, your subject's eyes might be in focus, while their nose is blurry.
  • Increase ISO. This can lead to sensor noise, which can be worse than having an out-of-focus picture. You can get lower noise and higher ISO with a more expensive camera, but even still there are limits to this.
  • Increase light. The light from an on-camera flash can be harsh, unnatural, and overpowering. Bounce flash can help, but there's not always something to bounce off of. An off-camera setup offers endless creative possibilities, but is less portable than on-camera flash.

Getting the best picture possible is a matter of choosing which tradeoffs you're willing to make (or your equipment allows.)

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I love low-light photography!!! There is endless potential for creative solutions at night.

To begin, everyone here is right so far. Fast lens, tripod, off-camera flash, long exposures etc. Let's talk about how to get YOUR picture though. You want your subject lit and well defined with the cityscape as a well-exposed, complimentary light source.

Equipment: Camera, lens, off-camera flash, tripod, magenta filter, green gel.

The predominant color coming from the city is green: fluorescent, sodium vapors, etc. Slap your magenta filter (or custom WB or fluorescent WB) on to clean up your background. Gel your flash green so that it's output is the same as the city. Now get your exposures down. If you're using a nice CLS like Nikon's, than this is pretty easy. If not, get out the old ruler and start working your distance formulas. I like to underexpose background be 2/3 and subject by 1/3 to maintain moodiness of scene and separation of subject to background. Get your EX set and let'er rip!

Of note: Subject blur will be minimized by the strobe. Depending on how long your shutter runs you may get some movement anyway. This can be a good thing. Work your equivalents until you achieve your desired effect. Also, the addition of magenta really sets the sunsets (if you have any) off! They look great! Second, though fast lenses give you more light and thus speed up your exposure times, they also crush your DOF. This is awesome, unless you want your cityscape recognizable. I LOVE my f/1.4, but I would never go that bold on the image you're trying for. Just a thought.

One more thing, experiment. Low-light is ridiculously good fun. I'm working on a series right now of images taken no faster than 30 sec, all hand held. Great fun this... alt text

This image has not been altered in PS. Only basic toning. The table is burned in over 25 secs or so, then the face of the DJ is "popped" by the flash at the end of the exposure. Same principle as described above, just taken a step further.

Happy hunting.

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I'm hoping for more information, but here is a preliminary answer. More than anything, I think, a "fast lens" will do you the most good. A lenses speed is ultimately determined by its maximum aperture. If you try to take hand-held night shots with a maximum aperture of f/5.6, or even f/4, you're going to have a very difficult time of it, as such lenses are usually just too slow for the job.

A faster lens, no slower than f/2.8, but preferably around f/1.8 to f/1.2, would do wonders for your night photography. The fastest zoom lenses come in at around f/2.8, and while this is enough to get some ok shots at night with additional illumination from flash and other light sources, it really isn't enough to get decent night shots. Prime lenses, or single focal length lenses, can often be found with much wider maximum apertures, anywhere from f/2 up through f/1.2, sometimes even faster (some older lenses have been made with ultra-wide maximum apertures of f/0.95 and f/0.7...rare, and possibly not the best optics wide open, but stopped down to f/1 or f/1.2, unbeatable.) Canon offers a few very wide prime lenses that might help you out:

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Fast lenses are good, and will allow you to get candids by streetlight with a high ISO but to get really good night photos you really need some kind of camera support. This will allow longer exposures without camera shake, but more importantly it will let you blend multiple exposures together in order to even out the lighting (when your lightsources are in the frame e.g. streetlights you can get overexposure very easily, see the answer to this question). Google "HDR night photography" for more info.

Camera support doesn't have to be a huge tripod, your Rebel has the advantage of being lightweight so you could use a compact tripod or something like a GorillaPod which is more versatile and easy to carry around.

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I have to recommend a combination of mouviciel and jrista's answers.

You want to use a fast lens, which will allow a shorter shutter speed. This is absolutely necessary if you are going to shoot handheld. Since you only have the kit lens, you should certainly go ahead and get the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II, which is about the best lens you'll find under $100 US.

You will also (if you have a choice) want to shoot in the first hour past sunset or the hour before sunrise for the best lighting. During these times there is more light, but you still have the nighttime feel.

Other thoughts:

  • When I'm trying to get a nighttime feel, I use a little different pattern than usual:

    • I try to adjust the color a bit to the cool side, which I think generally hels the mood
    • I slightly under-expose (about 1 stop). Remember that your camera is trying to adjust to about 18% grey (maybe a little different with digital), so it is going to try to make a dark scene just as bright as a midday sun scene. By slightly under-exposing you can increase your shutter speed and avoid the blur.
  • Go ahead and bump up the ISO. This will cause more noise, but you will want to take that hit to get the higher shutter speed you need to get a clean shot. ISO noise can be dealt with in post, whereas camera shake can't be fixed.

  • Take a look into different hand-holding techniques.

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Apart from sensor size, what D-SLR you have won't significantly affect your ability to take low-light photographs. A full frame sensor will make a difference, but the first you must do is buy fast, quality lenses. Cheap lenses usually don't have large apertures (for example the Canon kit lenses with 3.5 maximum aperture), except some classic lenses like the 50mm 1.8 which is very cheap, but your zoom lenses often are too slow.

What lenses do you use?

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The camera body makes an enormous difference. I only know about Canon and Nikon but in both their lines the more you spend on a body, the higher ISO you can comfortably shoot without getting a grainy image. And as another poster wrote, the higher ISO you can shoot, the shorter amount of exposure needed, and the cleaner the handheld shot. –  Naseer Oct 11 '10 at 19:12
    
But for this guy, better lenses is what he needs first, not a body. He's using the slow kit lens and I know for myself that it struggles in comparison to faster lenses. Lenses should come before ISO. ISO should be the last resort to getting light in the camera (not that higher ISO is not warranted). I never said a body won't make a difference. –  Nick Bedford Oct 11 '10 at 21:00

Responding directly to your sample image, all you need to add is a tripod provided your subject is willing to stand still (as he apparently is). You could add a fill flash but that introduces difficulties matching the foreground and background lighting.

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Thanks, I actually took the pic by placing the camera on a wall. Even then its not as sharp I expected it to be –  Ravi Gummadi Oct 11 '10 at 23:08

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