Revealing the Secrets of Taking Night-Time Photos

Dec 20, 2011

When the sun ends its radiant dominance and calls it a day, the sky changes its colour moment by moment and the dusky heavens are painted with vibrant wonders of colour. Street lights then start to light up one by one to distinguish the main characters of the night, giving birth to a scene that is totally different from that of daytime.

From time to time, we wonder about the professional photographer know-how that helps them take great pictures of these wonderful night scenes. Below you can find out about some of these secrets.

What can be so different about taking pictures at night? When we take a camera and step outside of our houses after sunset, we try pointing our cameras here and there at the ambience that vibrant lights create among the dark shadows of the night. However, unfortunately - and also as can be expected - the results are not so luminous. And, unlike pictures taken during daylight when the light is strong, there are various unseen obstacles waiting for us when we attempt to take night-time photos.

The amount of light that barely reveals the background, the extravagant contrast between lit and unlit areas, the long exposure required, noise, not to mention the mixture of various unwanted lights from everywhere with never-seen-before colours, and shaky, out-of-focus objects... Yes, there are plenty of problems that need solving in order to take a decent night-time picture. But where there's a will, there's a way. Furthermore, instead of considering these issues as obstacles, we could perhaps take advantage of them. In this way, we can create photos with the atmosphere and ambience that are peculiar to and very distinctive of the night-time. Let's hear some know-how tips from the members of "Night View," the club for night-time picture specialists.

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■Written and photographed by Jaehong Chung (Nickname: pimpman)

Although astrophotography is quite a specialized field of photography, it could be considered as a sub-section of night-time photography since most of the photos are taken at night. However, there are also astrophotos taken during the daytime, such as ones of the sun or the moon in the morning sky. First of all, there are two main types of astrophotography techniques - using a fixed tripod and guided photography.

Simply put, the guided photography technique simply involves taking pictures of a star cluster, nebula, planet or Messier object by following the object carefully while using a long exposure. This is known as the piggyback method. Secondly, a telescope and camera can be used to take a picture (the prime focus or indirect method). Lastly, pictures can also be taken using an equatorial telescope or astronomical telescope instead of our handy camera. Guided photography is a field that is not very familiar to the general public. So let's focus solely on the fixed tripod photography.

The fixed tripod photography method involves fixing a camera to a tripod to take picture of an object in the sky. For the fixed tripod technique, there is the fixed focus method and the diurnal motion method. Due to the earth's rotation, we perceive stars as drifting and flowing in the sky. Since the earth rotates a full 360 degrees once a day, it moves 15 degrees per hour. Therefore, from our perspective, we also see the stars at night move 15 degrees per hour in the opposite direction. The fixed focus method uses a short exposure to take a picture of a star that looks more like a spot than a stream of light, leaving a trail behind. Photos of numerous stars and constellations, and even to some extent the Milky Way, can be taken using this method.

Assuming that you are using a 35 mm camera, a camera equipped with a 50 mm standard lens can take a picture of a star that is standing still for 15 seconds (at 0 degrees declination). The wider your lens becomes, the larger the angle of view becomes, resulting in a longer exposure time required. Conversely, the higher the power of the telephoto lens you use, the narrower the angle of view becomes, resulting in a shorter exposure time.

The diurnal motion method uses a long exposure to take a photo of a star leaving a trail behind it. When using this method, it is better to include a landscape such as a building, mountains, background scenery and so on in your picture, instead of taking only the stars. Good photographs also depend on the direction of star trail, speed and other factors being considered. The stars in the northern hemisphere rotate counterclockwise from the east to the west with the North Star at the center. The closer they are rotating toward the North Star, the more slowly they appear to rotate, and vice versa - the further they are from the center, the faster they seem to rotate. When you take an astrophoto, you can also enjoy learning about various constellations and watching the night sky. It should also be more interesting to take pictures of comets or meteors (shooting stars) using the diurnal motion method.

①Photography method: diurnal motion method
Date: Jan 31, 2008
Location: Naksan Park in Seoul Daehakro
Time: 8:20 pm to 10:40 pm
(Total picture exposure time: 2 hours, 20 minutes)
Lens used: Pentax SMC DA FISHEYE 10-17
# of total cuts: 254 pictures with exposures of 30-second intervals (Photoshop composite used)
Accessories: a tripod and a time lapse recording tool

②Photography method: diurnal motion method
Date: Feb 02, 2008
Location: rooftop of Koresco Condominium (Chiaksan branch) in Hoengseong-gun, Gangwon-do
Time: 9:17 pm to 11:23 pm (Total picture exposure time: 2 hours, 6 minutes)
Lens used: Pentax SMC DA FISHEYE 10-17
# of total cuts: 228 pictures with exposures of 30-second intervals (Photoshop composite used)
Accessories: a tripod and a time lapse recording tool
This picture shows the International Space Station (ISS) passing by.

③Photography method: fixed focus method
Date: May 05, 2008
Location: Anmyondo, Taean
Lens used: Pentax SMC DA FISHEYE 10-17
Accessories: a tripod
I have never seen the Milky Way this beautiful and this detailed.

The photos described above were taken with a 35 mm film camera and, of course, the results can vary depending on the type of lens, ISO and other factors. This also assumes that you are taking pictures in mountain, rural, coastal or desert areas where the light pollution is not as severe as in urban areas.

In cities such as Seoul where the light pollution is severe, it is possible to use the fixed focus method to some degree. However, it is difficult to take pictures of the constellations or the Milky Way simply because it is rare to see the stars. It is possible to take pictures of the moon or sun using the diurnal motion method with an ordinary film camera. However, taking pictures of the stars using this method is again difficult due to the light pollution.When using a film camera, you need to develop and print (scan) the film. Often photo studios do not print or scan the film, thinking that there was nothing in the film. It is therefore better to let them know in advance that the pictures are astrophotos when taking the film for processing.

When using a digital camera (DSLR), you can take several pictures of a star using the proper intervals and then composite them in one picture to see the star train to a greater or lesser extent.

First, use a wide-angle lens to include a larger number of stars and consider the viewfinder composition to create harmony with the background scenery. For the aperture value, use a shutter speed of 30-60 seconds within the correct range to prevent overexposure. You can then take your pictures in succession over the desired amount of time. For the camera setting, use the manual mode for the photo mode; use manual focus (unlimited) for the focus setting; set the noise reduction to OFF; select a low ISO speed; and lastly set the white balance to your preference. You can then take pictures using a solid tripod and the release cable or a time lapse recording tool. You will need to have a fully charged battery.

The next step is to import the picture files taken with your digital camera (DSLR) into Photoshop and perform layer composition. First, choose the photo that will be the main photo, before opening the picture files one by one in the correct order and overlapping them on the same spot as the main photo. When overlapping two pictures, another layer is created on the layer palette, and as a result you will see two layers. There should then be a small white window on that layer palette window. This is for the layer blending mode to allow you to select a blending method for both of the two upper and lower layers. Select "Lighten," which should be in the middle. "Lighten" allows the light areas of the layers to be emphasized so that the star trails are not overlapped but rather shown as they are. As you continue composing the layers in this manner, the star trails are getting clearer and finally emerge in a single picture.

Photography tip: During the winter, your camera or lens may freeze up or become covered in dew. You can cover your lens with a heat pack to prevent it to some degree.

Fascinating Festival of the Night - Fireworks

■Written and photographed by Jungdae Kim (Nickname: danny)

The basic equipment for taking pictures of fireworks is a DSLR camera equipped with bulb mode, zoom lens, tripod, release cable, and black paper board or a hat. Since we do not know the exact spot where the fireworks will detonate, it is better to use a wide-angle zoom lens instead of a prime lens for the flexible screen composition. Since fireworks can be much larger and detonate at a higher level than expected, using a wide-angle lens becomes a must, especially when taking pictures from a close distance. Use the zoom lens to secure the desired angle of view or composition. After the angle has been decided, you can change to a prime lens for a clearer picture.

Fireworks usually detonate after spending up to five seconds in the air. You can therefore get great firework photos by using an aperture setting of F8 to F16 and an ISO speed of 100 to 200.

In order to take picture of multiple fireworks, set the camera to bulb mode, open the shutter, and cover the lens with either a black paperboard or hat. Then expose the lens only when the fireworks detonate. By repeating this, you can get several fireworks in a single picture. The use of a lens cap should be avoided since it can cause a slight movement of the camera and result in a shaky background. The use of a release cable is also a must when using the bulb feature, since it prevents the camera from moving.

The AF (auto focus) setting may fail to focus on the fireworks, so use MF (manual focus) for setting the camera focus. Since the spot where the fireworks detonate will also differ slightly from time to time, it is recommended to use smaller aperture values for a deeper depth of field even when you are using manual focus. You can use the auto mode for the WB (white balance) but using the tungsten mode or manual WB, or setting the Kelvin (K) value manually, can result in a better, bluer background color.

Photography tip 1: You can get much clearer firework pictures during the early stages, because the fireworks later on are often covered with smoke that prevents better shots.

Photography tip 2: Instead of taking pictures of only the fireworks, you can get better shots by including the cityscape in the background. To do this, check the exposure of the cityscape first. Then take the picture using the bulb feature. You may use the paperboard to cover the lens when it is adequately exposed. Then expose the lens when the fireworks detonate to take a picture with both the fireworks and the cityscape.

The Essence of Night Photography

■Written and photographed by Jungdae Kim (Nickname: danny)

The key merits of taking IC pictures at night are the light trails of vehicle headlights and the splendid city lights. In order to include an entire IC in one frame, you will need a wide-angle lens; in some cases, you may need to use a fish-eye lens. Of course, the angle of view and composition will differ depending on the area you are shooting. The range of the photograph is also a matter of a choice, and so many photographers often use a standard prime lens. To get a great picture with a nice light trail from the vehicles, you need a longer shutter speed. As a result, you do not necessarily need to increase the sensitivity, even for a night-time photo, and this can be set to around 100 ISO. In general, the shutter speed needs to be more than 15 seconds to get a decent light trail, so the aperture needs to be set appropriately by considering the shutter speed. Often pictures are taken with an aperture setting of F8 to F16 or more. If necessary, the shutter speed can also be increased by using the ND (neutral density) filter. Fans of night-time photography love to take pictures during the so-called "magic hour" - 30 minutes before and after sunset. This time is indeed quite appealing, for you can take pictures of both the setting sun and nightscapes. However, IC pictures do not necessarily need to be taken during this magic hour. Although you may get better colors by taking advantage of the magic hour, I think darker, later hours are more appropriate when considering only the IC as a subject: the darker background emphasizes the white headlights and red taillights of the vehicles much better. I prefer the method of half-pressing the shutter with focusing on the object using AF and then changing to MF. If possible, using a release cable and selecting manual WB instead of auto WB or setting the Kelvin (K) value manually results in a picture with better and more splendid night scenery. Photography tip 1: Set the WB to manual by focusing on the center line of the IC where the cars are passing by. There are many accessories for setting the WB. Personally, I most often use a "white balance disc" to set the WB and take night-time IC pictures. Photography tip 2: The ambience of a picture changes according to the shutter speed. You need to decide how much of the vehicle light trail to photograph. An ample shutter time can make the road full of various lights, or you can simplify the light trails with few lines. Comparing those pictures should then tell you the characteristics of each and give you some ideas.

The New Focal Point of the Seoul Landscape - A Night View of Hangang

■Written and photographed by Yongmin Lee (Nickname: mutro)

People usually include its bridges when they take a picture of a night view of Hangang. You can get a great picture with vibrant sky colors by shooting pictures right before or just after the sunset. The visibility, which really affects photography, may differ according to the weather conditions, so you should consider the weather beforehand. The circumstances when I was taking this picture meant that the sky was too bright, which made the shutter speed very fast. This was also not enough to capture the light trails of the cars passing by Banghwa Bridge. As a result, I slowed down the shutter speed from ISO 100 to 50 to shoot the light trails of the cars, while using a smaller aperture of about F13 to also include the faraway mountain. By setting the camera to clear mode, I also managed to create stronger colors in the picture.

Banghwa Bridge
1. Location: middle of a mountain where the north end of Banghwa Bridge was visible
2. Date & time: Feb 16, 2008 about 6:30 pm, right before the sunset
3. Setting info: 135 mm F2.0 Light metering: Multi-aperture: F13 Shutter Speed: 10 secs ISO: 50 Mode: Clear

If you are taking pictures during the period between the sun setting and night completely falling, using the tungsten mode is a good idea since there are some bluish hues remaining in the sky. The camera settings for the night scene that I mainly use are tungsten mode, to give a clear and bluish color effect; manual setting of the Kelvin value; and AWB (auto white balance) that nowadays results in a decent white balance due to increased camera performance. Regarding the focus, I focus at the spot in between 1/3 to 1/2 that is in mid tone (for an object without the mid tone, I focus at the spot that is half in shadow and half-highlighted) when looking through the viewfinder. By doing so, I secure a proper exposure with the depth of field and get a clear picture overall.

Sungsan Bridge
1. Location: at the north water's edge of Sungsan Bridge
2. Date & time: Mar 8, 2008 about 7:00 pm after the sunset
3. Setting info.: 50 mm F1.4 Light metering: Multi aperture: F11 shutter speed: 8 secs. ISO: 100 Mode: Tungsten

Lighting the Blossom with Light - Night Photos of Cherry Blossom

■Written and photographed by Heonguk Son (Nickname: Sonddadadak~)

MF 50 mm F1.4S / Exposure mode: M / Aperture: F8 / Shutter speed: 10 secs. / ISO: 100 / White balance: Kelvin value 2780 / RAW file shooting / sRGB

The difficulty of photographing night-time cherry blossom is that the object is not still but rather sways slightly when the wind blows. The end part of the branch may therefore blur compared to the other areas of your picture when you use a longer exposure. This means that you need to either increase the ISO or use a wider aperture for a faster shutter speed.

However, when you are trying to get a clear picture of the entire branch of fully blossomed flowers from the front to the end, the aperture setting needs to be small for a deeper depth of field. The result of this is a longer shutter speed. Of course, the depth of field gets deeper as you use a wider angle lens. You can therefore get this result with a deeper depth of field - even with a lower aperture setting - by using a wide-angle lens instead of a telephoto lens. Depending on what the photographer focuses on, the aperture value, shutter speed and ISO setting also become different. Personally, I use settings of ISO 100 for image quality, an aperture value of F8 to 16 for proper depth of field, and a shutter speed of 10 to 15 seconds. Furthermore, you need the patience to wait for a windless moment when the branches are still, since the exposure is quite long. During the period of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Korea, in most cases the blossoms are lit up with direct lights. You therefore need to be cautious of getting an unwanted white "hole" in the picture due to overexposure of the flowers. If the color of the lights changes, taking multiple pictures is a good idea to create pictures with various effects and moods.

When using auto white balance, you may end up with less satisfying pictures because the colors of the pictures differ in each cut even when the other settings are identical. Manually setting the Kelvin value to set the color temperature before shooting would be your best choice.

AAF 180 mm F2.8D ED / Exposure mode: M / Aperture: 11 / Shutter speed: 15 secs. / ISO: 100 /
White balance: Kelvin value 2500 / RAW file shooting / sRGB

Trail Photos Taken Indoors - Pendulum Motion

■Written and photographed by Heonguk Son (Nickname: Sonddadadak

MF 50 mm F1.4S / Exposure mode: M / Aperture: 16 / Shutter speed: 246 secs. / ISO: 100 /
White balance: Kelvin value 3130 / RAW file shooting / sRGB

Taking pictures of geometric flow of the lights using a pendulum motion can be very interesting. First you will need a string and a mini flashlight (a small light with one bulb is better, as the light plays the role of a weight), a camera, tripod, and a release cable. First, tie a 1-1.5 m string to the end of the flashlight, then attach the other end of the string to the ceiling. Set the height of the tripod as low as possible and then set the camera angle by aiming the camera lens toward the ceiling. You should make sure that the camera has the proper angle of view by checking through the viewfinder. Adjust it if necessary. Try to locate the weight at the center of the viewfinder and set the focus at the end of the weight. Then set the camera to MF. Set the shutter speed to bulb mode (B). Keep in mind that the more you open the aperture, the thicker the lines become, and vice versa - the smaller the aperture is, the thinner the lines become in the picture. I recommend making the line very thin by using a small aperture setting, because the distance between the lines becomes narrower as the weight circles toward the center. Regarding the format, take the pictures as RAW files and then change the light color using a RAW file correction program for a better result.

AF-S 17-35 mm F2.8D ED / Exposure mode: M / Aperture: 16 / Shutter speed: 340 secs. / ISO: 100 / White balance: Kelvin value 3130 / RAW file shooting / sRGB

After connecting the release cable, turn off all the lights for complete darkness then turn on the flashlight (the weight). If you simply pull the weight then release it, you will get a linear motion. Instead of doing so, try to make a circle by pushing the weight lightly to one side to make the shape shown in the above picture. Once a circle with the desired size has been created, press the release cable to start shooting. When the aperture is set to 16, an exposure setting of about 3 to 6 minutes is correct, and you should decide the appropriate exposure setting by watching the pendulum motion of the weight. Note that you may need several less satisfying attempts before you get a great picture. Keep trying, though, and you will succeed.

A Light Trail Passing through the Night Silence

■Written and photographed by Minseok Son (Nickname: hooligan)

Title: Line Location: Jianjae, Hamyang-gun ISO100, F8, 30 sec

Taking a picture of the light trail made by a vehicle driving along a mountain road without any artificial lighting is the essence of night-time photography. Especially if the road has a sharp curve or downhill slope, the light trail made in the night-time picture has a dynamic quality that is rarely found in other night-time pictures. In general, cars driving on unlit mountain roads tend to drive at a slow speed. Since the maximum shutter speed supported by DSLR AV, TV and M modes is only 30 seconds, the bulb feature and a release cable become a must to secure the shutter speed of more than 30 seconds that is needed to get an uninterrupted light trail. Regarding the lens selection, a wide-angle lens is much more appropriate than a telephoto lens to give you a complete light trail instead of partial trails. Keep in mind that ultra-wide lenses - below 20 mm - will result in wider and much clearer light trails on the picture. For the white balance setting, it is best to select fluorescent or tungsten mode. The sharp contrast of the white light trail and the pitch-black night sky will grab the viewers' attention at once. Also keep in mind that the color of light trail becomes whiter as the color temperature decreases, and try setting the WB to fluorescent or tungsten mode. You can also observe the different results created and try applying various color temperatures. Regarding the exposure, a slight underexposure is desirable. In some cases, you may also need to emphasize the light trails by making the background darker to bring out the dynamic quality of the car's motion under the dark sky. You therefore need to acquire the know-how to pick out the light trails compared to the background by applying an exposure compensation that is 1 to 2 stop darker, instead of relying on the optimal exposure value. Considering the nature of the shooting, I recommend going out with two or three friends instead of taking pictures alone. Finding a car driving along a mountain road late at night is quite difficult, so you may need to drive your own car to take a picture instead of waiting for one to come by. If you have a friend or two who will press the release cable for you while you are driving, this would be perfect. Make sure to check the path of motion and composition of the picture beforehand. Finding a perfect composition in complete darkness only by relying on your senses is not an easy task. I recommend visiting the site before sunset to check various possible motion paths and decide how and where to take pictures with possible light trails in advance.

Title: Enjoying the Silent Location: The Local Motorway between Nonsan and Wanju
ISO100, F8, 221 sec

The Climax of the Night-Time Cityscape - Buildings

■Written and photographed by Yui-jeong Choi (Nickname: hongdangmu)

M mode / ISO: 100 / F8 6s / White balance: Kelvin value setting / Picture taken in sRGB jpeg / Compensation: 8211 / Sharpened and color balance adjusted using Photoshop

One of the merits of taking night-time pictures is taking pictures of glamorous city lights. If the weather is right and you can even see some clouds passing above the lit-up city, you might feel like you could take pictures of everything, including a night city, a nearby river, and streets with moving lights. However, even in bad weather, you should not leave your home without your camera and a tripod. It is better to be prepared than disappointed when you are faced with an opportunity. It may not be as easy as it sounds to take pictures of the great buildings in Seoul at night-time. Although you can climb a nearby mountain in the city, there are occasions when you need to go to the roof of tall buildings to find yet-to-be-discovered objects and create unique and interesting compositions. You should only visit the roof tops after obtaining proper permission from the manager of the building. Generally, you should use the lowest ISO to take your pictures, with an aperture setting of F8 to 13. When taking a picture of a fully-lit building, you should set the shutter speed from 2-6 seconds to 8-13 seconds. To prevent camera movement, always use the release cable and also the mirror lock-up setting to prevent mirror shock. To express the clean and vibrant light effects, I use the clear mode on my camera. I also use a fish-eye lens with the extreme angle of view quite often because of its unique characteristics and effect. When the object of which I want to take a picture is too close and I cannot move backward any further, it is time to use the fish-eye lens to take a picture of the intended object without making any scarifies. I find this very satisfying. Some people avoid this lens because of the distortion, but I rather like the interesting effect. One of the strengths is that it allows the reconfiguration of objects that cannot be photographed using any lens other than a fish-eye lens. As shown in the above picture, tall buildings or multiple objects can all be contained in one picture, which is another strength of the lens. When you are taking pictures of well-lit buildings, a long exposure is not required. Since the conditions were quite dark when I was taking the picture, I used a slower shutter speed to brighten up the sky more.