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Night Photography Fundamentals

Lesson 5 of 13

Testing Gear


Night Photography Fundamentals

Lesson 5 of 13

Testing Gear


Lesson Info

Testing Gear

Now this is really important again. We're in manual mode, we're juggling these factors, and I'm gonna walk you through it, 'cause this is gonna how we're gonna do a high-ISO test shot to figure out our exposure. These kind of test shots are really not that much needed for the city scenes. There's generally a lot of light so we can just again play to what's the most important factor. Do we wanna keep it clean with the lower ISOs, or do we wanna emphasize movement with the time? But rural scenes, it's just hard to see. Again, it's hard for us to see the scene. We're gonna take multiple shots to really help us compose as well as to get that exposure. And if we wanna stay more productive in the field, we're gonna raise up those ISOs to as high as we're comfortable with, generally 6400 ISO, so that we can take shorter exposures to build to that final scene. So here's an image I took, and this one I was at 1600 ISO for eight seconds at 2.8. And again, I could see a little bit 'cause there's ...

that street light behind that tree there, and so I was able to autofocus and kind of nail it but I couldn't really make out the corners and really see what was going on, but I took this higher-ISO shot, and then I have some sky in there, so I do want to play with the stars up in the sky. So I want to get to a lower exposure. So once I kind of played around with my composition, I knew, okay, the factor here is playing with time, it's getting that longer exposure. So first thing I did was I went to, let's get as low of an ISO as I can get. I want to get a clean image quality and push by taking away these stops of light I can just add them to my shutter speed. So I went from 1600 to 800, 800 to 400, and 400 to 200, 200 was the lowest I could go. But I was wide open at 2.8, and I said, "You know what? I wanna get more time than 8 seconds, let's drop down to a more moderate aperture, and let's go to f/8." So if I'm going to 2.8 to f/4, that's one stop, f/4 to 5.6 is two stops more, and then 5.6 to f/8, that's six stops. But when I reviewed this image on the back of my screen it was blinking, definitely the light was blinking, but the ground was blinking too, so I felt I was one stop over-exposed. So let's take away my thumb, as that sixth stop, and let's add five stops of light to the shutter speed. You wanna count with me? Eight seconds, we're going to round it out to 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes. Are we right? Boom. Four minute exposure there at f/8 at ISO 200. Again I was able to use my during that high ISO test shot, I was able to recompose a little bit and get a cleaner image by pushing that time along. There are so many variables out there. The high ISO test is one of the things you need to do to test your gear. Now you might say, "Gabe, you're counting on a lot of fingers and toes and I really don't wanna do that." Here's the rule that makes that testing a lot easier. And we call this the Six Stop Rule and if you have a camera that can get up to and low as 100 ISO's then we can easily manipulate the Six Stop Rule. And again, this is really good for those dark scenes, rural locations, not the urban landscapes that are more bright. This is an easy way for us to not count on our fingers and toes, if we play to the Six Stop Rule. And basically, instead of juggling three factors, ISO, aperture and shutter speed, keep your aperture constant. Choose an aperture that you feel comfortable with, whether it's 2.8 or 5.6. It's easier to juggle two balls that it is three. And here if we do our test and we figure out our exposure, the histogram looks good on the back at one second, six stops from one, if we go from 6400 to 100, the seconds will equal the minutes. So again, we're just juggling those two factors, 6400 to one second is gonna go, 6400 to 100 is gonna go to one minute to two minutes, so we'll have that same cup of light, that same exposure, but we'll get to a cleaner ISO and we'll push to a longer exposure. So two seconds, would equal two minutes, four seconds would equal four minutes, 30 seconds would equal, that's right, 30 minutes. Again, it really works, the Six Stop Rule, works when you have 6400 ISO and can get to 100 ISO and where we're dealing with seconds to minutes. The math, the juggle doesn't work as well when we're doing fractions of a second. So seconds to minutes factor for the Six Stop Rule. Another important test to do in the field is what's called Long Exposure Noise Reduction, or LENR. Now often a lot of the cameras out on the market when you get them, they have this setting default to on. I wanna stay more productive in the field and this feature on your camera is basically doing in camera Photoshop. And basically any exposure after one second it's gonna lay a dark frame slide over it to eat up any noise that's in the scene. However, it usually doubles the amount of time, it's a one to one factor that you're not gonna be able to use your camera. So if you take an exposure for five seconds five more seconds after that it's gonna do the Long Exposure Noise Reduction. You might say, "Gabe, that's not that bad." but what about when we're doing 30 minute exposures, then it's gonna do that Long Exposure Noise Reduction for 30 more minutes, so you're out of shooting for one minute. Now, another foundation factor that is so easy and we take for granted during the day, but is incredibly difficult to do once it gets dark, if focusing, and this is something that can be difficult in almost any night scenario, whether it's cityscapes or whether it is shooting in more dark, low-lit scenarios. Focusing needs contrast. If we want to autofocus, we do need contrast in the scene, and when it gets dark, the contrast goes away. And we really have to manual focus. Who here manual focuses all the time? Not many people. It used to be that all the cameras were manual focus and we really had to pay attention to it, and again it's hard if it's dark, it's hard for us to even see through the viewfinder. But I have a few tips to share with you in the field, we'll go over, the several tips we can do to make it easier to focus in the field. Okay, so we've left the bright lights of the city behind and gone to a much more rural location. Now, a lot of night photography is based on this style of let's call it astro-photography, or dark-sky photography. I don't think that's gonna happen for us today, but listen, without any of the light pollution from the city or street lights, we're still gonna be able to create some cool long exposures. But before we get there, let's go through some of the fundamentals and basics for getting set up with little ambient light photography. So I've got my camera set up on the tripod. Now in this scenario, I'm gonna be switching over, I took the battery out of the compartment. So usually we're running on our batteries. I took a battery out of this compartment here and I'm running it to what we call the tether tools case relay. It's got a dummy battery that runs through there, and it goes to this little piece, which hooks up to any USB powered battery pack. So I've got a 10,000 milliamp battery pack in there. And this is good, I don't have to be swapping out batteries. If I want to do a long time-lapse, or if I want to do an hour long exposure, I won't have to worry about my battery conking out, I can keep on clicking throughout the night. I've also got my cable release set up, and my trusty bubble level here. And look at the way I have the tripod set up too. I've kind of got two legs set up on the solid ground and one leg set up on the ledge here. Solid brick, everything's secure, and I don't have to be set up back here. I have a wide angle lens. I want the image to start right here. I don't want to get any of the ledge in it. Now we've also scouted the location, and that's important part of shooting, you don't want to get to the scene in the middle of the night. So we always want to get to the location, we got here during the day and scouted it, picked out a couple of locations that we wanted to go to. And that way you can be more efficient with your photography at night. More efficient, more productive, keep on pushing and keep on clicking. Now one of the fun, one of the fun apps we can use to help us with our scouting is I'm a big fan of this app called PhotoPills. And PhotPills, there's two things that I like seeing. There's a, I like seeing sort of what our sun and moon conditions are gonna be, so we're between the, we're in the blue hour, not that the clouds are showing any of that here, but we can kind of gauge when the sun's gonna set, when the moon's gonna rise and set as well. One of the other fun parts of PhotoPills especially if you're gonna be doing star and Milky Way photography is their night AR. That's night augmented reality. This is a really cool feature, you just press it, and it overlays the scenario. So we're looking due north right here, and so the Milky Way is there, but not that galactic core, not that really bright part of it. But if we were to see stars, the north star, this would be a great location to get sort of that epic star trail shot. So being able to kind of see a which direction you're facing, where stars are gonna be, where the Milky Way's gonna be, that's all part of the scouting process that is paramount for doing when you're scouting your location. Okay, so we're also going to test the camera. We've talked about the higher ISO's and Long Exposure Noise Reduction, so let's first give, I want to test my camera in the field. So right now I can do it at, I'm at let's see here, I'm at 6400 and we're probably at maybe a second right here at f.8, let's just take a picture here, and I'm gonna have to, right now the light is dipping so much that I'm gonna have to go to manual focus. This is something we didn't encounter and you won't encounter in the city. A lot of times in the city it's bright, there's a lot of contrast, so autofocus is not a problem. But those things we now take for granted like focusing, that's now up for grabs. So we really gotta manual focus and as you can, I look through here and it's very hard for me to see. So what I'll do is put my camera, I use a little light here. I'm gonna put my camera, I have an infinity mark on it, I've already tested my camera and found the infinity mark. Finding your focus and finding infinity is a difficult thing, 'cause most of the times, every lens goes past infinity. And when you go past infinity, there's no coming back. Okay, then everything is out of focus. So it's really important - in every lens, especially the zoom lenses, I have my Nikon 14-24 lens. That's a pretty good lens, it's so wide that the infinity mark is the same at 14 as it is at 24. But those 16 to 35 by Canon or the 24 to 70 lens, you'd have a totally different infinity marking for it. So what I do is I put a little grease pencil mark where it should be, and that way I've already tested it. I focused it during the day, found that infinity, marked it on my lens so I can go to it whenever I can. Another solution that some people do when they arrive before sunset, is again, get that infinity mark, you know, focus on something at least 30 to 50 feet off into the distance, lock that focus down, and then take some gaffe tape and tape down the focus of their lens. Because when you move from location to location, your lens is gonna move, so you can bump out of infinity quite easily. We gaffe tape that focus down, we're guaranteed to be always at infinity. And the only time you have to take that off is say, you wanted something strong in the foreground, say there's a tree or a cactus or a rock or a person, you know that you want to have five to ten feet in the image, and then you also want to have infinity. And that's were you'd have to do, find another solution for focusing there, probably put a flashlight on that piece, lock down on that focus. But right now, when we don't have any ambient light, we want to find infinity and either tape or mark it on your lens so you can easily get to it. So let's take a quick shot at 6400. Let's see what we get. It's dark, so we're at one second. So let's go to, let's raise it up two more seconds, two more stops to four seconds. Okay, and that's good, that's a good histogram there. You can see when I'm viewing my images, I definitely want to look at the full image, okay, I want to see that, I want to check my composition, because again, it's hard for you to see through that viewfinder. So I don't know what's in the corners. So I really need to kind of look at that image full screen, zoom into it, confirm focus, make sure there's nothing in the corners, like a garbage bag or just something that sort of we're doing what we call border patrol, you know we're just kind of checking those borders making sure that there's sort of nothing kind of infringing into the scene. And we can make our compositional change accordingly. But I like that composition. Looks good, and I'll now toggle between that and I'll look at my histogram and my information right here, that's a good histogram, I'm not losing any shadows to pure dark, nor am I spiking any highlights there. Now another thing to do when we're looking at those higher, understand how high of an ISO your camera can go. And this one I've tested before, I've tested it in the field at 6400 and it's good, and where I'll look, I'll zoom in tight, and let's look in at those shadows. Is there any speckle of noise. Now there's definitely gonna be grain at 6400 on most cameras, but what I'm looking around for, and this is an easy thing to do when we have a clear sky, you could just go up to the sky if it's dark enough, but what I'm looking for now is kind of the shadows in the trees. I don't see anything there, it's a cool night, so a cool night is also gonna keep those noise levels down a little bit. So I feel comfortable and safe at 6400, we can raise up that ISO a little higher, why not? It's gonna be probably a dark night here, so let's go, and if I gave it a stop, and I'm gonna go down a stop, I went up, I'm bringing in more light by making the sensor more sensitive at 12800, so we'll go down to two seconds to kind of keep that exposure going. Okay, so the light is moving quick, it is during a twilight period, the light does move fairly quick. So let's kinda just zoom in I see just a little, just a white dot over there. But it's a little, I mean it's definitely grainier for sure and we can kind of see, especially here in the white in the skies. So image quality-wise, I would get away with a 6400, but 12800 I'm only gonna save for an extreme scenario. And another reason why I'm setting up at such a high ISO, normally we've talked about this, and we've said we want to play to our optimal ISO, which would be a lower ISO. But when I'm setting up in the field, I want to be, again, productive, efficient. So I'm gonna make my camera more sensitive out in the field, so raising up the ISO is an easy thing to do. And that way I can just kind of figure out my composition because I can't see through the lens, so by raising up that ISO I can quickly figure out my composition, and then when I'm ready to go, I can drop down to a safer, to a safer ISO, something in the 100 to 400 range, maybe even higher if need be. So that's our setup, our quick setup and our quick test for our high ISO test. Actually, let's give it a test by dropping it down, why not do that? So, and here's we talked about the Six Stop Rule, so our seconds will be our minutes, so right now, I'm at 6400 at four seconds, and that would be a four minute exposure at 100. Now I don't need a four minute exposure right now, there's not a lot of movement going on. So why don't we go, and I have an aperture of f/8, so why don't I go to, I can go 200 for two minutes or 400 for one minute, let's actually just do 30 seconds at 800, okay? Let's do that, and because the light's moving quick I'm just going to open up our aperture to 5.6. So again, we've done the high ISO test, now we've dropped it down to get a cleaner quality image. We'll let a little time elapse, again there's a big difference of time and productivity between 30 seconds and four minutes. And again, not much moving, we have some mist that's nice, but it's not moving that quick, and the water's fairly still. When we have stars, then we want to usually push it to those longer exposures. Okay, so there we go, very similar histogram to what we had before, right there, I'm going to have a cleaner image, let's zoom in and check it out, especially in those shadows. The image quality is looking much cleaner and nicer, and that's the image that we can print. So let's also talk about Long Exposure Noise Reduction. Now this is a setting that is often set to on as a default in most cameras. And what Long Exposure Noise Reduction does is it basically does what I like to call it in camera Photoshop. And basically, you'll take an image and then it's going to lay a dark slide over it, and it's called dark slide subtraction, and basically it's going to be a layer over that other image and it's gonna look for any sort of noise, any speckled noise, and it's gonna cover it up. It's a good feature, obviously it gives us a cleaner image, however it does slightly soften the image, more importantly with Long Exposure Noise Reduction it cuts into our productivity. Because when it's doing this LENR, as I like to call it, it's usually on a one to one basis. So if I have a 30 second exposure, it's gonna do Long Exposure Noise Reduction for another 30 seconds, and during that time, I can't look through the viewfinder, I can't click another picture, the camera's on lockdown, basically. 30 seconds, you might say, "Gabe, no big deal, I can wait another 30 seconds." But what if it's five minutes? What if it's 30 minutes? What if it's one hour? Then we're waiting another hour, we can't take another shot? So there's always a balance, it's a good thing, I usually have the default setting off and use it when I need to, okay? And one of the main places that I use it, especially if I'm gonna rip a long exposure, is I'll save that for the last shot of the night, or if I'm gonna go from location to location, it's gonna be probably a 30 minute drive or walk to the next location, so that way the camera can keep on doing its thing and it's not gonna cut into my productivity. Heat definitely plays a factor into the image quality of your camera, especially with these, why we need to do higher ISO, or why we need to do Long Exposure Noise Reduction. I tested my camera, and most camera's that I've tested are good for about five to six minutes without Long Exposure Noise Reduction. But heat is a factor, and the hotter it is, it's like your camera is a computer. When we have our laptop on our lap and we're pushing it, we're making it work, it gets hot, it heats up our lap. Same thing with a camera. Night photography, these long exposures, holding up that shutter, that's what drains the battery more than anything else. So with your processor working overtime, if there's cooler temperatures, it doesn't heat up and show the noise from the long exposures as much as if we were perhaps shooting in Phoenix Arizona, when the nights hardly get below 80 degrees. I have friends out there that they have the same camera as mine, and the longest exposure they can get at night is sometimes 30 seconds. So definitely heat is a factor. So test your camera, I've done, I've given you a couple of tips here on how to get it custom and how to test your camera in the field prior to taking those night shots, but don't forget to test yours and see what factors you have to fix.

Class Description

There’s more to night photography than stars and hikes. The vibrance of color can be found in capturing the stars, a city skyline at twilight, or even car trails amidst a forest. Gabriel Biderman is a self taught photographer who enjoys the process of taking an image. In Night Photography 101, he’ll cover how to get started taking photos in the dark.

You’ll learn:

  • What gear you’ll need and the fundamentals of using it safely in the night 
  • How to capture stars for dynamic landscapes 
  • How to capture the sky and urban settings at night 
  • How to photograph car light trails to create more motion in your night photos  


Christiane Menelas

This class was perfect in preparation for my trip to Zion and Bryce Canyon next week. I can't wait to put all this great information to good use! Very easy to understand, and fun to watch. I thoroughly enjoyed it!


This class was super helpful in what to buy and then how to get the pictures you want. Loved all the other stuff that I knew nothing about. I knew very little about light painting. Thanks for sharing this class with us. This class was one of the best I have seen.


This course is fairly comprehensive, and offers a good intermediate/advanced intermediate examination of night photography (NOT just astrophotography, which is only one form of night photography.) I don't necessarily agree with everything he's saying here, but that doesn't make it wrong - it's just a matter of preference. He is fairly equipment-centric, but getting into many forms of night photography DOES require some specific equipment. There's a lot of useful information contained here, and I can see myself consulting this course in the future to help solve and understand certain situations and problems that are unique to night photography. Recommended.

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