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Long Exposure Night Shots – A Beginner’s Guide

Moonset by Rick Sturch
Moonset. 18mm, f/4, 15 second exposure.

Have you ever wanted to take a picture of the stars on a beautiful, clear night? How about an atmospheric night shot that involves very little motion? If you have a decent DSLR camera with basic manual controls, you can.

What you’ll be doing is opening your camera’s shutter for an extended period of time. For this reason, you’ll definitely need a tripod. You’ll need the camera to be perfectly still.

You can buy a tripod very cheaply if you don’t have one already. There are lightweight tripods on Amazon for about $25, and this is really an investment that will pay dividends. There are so many times when a tripod comes in handy: taking a family portrait, capturing video, low light situations, taking elevated pictures, and so on. If you have a DSLR camera, this is a necessity in my view.

Taking a great shot at night will involve some guesswork. Playing around with your settings, taking shots, and gauging how they turn out is an integral part of this process.

City Street at night by Rick Sturch
City Street at night. 18mm, f/3.5, ISO 1600, 2.5 second exposure.

It is noteworthy to mention here that the lens you use will have an enormous impact on how the picture turns out. I wrote a post earlier about aperture, which is very important for night shooting. Aperture in your camera is similar to your eye's pupil - the larger it is, the more light is let in. If you have a camera with a larger aperture (which is described by a small f-stop number), your exposure time will be much shorter and your pictures will turn out better. You'll be able to use a lower ISO setting, which will result in much less “graininess” or noise in the shot. It’s in some ways like having a bigger telescope – you can see more detail, as more light is taken in.

All the information about your lens is usually printed right on it. For example, there should be a number in millimeters that tells you the ‘zoom’ of the lens. My lens goes from 18-135mm, which means the length of the lens (focal length) can go from 18mm – a fairly wide-angle magnification – to 135mm, which is considered telephoto zoom.

The part you really want to pay attention to though, in this application, is aperture. My camera says 1:3.5-5.6, which means the aperture goes from 3.5 when zoomed out as far as possible (18mm in my case), and 5.6 when you’re zoomed in as far as the lens will allow (135mm on my lens). For this application, you want the smallest f-stop value, so that the lens lets in the most amount of light. I will be zoomed out at 18mm and have my aperture open at F3.5 most of the time. You’re looking for the smallest numbers possible on both these settings.

If you’re not sure how to change the settings on your camera, refer to the owner’s manual or do a search online. Since every camera is a little different, it’s difficult for me to detail the specific button pushes here.

Once you set your camera up on a tripod and frame the shot, you’ll need change your shooting mode to ‘Manual’ (often an “M” on your camera’s dial). This allows you to control aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.

You will also need to control focus manually, which is tricky. The reason it is tricky is because you need to know which way to turn the focus setting on your lens so that it’s set at infinity(∞) for far away subjects like stars. The focus dial on my camera, however, doesn’t have any markings. This isn’t something I normally think of when I’m focusing manually, I just turn the dial until the shot is in focus.

I have a switch on my lens that allows me to switch from AF (auto-focus) to MF (manual focus). So after I switch it to MF, I focus to infinity. I achieve this by turning the focus ring on my lens counter-clockwise when looking through the lens until it hits infinity. I have a Canon lens, and I’m not sure if all lenses are the same in this respect. Also, the focus ring will turn forever, so after a turn or two the focus is definitely at infinity and the focus will not change any further if I continue to turn the focus ring.

Now we need to think about ISO settings. My camera goes from 100-12800, which is certainly entry-level. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the camera becomes to light. Therefore if you’re shooting in a dark environment, you want to increase the ISO settings. Generally.

The downside to a high ISO setting on less expensive cameras is grain. The photos will be “noisier”. If you’re taking a picture of the stars, the last thing you want is lots of grain occupying what would otherwise be the dark night sky. Try reducing the ISO from your max, and then increasing the length of the shutter exposure to compensate.

Finally, you will need to think about the length of your exposure – or your shutter speed. For most night applications with this grade of camera, you will need to expose a dark subject for at least a few seconds – possibly more. My camera goes up to 30 seconds max, and after that the next option is “bulb” (not all cameras have this option). Bulb means the shutter will open for as long as you hold down the shutter button. If you are using the bulb option, you might want to consider an external shutter control as holding the shutter open for more than 30 seconds without moving the camera is not easy.

When shooting stars, you have to take into consideration the fact that the earth is rotating. At about 30

seconds of exposure, you will start to encounter the stars “streaking” in your picture.

Checklist / Review

1. The tripod is set up and the shot is framed.

2. The aperture is open as much as possible - meaning the f-stop number is set to the lowest possible value.

3. The ISO setting has been set higher than usual (try 3200 to start).

4. The shutter speed is set higher than usual (try 20 seconds for a dark night).

5. Your focus is set to manual -> and adjusted to infinity (if you’re shooting far away objects). Note – your camera may not let you take a picture if set to Auto mode for long exposures).

There you have it – if you were thinking about trying some night shots, this guide will get you started.

By Rick Sturch


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