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- File format – shoot raw whenever possible lighting at night can be odd colors
- White balance – I generally choose “incandescent” or “tungsten” White Balance Preset when doing light painting because I know that will balance correctly for my flashlight. I let the rest of the scene fall where it may color wise
- Focus – your camera has a hard time focusing at night and will “hunt” unless you find focus and lock it for all your exposures. If your camera has back button focus capabilities I’d suggest using that, if not you can focus and then turn it to manual focus so it doesn’t attempt to refocus when you hit the shutter release. You can try to focus using manual but keep in mind if your camera can’t see in the dark, neither can you! So to achieve focus use your flashlight, and if you have a friend along, get them to light up the part of the object you want to focus on. Then either use your auto focus and lock it, or manually focus and then don’t touch it!
- Manual mode or BULB – for exposure set it to manual. That way the camera is not trying to guess the correct exposure. We’ll be setting it and leaving it for the most part – just like our focus. For exposures longer than 30 seconds (30″ on your camera) you’ll need to find and use your BULB setting. On many cameras it is right after 30 seconds on the shutter speed scale, one some there’s a B option on your mode dial on top of your camera.
- ISO – how low can you go?! This is where it gets counter intuitive because your gut may be telling you that it’s dark out so you need a higher ISO, right? Well in certain situations like shooting the moon, a starry sky, or northern lights where you want a faster shutter speed – then you might need a higher ISO. But for this purpose and most of the times you are on a tripod it is always best to choose the lowest ISO possible. Noise in your image increases with changes in 3 things: higher ISO, long exposures and in blue or dark areas of your scene. We’re already pushing the long exposure boundaries and night is ALL blue – so keeping the ISO low will minimize the noise best we can.
Night photography is not that difficult but there are a few essential pieces of equipment needed to do the job right. Here is a list of mandatory and optional items:
The “Must Haves”
- a DSLR, or camera with manual settings that include “Bulb”
- a camera that shoots RAW format images (not mandatory but highly suggested)
- a sturdy tripod that is not affected by wind
- an electric cable release or remote trigger (could be called either) with a locking mechanism or timer
- at least one extra battery for your camera (long exposures and cold eat up batteries quickly so you may run through two or more in a night)
- a lens hood or shade for your lens
The “Really Nice to Haves” – not essential, but sure handy
- a digital watch or timer (or remote that has a timer) I use my iPhone
- a penlight or small flashlight (your cell phone can work in a pinch) to be able to check camera settings and find an item in the bottom of your bag OR a headlamp like the kind hikers wear, is a better option for hands free operation
- a powerful flashlight like a Maglite for light painting (I use an incandescent one, LED will produce a bluer tone light)
- a speedlight or portable flash unit can also be used for light painting (you don’t need a fancy one, even an old Vivitar 283 or 285 will do the trick)
- rain covers for your camera bag, camera, and yourself (weather can change quickly at night but you can get some great shots in bad weather if you’re prepared – you dry easier than your camera, keep that in mind!)
- A friend to tag along. Helpful if you’re doing night photography in an urban setting. It’s someone to help pass the time, but also watch that your gear doesn’t grow legs and walk off while you’re digging in the camera bag for something. Or someone to stand guard over the camera gear while you’re off painting with light in the scene.