Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Nighttime Photography

Life//Stuff

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As we roll into the season of longer nights and shorter days, we don’t think the extra darkness should cut down on the amount of time you spend with your camera. Low-light photography can be intimidating if you’re new to photography, but it’s easier than you think. You can take some amazing photos that take much more patience to capture when the days are bright and long.

Here are a few simple tips from our friends at SmugMug to keep in mind to keep when shooting (and sharing) photos through the darkest time of the year.

Know Your Gear

Photography is all about physics, but if you’re no scientist you can take a few minutes to learn the only tip you’ll ever need to learn.

Photography is about capturing light, so low-light shooting means maximizing the amount of light hitting your sensor. There are three ways to do that:

1. Allow more light through the lens
2. Keep the shutter open longer
3. Boost the sensitivity of your sensor

How? Widen the aperture of your lens, slow down your shutter speed, or raise your ISO, respectively. If you’ve never done any of this before, dig up your camera’s manual (or Google for the PDF version) and get to know these three things now. Shooting in your camera’s Manual mode is the most tricky – but most surefire – way to learn these principles, but you can also try Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority modes to fix one of the settings and let your camera automatically calculate the rest.

Knowing which buttons to push and which dials to turn is a priceless skill to have, and you should commit it to muscle memory now so you don’t end up panicking in the dark.

Additionally, your camera and lenses often have specific limitations. If you have an older camera, for example, you may not want to push the ISO above 1600. And some lenses simply don’t open up wider than f/5.6.

Embrace Your Grain

Even if your images come out a bit grainy from pushing your ISO, that’s OK. Think about all the film photos you’ve probably seen from 30 to 50 years ago and you’ll notice the grain adds a lot of character to the image. It makes sense to embrace it and get to know it a little better.

Grain itself can contain quite a bit of colour that may not be found otherwise in your scene. To minimize it, try third-party noise-reduction software, or experiment with the noise-reduction feature in programs that you’re already using, like Lightroom and Photoshop. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Alternatively, try converting your image to black and white and playing around with the contrast. Photos that look weird at first look cool and edgy once the colour’s stripped out. To do this, give it a quick conversion using SmugMug’s Image Editor, PicMonkey, or (our favorite) Lightroom.

Make More Light with Lightroom

Modern digital cameras give you quite a bit of leeway with the exposure, so if your image came out a bit dark (which happens because your camera’s LCD often gives a brighter impression of your image than you actually took), it’s OK to bump the exposure in post.

For most, pushing the “Exposure” slider is sufficient, but some pixel peepers may suggest using the more specific sliders you can find below that: highlights, whites, and shadows. These boost only the pixels you need without harming the rest. Experiment with what works best for you to get the look you want.

Once that’s done, don’t forget to publish your best shots to SmugMug and show the world what you’re capturing after the sun goes down.

Seek the Moment, Not Perfection

Above all, don’t stress about getting the perfect shot every time. Blurred motions, being too dark (or too bright) are all details that take your photo beyond basic shape and colour. So be sure to capture the action, the intensity, and the joy of what you and your friends are doing. Even if it’s not textbook perfect, we guarantee that as soon as you share your photos, they won’t be thinking of anything except how much fun they had.

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