It’s tempting to think that once the sun has gone down, it’s time pack up your camera and go home – but you couldn’t be more wrong. Sunset itself is a formidable technical challenge with extremes of lighting contrast, but once the fiery globe has disappeared, the lighting becomes much more manageable. The best time to shoot low-light images is the hour after sunset, when there is either reflected sunlight in the clouds, or the sky still retains a blue colour. Once it gets black, then only firework displays or concerts are really worth persevering with.
The real attraction of low-light photography is that it largely doesn’t matter if it’s been cloudy all day.
After sunset, clouds take on a blue colour, and if there is artificial light in the scene, and you focus on that, then the camera’s auto white balance will actually enhance the blue colour.
In this feature, we’ll be explaining the best methods for photographing everything from seascapes to fireworks, showing what camera settings you need to use and explaining the problems that you’re likely to encounter, as well as how to overcome them to capture great images.
Master your camera settings and take control of your photography
The success of your low-light photography depends largely on good preparation and knowledge of your kit. We’ve always stuck by the philosophy that it’s the photographer, not the camera, that makes the picture. However, there are some models that do perform better than others after the sun’s gone down. Compact digital camera sensors are improving all the time. However, the low-light performance of some models can leave a lot to be desired. Manufacturers have a battle on their hands, insofar as compact sensors are tiny. This means that the number and size of the pixels they can pack onto them is limited, and, while by day image quality may be good, areas like noise performance can suffer as night falls.
DSLRs have larger sensors, and generally offer a greater range of ISO sensitivities to work with. They also offer greater control over settings and have interchangeable lenses, so the photographer can take advantage of the highest quality, fastest lenses that can gather far more light than the average fixed lens on a compact, making them ideal for low-light shooting.
In order to get the very best from your camera, you need to get to know the modes it has to offer, and how to make them work for you. DSLRs tend to present a greater array of full and partial manual modes to work with, offering the photographer more direction over their images; however, some compacts offer some manual controls, too.
As an alternative, you can turn to the preset Night mode that most compacts have as standard.
Shooting manually is the best way to maintain control over the look of your images. You can dictate the depth of field in your shots by varying the aperture, and control the length of each exposure by altering the shutter speed.
Most compacts have some form of Night and Sunset modes that are pre-programmed with parameters that take care of the technical settings for you. You’ll need a stable surface to rest your camera on (or, ideally, a tripod).
A lot of compact and bridge cameras include a Fireworks mode in their arsenal that automatically adjusts the aperture and shutter speed for you. You’ll need a tripod or other support to avoid camera shake, as you’ll be working with long exposures.
Get it in focus
In order for any camera to achieve an AF lock, it needs sufficient light to find its target. When shooting in the dark, therefore, it can be difficult for your camera to focus automatically. If you have a DSLR (or, indeed, the same can apply to some more advanced compacts), you have the option of taking matters into your own hands by focusing manually.
Sometimes you want to illuminate subjects in the foreground while retaining the atmosphere created by the ambient light in the background – a portrait of a loved one in front of a glittering cityscape, for example. To achieve this, some cameras offer Night Portrait modes that do all the legwork for you. If your camera doesn’t have this, you can still create the same effect with a little know-how.
Your camera will automatically expose for the brightest lights in the frame when not using flash, leaving your foreground subject in the dark. You’ll need to mount your camera on a tripod to allow for long exposures, and it’s a good idea to dial down your ISO sensitivity to ensure your shots stay as noise-free as possible.
Activate your flash and, if it’s left to its own devices in Automatic mode, it will meter for your foreground subject, and the shutter won’t be open long enough to be able to record the ambient light in the background of your shot.
Flash and ambient
If available, switch to Rear Curtain Sync or Slow Sync flash and dial in a long exposure, metering for your background. The shutter will stay open long enough to record the background, while the flash will fire and freeze your foreground subject. A Portrait Night mode-type setting will perform similarly.
Capture ethereal watery scenes as night descends
Creating those stunning shots where the sky shimmers with colour and the water below is rendered a smooth and creamy froth, or is still and reflects all the light, is easier than you might think. As the light fails around sunset, set your camera up on a tripod and frame your shot. You’ll need to work with long exposures, which will record the movement of the water for the duration that the shutter’s open. The actual settings you use will depend upon the conditions, but you’re aiming to keep your aperture fairly small (around f16+) to retain a deep depth of field, which should result in a slow shutter speed if you work in Aperture Priority mode.
Lights in the sky
Fireworks can make spectacular subjects; the correct technique might take some perseverance to get right, but the results will be worth the effort. Compacts often have Fireworks modes that do the legwork for you, or, if you’re shooting manually, set your aperture to around f16 and switch the shutter speed to Bulb. Using a remote release, open the shutter, wait for a few fireworks to go off and close it again, checking the result on the LCD and adjusting your settings. Experiment with vertical and horizontal compositions, and remember to keep your ISO low.
Painting with light
This is a fun technique that anyone can try at home, or out and about. You’ll need to mount your camera on a tripod and dial in a slow shutter speed that gives you enough time to paint your subject – whether it’s a bunch of flowers on your dining table or an old barn in a field – usually a couple of seconds or more. Open the shutter and use a torch to literally ‘paint’ your subject, reviewing the results on the LCD. Working in Self-timer mode helps you keep your hands free and reduces the risk of shaky shots.
Altering the duration for which the shutter remains open will have an impact on how moving objects appear in your shots. Although it depends on the available light, as a general rule, a fast shutter speed of around 1/1,000sec will freeze action, while slower speeds (roughly 1/15sec or slower) will blur it by varying degrees.
These can make for really eye-catching shots. The key is to pick your spot carefully, so the trails left by the cars form a pleasing pattern, or lead the eye into the frame. Work with your camera on a tripod and in Shutter Priority mode. Try to shoot around sunset or just afterwards; there will be some ambient light in the sky, turning it blue in your exposures. No combination of settings will work in every situation. However, you will need an exposure of at least a few seconds to record the trails as a constant stream.
Mid to long exposures with people moving through the frame result in images with ghostly apparitions, which look great if you’re adding a haunting edge to a shot of an old building. Alternatively, if you’re trying to take a shot of something but don’t want passers-by to show up in the frame, a long enough exposure will result in the people not being recorded at all.