Tis the season for beautiful displays of colorful lights. A lot of people enjoy photographing images after the sun has set, and this is a great time of year to get some colorful shots. Here are ten tips for creating amazing photographs at night:

  1. Use a tripod. This is pretty much an essential item if you want to get good, sharp images at night. Need I say more?
  2. Small apertures can create neat “star” effects. Using a small aperture (such as f/11 or f/16) will not only add a lot of depth of field to your images (where most of the image is in-focus) but you’ll also see some cool effects with the lights. When you use a small aperture and there points of lights in the image (such as the sun, holiday lights or even a street-light, as seen in the above image) then the lights will “star” and add some character to the photos. When you’re photographing something like a Christmas tree filled with little lights then this can really make the details in the image stand out.
  3. Experiment with your exposure time. If you end up using a very small aperture for your night photography then you will probably have no choice but to use a long exposure. I tend to shoot in aperture-priority (Av) and then play with the exposure compensation (EV) to get the right amount of light in the image. It can take some experimentation to find just the right balance though, so expect to make adjustments to your aperture if you’re finding that the exposure isn’t quite right. You’ll also want to be careful in very well-lit environements—if the exposure is too lengthy then you may start seeing a “haze” in your image from the surrounding lights leaking in to the sensor. Another quick tip here is to use a very low ISO. This will also lengthen your exposure time, but you are less likely to have any added noise to the image … and sometimes long exposures can create little bits of noise than you wouldn’t normally see in a faster shot.
  4. Use a cable release or your camera’s self-timer. When shooting long exposures on a tripod then it’s best to keep your hands as far away from the camera when the shutter is open. You can always use the camera’s self-timer, but I absolutely love using a cable-release anytime I’m using my tripod. There are two main reasons that I do this. The first one is that there’s no “delay” in your shot … you capture the exact moment you want to capture as soon as it happens (no three or ten second wait). The other reason is that if you find your camera in a strange position/angle/height then it’s so much easier to either fully sit or stand and just hold the cable release to create the image. No crouching down to press the shutter button and then hoping you don’t bump the camera on your way back to your comfy position. :)
  5. Find a compositional focal point. When there are a ton of pretty lights, moving cars and trees everywhere it may be overwhelming when you first set down your tripod. The key is to find one main feature (a building, tree, person) to “focus” the camera on and make that the “stand-out” of your scene, compositionally speaking. This could be an amazingly lit tree, or it could just be a building that is amongst the colorful lights … the key is to de-clutter your scene and draw the viewer’s eyes to something that makes sense. Make sense? :)
  6. Get appy! If you know my work or have read my blog in the past, you know that I love to play around with my Lensbaby Composer. This is SUCH an awesome lens to experiment with when photographing anything with a bunch of little lights like the ones you see on trees during the holidays. Lensbaby has different “creative” apertures (click here for more info) that are in different shapes, and when you use these apertures anything that would normally be “circle” shaped bokeh becomes whatever shape you have cut-out in the aperture disk. Here’s an example of a portrait photographed with Christmas lights in the background, using a heart-shaped aperture (link). Photojojo also sells a “Bokeh Kit” that you can attach to the front of a lens … I’ve never used this before but it seems to be able to create similarly fun results.
  7. Go wide. There’s no strict rule that you have to have a wide-angle lens to get great images, but I always find that the wider, the better! I used a 28mm lens for the shot above on my crop-sensor camera and , while it’s not crazy wide-angle, it’s a pretty good start. When using my Lensbaby I was cropped in a bit tighter, but I honestly didn’t really like those shots nearly as much (and didn’t feel like pulling out the wide-adapter from my bag, lol).
  8. Live View … if you have it, use it! I LOVE using Live View, especially for this kind of photography. It’s great because the exposure simulations are usually pretty accurate (of course, they can’t account for movement, just the light density in the scene). You can also zoom waaaay in and manually focus your images to make sure they are tack sharp (which is extremely helpful when using a Lensbaby!). I also have to say that having an articulating LCD screen is awesome! I mostly had my 60D set pretty low to the ground (no tripod legs extended) and instead of having to duck behind my camera I was able to swivel it so I could view it while still upright. Another thing that’s nice about Live View is if you’re lucky enough to have a camera with an electronic level then it’s much easier to level your horizon by just looking on the back of the screen (no guessing required!).
  9. Darkness is good, but… When we think of night photography we typically tend to think if pitch-black darkness with whatever it is we want (colorful lights, probably ) added to the scene. Well, why not try to beat the sun from hiding behind the horizon and get a few shots when it’s still dusk? You can still get a nice long exposure if your aperture is small enough, and the colors in the sky may even add some drama in your scene! I’m tempted to head downtown again and re-shoot the above image, but this time I’ll give myself plenty of time before the sun sets. Some color to the sky would definitely be a nice addition.
  10. Last but not least, dress appropriately! There’s nothing worse than going out to take photos and freezing your butt off. I tried that on Thanksgiving day, and you know what? I think I took maybe four photos because my hands and toes were too frozen to even think straight (I thought I dressed warmly, too!). So if you’re in a location that does get cold, wear warm clothes (duh) but I would also suggest bringing along those nice little hand warmers you can buy at the store (like these little guys … I gotta get me some of those toe warmers, too!). And, if you have control over the situation (when you go on your photo adventure) then it may be smart to plan ahead and check the weather … and maybe even reschedule? Lol. :)