After examining the histogram on the scene, I then took the second exposure (right) at 30 seconds, resulting in a ‘digital negative’ that recorded all of the information that I wanted to preserve.
Although you can significantly decrease your shutter speeds by increasing the ISO on your camera (or using higher ISO film), the cleanest results are obtained by shooting at low ISO settings. Higher ISOs in both film and digital photography result in higher grain/noise. While this is not necessarily a bad thing (I am a big fan of grain myself), in this tutorial I am focusing on long exposures at low ISO settings for the sharpest, most detailed, results.
This is potentially a problem if you are shooting in colour and converting to black and white afterwards in Photoshop. More about this further down the page.
Above: The Eiffel Tower at Night During the 1900 Exposition by William Herman Rau (American, 1855-1920)
Now that you have your camera mounted on a sturdy tripod, with everything locked firmly into place, and your shot framed, it’s time to click the shutter. In the best-case scenario, you will have mirror lock-up enabled, and will be firing the shutter with a cable release, but as I mentioned previously, this is not absolutely necessary. It becomes more of an issue when printing the resulting photograph to large sizes, as deficiencies in sharpness caused by camera shake will begin to become obvious. For shorter exposures, you may be able to use your camera’s self-timer instead of a shutter release.
Find any subject that you think looks interesting. Set up your tripod so that it is very stable, and compose your photograph in the viewfinder. The key here is experimentation — not everything you photograph will turn out as you expected, especially in very low light photography. It’s part of the fun (and the frustration). One suggestion is to remove any lens filters from your lens — in my experience they cause ugly glare when strong light sources are inside (or just outside) of your frame.
If you are shooting digital, your camera will record light of three different colours, red, green and blue, on a scale of 0 up to 255. The three readings combine to give a single reading for each dot on your sensor. Since each colour has a possibility of 256 readings, the total number of possibilities in a single pixel is 256 x 256 x 256 which is more than 16 million possibilities – so many colours!
Canon Digital Rebel XTi, 1/20 sec, f/1.8, ISO 1600, lens focal length 50 mm
Your in-camera meter may give a good reading to use as a starting point. If your subject is too dark and your camera refuses to provide a reading, try selecting a higher ISO and/or a wider aperture to get the meter to read, then translate the reading to your desired ISO setting. If mental mathematical calculations give you a headache and you are shooting digital, just choose a shutter speed and make the shot (another great product of the digital age is the delete button, for really bad exposures). By examining the resulting histogram, you can adjust your exposure up or down from your test exposure, making shots until you get a good over-all exposure. This is fine, and doesn’t take too long when the scene being photographed requires an exposure of between 1 and 10 seconds, but can be a pain in extreme situations that require much longer exposure times.
If you enjoyed this article on black and white night photography, consider taking some shots of the moon next time you are out at night. Click the following link if you would like to read photography tips for making moon photographs.
* Incidentally, never rely upon your camera’s preview of a photograph to determine whether it is properly exposed. A camera’s display is just like a computer monitor — if you have it set to a high brightness, what looks properly exposed on your camera’s display will, in reality, be horribly underexposed. The histogram is the only reliable way to determine the range of values that you actually captured.
If you do decide to record in colour and convert afterwards, don’t make the mistake of converting your images using the desaturate option under the image/adjustments menu as results will be much better using the channel mixer. Just check the ‘monochrome’ box and play about with the sliders. Provided you make sure that the values add up to 100, the lightness won’t alter – unless you like a particular effect of course.
(2) A camera capable of long exposures (over 1 second). On most film SLR cameras there is a “B” setting (which stands for Bulb), that keeps the shutter open as long as the shutter release is depressed. My digital camera has the Bulb setting just after the 30 second mark when shooting mode is set to Manual. Some digital cameras may have the Bulb setting buried in a menu — consult your camera manual if you are unsure.
Focusing can be a major dificulty in low light. Auto-focus, if you have it, is often rendered useless. In order to compensate for potential inaccuracy in my focusing, I often shoot at smaller apertures in order to gain a greater depth of field.
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, 1/5 sec, f/5, ISO 800, lens focal length 38 mm
“Film Noire” — Taken in Ottawa at around midnight (Digital capture; Canon EOS 20D, 30 seconds, f/18, ISO 100)
For black and white night photography to be successful, it helps to think in black and white because the eye perceives things differently at night to during the day and you need to be able to compensate.
This tutorial is moderately advanced, and really will be of most benefit to those photographers with an understanding of exposure, and who have a film or digital camera that enables manual selection of aperture and shutter speed. It’s far from the final word on long-exposure photography, just a short introduction and some tips, so please share your own experiences and knowledge on night and low-light photography by leaving your comments.
Although the colour temperature for night shots is actually the same as for daylight, the difficulty in believing this is because objects at night usually look blueish to the human eye.
Normal vision is called photopic vision which means the human eye uses cones to sense light. The eye is working in photopic mode during daylight. During photopic vision three types of cone receptors in the eye are used to sense light as three colours, red, green and blue.
Anyway, post-processing is a whole other can of worms — maybe a subject for a future tutorial!
And here’s a couple of other articles which might also interest you:
Also keep the ISO as low as possible, 200 or less, as the noise on many digital cameras increases rapidly about 400 and up. In my experience, Canon make the best cameras for dealing with noise. With Canon cameras you can shoot at quite high ISOs but keep the level of noise down to an acceptable level.
A 4-second exposure is much better than a 16-second exposure but then you will have to choose a wider aperture so depth of field will be smaller and more of the background will be out of focus. This could be a plus of course, depending on your intentions.
The term reciprocity failure means that with long exposures, the film becomes less sensitive to light and results become unpredictable. This particularly occurs with long exposures such as those needed in the low-level light conditions that you usually have to work with in black and white night photography. Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5 and FP4 films work well at night but Ilford films in general have a greater tendency towards reciprocity failure.
Black and White Night Photography -Tips for Digital & Film Photographers
For a properly exposed shot, the histogram should show little or no clipping in the highlights or shadows. The examples on the right show the histograms for two separate exposures of the Film Noire shot above, along with the corresponding photo. The first shot was taken with an exposure time of 20 seconds, resulting in a shot that was too dark — there were details that I wanted to preserve (primarily the clouds) that were lost.
Seeing in the Dark: A Guide to Night Photography Seeing the Unseen – How to Photograph Landscapes at Night
So it’s important to realise that in black and white night photography, what you are seeing is not exactly what the camera will record. You have to learn ‘black and white thinking’ to allow you to make informed choices as that beautiful blue night scene will look different in the final black and white shot.
If you set your digital camera to record in black and white, it ignores these possibilities and just records the strength of the light on a scale from 0 to 255. Pure black is 0 and pure white is 255 and everything else is shades of grey. In other words, by setting the camera to black and white rather than colour, you have just thrown away most of the 16 million possibilities and opted for 256 possibilities.
Mesopic vision means a combination of both photopic and scotopic and predominates at dawn and dusk or in urban areas that are dimly lit. The combination of the higher total sensitivity of the rods in the eye for the blue range with the color perception of the cones results in a very strong appearance of bluish colours around dawn or other low levels of light. Mesopic vision is what most of us use at night as there is so much ‘light pollution’ nowadays.
(5) A small flashlight is often extremely helpful. Accessing various settings on your camera in very low light can be next to impossible. I often set the mirror lockup function and ISO before leaving home when I am going out to shoot night photographs.
If, on the other hand, you shoot in colour, you can convert to grey-scale later in Photoshop with a huge range of subtlety available due to the camera having captured all that ‘extra’ information.
Still, the values in the concrete, as well as the moon, are far too bright for my taste, but at the point of capture the intent is to ensure that all the data in the scene is recorded, not that everything is perfect. That is, highlights that are blown-out in the negative are lost forever, and the same goes for shadow details that are blocked-up. This is why the histogram is such a useful tool — we can tell immediately after capture whether we have over-exposed or under-exposed too much and forever lost important shadow or highlight detail.
Much better! The values are more evenly distributed in the histogram, and this ‘negative’ has recorderd all of the information in the scene that I want. I now have the details in the clouds I wanted, and a pleasing flare in the blown-out light sources.
The histogram is bunched up to the left (darker values), with no values recorded to the right (lighter values). As a result, the picture is too dark for what I wanted. I wanted the lights on the lamp post to blow-out, and to get some of the detail of the clouds in the sky.
Reciprocity failure doesn’t happen with digital cameras but there is another problem then which is that digital noise increases with the longer exposures. The answer is to use a tripod and keep the exposure as short as possible.
Above: Black and White Photo of a Bench in Elizabeth Park in West Hartford, Connecticut, at Night by Sage Ross
(4) A shutter release. Again, not an absolute necessity, but it will save you from having to stand with your finger depressing the shutter during the long exposure times and, more importantly, since you are not physically touching the camera during the exposure, there is no chance that you will cause the camera to move (wind is a whole other story). For exposures under 30 seconds, you may be able to use your camera’s self-timer instead of a shutter release.
Back in the old days of film photography, proper exposure was much tougher to determine than it is in the digital age. With exposures exceeding 1 second, film suffered from what is known as reciprocity failure. What that means is that, up to a one-second exposure, film had a pretty linear response to light. After one second, this response slowed, so that it was difficult to figure out the proper exposure for a scene. With digital photography, it’s easier because you can see the resulting histogram of the shot you have just taken, and make adjustments to your exposure time until you get what you want.
(3) If your camera has a mirror lock-up feature, consult your camera manual on how to use it. Though not a necessity, mirror lock-up is very effective in decreasing camera-shake during long exposures. Even professional-grade dSLR’s often have this setting buried in a menu, so check your camera’s manual.
Black and White Photography TechniquesNight Photography Tips Recommended Reading (for Kindle)
Above: A Performer at 2007 Buskerfest in Toronto, Canada by Darren Tse
Some unique and stunning photographs can be taken in the dark of night. While there are many possibilities for night photography, including fireworks photography and high-speed (high ISO) hand-held photography, this tutorial focuses on examples of long exposures (over one second) of stationary objects, at low ISO settings.
Night vision is called scotopic vision which means the human eye uses rods to sense light. Scotopic vision cannot perceive colours and records light in terms of black, white and grey. But importantly, the sensitivity range of the rods makes the eye more sensitive to blue light at night.
“Arcade” — A long exposure (approximately 90 seconds) shot on medium-format film.
As if dealing with mesopic vision wasn’t enough, there is another problem that awaits you in black and white night photography and that is a thing called ‘reciprocity failure’. This only occurs with film and it is more pronounced with black and white film than colour film.
(1) A tripod or, at the very least, a sturdy surface where you can place the camera while making the exposure, is a necessity.
The next step, of course, is the post-processing, which for this image involved a conversion to black and white, and local contrast and levels adjustments in my photo-processing software. The completed image is at the top of this page. Unfortunately, reproduced here at such a small size and, depending upon your monitor settings*, you may not be able to see the clouds at all. But the point is that the result of having properly exposed the shot for the details I wanted to preserve ensured that they were there for me to work with in the post-processing phase. Had I stuck with my initial 20-second exposure and moved on to another shot, I would have been forced to live with a completely black sky.