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March theme: Nighttime is the right time

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  March 6, 2009 07:49 PM

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Before I talk more about this month's theme, I want to mention a rule for this month's contest right off the bat: Let's be a little stricter, and therefore a little more challenging, with this theme: These must be true night shots. That means after dark. No sunsets, no dusks, no twilights. Ah ha!

Night photography can produce some of the most beautiful pictures you've ever seen -- and some of the most disappointing. Here's why:

The two most common problems encountered by amateur photographers when taking photos at night are underexposure (the photos are too dark) and camera shake. Here are some suggestions I gathered from multiple photo sites and blogs that may help you.

Although using all automatic settings on your camera may produce decent results, more often than not the camera gets confused or fooled by any bright lights in the frame, ends the exposure early, and produces a darker-than-desirable photo.

Ensure that you let in enough light to reveal everything in your photo by opening your aperture way up, using the lowest f/stop, such as 3.5 – lower if you’re lucky enough to have a faster lens. You can stop down as you experiment with the best combination of f/stop and shutter speed.

Next, try different shutter speeds. Start with a 1-second exposure and adjust from there. Some of you have sent me photos that were exposed for 30 seconds!

As for camera shake, the most obvious way to avoid it (unless you want it for effect) is to use a tripod. Night exposures are just too long to successfully handhold your camera, even if you have anti-shake or vibration reduction in the camera or lens. If you don’t have a tripod, set your camera on a wall or ledge.

However, even pressing the shutter release will shake the camera. So use a cable release or, if you don’t own one, the self-timer on the camera.

On cameras that allow it, some photographers will lock the mirror up so it’s not moving up and down during a long exposure, possibly introducing camera shake.

Misc. stuff: Experiment with the ISO, setting it higher than usual. Many of today’s DSLRs produce excellent photos at ISOs of 400 or higher.

As for the white balance, if you shoot in raw, it doesn’t really matter. If you don’t, then it depends on the light source. Try several sample shots at different settings and see what looks good to you. Even though you might guess that the lights on that bridge are close to tungsten, often there is a mix of lighting – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can end up with a pale blue cast on a building nicely set off by a warmer tone on the pavement around it.

Make sure to bracket. Night photography is so tricky that what looks pretty good to you in the viewer on the back of the camera might not look so great when blown up to full size. Bracketing the length of your exposures will increase your chances of getting something good.

Finally, remember to dress warm, pack a pocket flashlight, and bring your cell phone.

Oh, one other thing: There’s a full moon March 11. Not that I necessarily want more moon shots; rather, a full moon can provide a fantastic lighting for your scene.

Here's how to enter. Good luck, everybody!

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