On a recent trip to London, courtesy of Visit London, a few members of our team had the opportunity to learn from Nige (@levanterman), the master of night photography, about how to take gorgeous, long-exposure photos, complete with light trails from moving cars. We sat down with Nige to hear more about his techniques and glean some useful information for future night photography ventures.
How did you get into night photography?
I’ve always loved to take photos with my phone, but quickly realized that our phone’s cameras have limits. I wanted to learn how to shoot light trails from traffic, so I bought my first DSLR camera and started to experiment. Night photography is a challenge, but also a joy because you can make the same scene look different in many ways based on how you set up your camera.
What’s special about photographing London?
London has so much historical architecture, coupled with modern, new buildings. Cranes are everywhere, which isn’t ideal for photography, but it means there’s always a lot of new buildings going up, which creates an evolving cityscape to photograph.
What are some of your favorite London photos?
I love taking long exposure photos of London buses, which I call “ghost buses.” It’s fun, but you do get some strange looks while hanging out at the bus stop. My recent trip to the unused postal tunnels was also a lot of fun, and photographing the Christmas lights around the city is always fabulous.
WHAT WE LEARNED
Keep It Steady
Nige notes that stability is a major component of night photography. Taking a long exposure photo makes the image particularly susceptible to disturbances that can make the scene blurry. You want crisp, clear images. Set up your tripod and camera to get a shot that doesn’t contain extraneous objects, like street signs, parked cars, and light poles. Stay out of common walking paths if you can, which will make your job easier and a lot less stressful.
If you’re shooting on a surface with large tiles or stones, try not to stand on the same stone as your tripod. If you move, you might shake the camera minutely, and you’ll be able to see the results in your image.
Focus, Focus, Focus
Nige recommends always shooting on manual focus — you can generally change this by adjusting a switch on your lens or from the camera’s internal menu. This will give you a greater feeling of control — an element that is especially important at night. To get a sharp focus, switch your camera setting to “live view” and zoom in on an object in the distance. Manually focus on that and zoom back out. This will maintain a consistent field of focus as you photograph throughout the night.
To Stabilize, Or Not To Stabilize?
Though it may seem counterintuitive, turning image stabilization (often referred to as IS) off is the difference between getting a long exposure photograph that is visually pleasing versus one that is a complete blur. Because you’re already steadying the camera with your tripod, the image stabilization function may overcompensate and blur parts of the photograph that you want clear. As a precaution, keep it switched off.
Nige suggests turning on your two-second delay timer to avoid shaking the camera — that’s right, even pressing the shutter button can create blurriness. To retain a crystal-clear image, set your timer to 10 seconds. Be sure to take this time delay into consideration when you’re plotting out a shot and the light trails you want to capture.
It’s All About the Settings
When shooting long exposure photos at night, always shoot manually. Start with an aperture of f/7 or f/8, choose a lower ISO (100 to 300) to reduce noise and graininess, and take photos at different shutter speeds, since altering the shutter speed will affect the picture significantly.
Generally, using a shutter speed of 10 to 30 seconds is your best bet to capture striking light trails. Once you’ve decided, stick with it and play with the aperture to determine which exposure is the most striking. It’s important to only change one element (ISO or aperture) at a time. Take your time and determine how manipulating each setting affects the photograph. If the image is a little dark, consider lengthening your exposure time or choosing a lower aperture. If the image is too light, choose a higher aperture.
Finally, white balance.Do you want your light trail photos to have a cooler light and a more industrial feel? Or, do you prefer photos with a warmer, cozier glow? You’ll find that changing your camera’s white-balance setting will influence the tone and mood of your photos — Tungsten gives the light a bluer tint, while Auto WB might give the light more of a yellow tinge. Of course, you can always alter the tint of the light in post.