What’s the best way to get good night-time photos while travelling?

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July 30, 2015 at 10:30 am  •  Posted in Q&A, Tips & Techniques by  •  0 Comments

I have seen many beautiful night photos of city scenes, but I don’t have much luck getting such shots myself. An article that I read said that a tripod is essential. But then, it said not to use a flimsy tripod, and I do not want to drag a heavy one around for three weeks. Can you provide a simple and practical alternative that I can use while touring in Germany with my Olympus E-PL7?
—Freda J.

A flimsy tripod merely provides the illusion of stability, Freda, but you can find effective travel tripods that are not heavy and fold into a compact size for portability. When shopping, look for tripods such as the Manfrotto Befree Series, Benro’s Travel Angel models and the MeFoto GlobeTrotter line. With any such accessory, you’ll get the greatest stability if you do not raise the centre column. That may mean bending over to compose your photos, but it increases the odds of razor sharp images without any blurring. Use an electronic cable release accessory—or the camera’s two-second self-timer—to trigger the shutter without jarring the equipment.

Since this bridge in Prague is usually packed with crowds, I did not bring my tripod (although I could have used it after the rain started). At ISO 1600, the shutter speed of 1/30 sec. was adequately fast to prevent blurring from camera shake, thanks to the lens' image-stabilizer system. Nikon D800 © 2015 Peter K. Burian

Since this bridge in Prague is usually packed with crowds, I did not bring my tripod (although I could have used it after the rain started). At ISO 1600, the shutter speed of 1/30 sec. was adequately fast to prevent blurring from camera shake, thanks to the lens’ image-stabilizer system. Nikon D800 © 2015 Peter K. Burian

When you cannot use a tripod, be sure to activate the image stabilizer (available in many lenses or camera bodies). Also try to brace your elbows or the camera against a solid object like a wall, the roof of your car or a stone railing. Do not use the camera’s Auto ISO feature. Instead, set the ISO yourself to 1600 in moderately dark locations or 3200 if it’s darker. This should provide an adequately fast shutter speed to minimize the risk of blurring due to camera shake.

Hints: Set the camera’s drive mode to Continuous and always take three shots of a night scene in a sequence; one will probably be the sharpest. If you first photos are too bright, set -1/2 or -2/3 exposure compensation. Naturally, if your first photos were too dark, you would set +1/2 or +2/3 compensation instead. When later viewing them on a computer monitor, delete all but the sharpest version.

The higher the ISO level that you set, the faster the shutter speed will be in a given situation. Assuming that you’re using a lens with focal lengths like those of a kit zoom, you should often be able to get sharp photos at around 1/30 sec. or faster.  However, at ISO 3200 and higher, digital noise (a grainy effect) will reduce image quality to some extent. Review my recommendations for optimal results in these previous Q&A items: Should I turn my camera’s noise reduction off?, Is it true that you need to shoot Raw photos for the best quality?, and What is the simplest way to minimize digital noise at high ISO levels?

There was still some blue in the sky about 20 minutes after sunset in June in Prague, and that effect was preferable to a black sky for this image. At other times of year, however, you might need to shoot immediately after sunset if you wanted to retain some of the blue. © 2015 Peter K. Burian

There was still some blue in the sky about 20 minutes after sunset in June in Prague, and that effect was preferable to a black sky for this image. At other times of year, however, you might need to shoot immediately after sunset if you wanted to retain some of the blue. © 2015 Peter K. Burian

While night photography implies a dark sky, you may prefer the effect you’ll get shortly after sunset when there’s still some blue in the sky. Naturally, you won’t always be at a beautiful scene at that time of day and you’ll often need to shoot after dark; that’s fine too. During three weeks in Germany, you’ll encounter many different photo opps after sunset. Use the tips above—and an eye for an interesting composition—and you should come home with some very nice images.

 

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