Succeeding with night shots without flash

Taking successful night shots seems to be a rather mysterious subject, especially when one starts photography. We think that a flash no bigger than an inch will allow us to take a landscape picture. Or that it will allow us to succeed in our night portraits. In front of the result, one has the unpleasant surprise to note that one is far from what one had under the eyes. A violent white light falls on our unfortunate subjects.

We quickly understand that turning off the flash allows us to obtain a very different result, but just as disappointing because it is very dark and noisy. So, what to do?

successful night shots

Required equipment

The secret lies largely in the equipment we use. A great principle in photography is that light is our greatest ally. When there is an abundance of it, there are no limits to our freedom of action and we can give free rein to our creativity. Conversely, when it becomes scarcer, such as at night, then we must start to take a greater interest in technique.

There are several solutions to relieve the strain on your device. Some are for particular types of photography (portrait, landscape, concert…), others are more generic.

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Using a tripod

The tripod helps stabilize the camera to obtain properly exposed and sharp pictures, even if they are taken for several seconds. Indeed, where one is limited to taking pictures at speeds greater than 1/20s, 1/30s freehand. With the tripod, one can very well take pictures at 1s, 30s or more if necessary. This adjustment variable allows us to have total freedom in return on the aperture and ISO desired.

The tripod is very useful for night landscapes and when the subject is static. Shooting a dark night landscape, freehand, is very complicated. It is often impossible, but not at the expense of the quality of the picture.

On the other hand, you need to have a tripod during our walks, which is not always the ideal solution.

Playing with the parameters

To get a brighter image, you have to play with three parameters, aperture, image quality (ISO) and speed. At night, it is often preferable to switch to manual mode in order to be able to manipulate these three parameters in parallel.

The automatic mode will be of no use in most cases. The camera doesn’t really understand that this is a night picture and will try to cope with this lack of light by overexposing the picture. Using excessively high ISO. The result, an overexposed and noisy photo. Shutter speed priority and aperture priority modes will also find their limits for the same reasons.

The first parameter is the shutter speed, because it does not distort the image, if one remains reasonable. It is absolutely necessary to avoid blurred photos, unless of course it is an artistic rendering that you want. It’s always better to have a slightly noisy photo rather than a blurry photo that will prove to be unusable. There is no standard speed. It depends on the stability of each one, the weather conditions or the zoom you use. The bigger the zoom, the more your movements will be amplified.

Depending on the type of photo you want to take, increasing the lens aperture will be the second setting. This will reduce the depth of field, but this is often not very serious at night, as there is little visibility at the bottom of the image. Note that on some lenses, if you zoom in, you may have a narrower aperture choice.

Finally, the rise in ISO will cause a degradation of the image, but in return you will get a better exposed image. The management of the rise in ISO has made a lot of progress. It is not impossible that this is the first criterion that you will modify, if your camera manages this rise very well. At 1200 ISO for example your image may not be noisy.

There are no fifty solutions to determine the limit point where your picture is too noisy. Take a picture of a subject with all the ISO possibilities offered by your camera and then compare them on your computer. Finally, see if your camera has a high ISO and long exposure noise reduction option. These options will allow you to get the most out of your camera at night.

The choice of lens

Use a wide aperture lens for night photography. The lower the aperture index, the larger the lens aperture. This will let more light through, which will allow the photographer to get a brighter picture faster and easier. You must therefore pay particular attention to the minimum value “f/” of your lens which will determine this index.

Note that telephoto lenses have a full aperture range available (Example: f/4 to f/22 for a 24-105). This lens offers the f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22 range. That is 6 different apertures. It is said that there is an “iris” separating these values. When you change to a lower aperture, you multiply by two the amount of light entering the lens. (example from f/5.6 to f/4). Some cameras will offer intermediate diaphs, but these do not correspond to a real diaphragm, so you will not have twice as much light between two values. Finally, remember to activate the stabilizer if your lens is equipped with it.

If the brightness is so low that despite optimizing these settings, your photo remains too dark. You can always slightly increase the exposure in post-production. Another technique, use a faster speed, but in burst mode. You’ll get a brighter but blurred picture, with a little perseverance there will be one in the sharpness batch.

night shots without flash

White balance

The white balance allows you to adjust the calorimetry of your photo according to the type of lighting. It is therefore an essential subject at night. If you take your photos in JPEG it is preferable to make your adjustments before taking your pictures. In post-production the changes will be more difficult and it will be even harder to make the slightest change behind, without noise appearing very quickly. If you shoot in RAW however, you can take your pictures with an automatic white balance and adjust if necessary in post-production. This will not cause any deterioration of your image. This is really the practice I recommend. Sometimes the lighting changes like a concert for example. It’s not hard to imagine that changing your white balance on location before each photo would be a hassle.

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The camera may have difficulty focusing and “skating”.  Your target in the middle of your image may be in the middle of a dark area or even completely black. Outside the camera requires a brighter point to focus. There are several techniques to counter this problem. Focusing on a brighter point, keeping the camera focused by holding down the shutter release button halfway down, cropping to the image you want, and releasing the shutter. It can also be easier when you’re not going to move and take the same picture several times to focus, then turn off the autofocus on the lens. This way, the focus is maintained if you don’t touch the focus ring on the lens and the camera can take the pictures without trying to focus systematically.

The flash

This article focuses on night shots without flash, this accessory is paradoxically difficult to use at night. Most DSLRs are equipped with an on-board flash that opens when needed. In practice, it proves difficult to use them. The goal is to preserve the atmosphere and not to distort it with an aggressive white light concentrated in the middle of your photo.