night photography tutorial: using a slow shutter speed

nphilly1 (1 of 1).jpg

Night photography is much different than shooting during the day, as the dimly lit conditions make it harder for the camera to detect light in the surrounding environment. Shooting at night can be a challenge at first, but once you learn how to use the correct manual settings, it can bring a dramatic feel to your photos. One of the key elements to night photography is adjusting the camera’s shutter speed in order to create an image with just the right amount of light.

what is shutter speed?

Shutter speed refers to the length of time the camera’s lens is open while shooting an image, and therefore how much light the lens is exposed to. The speed can be manipulated to shoot in varying light conditions and is used to create dramatic visual effects by freezing or blurring motion.

If you are new to photography, shooting on aperture-priority mode (A) will allow you to select a consistent aperture and ISO, while the camera automatically adjusts the shutter speed to fit the specific lighting conditions in the viewfinder. This makes it easier to shoot in varying perspectives, as you will not have to adjust the camera settings before each shot. However, using aperture-priority mode does limit the range of effects the camera will produce, as all the images will be shot using the same aperture and ISO.

manipulating shutter speed

Adjusting the shutter speed is an easy way to manipulate the effect you want to see in your photos. You can find the shutter speed on your DSLR camera in the manual menu, typically near the f-stop number (aperture) and ISO. Shutter speed is measured in seconds, and can range from 1/2000 to 60”, depending on the type of lens you are using. Values expressed as 1/x refer to fractions of a second, while values marked with the quote symbol “ are longer than a second. For example, 1/250 would mean a speed of .250 seconds, while 30” would be a speed of 30 seconds. The chart below provides a clear visual example of the effects varying shutter speeds can create:

shutter speed chart.jpg

As you can see, shorter speeds are used to capture still images from moving stimuli, while longer speeds create a blurred, motion effect. Adjusting the shutter speed is directly correlated to how exposed your image will be. A longer shutter speed means a the lens is exposed to light for a longer duration of time, therefore resulting in a brighter image. In dimly lit conditions, it becomes imperative to use a longer shutter speed in order to capture the minimal light in the surrounding environment. If you find that your images are coming out too dark, you are likely not using a long enough shutter speed.

staging your photos

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need professional grade equipment in order to shoot high quality images. When shooting for this tutorial, the only equipment I used was a DSLR camera and a tripod. As a general rule, shooting with a speed of 1/50 or longer requires using a tripod for image stabilization. It is difficult to rely on handheld steadiness with long exposure images because the camera can detect even slight movements which will blur the entire image, rather than just the moving stimuli.

When choosing which lens to use, keep in mind the visual effect you want to create. Lenses are measured in focal length by millimeters. Generally, close up images require a higher mm lens ranging from 100-300mm, while wider landscapes require a low mm lens ranging from 15-70mm. I shot these images using an 18-55mm lens in order to capture a wide angle and deep depth of field.

a simple tripod and DSLR camera is all you need to create stunning images

a simple tripod and DSLR camera is all you need to create stunning images

using the surrounding environment to stage photos

using the surrounding environment to stage photos

Using a tripod can be a very helpful tool in any environment or light condition, as it allows you to take a step back and see the composition of the image through your own eyes, rather than the lens. The rotating platform also allows the camera to capture unique angles, adding new dimensions to your photos that are more difficult to capture when handheld shooting.

finding inspiration in your surroundings

When choosing a location, keep in mind the type of images you want to produce. For this shoot, I wanted to be able to capture images with motion and utilize the existing light to create dramatic nighttime scenes. The outdoor setting with moving cars and streetlights was a perfect setting for the somber mood I wanted my photos to portray. I find it helpful to think of an overarching adjective or emotion, and keep that word in mind while shooting, using your photos to convey that word in a visual manner. With your brain in the mindset of a specific description, it will be easier to seek out parts of the environment that help portray a specific visual, and envision the story you want your images to tell.

Be sure to work with your environment, not against it. The night I shot these images, it had just rained and the humidity was fogging up the camera lens. This was certainly an added challenge, but it ended up working in my favor by adding a natural blurriness to the images. It can be easy to get discouraged when images are not coming out as we envision them in our minds, but this only means we have to change our perspective. How can the angle be adjusted to better capture the stimuli you are shooting? Would an above or below angle add more dimension? What do you want the viewer to notice in this image and how can you force them to visualize it? Does a close up image evoke a certain mood, or would a landscape better portray the scene? Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when it comes to composition or angles, as the best images are often created when you abandon any “rules”, and let your creative vision guide you.

One of the most liberating parts of photography is that even when shooting the same environment, each artist will “see” something unique. There is no right or wrong frame to capture - our artistic perspective leads us to the images we want to create. For this nighttime setting, I was drawn to the glow of the streetlights and shadows they created, as well as the blur of motion from nearby cars. Reality seems to be slightly altered when walking home at night, and I wanted to capture the quiet, melancholy mood of the city after dark.

final results

Here are the images I created of Philadelphia after dark. I hope this tutorial inspires you to go out and create your own nighttime images, and find creative inspiration in the world around you.