Steven Brokaw Photography

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Nighttime Photography Preparation Basics

One of my favorite photo environments is shooting at night. Even the busiest locations takes on a completely different “feel” and “mood” after the sun goes down. Also, colors unseen during the day come alive at night.

However, I’ve learned after many nighttime photoshoots you need to prepare differently and take different kit versus a daytime shoot. I wanted to share my normal routine and kit. As always this is my experience only. Others more or less accomplished may have completely different advice.

Basic tips:

Plan out your shoot. I think this is the number one “to do”. Get a feel of where you want to go in advance. Walk around an area at night a couple of days before your shoot if possible. I’ve been to some areas during the day that look A-OK, but at night just aren’t safe. Also, I’ve been to places (i.e. back alleys) during the day that look great, but at night they have huge spot lights on, that ruin the mood.

Dress appropriately. Sounds silly to point this out, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been out at night ready to go and wished I had a jacket, or wished I hadn’t lugged a coat,

Don’t go where you’re not supposed to go. I’ve had friends, and have been personally tempted to get into abandoned buildings or areas blocked by fences. My credo is don’t do it. Personally, I just don’t want the hassle of dealing with authorities or a crazy owner if I end up someplace I’m not supposed to go.

Don’t take too much kit. Again, sounds basic but if you are like me and go out for 3-5 hours at night you’ll kick yourself for stuffing your backpack with gear you don’t need. Go as light as possible.

Take the right camera kit. Requirements at night are completely different than daytime. Plan out what you need to take. More on this below.

Tell someone where you are going, and check-in if you’ve agreed to do so. Not an issue if you are doing the shoot in your neighborhood, but if you are going city crawling like I do, its best if you someone know where you are going.

Go with another photographer or a friend versus going alone. Again, not a major drama if you are just around the neighborhood, but if you are going someplace new or away from your comfort zone take someone to watch your back. Personally, I don’t do this enough. I know this sounds paranoid, but I would prefer spending my time enjoying photography, versus looking over my shoulder.

Take minimal personal items with you. When I go out at night I bring some cash, my ID and a credit card. I leave my wallet at home.

Know what the weather. Again sounds silly, but it’s important. As an example, if you are taking city skyline shots and it’s really hazy, the light from the city will reflect off the haze when using long exposures. Doesn’t look good. Also, nothing worse than going out and calling it quits because it starts to rain.

Know your equipment. Some kit just doesn’t work well at night, and low / no light settings is no time to be fumbling with your camera to find out where a button or setting is.

Bring your fastest lenses. Any lens will work, but the faster your lens the more options you will have. I never bring anything slower than F/2.8.

Take the clear filters off your lenses. Unless you have very high quality, expensive, filters take them off. I know this is like driving without a seatbelt, but I find the filter causes ghosting on your images around strong light sources.

Kit to bring:

Again, this is a personal decision based upon your comfort level and what type of kit you have. The following is what I find is the most useable.

Lenses – I normally bring only 2, a medium zoom & a fast prime. My personal favorites are my Nikkor 24-70mm F/2.8 & my Nikkor 50mm F/1.4. Sometimes I’ll switch my 50mm for a 60mm F/2.8 Micro, or a 35mm F/1.8. Leave your long lenses at home, in my opinion.

Camera – take only one, and take your best. I have several cameras and have occasionally brought 2, but I always find it’s just a pain. When I say “your best”, I mean the one that has the best image quality at high ISO settings. I normally shoot on a tripod so this isn’t really an issue, but if you want to do any hand held images you will need high ISO.

Tripod – take it. Also, if you have one with a shoulder strap, use it. I shoot almost all of my night images with a tripod, so I can set my ISO to its lowest setting and my aperture to F/9 or higher. If you don’t have a tripod, invest in a good one.

Flashlight – bring one that you can put in your pocket. Something better than a penlight you have on your key ring. One important use for your flashlight is to help your camera focus. If your camera won’t auto focus due to the low light, shine your flashlight onto the subject and in many cases it provides enough light or contrast for your lens to focus. Oh yes, make sure the batteries are fresh.

Trigger release – camera shake can really mess up an image. I used to use a cable release, but have since switched to a wireless trigger. The alternative is to set you camera for a timed shutter release, but that’s a pain. Nothing in photography is cheap, but I would recommend you invest in a trigger release.

Backpack – I always put my kit in a good backpack / sling bag. Not only is it more efficient, but also keeps your kit out of sight. I prefer a backpack versus a camera bag.

Flash units – I rarely bring them for night photography, but if you are shooting people or confined spaces it may be handy. You know the drill about flash, off camera is better than on camera…. Only bring a flash unit if you specifically plan to use them. If I “think” I might use it, I leave it at home. If I “know” I will use it because it’s planned, I’ll bring them.

That’s basically it. As you can tell I haven’t gone into “how” to take a good night image, just how to plan and what to bring. Bottomline, like all endeavors worth doing right, practice, practice, practice.

Uber Lens - The Mighty Nikkor 85mm

Cincinnati Photoshoot