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Automotive Lighting 7: Shooting at night


John Jovic

It's very common to shoot cars at night, at sunset/sunrise, with strobes or when painting with light. The tips detailed below are specific to shooting cars at night however the techniques are the same for any night photography.

1 Always use a rigid tripod with a good quality head. This is even more important in windy conditions as minor vibrations can result in a loss of sharpness. If you are shooting several images to composite together then avoid touching the lens or any filters on it in case you move the camera and DO NOT re focus or adjust the zoom.
2 Minimise camera vibration by using as many of the following methods as possible:
(a) Always use 'mirror lockup' up if your camera has this facility.
(b) Use a cable release to start and stop exposures when using the B (Bulb) setting, or for that matter, even to trigger your exposures at shorter shutter speed. If you don't have a cable release then use the self timer, or preferably the mirror lockup function in combination with the self timer. Never activate the shutter with your finger as this moves the camera, no matter how rigid the tripod.
(c) If your camera has a Silent Mode whilst in Live View then this should be used to open the first shutter curtain before the start of the actual exposure and thereby reducing vibration even further.
3 Use the lowest ISO you can for the given circumstances. This isn't just to reduce noise but to improve the resolution and sharpness of the image itself. Shooting at high ISO's may certainly give you useable images with very low noise but they will almost certainly be less sharp than if shot at a lower ISO and possibly with less shadow detail depending on the camera used. Using 'long exposure noise reduction' is not recommended because this doubles the exposure time (a second exposure identical to the first one takes place automatically and random noise is identified and removed by the camera). Noise isn't really an issue if you use a relatively low ISO in the first place however once exposures become very long, longer than a few minutes, noise issues may start to arise.
4 Always shoot RAW because you'll have much more flexibility later to adjust exposure and colour balance.
5 Never forget rule number 4
6 Focusing at night can be difficult but is critical to achieving a successful image. For film users or cameras without Live View an eye piece magnifiers such as the 'Canon Angle Finder C' (for the Canon users) is very useful for achieving accurate focus. Live View is ideal and should be used whenever possible as it will ensure accurate focus in the most difficult circumstances. Use a torch, mobile phone etc, to light the part of the car you are using to focus. Get close with the torch if needed. Focus manually. Don't use Auto Focus.
7 Use a lens that performs well in high contrast conditions and which has excellent flare resistance. Most modern lenses which are designed for use with digital cameras have excellent flare resistance so flare is most likely to cause problems with old, vintage or legacy lenses. Also use a lens hood at all times. You may even need to consider shading the front of the lens with a cutter (a piece of card board or similar) as some times flare can be caused by light sources which are not even visible in the viewfinder, that is, just out of the shot.
8 Use the lens at an F stop where it performs well, maybe f5.6-11, rather than just using it wide open. Use a lens wide open if you really need to or if that is the effect that you want but otherwise try to avoid it as most lenses perform better stopped down a few stops from wide open. Be aware that the image quality from most lenses starts to degrade when the lens is stopped down further than approximately f11, eg f16 and smaller, due to diffraction. You may have heard a lens described as being 'diffraction limited' at a particular f stop. All this means is that image quality starts to degrade beyond that setting. In practice it's often best to avoid using apertures smaller than f11-16, especially if it's just to extend the exposure time. It's often better to use a neutral density filter to reduce light entering a lens rather than stopping it down to f22 or f32. Not all lenses perform poorly at such small apertures so it's best to test your own lenses so that you know what you are in for.
 9 Extra lens surfaces increase the likelihood of flare so avoid using filters such UV, Skylight or protective filters unless there's a particular reason you think the lens might need extra protection. Polarising filters work at night the same way they do in daytime however the reduction in light may cause significantly longer exposures as well as increasing the incidence of flare, more so than UV or protective filters because polarising filters have many more surfaces.
10 Use the Histogram to determine the exposure time. Start with an aperture and ISO setting and then play with exposure times. You will always have blown out highlights such as street lights, that's OK. You may also have shadows lacking in detail, some times this can't be avoided but it may not be a problem as it is dark and some parts of the image are simply black anyway. Pick a happy balance and preferably shoot a 'bracket' of over and under exposures as they can look better or worse when you see them on a calibrated computer monitor. It's usually safest to err on the side of overexposure, as long as you don't blow out too many highlights, as this will usually give you the most data to work with in a RAW file.
11 Be safe, watch your back and try to avoid working alone at night.

This image was shot with 2 strobes, a very simple setup, around sunset whilst there was still colour in the sky to add interest.   Detail shots like this 'boot shot' can be made a little more interesting by shooting at night and including the location itself for effect.  

Shooting at night can some times offer far greater creative opportunities than shooting during the day if you can take control over the light.

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