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.
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.
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
Always shoot RAW because you'll have
much more flexibility later to adjust exposure and colour balance.
Never forget rule number 4
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Be safe, watch your back
and try to avoid working alone at night.