Night shoots! It is not uncommon for the first thought to be “Blurry Cam”. Honestly how often have you ended up with a blurry or unfocused photo when taken at night, when the flash is ineffective or simply not available?

Stating the obvious, it is important to create a steady platform for the camera. The obvious answer would be with the assistance of a tripod. There was a bit of discussion over in the forums about tripods, if you are considering buying one then head here to have a read on what to consider when investing in a tripod.

But what if you don’t own a tripod, and/or cannot beg, borrow or steal one? Find a rock, or a bench, a fork in a tree trunk, a post in the ground. Anything that would give you a safe and steady platform to leave your camera on. Use a bit of common sense and do not take unnecessary risks with your gear. But if you look around you there are plenty of potential makeshift ‘tripods’. As an example, the following photo was taken using the very obscure yet popular ThinkTankPhoto Retrospective 20 tripod.

Kevin Cheng: Notre Dame

Notre Dame photographed with a TTP Retrospective 20 acting as a tripod. (C) Kevin Cheng.

Other options that take a little more planning are wheat bags or similar. You can buy these easily enough, but if you are handy with a sewing machine then this will take absolutely no time to make up. Simply cut up a pair of old jeans into well … think hot pants. Sew up the waist and leg holes. The zipper makes for a very easy opening to fill your new wheat bag with a filling of your choice — lavender, rice, Styrofoam, sand. Take your pick! You can easily add or remove the contents to shape your new “tripod”.

Kevin Cheng: Bag

Long exposure in the middle of the street. (C) Kevin Cheng.

With your tripod of choice providing a solid platform for your night shoot, lets turn to the settings on the camera to help us achieve a sharp image in the dark.

One of the first things I do is to turn off auto-focus on my lens. Sometimes there is just not enough ambient light or contrast for the auto-focus to work properly and it ends up hunting for focus. It is easier and more consistent to manually focus on what you want. If your camera has Live View, then this is a great time to make use of it. Pop on Live View, select the zoom button so the image is enlarged on a key point on the LCD and then manually achieve focus. It beats trying to do it through the viewfinder.

Alternatively, use a torch (or even your mobile phone torch) to light up a focal point and pre-focus. After you have obtained focus, turn off your auto-focus. Then every shot from then on will be in focus.

Kevin Cheng: Paris

The Eiffel Tower, Paris. (C) Kevin Cheng.

If you own a remote trigger, these are great for night shoots. Do not despair if you do not have one though, you can set your camera to have a delayed shutter via the “Self-Timer” mode. I generally set mine to a two second delay which in most cases will be sufficient to ride out any camera shake introduced whilst pressing the shutter.

On some occasions, I even flip the mirror in my dSLR up before taking the shot. The flip up action of the mirror to let light in sometimes is sufficient to introduce blur into the frame.

Now that you have a steady platform and all the tricks to maintain a sharp focus, it is possible to reduce noise by lowering the ISO and extending the shutter speed … and a whole new world is ready for you to explore.

Advance technique
And then there are the times when you got absolutely nothing to work with, such was the case when I took the photo below.

Kevin Cheng: Ascension

“Ascension” taken by hand using a steady breathing technique. (C) Kevin Cheng.

I turned myself into a tripod, scrunching in tight on the floor cradling the camera like a baby. Slowed down my breathing until I felt calm. I depressed the shutter on exhalation of my breath; well actually I gently applied pressure on the shutter without knowing exactly when it would go, just that it would take the shot as I breathed out. The trick is not to take the shot when you are breathing in and definitely not when you are holding your breath as these both introduce involuntary movements into your body.

Bare in mind these tips are not limited to night shooting only, happy shooting!


Kevin Cheng Bio PicKevin Cheng is a product of East colliding with West, a juxtaposition of old culture and new. Eternally juggling his roles as husband, father, IT boffin, engineer, chef, photographer, gadget reviewer, writer, whisky connoisseur, wine lover and dreamer. He is generally found in a highly keffinated state and is a workaholic who does not understand the meaning of slowing down. He can be found sporadically on Flickr or say hello on Twitter @aerokev.


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