Low Light Challenge

No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition, Claude Monet

It is an illusion that photos are made with a camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.Henri Cartier Bresson

One of the best ways to get some interesting images and, at the same time, get a better idea of how your camera works is to take some images with a slow shutter. This usually involves operating your camera in manual mode, where you, rather than the camera, set the ISO, aperture and speed. The challenge here would be to try one of the types of image-making illustrated below.

Tripod, Night Photography and Long Exposure

Examples of Different Exposures

The following are examples of different night photography types from my archive. I have included the camera settings to see how I adjusted the exposure to get each image. 

f 1.4, 1/80, ISO 3200 24mm equivalent, handheld
Super Moon Over English Bay, f2, 2 seconds, ISO 200 and 16mm (24mm eq.) on a tripod
f5.6, 15 seconds, ISO 200, and 24mm equivalent on a tripod
f2.8, 15sec, ISO 3200 lens 24mm equivalent on tripod
f-14, 60 seconds, ISO 100, 40mm equivalent, on a tripod

Night Photography and Tripods

Tripods are often essential to shooting deep into the night and especially in astrophotography. Still, there are other reasons you may want to include a tripod as one of your basic photographic tools:

  • Provided not much is moving, in the scene, you are shooting, it can be used to prevent camera shake at low speeds, thus avoiding the need to increase your ISO setting which would introduce more noise into the image.
  • When using a telephoto lens with a long barrel that might be quite heavy it will help prevent camera shake and take the weight off of your body.
  • It may depend on your skill level, allowing you to be much more accurate in how you frame your capture.
  • It will allow you to facilitate this process when you paint with light at night.
  • Self or group portraits when you use your timer.
  • It helps a great deal with shooting macro shots.
  • It can be used to hold off-camera flashes.
  • It will increase the accuracy of your exposure or focus bracketing shots

There are four components you need to consider on every tripod:

  1. The Legs of the tripod, how long they are and therefore, how high the tripod goes, how quickly they can be extended and collapsed and how compact they can become.
  2. The Head that is attached to the tripod suits your style of photography the two main types are a ball head and a pan-tilt head. My preference is for the pan-tilt head, I found the ball head more difficult to maneuver accurately.
  3. The Centre Post is the shaft that can be extended up through the middle to raise the camera higher. I only use this feature as a last resort as it can introduce a less stable platform.
  4. The Feet may have rubber bottoms for indoor use or spikes for outdoor use and various options.
  5. Height is also an issue. As a landscape photographer, you may want to invest in a tripod that brings the camera to eye level without deploying the centre post. The centre post can introduce motion into your images in some situations. 
  6. You may want to have a lightweight tripod for travel, but I have found these are not great for day-to-day photography. I prefer a tripod that does not have to have a weight added to it to become stable. 

Problems with Tripods:

  • Keep in mind they are heavy and bulky, so they can be quite cumbersome. 
  • If you do not set the tripod up correctly, it can tip over and damage your camera and lens.
  • They take time to set up properly, even the more expensive ones.
  • They are often banned in high-volume tourist areas such as historic churches for safety reasons.
  • They are difficult to set up in crowded areas and can cause injury to distracted pedestrians or your equipment when the pedestrian collides with the tripod legs.
  • It is difficult to get into suitcases when you are travelling.
  • If the tripod is cheap, it is likely to be unstable, which is bad for your photography and a danger to your equipment.

Stops of Light

To understand how exposures vary in different light, the following table may help. Keep in mind that a camera can only see 12 to 15 stops depending on the camera. To understand the stops of light on the camera, the second diagram should help.

Courtesy of Ander Photography.com
Each full stop of light is either a doubling or halving of the light

Self Timers

When you are on a tripod, you do not what to be pushing the shutter button; in the film days, we used to use a cable release which also could, if not used properly, create motion blur in your image. Digital cameras have solved this problem by adding timers for the exposure in the camera. This allows you to press the shutter, and the camera counts down, usually with a blinking light, before the shutter is triggered. This allows the tripod and camera to stabilize from whatever movement you introduce into it by pressing the shutter. Keep in mind that if you are on a wooden platform or any surface that may have some flex in it, you will also need to remain still.

Slow Shutter on Tripod

Using a slow shutter setting in your camera while on a tripod during the day can create some interesting effects on water, clouds and even busy streets. You will need a method of keeping your camera still; a tripod would be best to do this. However, you could use a ledge or table to keep it still when you depress the shutter. The process is similar to what has been described above, except during the day, there is a lot more light, which means you may need to use a Neutral Density filter to slow the speed of your camera. The two images illustrate the difference slowing the shutter speed can make.

1/15 sec, f3.6, ISO 100, 63mm
4 sec, f32, ISO 100, 63mm

Night Photography

When shooting at night, you will need to do the following, set your camera on a tripod, use a remote trigger or your timer, and the ISO should be set at its lowest ISO with the Auto ISO turned off. Then choose your desired Aperture setting and turn the speed down until the camera metering system tells you the exposure is correct. If you have a camera with IBIS (five-axis stabilization) and a very fast lens, you may be able to handhold some evening shots before needing a tripod. The alternative might be to increase your ISO, provided your camera is not too noisy.

At some point, as it gets darker, the camera’s metering system may not be able to register a correct exposure. Depending on the camera, the live view may help you see if the exposure is correct. If it does not, you may have to experiment by taking a shot and checking the photograph you just took on the back of your camera. You may have to repeat this until the exposure is correct.



Astrophotography can be a lot of fun and should get you out in the country where light pollution is minimal. If you take this up, you will find yourself in the fresh air surrounded by nature. Here is the equipment you will need: a tripod; a fast wide-angle prime lens, preferably 24mm equivalent with an aperture of f2.8 or less; and “apps.”

Milky Way at Porteau Cove, 20,” f1.4, ISO 800 and 16mm

Where the Dark sky can be found in British Columbia is an important thing to consider, as the visibility of stars is influenced by the light from the moon and cloudy sky and how close you are to city lights.

Where the Dark Sky’s are in BC

Smartphone “apps” are needed for planning purposes, but these are also available for the computer. The first step is to find a location where the stars are fully visible at night, Dark Sky Finder is one of many tools that helps with this task. Second, you will need an accurate weather program to find a cloudless night; some recommend consulting at least three sources before setting out. Third, you will need a milky way finder which should also be able to tell you when there is a new moon. It is important to know where the milky way will rise in the sky and at what time, and you do not want the light from the moon obscuring the stars. Finally, you will need to calculate when nighttime is in your location, this is especially important the further north you live during summertime when pure darkness may only be a few hours.

Edward Peck

Common Mistakes with Night Photography

Ole Skjelstad has written an article about some of the mistakes he made as he experimented with night photography; his article highlights a few mistakes that helped him develop better results:

  • Severe under-exposure due to not watching your histogram can spoil a good capture.
  • Autofocus often does not work in the dark, and if you don’t know where your lens has its hyperfocal distance, you can have out-of-focus problems. You may need a flashlight to highlight a feature beyond your lens’s infinity point to check your focus in the dark. 
  • Using a telephoto lens instead of a wide-angle lens teaches you the 500 rule. If you take 500 and divide it by your focal length ( 500/50 mm=10 seconds) gives you your shutter speed. However, if you have a high-resolution camera of 36mp or greater, you may need to use either 200 or 300 for better results.
  • If you are going to merge images, make sure you shoot your foreground before it gets dark. If you are doing astrophotography, arrive before dark for safety reasons.
  • Always shoot RAW in low-light situations.
  • Make sure you are using a sturdy tripod.