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How-To: Shoot Bright Lights at Sundown!

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Summer is here and the nights are warm!  Perfect for fairs and fireworks! This post will feature shots from last night at Danbury Fair!

Nikon D90 + 50mm f/1.4 | Manual 1/2 sec, f/8, ISO200 - Handheld.

Went out tonight not knowing what I would shoot, but decided to mount just the 50mm f/1.4 and go.  I wish I would’ve brought something a little wider, but when you limit the gear you take with you, you’re forced to expand your creativity and framing! Especially with a prime lens, which doesn’t zoom!

Night time photography is best right after sundown, when the sky is a rich blue.  You’ve generally got 20 minutes after sundown, 30 minutes tops.  45 minutes after sunset, the sky will go black and lifeless.

I’m attracted to bright lights at night, as is evidenced by my extensive Times Square shots. ^__^ Call me superficial.

Nikon D90 + 50mm f/1.4, 1/20sec, f/8, ISO400

Shooting super bright lights at night is a hard exposure for a camera to figure out on it’s own. By default, the camera will see all the bright lights and underexpose, darkening the rich blue sky.  You can tweak the exposure compensation to tell the camera to get a lighter scene, but it may open up the aperture instead, and you lose the sharpness of the lights and neon because of a reduced depth-of-field.  Time to go MANUAL! (Ah scary!!!)

Read On…

So your key settings for night-time shooting with bright lights and neon are:

  • Small Apertures – for sharpness.  Try f/8 to f/16 – Don’t go too high!  Smaller apertures will give you a large depth of field for sharpness into the distance, AND make points of light into starbursts!
  • Long exposures – for moving cars or carnival attractions:  Times Square and Fairs are only fun because they’re ALIVE!  Living things move.  How do you capture that in a photo?  Long Exposure.  Try a half second or more.  Half a second exposure will give you a hint of movement, and sometimes looks like bad camera shake.  5 seconds or more turns it to art, and cars become red and orange light trails in and out of your frames!
  • Cloudy White Balance – Bright multi-colored neon lights often confuse the Auto White Balance mode on your camera – So try shooting it in Cloudy mode for a nice, warm shot.  As always, if you’re shooting a dSLR, shoot in RAW.  RAW will retain gobs of data in darker areas, and will also you to adjust the white balance later if necessary.
  • Base ISO – Shoot at really low ISOs for a nice clean picture, especially if working on a Tripod.
  • Tripod / Gorillapod – A tripod is key for long exposures.  I didn’t have one at the fair last night, but sure wish I did.  If you find yourself without one, make sure your grip and shooting technique are solid, and don’t try any exposures longer than 1 second.  Unless you want nothing but smeared abstract lights.  In that case, print it at 50×50″ and sell it for $10,000 at an Art Show.  Oh, and activate your shutter via timer or remote release.

50mm, 1sec, f/11, ISO100

For more long exposure examples, check out my New York shots on Flickr.

Otherwise, enjoy some more photos from the fair last night:

Have fun out there!  It’s summer!

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Fun shots man! We had a fair in SF but I was too busy to go shooting there. Oh well!

    July 2, 2010
    • Haha – Man, I didn’t even know there WAS a fair that evening. I was just going to the mall. Lol. Pays to carry the cam!

      July 2, 2010
  2. wooooooooeeeeee!

    July 2, 2010
  3. yeaaa details!!


    July 2, 2010
    • Welcome!!!! Thanks for dropping by and the comments!

      July 3, 2010

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