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Photo Tips by Mike Rosen



Hi <<First Name>>,

Have you ever tried to take outdoor pictures at night? I don't mean flash photos, though flash can certainly be effective for portraits or fill-in use. No, I'm referring to night scenes with some ambient or natural light sources, whether from street lights, neon signs, moonlight or fireworks.

I was reminded of the possibilities on a December trip to Paris, which was extravagantly lit for the holiday season. So here are a few guidelines for making excellent night-time images:

  1. Because it's dark out, auto settings don't work very well...and as you know, I don't like using them in any event. So set your camera to aperture priority and choose a low f-stop number (large aperture) to let in as much light as feasible for your image.
  2. You might also want to use a relatively high ISO to increase the sensitivity of the sensor to light, at least 400 and maybe 800 or higher, keeping in mind that higher ISOs can create more noise on larger prints.
  3. Experiment with shutter speeds. Depending on the amount of available light, I'd suggest starting with about one-eighth of a second, but the best exposure could range up to many seconds or even minutes. 
  4. Because of the need for slow shutter speeds, your camera must be completely steady during exposure to avoid bluriness. Use a solid tripod whenever possible. If not support your camera on a ledge, a fence, a wall or any other available means.
  5. To eliminate shake from pushing the shutter button, use your camera's self-timer or a cable or remote shutter release.
  6. Images made in early evening, when there is still a bit of last light in the sky, can be especially gorgeous.
  7. If your JPEG night photos appear too cool or have a bluish color cast, you can warm them up by choosing "daylight" white balance. If, as I prefer, you shoot in RAW format, you can adjust the white balance later in post-processing.
  8. Night photos are great candidates for conversion to black and white, since there often is very little other color in them to start with. I usually add a little sepia tone to my black and white pictures for a bit of warmth.
Below are a few images that I hope will shed some light (pun intended) on night photography.

The view from our Paris hotel room featured the Eiffel Tower in the distance. I steadied the camera on the window ledge, then tried many exposures before settling on this version (1/8 of a second at f/3.5, 400 ISO). It was a rainy night and black and white seemed to fit perfectly.

This building in Split, Croatia was illuminated by a street light behind me. I didn't have my tripod, but was able to steady the camera against the corner of a building across the street. I inhaled, pushed the shutter very carefully and shot at 0.4 seconds, f/3.5 and a 400 ISO. Cameras or lenses with an image stabilization feature help a lot in these long exposure situations. 

In post-processing, I added a touch of sepia to both of the above images to warm them up from the harsh pure black and white look.

The picture below was made in 2005 at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. It was virtually black outside except for moonlight. I set up on my tripod, used the "bulb" shutter setting (the shutter stays open until you press it again), and experimented with many different exposure times. This one was probably about 15 - 20 seconds (it was a film picture--remember film?--and the camera didn't record the exposure data). 

"Midnight in Paris?" Well, just 9:00, but complete with a holiday skating rink, a reflecting pool with vendors along the sides and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. I set my camera on a ledge above a flight of steps leading down to the rink, made many exposures, and chose this one at 1/30 of a second, f/4 and 800 ISO.

This last photograph was made on July 4, 2009 from Bayfield, Wisconsin of fireworks on Lake Superior's Madeline Island.   The exposure was for 21 seconds at f/16 and 200 ISO, with the camera of course mounted on a tripod and using a cable release. I shifted the lens a bit to the right to capture the light from Bayfield shimmering on the water. It also put the primary subject in the left third of the image (rule of thirds), a more pleasing composition than if it were centered.
There are many opportunities for creative night photography virtually anywhere. I urge you to go out and try it. 

All the best,




Other Stuff


You can view and purchase any of my photographs at my website (click HERE). Better yet, just email me (click HERE), or feel free to phone me at 612-374-2766.


For serious photographers with no budget constraints, check out the just announced 36.3 megapixel Nikon D800. Most new cameras today are in the 12-16MP range. Indeed the D800 offers much higher resolution than any other SLR or compact camera yet on the market. There are many other unique or improved features as well. The camera will retail for about $3,000 (body only--lens extra) when it starts shipping next month. Some early comments include "ground breaking" and "game changing." While not many folks need or can afford this, it shows there will be no end to the technological leap-frogging going on in the industry. 


I'll be teaching my Photo Tips course once again this spring, this time in a slightly advanced version. It's part of the highly regarded OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) program affiliated with the University of Minnesota. The course will run on seven Wednesday mornings, 10:00 - 11:30 from April 11 - May 23. Location: The Kenwood, near Franklin and Hennepin in Minneapolis. There is a 20 student maximum. To register go to the OLLI website (click HERE). Feel free to contact me with any questions.


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