My First Attempt at Night Photography

It was a cloudy night, so perhaps tonight was not the best night to attempt this, but I thought I would set my camera and tripod up near the shoreline and take pictures of the lights in the distance. I haven’t taken night photos before, so I really had no idea where to start. Although I suspected I would need something longer, I first tried with a 30 second exposure with a full aperture to see what would be recorded. Besides the fact that it was blurry — LESSON 1 LEARNED: I can’t see crap in my viewfinder in the dark: best to use autofocus — I didn’t like the orange-y color of the exposure. But it did give me a starting point.

Here was the best of those taken looking south. The lights of the left are the south end of Ft. Myers Beach, the near left (look for the 2 bright white lights) being about 1 mile away. The lights on the far right are lights that I could not see myself, from houses along Bonita Beach. The ambient light in the distance would be Bonita Springs and Naples.

Looking south from mid-island: Fort Myers Beach, January Night

ISO400, f/25, 60 seconds.

I liked the reflection of the lights in the water. The tide was going out, so I suspect that where the lights are reflected are actually tide pools and not the actual surf. I don’t think it would look so smooth and calm otherwise. The island bends at about that point, so it’s difficult for me to tell.

This was the best of the second set of shots I took:

Lights of Sanibel

ISO200, f/8, 96 seconds

Sanibel Island is a few miles off the coast of Estero Island. The lights to the far right are, I suspect, of the causeway connecting Sanibel to the mainland. I don’t believe that I had the correct angle to get any lights from the north end of Estero/Fort Myers Beach. I like that you can see the motion of the waves receding at the water’s edge, but I think that it would have been better if the waves have been higher. The water was really calm today, even for this area of the Gulf that rarely sees really high waves. This is not an area that would be a surfer’s delight!

LESSON TWO LEARNED: I need to figure out how to use the remote trigger. I got it to work once before I went out on to the beach, taking a nice over-exposed photo of the sofa, but once I needed to keep the shutter open, I couldn’t get it to do that without keeping my hand on the remote button. I know it is capable of a one button on/one button off action — I got it to work just a few minutes earlier! — but I certainly couldn’t get the same thing to happen outside. As a result, I had a more than a few fuzzy photos and I realized how much faster I count. Or is it that, as I have been all my life, I was just impatient?

LESSON THREE: Like everything else in photography, doing long exposures takes a lot of practice to get something that is really good! I tried lots of changes in the ISO, the exposure length, and the aperture before my battery wore out. (I know: amateur mistake!) I could find things wrong with each of the shots, but I think these two are the best representatives of what I did. Looking forward to trying this again sometime in the future and, I’m hoping, getting much better shots!

LESSON FOUR: I like being out on the beach when nobody is there. It is very peaceful. That I knew beforehand. But, what I noticed tonight for the first time — because it was important to what I was doing — is how much more light there is on the beach this time of year. During “Turtle Season” when the sea turtles breed, no lights are allowed on the beach. Porch lights are off, people close their blinds, and the beach is so much darker. There is still a lot of light pollution, as you can imagine from these shots, in the areas where there are high-rises, but even on nights in October when there is a big, full Harvest Moon and no clouds, I’ve seen the beach darker than it was this evening without the moon. That is one of the conundrums of South Florida: I love the area, love the beach, love coming here, but the area is so overdeveloped that it threatens the beauty of the place. The economy here is built on tourism, but tourism is a double-edged sword that threatens the beauty of the place, the habitats of native species, and the very economy that is built upon that beauty and abundance of nature.

What about you? What have been your experiences with night photography? What were the lessons that you have learned from taking long exposures at night?


10 responses to “My First Attempt at Night Photography

  1. Very good first attempts. I will however disagree with one of the lessons you learned. The auto focus. I find it is best not to trust the autofocus when it is dark. It can’t see much better than you can at night, and if you want crisp pictures in the end, it is best not to rely on it. I also don’t trust focusing through the viewfinder. So the solution?

    If you can manual focus, there should be, on either the lens or the camera screen, icons that indicate focusing distance in either feet or meters. Disable autofocus, and manually set distance- you may need a flashlight or something to do this (I often use a cell phone, as the light is generally dim enough that it doesn’t totally spoil my night vision). If you’re aperture is set fairly high (at least f/11, and even better at even higher f/stops) you won’t need to be too exact, because you’re depth of field will be fairly deep. In your first image the distance should be set to infinity (that sideways figure eight symbol) and in the second image, I would have upped the ISO to 400 (or even a little higher) to have a higher f/stop of at least f/16 so that more would be in focus without having to adjust the shutter speed. This way you’d have a greater depth of field and could set the distance to 5 meters or more.

    Also, many cell phones have stop watch applications built into them now, which can take some of the guess work out of how quickly you are counting.

    Keep up the good work

    • Thanks, Galen, for your excellent suggestions. I didn’t think about setting the focus the way you suggested, even though I know how to do that. I’ll keep that in mind next time! I was thinking this week that I should invest, if possible, in getting viewfinder set to my eyeglass Rx. (The diopter adjustment on my camera isn’t good enough for my correction.) Yesterday — a bright sunny day — I was wearing prescription sunglasses and just could not focus on my own, which is what I like to do, rather than autofocus. Or maybe I just need glasses that are not progressive lenses for when I shoot.

      I did take some shots at higher ISO and higher f/stop — and in many ways the exposures were better (but not the focus). The ones I posted were the best all around from this shoot.

      My camera actually does have a counter — just surprised that I was counting faster than it!

      BTW, I like your new bread site.

  2. I don’t have any such experience (can barely hold a camera right side up, yet alone take beautiful pictures with one), but I can certainly appreciate these lovely shots.

  3. Great first attempts! I agree, the fun of photography is the learning and experimenting. 🙂

    • I can see how a newbie can become frustrated with photography — there is so much to learn and take into consideration when creating a shot — lighting, shutter speed, aperture, composition. It took me several months before i moved away from the auto settings, and I’m only just now, 2 years after getting my camera, just now starting to work almost exclusively in full Manual mode. I learn something new every time I pick up my camera!

  4. Those are first attempts? I’m impressed! If I tried to take a photo at night it would be all black. I can imagine being on the beach when no one else is there is a wonderful experience. I love being up and outside really early in the morning before my neighborhood wakes up. It is so peaceful.

  5. Jackie Paulson

    wow those pictures are great for starting out night photo’s. I really need to learn my camera too, it’s a new Nikkon not sure what it is…

    • Thanks, Jackie. You should have seen the ones I didn’t post — not so great! 🙂 I think photography is all about learning; it’s a continual process and always challenging. To me, that’s what makes it fun. My husband asked me the other day how long I thought I might continue to be interested in photography. I told him well past when my current camera gives out. If you have a new camera, the best thing you can do is to start shooting and learn as much as you can about it. And be sure to use the ‘creative’ mode rather than the presets if you have both.