Night Photography Tips - Shackleton Photography

Night Photography Tips

Night photography, adds a whole new dimension to aviation photography. I have grown to love the challenge of night photography as it offers a great range of technical and creative challenges not found with daytime, short exposure time photography.

What you need - the basics.

Apart from a camera capable of being mounted on a tripod, with Manual and Bulb modes.... • A Tripod.

• A Cable-release

• A small torch.

• Patience and the desire to experiment.

Getting the right tripod is every bit as important as having a camera. The quality of your pictures will suffer if your tripod is not stable enough and generally you get what you pay for. Buying a cheap tripod is not a good option in the long run as a good, solid, well made tripod will you for last years and years, while a cheap one will usually self-destruct very quickly. A tripod may not come with a head to mount your camera onto but both should be chosen with the weight of your camera and lens in mind as this affects the overall stability. A rough guide to evaluating a tripods stability is to extend the legs, set it down on a firm surface then push directly down to see if there is any give in either the legs or wobble. If there is next to none then you have a good one. This is especially important if you have a heavy camera / lens combination.

You don’t necessarily need a cable release but having one makes things easier. If your camera has an in-built 10 or 2 second self-timers then you can use that but it is easier to fire off a shot when you want with a cable release than it is to seemingly wait an eternity for the timer to count down. The other advantage is, a cable release is that it cuts down on camera shake, making for a sharper picture.
My cable release has a built-in Intervalometer, an expensive gadget for timing long exposures. A cable release will also allow you to use Bulb mode, which will allow you to keep the shutter open for exposure times longer than your cameras longest internal time, usually 30 seconds.

A small torch is handy. A large torch with a bright light can be a curse as it destroys your night vision. I tend to use mine sparingly, well shrouded by my fingers to check on the camera settings and timer. It is also handy for that last check at the end of the shoot for anything that has fallen on the rounds and believe me that does happen. Head torches are useful but I find them to be a hindrance for checking the camera settings with far too much light spilling all over the place and again destroying yours and others night vision.
I have another small torch that emits a tiny amount of red light, which I got from a serial packet, saving my night vision and again cutting down on any stray light which may find its way into the camera.

In saying all that a good strong torch does come in handy for lighting your subject so the camera can auto-focus on it. I have had to do this on a good number of occasions when shooting in the pitch dark. There is nothing hard and fast with night photography so the ability to experiment, to try something new and to learn from mistakes is an asset. If an exposure does not work then try something else until you get the result that you do want.

Beyond the essentials there are other items that can be handy.
A camera mounted spirit level is handy for setting the level "horizon" at night when there are not references around. I used a small one for years until I bought a camera with one built in.

A small blob of Blu-Tak is another useful accessory. While my camera has a shutter behind the eye-piece to block out light that may find its way through the eyepiece and onto the sensor during long exposures. It also covers the eye piece very much the in the same way your eye does when making shorter exposures.
Many cameras do not have an eye-piece shutter so a flattened out piece of Blu-Tak over the eye-piece does this job really well.

For those getting on in years and whose eye-sight is failing them a small loupe or eye-glass is handy. Even though I can zoom in on the back of my camera, it is not much use if I can't see detail due to my poor eyesight. I carry a small 5x loupe in my bag, bought from Maplin for a few pounds.

In conjunction, some may prefer to use the camera's "mirror lock-up" but you'll have to find out if your camera has that or not.
Here the mirror is swung out of the way first giving time for the camera to stabilise before the shutter is opened to allow light onto the sensor.
I tend not to use it as invariably I forget to press the shutter button on the cable release for a second time to open the shutter and I lose the shot.

There is a technique called “light painting,” where you can light up the subject by painting light from a torch. There are a few videos around showing how this is done. Individual pictures of a partially lit subject can be layered up to produce a single picture of a well illuminated subject.
Sometimes a larger torch can be used, I’m using a portable builders LED lamp with great results and even better it is daylight balanced, so no blue colour cast!
I have also used a flash gun to pop-off a series of flashes during a long exposure to light up a subject.
You can use a flash gun to illuminate the whole subject but this will cast shadows that may not be wanted.

These are things you learn from trial and error.

Lens hoods

I usually use one when shooting in the dark, it helps to cut down lens flare, especially if there are any light sources to the side of the lens. I have used the shadow of my hand or my body to shield strong light sources against lens flare.

What you don’t need…

… is a UV Filter – they were needed in the days of film but not now. Camera sensors have their own filters and lens manufacturers spend an awful lot of money developing anti-this and anti-that coatings for their lenses so you don’t have to buy UV filters… so take ‘em off and bin ‘em.

When shooting in the dark any extra filters on the front of a lens is a recipe for disaster.

They will generate lens flare in the presence of a strong light source, which is something that you can do without. (As for protecting the front element of a lens, you don’t need it. The lens is strong enough and if it gets hit a piece of thin glass isn’t going to be much use as it will shatter anyway.)

The essential information.

It should go without saying that things are different at night and your safety should be your number one priority.

Scout out a suitable location in daylight first before committing yourself to going there in the dark.

Make sure that you are aware of the ground hazards before setting out, avoiding stumbling around in the dark and maybe hurting yourself.

Personal safety, generally there are not that many people around at night and those that are around you may not want to be meeting alone and in the dark, so be sure of where you are going to first.
If you go out alone, then make sure you leave word of where you are going, just in case as you never know...
It can be handy to go out with a like minded photographer friend and there is the added assurance of having someone around if something were to go wrong. You can bounce ideas off each other or even do the light painting for each other.
There is also the chance that you may encounter the Police on a night shoot as you may be, to other less informed people, acting strangely, especially around an airport. My advice is to treat them very civilly, after all you are doing nothing wrong and answer all their questions in a calm and rational manner.

Coming in from the cold.

It’s inevitable that night-shoots are going to be cold, sometimes bitterly cold or it will be in Scotland that’s for sure.

One drawback of being out in the cold is reduced battery life, so spares should be on hand especially for long photo shoots.

It’s only natural that you will want to remain warm during a night shoot, apart from wrapping up well, at times I’ve resorted to sitting in the car with the heater on or being wrapped up in a sleeping bag then again there are times when it’s an absolute pleasure to be outside enjoying the view.

If your shoot is of an intermittent nature, it is tempting to bring your camera equipment into the warmth with you. Bringing a camera inside, after it has been outside in the cold is a recipe for disaster as the change in temperature will cause condensation to build up on the camera and if you allow condensation on the lens it will be temporarily rendered useless until the condensation evaporates.

Never change a cold lens in a warm environment as this will allow condensation inside the camera and on both side of the lens.

The best course of action is either dismantle the equipment in the cold and store it in your camera bag or keep it outside until you are ready to start shooting again and at the end of the shoot keep your equipment in the bag to allow it to warm up slowly back up to room temperature.

Removing the memory card beforehand, in the cold will allow you to start editing your pictures when you get back home without exposing your camera to a warm environment.

At night, shooting in Aperture or Shutter priority modes is not a good idea. It is far better to take full manual control of your camera, than let the camera decide what is best. Paying attention to the Histogram on the back of the camera does help although the histogram will be heavily skewed to the darks and shadow tones. The over-exposure warning "blinkies" on the review screen is beneficial to getting good pictures.

The one key piece of information is in knowing how the Exposure Triangle works and knowing that each stop in your camera represents a doubling or halving of the amount of light that gets into your camera and being able to put that into practice “on the fly” when out in the dark will pay dividends.
Having the knowledge say after the first exposure of four seconds it was under exposed (too dark) then the next exposure stop is double four seconds at eight seconds, the next is double that at15 seconds, the next is 30 seconds, 60, 120, 240 etc. You can get a degree of fine tuning by using third or half stops, which are easily done when under 30 seconds. Remember that after a minute the next third stop is 80, then100 seconds and a few seconds plus or minus at that length of exposure will not make any difference to the overall exposure.

Generally I will use a fixed aperture, f/8 for instance and make an educated guess as to the shutter speed then make a test exposure, then look for the over exposure warning "blinkies" on the back of my camera then adapt the exposure to improve the next picture.
I don’t rely too much on the cameras light meter, although it could be useful as a starting point.
I make a lot of test exposures, so that when it comes to making the one that counts it will be the best that I can get it.

The choice of aperture, apart from determining how long the exposure will take also has another effect, you can get a starburst effect to point sources of light if you use a small aperture such as f/16 or f/22. It will also stretch out and make star trails, which can be used for great effect. Using a small aperture will lead to longer exposure times. Having a wide open aperture will shorten exposure times and will tend to have single points of light for stars.
It is a creative decision.

ISO / sensor sensitivity.
The change of ISO from 100, to 200, to 400 also doubles the amount of light into the camera and if your camera will allow relatively noiseless photos at high ISOs then go for it. I will routinely use ISOs as high at 1200 ISO for a night photo, usually lens wide open with a short exposure time for pin-point stars.
The change of ISO is a creative decision and should not be thought of in terms of 100ISO=no noise, so I’m OK. We tend to be too fixated about noise, live dangerously and give it a try, you have nothing to loose and everything to gain.
Changing from 100 to 400 ISO could mean the difference between shooting at say 60 seconds compared to 15 seconds.

White balance.
Sodium and mercury vapour flood lighting are a curse to night photography. There are ways of countering the colour casts they give, one way is to use a manual white balance setting in your camera. I tend to do this or set the manual balance at 5,000 or 3,000 Kelvin and leave it there, it is easily adjusting in post processing if you use RAW.
There are times when you are on a hiding to nothing with this kind of light, if you have good enough tones then it may be an idea to convert to a black and white picture.

Long Exposure noise reduction.
Some cameras have an in built Long Exposure noise reduction, this is where your camera effectively takes another picture immediately after the one that you intended to make and subtracts the noise from the first picture. While this can be handy, it has the drawback of doubling the time that it takes to take a picture and become infuriating when things are changing or another aircraft comes into view and you have to wait until you can take another picture.
There are pros and cons to using Long Exposure Noise Reduction, mine is set of OFF all the time.

Post processing.
While photographing at night, it pays dividends to use RAW mode, if for nothing else in that you are able to adjust the while balance of your picture after the event and you are also able to adjust the overall exposure far more effectively than shooting in JPEG.
I may make a custom colour profile for some night shots under the various kinds of lights, which helps to improve the overall colour in my pictures. A custom colour profile will lead to better colour, which makes the picture much more realistic when compared to the colours seen during day time. It is a specialist form of adjustment and something to try when you gain experience.
Just because it is dark does not mean that you should not expect to see and dust spots, so you need to check for this during the post processing. The other thing is to check for "hot pixels," which are rogue pixels which give a single speck of colour in any part of your picture and can be easily cloned out although the process of finding them can be laborious.

When shooting at night, it pays to have some idea of what kind of photo you want. Whereas you only get one kind of image during the day a single sharp image and you can get a single sharp image at night, you may also get a light trail from a long exposure time.
Light trails work well when there is a curved element of movement in the picture. A straight line going through the picture does not work as well as a curved one does, so your choice of location to take the photo from is important, as is the transit time that the aircraft is expected to take as it flies through your cameras field of view.
Scouting out a location in daylight, looking through your cameras viewfinder and timing how long it takes to transit will pay dividends when attempting the same shot at night. Knowing this will set your shutter speed, so you can either adjust the aperture and or the ISO to get the transit time and the optimum exposure.
You can get away with using wider apertures at night than you would use during the day. Night photos tend to be one dimensional due to most of the picture being dark. Having a wide aperture means a shorter exposure time, pin point stars and less chance for sensor noise or vibration to affect the image.
This is where a good lens which is sharp when wide open will pay dividends but these kind of lenses are expensive to buy.

You can, if you have a clear night, use the stars in your picture. There are several techniques for star trails used by astro and landscape photographers that can be used by aviation photographers, such as taking a high number of short exposures and combining them together with a specialist piece of software. There are pros and cons when compared to a single long exposure shot, noise being a lot less on the short exposure photos.

The greatest thing you can do is to keep an open mind and learn and use techniques from other spheres of photography, incorporating them into your aviation pictures. Pre-visualisation involves keeping your eyes and your mind open for opportunities and working out the logistics to get the photo that you want. I have been making steady progress on one for about four years now, it involves a clear night (practically impossible in Central Scotland), at a busy time for arrivals but finding the right place for what I have visualised is hard to find. I have along the way got a good number of night photos from the various locations that I have tried, so it has not been a wasted effort, far from it.

Practice, practice, practice.
The best thing you can do is just to get out in the dark and take pictures of anything that takes your fancy. Cars make for great light trail photos. Buildings and lit statues makes for great subjects. The best thing you can do is practice on anything and everything, so that when the time comes to take photos of an aircraft in the dark then you know what to do saving you valuable time in the dark, making the photos that you want to be making rather than literally blundering about in the dark.
Take inspiration from others that have made night photos, try and work out where they were and what they done to produce their photos… then go out and see if you can do the same.


Tripods may come with a head, which is the bit that connects the tripod legs to the camera, it can be fitted to the tripod as standard or as an optional extra. This becomes a major cost consideration when buying one. For those that buy a tripod without a head, the choice of head is up to the photographers, some heads are set up for quick alignment while others require a longer time to set up. As it happened the one that I bought, a “show special” had a three axis head, where one has to individually set the azimuth, pan and horizontal elements of the picture, which brings it firmly into the slow set up type of head as opposed to squeezing a trigger or unscrewing a knob and aligning everything up in a single action that I seen on other tripods.

To be honest I like the slow working as one rarely needs to set up a shot that quickly in the dark and taking ones time seems to make me more happier with my compositions.

There are many different kinds of tripod head with specialist applications, one type that you should be wary of is the fluid head, which is more suited to the smooth panning motions required by videographers than photographers, even then, a fluid head would be perfect for motion blur shots.

The one overriding factor is you must take into consideration is the weight of both your camera and lens upon the tripod and head. A top of the range camera such as the Canon 1DX or Nikon D5 and a big 100-400mm lens is an appreciable weight to support and if it is not supported properly the head will slip or the legs will wobble and your shot will be ruined.

You may not have a big camera now but a tripod can last for years so look on it as a form or future proofing.

Mounting the camera to the tripod

You will not appreciate the tripod mounting shoe until you actually start using a tripod.

The shoe connects your camera to the tripod and is useful when you want to mount and unmount a camera to the tripod handy when you want to change battery, memory card or even move to a new location.

It is not essential but it makes for an easier life when you have to screw the camera directly onto a tripod.

There is no single standard for shoes manufacturers have many different kinds of shoe to choose from. Arca Swiss is a kind of common standard, I have little knowledge of this type of shoe.

The two Manfrotto tripods that I own share a common shoe type.


The overall weight of a tripod is a consideration, generally you pay more for the lighter ones but being lighter makes for easier carrying, handy when one is off on a trek or when one is wary of the baggage weight when flying.

Another useful accessory is a bag for the tripod, tripods are awkward to carry and being able to sling one over ones shoulder makes for an easy life and it keeps it in a better overall condition.