If you're like me, your attempts at night photography consist of shooting an hour or two after dusk, sticking to fast lenses, and hand-holding until it just isn't possible to take a sharp photo any more.
Now, I'll admit that this technique does have its benefits. For one thing, I've gotten really good at keeping the camera steady. For another, I have developed my after-dark eye. It has often been one of my favorite times of the day to take pictures.
But I never brought out the big guns, the one item you really need to take a great night photograph: a tripod. That's right, folks. Surprisingly, it does make it a heck of a lot easier to take a good night photograph. No real surprise there. The surprise for me was how much better the photos are - it's amazing! No real noise! No blur, not even a bit! And such great detail. So let me break it all down for you - it's pretty simple, but it bears saying.
1. First, you've got to choose a location. And you've got to have some light - a full moon, streetlights, building lights, or your own lights/flashlights, but you must have some light.
2. Wear warm clothing. This is not strictly speaking a photography tip, but trust me, you'll be glad you did. For example, I will definitely bring some fingerless gloves next time, because my hands were so cold I couldn't really feel the buttons on the camera.
3. Find your subject, choose your lens, set up your tripod and frame the shot the way you want it. Make sure your tripod is shake-proof. Use your photo bag as a little extra weight on the hook at the bottom, if you've got one.
4. Think about whether you'll have anything moving in your frame, like grasses, or water, or such. It'll most likely be blurred quite a bit. Are you ok with that? If not, you might want to come back and shoot it another time.
5. Set your settings. This shot was at f/4, ISO 160 (the cleanest ISO on my camera, yours may be different), and 30 seconds. Shoot raw so you'll be able to massage the files a bit afterwards. In particular, your white balance will probably need a little work.
6. Maximize your sharpness. Use mirror lockup, and either use your self timer to take the shot, or some sort of remote or cable release. Remember that the vibration from your finger pushing the shutter button can make a big difference in the overall sharpness of the image.
7. Take a few! Look at your histogram. Make sure you're not blowing out your highlights. Check the overall exposure - too dark? Too bright?
8. Celebrate! Then compose the next shot and do it all again.
EDIT: I forgot one key step! Now if you're shooting Nikon, you auto focus whizzes, this may not apply to you. But if you're Canon like me, you must must MUST focus manually. This is the only thing I use my live view for. Use live view, zoom in, and get your manual focus just perfect. It's worth it to bring a flashlight to shine on your subject at this time to make it easier to see if the focus is good.
*Finally! A post on photography. I'm going to try to continue posting informational posts like this on Tuesdays. Any topics you'd like to see? Hit me up in the comments below.*