Shane Baker | Shooting in the dark
Wind-blown grassesWind-blown grassesDry grass blowing in the wind near Canberra.

Shooting in the dark

March 10, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Recently, I’ve done some shooting after dark. Two sessions produced work with which I’m reasonably, and one was a disaster. (Well … kind of!)

And let me say right now – this isn’t a tutorial of any kind. We have the wonderful gift of the internet, and I guess that you, like me, hit Google if you have a question on photography.

Anyway … the first of these nocturnal exercises was photographing fireworks. It came as a surprise to me when I realised that I hadn’t photographed fireworks in the digital era. (Strange but true!) So, I trundled down to Lake Burley Griffin here in Canberra on 26 January (Australia Day) to record the show.


The first thing I decided was that I wouldn’t go with the crowds. I chose a spot a little further away than average, with relatively few people and with a clear view of the show. This allowed me to use a normal focal length and my 24 – 70mm zoom. Fireworks are by definition, long exposures, so I took a good solid tripod with a reliable ball head.

Apart from those decisions, it was going to be a “suck it and see” exercise. I only had a vague idea of the sort of settings I might use – and I also knew that fireworks photography is manual photography.

So I set the Nikon on manual everything: manual focus, manual exposure mode and switched off auto ISO. Why? Because fireworks will confuse the exposure systems on even the best cameras.

The thing to remember is that fireworks are incredibly bright – and they’re pushing out all that light against a dark, even black sky. Your camera simply won’t know what’s going on, and you’re likely to get a very over-exposed image if you let the camera off the leash. Also, no-one knows how long a firework will take to do whatever it does.

So what were my settings? They were:

  • Aperture: f/8.0
  • Shutter: set to bulb – meaning that the shutter is open as long as the shutter is depressed
  • ISO: 200
  • Manual focus. I focussed on the appropriate spot while it was still light.
  • Raw (of course)
  • High ISO settings were engaged – more on that in a moment.

I put the camera on the tripod, framed the shot – and waited.

The show started at 21:00, and I exposed a first frame by guess work. The exposure (using the bulb setting, remember) was 6.7 seconds (which seemed about right), but the highlights were burnt out. I dropped the aperture to f/9.0, and the exposure looked better. A third shot was at f/10 and that was better still.

The ISO and aperture settings were right – but as I was using “bulb”, the actual exposure remained a guess! (Shades of

8 second exposure

the 19th century!!) Let me provide two examples.

The first was with the shutter open for about 8 seconds. I was happy with that.

The second image didn’t work.

In an attempt to get the whole explosion, I kept the shutter open for 10 seconds, without reducing the aperture or ISO – and the result was a terribly over-exposed image.

We live and learn – not the least because fireworks photography is an inexact science!

10 second exposure – with blown-out highlights

If you’ve not tried this form of photography, give it a go.

One thing: don’t engage the high ISO compensation setting. It slows the rate at which you can get shots, and especially towards the end, when they have that final all-out display, you won’t keep up.

The second session I had was doing some star photography.

A group of us from the Southside Camera Club hired a hut in the Kosciuszko National Park. Apart from the peace, the views and the wildlife, Currango also offered fairly clear skies – so a few of us tried some star photography.

How did we do it?

Well, like fireworks, it’s all manual photography. However, unlike fireworks, the stars are very dim. So while my fireworks shots above could be made at f/10 and ISO 200, the milky way image to the right was made in 30 seconds at f/2.8 at ISO 3200. Focus was manual, of course, and file format was again, raw.

Why 30 seconds? Two reasons. Firstly, that’s the longest exposure I can dial into the Nikon – which appeals to my lazy side. Secondly, that’s the longest exposure I could make with a 15mm focal length without obvious star trails. (Dividing your lens’ effective focal length into 500 will indicate the maximum exposure. Hence 500 / 15mm = 33 seconds.)

So, I’ve described my successes … now for the “disaster”.

I was out in the Melbourne CBD, when I made the image below.


Classic camera shake – because it was exposed at 1/4 second. Maybe, I could have pulled it off had I been leaning against a power pole – maybe – but at that shutter speed, it’s really tripod stuff.

The reason the camera was shooting at a quarter of a second? Because I had it set at f/8 in aperture priority. The camera was just following orders.

Why had a made those settings? I haven’t a clue! On a crop frame camera, f/2.8 or thereabouts would have been fine – and in any case, depth of field was hardly an issue. I simply messed up.

Had I set the camera on shutter priority at say 1/30 second with auto ISO, I’d have a usable and interesting shot.

But I didn’t.

Ah well … I won’t do that again – even if it’s simply to avoid embarrassment.


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