Amusement park ride
What do you need?
Lets take a look at what gear you need to do night photography in dark environments. I say dark environments because there is actually another type of night photography: urban and industrial night photography where there may be a lot more ambient light. Like the shot above. I’ll talk about that sort of work in another post. This post is about gear for long exposures, at least 10 seconds up to many minutes.
John D Moore has pointed out that we need to first think about safety while engaging in any sort of photography but especially night photography in unfamiliar areas. He has an excellent PDF file available on this subject which you should read.
Gary Crabbe recently took a dive off a 40 foot cliff at midnight and woke up four hours later much worse for the experience. So be like a boy scout–prepared. Try to look around where you plan to shoot during the day to get an idea of the hazards and the lay of the land. Carry a flashlight when moving around and use it.
My basic night photography outfit consists of:
- A sturdy Tripod
- A remote release and/or intervalometer
- At least two flashlights one small and one larger more powerful light
- Gels and Strobe(s)/Flashes (if you will be doing light painting)
- A timer, watch(with light) or intervalometer
- Extra Batteries
- Something to sit in–ie a folding canvas chair
- A microfiber lens cloth
Lets look at tripods. You really must have a sturdy tripod, and that means a heavy tripod unless you can pay for one made out of the exotic materials like Carbon Fiber. A lightweight flimsy tripod is worthless and can dump your $1000 camera and $700 lens on the pavement. Carbon Fiber tripods can cost twice as much and don’t seem to me to save that much in weight for the extra cost. But a flimsy tripod will not hold the camera steady for 10 or 20 minute exposures.
A cheaper alternative is Amvona who sells Hong Kong knock offs of Bogen tripods. I got mine from them when they were selling on eBay. It is a copy of the discontinued Bogen 3021 (which was selling for over $200 at the time, I paid $40) and is steady as a rock and very well made. The one problem I had was the feet fell off so I ended up gluing the feet to the legs and have had no trouble since then. You should check eBay to see if they are still selling there.
If you buy an Amvona I would not buy the tripod head from them, especially not the pistol grip looking one. I cannot comment on the newer ones they now have. The quick release failed, on my copy of that, and dropped my 350D and Sigma 15-30mm five feet onto a rock ledge.
Make sure you get a set of legs long enough for your height. legs that only open to 58 inches will not be much use if you are six foot two. The tripod needs to be able to support the weight of the camera and the heaviest lens, I think you want one the supports 9 or 10 pounds minimum.
Most tripods in this class will have leg spikes that can be extended to dig into the ground if you are on soil and not pavement. And some will have a hook at the end of the center post, that you can hang a weight from, to make them even more rigid. The extra weight would mostly be of use in windy conditions or if you had the tripod set up in an unstable position.
I’m not going to say much about heads. A good one is better than a cheap one. But they can get very pricey. I have an Acratech head and very much like it but my wife was taken aback when I wanted a $275 tripod head for Christmas. Really Right Stuff also makes excellent heads. I’m sure new users are saying you paid how much for a ballhead!? But a good one will help your photography and will lock the camera in an immovable position thru these long exposures. Manfrotto-Bogen make fairly good heads that cost a lot less. the Acratech and RRS are mid-priced heads not expensive ones, hard tho that may be to believe.
Remote releases, intervalometers and timers
To shoot one of these long exposure shots you need to lock down the shutter for the length of the exposure. You put the camera in Manual mode(M) and select Bulb (B) as the exposure duration. B holds the shutter open as long as the button is held in by your finger or by a locking remote control. You cannot hold the shutter button down for long periods without jarring the camera so some sort of remote control is needed.
You can get a remote release either as a wired version or a wireless radio type that has a receiver that plugs into the camera and a transmitter that you can trigger from a distance. There are infra-red triggers but you need to be in front of the camera to use them and they are reportedly of doubtful reliability. You can buy a remote from your camera manufacturer or use a third party version. Those seem to work well enough and are a fraction of the cost. Be sure to get a locking remote because your finger will get mighty tired holding that button down.
You can even make a remote. That link is for the Canon XXX series (350D, 400D ect.) but you can probably use Google to find a version for your camera body. The eBay remotes are so cheap that it hardy seems to make sense to make one. I’m not going to put up a link for those since it would probably go bad in a short time. One word of warning, Canon XXXD series cameras do not use the same plug on remotes as the XXD (30D, 40D ect). So be sure to get one that works on your model.
If you have a plain remote you will need some way to watch the time; either a watch with a light or some other timer. People are using small kitchen timers with a light. You can pick up one for less than $15.
The best way to do this is to buy an intervalometer, that is a remote that has a built in timer. You can set a single time or even set a series of shots with a duration and interval that you set. Again manufacturer and third party versions are available. Most intervalometers work as remote releases too so you won’t need both.
Flashlights, strobes and gels
I carry a couple of flashlights with me. A small led light for looking at the camera settings. And a bigger three cell led with 150 lumen output that is so bright you cannot look at the light. That is for light painting. The gels are to change the color of the light. We will get to light painting in another post. The big light is also good for picking your path in the dark.
Flashes or strobes can be used for light painting too.
Batteries and chairs
Your camera will eat batteries in very short times when you are doing long exposures. The camera uses power to hold the shutter open and I’d guess that my cameras have 60-90 minutes of shutter time in a fresh battery. That somewhat depends on the camera temperature. But 60 minutes means that 6 10 minute exposures will drain your battery. So carry extras. It is discouraging to have the light change from OK to absolutely wonderful and have your battery die.
The chair is somewhere to plant your body in while you wait for those 10 minutes to creep by (actually 20 minutes). I carry one of those ubiquitous folding canvas chairs that can be had for $12 or so.
Lastly carry a lens cloth and keep an eye on your lens. Night conditions are often damp conditions and your lens can fog up. And it’s no fun to get home and find a lot of photos that look like they were taken thru a shower curtain.
Well I see my word count is up over 1200 and I promised to keep these posts reasonably short so we will talk about actually taking night shots next time.