This year, during the Christmas holiday, I tried several night photography shots in snowy, cold weather.
Close up detail of mini white Christmas lights outdoors at night--photograph by Marie Kazalia
I hadn't done night photography in a very long time--in fact, the last time I shot at night I was shooting with film in an SLR camera in mild weather temperatures in California. This year, I'm in snowy, cold temperatures, using a DSLR and the weather conditions created some obstacles for me. Perhaps sharing my experiences here will help you the first time you go out to shoot at night.
Planning Ahead to Get the Best Shots
First, planning ahead is important. Find out what time the sun sets in your area. You can do an online search or download and use an app like the Sunrise Sunset app available free on Google Play here and free in the iTunes store here. Then plan your travel time so that you arrive before the sun sets so that you can see well enough to plan your compositions and set up your tripod.
Shoot During the Blue Hour
Once the sun sets, you can begin getting your best shots during the "blue hour." The "blue hour" is a photography term that refers to the time after the sun goes below the horizon and the sky becomes a deep blue for a while--this can last from 10-15 minutes or even an hour or more.
Set Your Camera White Balance
You can further enhance the blue sky of the "blue hour" by setting your camera White Balance to the Fluorescent white light setting. Although a Daylight White Balance setting can also yield good results under certain conditions. It's best to try different settings to get the results you like best.
You can scout-out possible scenes in your area that you'd like to try at night or you can set something up in your own yard.
Below is a photograph I made using two strings of white mini lights that I purchased to string up and illuminate at night to try out my camera settings and exposure times. The one below turned out good enough for me to upload to my Shutterstock portfolio and a buyer downloaded it the same day.
Controlling Bokeh Effects in Your Image
Notice the bokeh effect or defocused lights on the right side of the image that creates a spot pattern. This is a technique very popular with photographers and microstock photo buyers.
Bokeh is a Japanese word that has to do with the aesthetic quality of of the blur produced in the out-of-focus areas of a photograph created by the lens. One of the easiest ways to create bokeh light patterns is to use your lens "wide open" --that is at the widest aperture setting, such as f2.8 or f3.5.
Bokeh light pattern--photography by Marie Kazalia
You can defocus the entire night light scene for a completely abstract pattern effect, as above, or use selective focus to create bokeh in select areas of your images, as in the upper left area in the image below.
Christmas lights at night--photograph by Marie Kazalia
Blue Christmas tree at night--photograph by Marie Kazalia
With lens aperture set at f8, the blue lights on the tree in foreground are sharply focused and the distant color lights are soft--for an increased bokeh effect try using a wider aperture, such as f5.6, f4, f35, f2.8.
Use your focal point to place your bokeh where you want it in your image--such as in the examples below:
I focused on the green lights on the tree trunk in foreground in this photograph(above), using an aperture of f8. To change the same scene, below, I changed my focus to the lights in the background making the green lights on the tree trunk softer in focus.
Using a tripod and a long exposure of one second or more, you can eliminate unwanted and distracting elements from your photo--such as in the image below:
Two blue Christmas trees in snow at night--photograph by Marie Kazalia
With camera on tripod, and a long exposure of two seconds, I was able to eliminate the cars moving on the street in back--turning the red taillights on the passing cars into red light streaks.
In the photograph below, I created the "star effect" on each of the individual mini light on the bush by stopping down my aperture to f14. You can try f14, f16, f18, to f22 with long exposures to get similar star effects on lights. The larger the light--such as a street light--the larger the star.
Of course, alternatively, you may wish to have your night scene sharply focused! In that case you will need a tripod for long exposures at night. You will also need a shutter release to ensure sharpness of your image, because when you press your shutter button using your finger when your camera is set at a slow shutter speed you risk camera movement and blur in your image. I use the Trigger Trap app on my Smart Phone. The Trigger Trap app has timer features.
Gazebo at night--photograph by Marie Kazalia
Notice the greenish light on the small building in the background. That light is likely a type of lighting known as Sodium-Vapor light. You will often find Sodium-Vapor lights in parking lots and street lights. Try the Sodium-Vapor White Balance setting in your DSLR camera menu. Lights vary in color with age and other factors, so experimentation is often best.
Celebration lights on gazebo and bush at night--photography by Marie Kazalia
Below, you can see the difference in the the two images by waiting for the sun to go below the horizon.
Photograph at sunset, above, same scene during the "Blue hour" below--
All photographs by Marie Kazalia