Seeing at Night: You and Your Camera
It gets dark at night. No surprise there of course. But there are great images to be made at the edge of dawn and dusk. Oh, what to do....
During broad daylight, it's easy to forget it, but your camera can't record an image at all without at least some light. With sufficient light, you press the shutter release and your camera goes click. That's that. The deed is done. Wildlife and sports photographers often hold down the shutter release to shoot a series of images in rapid fire succession. The rata-tat-tat sound produced ends up being more reminiscent of a machine gun than a camera, but each discreet click is an image being shot. When light levels start to wane though, each image can take a noticeable amount of time to record. That single click sound turns into two clicks, one from the mirror raising and the shutter opening and the second caused by the sound of the shutter closing and the mirror returning to its normal position. When it gets even darker, those clicks become so far apart it's easy to wonder if the second will ever arrive. More than once I've been guilty of assuming the shot must be over, hearing that final click only after I've touched the camera to get ready for the next shot. Ooops.
You can control how long a shot will take to some degree of course. Open up the aperture some and you use a faster shutter speed and still achieve the same exposure. There are consequences though since aperture also has a significant effect on depth of field. Most modern cameras can also create perfectly usable shots at higher ISO settings, allowing you to use shorter exposure times without changing aperture. Not that many years ago, serious photographers would do almost anything to avoid raising the ISO for fear of increased noise levels, but thankfully camera sensors have gotten much better of late. No matter what you do though, at some point, it will be dark enough that you can no longer avoid it. Eventually, you will be into long exposure territory.
It goes without saying that you'd better have a sturdy tripod, but I'll say it anyway since I see photographers all too often believe they can't skimp in this area. Sturdy tripods are heavy. Spend enough on carbon fiber and you can lighten your load somewhat, but a good tripod has to have some mass or it simply won't stay still when you need it to.
Back in the days of film photography, low light levels were ridiculously problematic since you could hardly even see what it was you were taking a picture of. I can remember trying all sorts of strategies to get a better handle on exposure at the edges of night. Up to a point, my camera could still meter if I mounted the fastest lens I had with me, then switch to the lens I really wanted to use and make the needed adjustments for the aperture and shutter speed I really wanted to shoot at. When in doubt, I would use up huge amounts of time, bracketing an exposure by varying the shutter speed. Hopefully at least something would turn out well once I got the film back.
These days, the fact that I can see the results on the camera back immediately after shooting ranks high on my list of favorite digital advantages. Long exposures and constant double checking on the camera back LCD screen both eat up battery power, but I'd rather carry a spare battery in my pocket than pack up for the night with that uneasy feeling that I have no good idea if I got the shot or not. Today I can fire a shot at whatever I believe to be the correct settings, then make the needed adjustments and try again, all while standing on location in the field. That's huge.
So clearly, it's not just your camera that has an increasingly hard time seeing as light levels drop. You and I can't see much in the dark either. When shooting, this won't bother you too much if you're familiar enough with your camera's controls, but there are limits. For example, I've personally never been very good at changing lenses in the dark. I carry a small flashlight in my pocket for such tasks, but this strategy isn't without its own potential issues. If the light is too bright, it can take some time for my eyes to readjust to the dark when I'm ready to shoot again. Red light has less impact on night vision than white light, so if you're shopping for a flashlight, look for one that lets you use a red lens filter. You can improvise your own instead with an inexpensive sheet of red lighting gel filter, a pair of scissors and possibly some duct tape. I've tried using a small headlamp instead of a flashlight, but this can sometimes get in the way when looking through the viewfinder in awkward positions so I've gone to using a flashlight I can retire to my pocket when not needed.
Not only do you need to see when shooting of course, you also have to see your way to the location you plan to shoot from, and find your way back afterward. For this, you'll need or at least want a much brighter flashlight than the red lens pocket flashlight discussed above. Frankly, the brighter the better is what is called for here. It's easy to take a wrong turn on an unfamiliar trail in the dark and realize what happened too late to make it on time to where you want to go. You do not want to get lost at night. Thankfully, this is another area where things have gotten better over the years. These days, I appreciate the safety net of knowing I have a GPS on my phone even though I hope to never need to rely on it.
If you've been using the same flashlight for some years now, you may want to look into buying a new one since the technology here has improved a lot too. Gone are the incandescent halogen bulbs that used to fail at the worst possible time. LED bulb design continues to get better and better and are today far brighter than traditional bulbs of any kind, and they need far less power too. The only significant downside to LED lights is their tendency to work fine one minute, but refuse to come on at all the next. With decreasing batter power, old-style flashlights would simply fade gradually in intensity, giving you plenty of opportunity to put in new batteries. LED bulbs require a minimum amount of power and work fine if your batteries can provide it, but fail utterly once they drop below that level. Bring spare batteries with you, and know where they are. Don't assume you can change batteries at the end of the day.
If your flashlight does die on you when you're hiking somewhere for sunrise, you can always resign yourself to sitting by the side of the trail until it gets light enough for you to see your way. You may miss the shoot, but at least you shouldn't have too long to wait before being saved by the rising sun. When shooting somewhere at sunset though, the stakes are notably higher. If your flashlight dies, you don't want to have to spend the night waiting for daylight. Not only does it get dark at night, it also gets cold and few of us hike prepared to spend the night. For this reason, I always carry a second flashlight as insurance. Even if the bulb isn't as likely to fail as they once did, there's no telling what else may happen.
Being prepared matters.