Tami Walker is a forth generation Zimbabwean who began studying ‘classical photography’ with analogue cameras many years ago. African wildlife and landscapes are her speciality and she does not consider herself a photographer in the truest sense but rather a photographic artist who uses Africa and all her beauty as a subject matter to create visually engaging images.
Tami gives some advice on night photography for anyone thinking of entering the Africa Geographic Photographer of the Year Competition:
“Undoubtedly there is something magical about night photography. I am lucky to be based in quite a spectacular part of the world in Victoria Falls. Here I can sit for hours in the dark, alone with all the sounds and smells of Africa.
A big issue many keen photographers have is that their cameras do not perform very well in low light. I shoot with very average lenses, on a Canon 7d which has a cropped frame sensor and is not as light sensitive as the full frame sensor cameras. This can present a challenge with astrophotography, but don’t let that deter you – you can still take very good photos without breaking the bank.
Similar to daytime photography, photos taken at night are dependent on the amount and type of light. Night photography is often easiest just after sundown or just before sunrise as you get a hint of ambient light from the sun, and a full moon can be useful to bring extra light to your subject. Make sure you check the moon phases as they can really make a difference to the scene, but the moon itself is a thing of beauty and photos of it can be very rewarding.
There are a few things that I find helpful:
It helps to have a ‘fast’ lens. The lower the f/number rating, the faster and better the lens will be for really dark shooting conditions. You can make do with a slower kit lens like the common 18-55mm, but bear in mind that you will see a substantial difference with a faster lens.
Your tripod needs to be stable enough for your camera. Mine is quite heavy and I often feel like a body builder lugging it around but as long as it is sturdy, it will do. Taking long exposures close to the falls is a bit tricky as the ground vibrates slightly so often I get slight camera shake.
Since you’ll be in the dark, a torch is quite important. It helps when adjusting camera settings, illuminating your foreground, and finding your lost bits when it’s time to pack up and go. I lose my car keys all time and found a carabiner clip as a key ring attached to my camera bag is also a lifesaver.
Trigger release or intervalometer
A trigger release will allow you to trigger your camera remotely without needing to touch the camera. This helps prevent vibration in the camera and be able to open your camera up for longer than 30 seconds when your camera is in bulb (beer) exposure mode.
Star Map App
This is handy to have when taking photos of the stars or even checking where the sun and moon rises and sets. I personally use Stellarium for Android or iOS. Stellarium shows a map of the stars with the plane of the Milky Way in view so you can more easily figure out where to point your camera. There are a few great free apps like Google Sky Map for Android or Night Sky Lite for iOS . The Photographer’s Ephemeris for Android and iOS will allow you to more accurately plan for the phase of the moon, moonrise, moonset, sunrise and sunset.
Focusing in the dark
I prefer to compose and focus whilst still light and come back to the camera later when it is dark. This is not always possible so you will want to make sure your lens is in manual focus mode (M or MF). I find manual focus with live view to be the most accurate method of focusing – try this combination if your camera has it. Enable live view on your camera and use the focus checking or the digital zoom function if supported. You can use a flash light with autofocus to help focus on an object in your foreground but make sure to switch the lens back to manual focus (MF) mode to lock the focus.
Take a test shot and zoom in on the LCD into the preview review to check the focus. Once your shots are in focus you can use a piece of sticky tape to place on your lens to keep it in place and help prevent you from bumping the focus by mistake.
Mirror lock is useful to improve the sharpness of your photos. You will notice that DSLR cameras move slightly as the mirror is moving inside. Some cameras offer the option to open the shutter before the capture. Then another press on the trigger release will start the capture.
Change your camera settings to enable long exposure noise reduction (if available). This will reduce grain on your photos by taking a second photograph without opening the shutter. It will add additional wait time to each exposure before you will be able to take another photo. Once you take your first exposure, check your image and your histogram to see a graphic display of our exposure and adjust accordingly.
Make sure your white balance is set correctly. I do not like to leave it on auto as it unexpectedly changes between shots. Note that many things like light pollution or moonlight can change the white balance. Shooting in RAW allows me to make adjustments to the white balance later so it not a train smash if your white balance is not how you want it.
Taking the photo
Once you find your location: setup your camera – think about factors will influence your exposure like moonlight, light pollution, your camera, and your lens. Always shoot in RAW if your camera has it, as it contains more data than other options, therefore giving more flexibility with post-processing adjustments.
RAW images are typically pretty flat and require some post processing to make the photograph as high quality as possible. I personally use Adobe Photoshop to process my photographs. Your camera probably came with a RAW editor that should work fine. Be careful not to over correct and reduce the quality of your photograph. There isn’t one right way to process your photo but as a basic general rule I like to adjust my white balance, curves, brightness, sharpness and noise reduction.
That basically sums it up, but even with very limited gadgets, it’s possible to create some amazing photographs at night time. This has hopefully given you the most basic tips needed to make some incredible photographs. All that is left is to just go out, play, have fun and let your creativity go wild. Charge your camera batteries – that is my ultimate rookie error.”