Last week, in the series How I Shot My Summer Vacation, professional photographer Tim Fraser taught us how to take lively people pictures. This week, it's all about mastering light at night.
Night photography can yield some of the most rewarding shots in your vacation pictures. Colours come alive, stark contrasts bring a new level of depth and emotion. Everything in your frame feels more vivid and alive in the dead of night.
However, low-light situations can be intimidating and frustrating to photograph. Shots are missed because of motion blur or an unsteady hand that makes the frame look shaky. Throwing in a bit of flash tends to ruin the look and mood brought out by the ambient light. And no matter what, you're never quite prepared to capture it when you stumble upon that exhilarating evening moment, having forgotten your tripod at home.
While everyone who sets out to capture a night scene should have a tripod handy (it's almost always a must), I'm the type that hates carrying one around and will find other means to get the picture. The saving grace trick for this is really no trick at all: It's stability. This means putting your camera on an immoveable surface or bracing it against one. Park benches, logs, lampposts … Whatever works to keep your camera steady. No tripod? Use what's around you.
While they're often the enemy, motion and blur can be friends to your picture as well. When properly utilized, a little motion can make the subject of a photograph seem more active in among the stationary elements. I'm a big fan of "panning" in low light: If a subject goes by me, I follow them with a steady hand. In the final picture, my subject comes into focus while the background morphs into streaked brushstrokes of painted light.
A special word about campfires: It's important to remember that fire is almost always going to be brighter in your picture than the light it will cast on the people around it, and the further from the fire, the darker they get. Second, the bigger the fire, the brighter. Smaller fires will require you to be steady with your camera or wink in a bit of flash, while a larger fire can be bright as day. If you can avoid using flash, firelight can be as moody and impactful as the light from the most glorious sunset.
The final key to getting that picture at night is to shoot a heck of a lot. There is plenty of trial and error into getting your midnight opus, and shooting over and over will mean there are options to look through when you're editing, making it easier to find the perfect frame to enter into your vacation slideshow.