On Photography: Venturing Out at Night

Night photo Berea 1

Night photo Berea 2

On a recent Saturday night I decided to get reacquainted with night photography.

I had dabbled with taking photos during the nighttime hours, using available light, several years ago. I was still using film then and, for the most part, I had been pleased with the results.

I showed some of those images at an Akron Railroad Club member’s night.  That program, titled “between dawn and dusk,” had prompted one member to quip, “do you ever take photographs during the day?”

But I hadn’t tried night photography since going digital nearly four years ago. It was time to see what my digital camera could do after dark.

I went to Berea, had dinner at the restaurant in the old station there and waited for the night to come.

But even before the sunlight has slipped over the horizon for the day, I began facing the first of many challenges.

Those started with the realization that I had forgotten most of what I once knew about making time exposure photographs at night.

I took with me a book on how to use the particular model of camera that I have, but as I looked through it I realized that it lacked the instruction in night photography that I thought it would have.

Therein was lesson one about night photography. You need to prepare for your photo taking well before the sun goes down.

In this case, I should have reviewed the book before leaving home and not assumed that it had the instruction that I needed. Nonetheless, I decided to press ahead and do some experimenting.

I got the tripod out and set it up, only to learn that the knob that locks into place the component that levels the camera no longer works effectively.

It is an old tripod that I bought used and haven’t used that much.

The book I had brought along did have some useful tips, including an explanation of why you should manually focus your camera in low light situations rather than use the auto focus.

I quickly discovered that focusing in low light is not easy.

Framing the composition is tricky for the same reason. It’s dark and you can’t see well what you are including or not including.

But digital has the supreme advantage of immediately showing the results of your work. I did a lot of test shots and those helped me to hone the focus and composition as well as make other adjustments.

Now all I needed was a train, but CSX and Norfolk Southern were both in lull periods.

A westbound on CSX stone hoppers train finally came past just after 11 p.m. and it yielded my best image of the night (top photo above).

For this image I set the shutter speed to 2.3 seconds, with an aperture setting of f7.1 and ISO of 100.

A half hour later, another westbound CSX train rolled by and I decided to for one of those streaking light images (bottom photo above).

I set the camera to the bulb setting, holding the shutter open for 9 seconds with an aperture of f8 and ISO of 100.

I would rate the quality of both images as fair. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get, but at least I got something.

I also learned that next time I need to be better prepared by doing my homework before setting out for the scene.

I learned that I probably need a new tripod, but that isn’t in the cards right now.

Finally, I had just enough success to whet my appetite for doing more of this type of photography.

Although some guys specialize in nighttime photography, I don’t see myself going there. I do see myself learning to do more of it.

It is, I suppose, like learning to walk. Once you’ve done it you’ll want to keep doing it and keep working to get better at it.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

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