Night cinematography (landscape, architecture, portrait, etc.)

Marco B Divaio

Without light, no video. Intuitively, once the sun has set, we would therefore be tempted to think that we should put the camera away and go about our business. Except that the lights of the city have a particular charm that we sometimes want to cinematograph, especially during these festive periods when the light decorations begin to embellish our cities (and to add light pollution :P). Especially since in winter, the days are short. So let’s see together how to get out of a situation that may seem difficult at first.

At night, the main constraint is obviously the lack of light. Yes, I push open doors, but it is always important to ask the question of the constraints to face a cinematographic situation.

To take a night cinematography, you can play with three parameters:

  • Increase the aperture of the lens ( for example f/2.8 instead of f/4)
  • Slow down shutter speed (e.g. 1/25s instead of 1/50s )
  • Increase ISO sensitivity ( e.g. ISO 400 instead of ISO 100)

Note that the aperture is limited by the maximum aperture of your lens, the shutter speed depends on your stability and the presence or not of stabilization, or even of a tripod. Finally, the IS0 sensitivity is limited by the capabilities of your camera, which produces less and less clean images as you increase the ISO.

The tips for taking night videos will therefore mainly consist of maximizing these three parameters while obtaining a satisfactory result.

Night cinematography equipment and accessories

To increase the aperture, it will be preferable to work with very bright lenses, which therefore have a large maximum aperture.

It is often fixed focal lengths like the famous 50mm f/1.8, which will allow you to use a very large aperture and therefore maximize the amount of light that enters the camera. This is why cameras with interchangeable lenses such as SLRs and hybrids are the most suitable. That said, it’s not impossible with compacts and bridges, provided you play on increasing the exposure time (we’ll come back to this). Go for more on dzofilm.com.

To decrease the shutter speed, you will have to be careful not to create camera shake. From a certain speed, it will be impossible for you to shoot without properly stabilizing your device.

For reasonable speeds (like 1/15th), a stabilized lens can help you a lot, especially if you make the effort to be very stable yourself.

For slower speeds, you will definitely need to get a tripod. You can possibly put your camera on what you want (wall, statue, bench, cat, CRS car, …), but that will not always allow you to frame as you want. In short, buy yourself a tripod.

Finally, to increase the ISO while keeping a clean result, know that in general and to simplify, the larger the sensor and the newer the device, the more effective the noise reduction at high sensitivity will be. Thus, an SLR from last year will be more efficient than a compact from 3 years ago, of course.

That said, noise tends to concentrate in dark areas (like dark skies), take it easy on increasing the sensitivity, at the risk of ending up with a sky full of very ugly little colored stars. In any case, deal with the noise in post-processing in RAW (because you shoot in RAW, right?).

I’m not talking about the flash, because it’s going to ruin all the nocturnal ambiance of the cities you’re trying to convey. And no, it won’t illuminate the 20m high building in front of you, even if you turn it on. On the other hand, it can be useful if you want to take night portraits. In this case, choose a remote flash, or if you use the built-in flash, diffuse it AND lower its power.

Settings for night cinematography

Take a freehand night shot

First, push the ISO to your camera’s acceptable maximum (if you don’t know what “acceptable maximum” is, read this article on auto ISO sensitivity ). Trust me, you’ll need it if you’re shooting handheld. If you’re using a tripod, leave it at ISO 100.

Then several solutions:

  1. You switch to aperture priority mode  :
    • you open fully or almost (feel free to close the diaphragm a little if you are wide in terms of shutter speed)
    • you watch that the shutter speed that your camera will choose is sufficient to have a clear freehand shot. Remember the rule minimum speed = 1/ (focal length x 1.5).
    • if it is not, and moreover even if it is, use exposure compensation to underexpose the image: your camera will often tend to seek detail in the shadows. Underexposing by 1 or 2 stops is the equivalent of telling him ” it’s normal that it’s dark, don’t panic cushy “. (Yes, I call my device cushy ;P).
  2. You switch to speed priority mode  :
    • you choose the minimum speed you need to avoid camera shake
    • you let the camera open the diaphragm as it wants
    • here too, I strongly advise using exposure compensation.
  3. You use manual mode and make your own settings.

Take a night shot on a tripod

If you are shooting on a tripod:

  1. choose aperture priority
  2. adjust to have the depth of field you want
  3. then let the camera choose the shutter speed, possibly using exposure compensation.

Remember to turn off stabilization and use mirror lockup and a remote control, just like in any bulb exposure. If you want more details on the complete method for this, I wrote a full article on bulb exposure.

Tips for landscape, architecture, etc.

Night cinematography is a very diverse discipline: it can include urban landscapes, architecture, scenes of life, portraits, etc. The advice of these disciplines therefore applies to it just as much, even if they are limited. by constraints. That said, here are some loose tips that you may find useful to improve your night shots:

  • Shoot during “blue hour”. This is actually the time after the golden hours, when the sun has really set but the sky still remains royal blue for a few tens of minutes. Having a sky of this color is much more aesthetic than an all-black sky, and provides a complementary color to the orange-yellow of the night lights.
  • Water is your friend. Especially in long exposure, the reflections in the water are extremely aesthetic.
  • If you’re having trouble focusing, switch to Live View and focus naturally by magnifying the image.
  • Recharge your batteries well, the long exposure wears it out more quickly.
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