Choose the right camera
Things to consider when shooting night scenes and fireworks
What to look for
Get it right and night-time shooting can render the most satisfying results of any photography. The best cameras give you full control over shutter speed and the ability to restrict the amount of incoming light.
To take striking cityscape photos you need to extend the length of each exposure to compensate for the lack of light.
Look for a camera that makes it easy to set the shutter speed manually, preferably with a dedicated mode selector wheel or, where available, a secondary wheel like the ones found on the Leica M9 or Fujifilm X-Pro1.
These are handy as they let you set the exposure duration without using the screen. Every time you resort to the screen to change a setting, you'll have to wait for your eyes to become accustomed to your dark surroundings again.
Choosing a low sensitivity and dialling down the exposure compensation lets you extend the exposure time without burning out details, so pick a camera that puts both of these settings within easy reach.
Compacts will often allocate spots to both sensitivity and exposure compensation on the multi-direction controller beside the screen. (Exposure compensation is often marked by the letters EV or a square, halved diagonally, with '+' and '-' on either half.) These settings are usually split out onto separate buttons on a dSLR.
You will often enjoy greater flexibility if your budget can extend to a dSLR, bridge camera or compact with an interchangeable lens, as they allow for longer exposures than most compacts. If night-time architectural photography is your thing, look for a camera that lets you achieve exposures of 20-30 seconds. Many compacts cap the exposure time at 8 seconds or less.
The benefits of a dSLR
If your budget can accommodate any kind of interchangeable-lens camera -- even an entry-level dSLR -- then investing in a compatible neutral density filter will enable you to restrict the amount of light that comes in through the lens to achieve even longer exposures. This helps to smooth out ripples on water for better night-time reflections. Opt for an ND4, ND6 or ND8 filter, depending on how strong an effect you want to achieve. The higher the number, the less light it lets through, and the longer you can leave the sensor exposed.
You need to make sure you don't wobble the camera during the exposure, or you'll blur the result. So as well as a tripod mount, check that your chosen camera allows for remote shutter release by means of a button attached by a cable (usually hidden behind a small flap).
It's not necessary to buy a release cable of the same brand as your camera -- far cheaper third-party alternatives are available for the major brands on eBay. If possible, buy one with a switch that holds the release button down, for use when your camera is set to bulb mode.
Don't buy an infrared remote to fire the shutter, as you'll often have to stand in front of the camera to use it, which means you'll block out part of the picture. These are better used for taking group photos in which you also want to appear.
The benefits of a compact camera
While compact cameras aren't as flexible as dSLRs in this area, don't write them off. If you're set on buying a compact, make sure it has a dedicated night or fireworks mode, which will usually extend the exposure time, and that it has a self-timer to fire the shutter with a delay. By the time the countdown reaches zero, any wobbles caused by you pressing the shutter button and then letting go of the camera should have subsided.
If you have a smart phone running Google's Android or Apple's iOS software, then also look for cameras that allow you to control them remotely from your phone. This will allow you to achieve the same no-contact shooting as you would with the dSLR and cable.
Night-shooting wish list
- Quick access to shutter speeds
- Shutter speeds of 20-30 seconds
- Accessible exposure compensation
- Lens thread for filters
- Cable release socket
- Shutter delay feature