It’s not usual that when the sun goes down a lot of photographers will pack up their gear and go home. Those that hang in there frequently discover moments of exceptional beauty; magic shots that happen once in a lifetime.
Photographers, at least the good ones, are obsessed with light. So when the hydrogen ion key light, located 96 million miles from the subject, filtered through a 100 mile water vapor diffusion screen is no longer available, you’ll be working with artificial light or very long exposures. Usually a combination of both.
The challenge of artificial lighting at night is the wide range of color temperatures in any scene. Sodium vapor, halogens, mercury vapor, incandescents, fluorescents, high intensity discharge lamps all mixing together in bizarre and unusual ways. It’s enough to giver your camera’s automatic white balance fits. So one trick is to try bracketing your night shots with different AWB settings.
I think it’s best just to go with it instead of trying to do too much color correction on site. The different light temperatures mixing in strange ways is part of the appeal. If you need to do color correction, you can do most of that in post-processing, particularly if you shoot photos in RAW format.
There’s a certain time of day you’ll get the most dramatic shots. There’s a point when the light in the sky is fading but after the lights have come on. That’s the best time to start shooting and keep going until it’s completely dark.
I keep a flashlight with a red filter in my camera bag for working at night. It’s enough light to see the bubble levels on the tripod and camera settings but doesn’t blow your night vision. Use a velcro strap to keep your flashlight on your tripod so you can find it in the dark.
Level is a real problem when there’s no horizon in the viewfinder. This is one time you’ll have to trust your tripod.
Classic Night Shots
Some of the more classic night shot tricks are the red and yellow lines slashing through night shots of highways. Those are made by cars passing by during the exposure. That’s actually a pretty easy effect. You just have to find somewhere cars are moving fairly fast. Manually set your ISO to 160 or 200. You can either let the camera try to set the exposure or use the “B” function and hold it manually.
Let a few cars pass and see how it came out. Adjust and reshoot as necessary.
Another effect that can be used in conjunction with long-exposure night shots is light painting. You have many options for adding supplemental light of your own.
One easy trick is exposing the background, then paint a foreground object with fill flash. That works if you have a prominent foreground feature that doesn’t have any lighting on its own.
You can also take flashlights, glow sticks or other lights and draw or paint on the dark background.
Night photography is your one chance to let loose and go crazy and have some fun.