Expert Tips For Taking Photos Of Lights At Night

The Vivid outdoor lighting festival kicks off in Sydney tonight, bringing three weeks of light sculptures, multimedia artworks and stunning building projections around the city. If you’re planning to chronicle the event with your camera, it pays to know how to get the most out of your equipment. Here are 12 indispensable tips from Canon Collective photographers Greg Sullavan and Colin Baker that cover the basics of capturing light at night.

Greg Sullavan and Colin Baker are professional Australian photographers who currently moonlight as Canon ambassadors. As part of this partnership, they will both be attending Vivid Sydney, where the photography giant is hosting a range of experiences, including an interactive exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia.

With the annual light show about to kick off, many amateur photographers will be prepping their tripods and ISO settings to capture the best images possible. Here are Colin and Greg’s best tips, settings and tricks for snapping vibrant subject matter at low light.

Colin Baker

  1. “Take a tripod, a digital remote release (so you can do calculated long exposures), and your fastest lenses and brave the crowds to get the position you want.”
  2. “Keep your ISO as low as possible, check your composition and shoot the moment as it presents.”
  3. “Wide open with fast shutter will capture the video detail, but you’ll have to push your ISO to achieve correct exposure (i.e. 1/50th @ f1.4 @ 6400ISO). Tight with slow shutter will allow for a lower ISO but light detail may become washed out due to video movement (i.e. 30 sec @ f11 @ 100ISO).”
  4. “Look at the scene, calculate what you want the outcome to look like, choose the shutter speed, then select the aperture and ISO for your creative styling.”
  5. “Once you’ve determined all the obvious positions, explore the city and find locations and vantage points no-one’s using.”
  6. “Think about foreground interest to help separate the viewer’s eyes from the structure and add human appeal, which can also provide scale.”
  7. “If all else fails, come on a Canon Collective photo walk at Vivid Sydney, or one of our many Canon Collective events taking place around the country.”

Greg Sullavan:

  1. “Perspective. Look for a unique perspective that no-one else has seen before. A simple change in the angle or lens can create an image that takes your photography to the next level.”
  2. “Movement. Sometimes a long exposure can capture light trails of moving object such as Vivid Ferries in the harbour. Use a Tripod at 30 seconds, F8, 100 ISO to get started!”
  3. “Multiple Exposures. For many photographers, your camera is able to shoot multiple exposures. Set your camera up to multiple exposure, additive mode to build layers of light. Use a tripod and a cable release for best results. A camera setting of 30 seconds, F22, 100 ISO for 5 exposures would be a great starting place.”
  4. “Lens Twist. When shooting a long exposure on a tripod, why not add a creative twist by gently zooming forwards and backwards while the shutter is open. An exposure to start with might be 30 seconds, F22 at 800 ISO.”
  5. “Star Burst. Many wide angle Canon lenses will create a Star Burst when exposing a specular light source. This is caused by light bouncing off the aperture blades of the lens at the minimum aperture of F22. Try an exposure of 30 seconds, F22 at 800 ISO to get started!”

Here are a few examples of Greg’s Vivid photography alongside some additional shooting tips.

“This is shot on the railing of the overseas passenger terminal looking back at the city. 30 seconds at F8, 100 ISO. The railing is perfect for those that forget a tripod!”

“To freeze the detail of the artwork, so you will need a tripod and a camera setting of at least 1/15th at F2.8, 1600 ISO. For the best results, anticipate the artwork timing and let the sequence loupe through a couple of times.”

“This is shot from the back of the overseas passenger terminal. Notice that exposure gets the lights but without the movement. Exposure would be starting at 1/80th at F2.8 with an ISO of 6400.”

“This is handheld at 1/30th, F2.8 at 2000 ISO. The idea is to make the composition more about the people in the foreground silhouetted against the colour of the projection. (The image needs a little work as the edges show a Lightroom error in the lens correction algorithm – noisy and pink.)”

“Same view looking back from the balcony of the Overseas Passenger Terminal towards the city. The difference is the shutter is faster to capture the individual colours and freeze the people in the foreground. Exposure is 1/60th at F2.8, 3200 ISO. The lens selection is about 50mm to keep the perspective in the buildings.”

If you’re keen to learn more, Canon’s photography ambassadors will be providing low-light studio workshops and helicopter night flights during the three-week event. Head to Canon’s website for more details.

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