11 Things That Can (WILL) Go Wrong On a Night Shoot

I think I do a pretty good job of paying attention to detail. I consider every little possibility and I don’t push the shutter button until I’m positive that everything is set up properly.

Some might even say I’m obsessive about it. (My wife uses another word.)

But try as I might, I haven’t been able to exterminate all of the gremlins that live a charmed life in my camera pack. The instant I unzip the cover, that rush of fresh air reenergizes them, even some I thought I had conquered long ago.

There is no cure. You can only treat the symptoms. Try to recognize where the gremlins are likely to attack and be as vigilant as you can.   

To that end, here are some things that night photographers should watch out for. Note that weather is not included because that is something that gremlins love to feast upon regardless of the type of photography you do. You always have to pay attention to the weather.

Oh, in case you’re wondering, yes, I have been victim to all of these. Often.

11   You trip over your tripod.

Seriously, it happens. Hey, it’s dark outside. Those tripod legs stick out farther than you think. If this is something you are especially prone to, you can tie ribbons to the lower leg collars of your tripod.

10   You can’t find your tripod.

There are many situations in which you set up your tripod and fire the shutter, then walk away from it and return later. Star trails, time lapses, and light painting the inside of structures are likely scenarios. If your tripod isn’t marked in some way, it can be very difficult to find when you return. And if you’re not careful, you could do a number 11 while you’re looking for it.

There is an easy solution. Hang one of those tiny penlights from the center post. Just make sure that the light is very dim and doesn’t interfere with whatever you’re shooting.

9   You lose your focus.

We’re not talking about your attention span here. You’d think that once you have the focus set on your lens you’d be good to go, but you had better watch out for this one.

There are two major causes. One is when you accidently turn the focusing ring when removing a filter or attaching a lens hood or dew heater. It also happens when you remove the camera from the tripod in order to focus on a specific object and then return the camera with the focus set. You have to be careful not to touch the focus ring when you do this.

The other reason is more common. If you have your camera set to focus when the shutter button is depressed, it will try to refocus when you take the picture. If the camera is also set to take a picture whether in focus or not, you’re going to get a fuzzy shot. If you have the menu set so the camera won’t fire unless the focus is set, the camera won’t fire because it’s trying to refocus. (BTW, this is by far the number one problem that beginning night photographers encounter. It usually happens with someone on every outing I lead.)

Gaffers tape on lens focusing ring.

You're likely to find gaffers tape on the focusing ring on my lenses at all times.

 

The solution is simple. Go into the menu and set the camera to focus only when you press the AF-ON button. This is called “back-button autofocus” and it effectively eliminates the possibility of the focus changing when you press the shutter release. (Thanks to my friend Jack Webb for illuminating me on something I should have figured out eons ago.)

Using back-button autofocus is only half of the solution, however. You still need to make sure you don’t accidently turn the focus ring after focus is set. The solution for that is gaffers tape. With an internal-focus lens, as most are these days, autofocus works even when the focus ring is taped in place.

In fact I usually keep my lenses taped, replacing the tape every so often so it doesn’t get too attached. I remove it only when I need to focus manually using Live View. (I haven’t been able to focus manually by looking through viewfinder in years.)

Oh, a word of advice. Don’t use any type of tape on your lens except gaffers or painters tape. All others, especially duct tape, could leave a sticky residue or worse.

8   You lose your power.

I know, you hear this one all the time. “Be sure to carry plenty of extra batteries.” But for a night photographer, it applies on a completely new level. It’s not just the camera, which you’ll often shoot all night long, draining several batteries. Flashlights, strobes, light-painting devices, dew heaters, intervalometers, alarm clocks, headlamps, laser pointers, and remote camera triggers are just some of the devices I use regularly in my night photography. These guys need juice.

Battery case.

The "Boy Scout" approach to always having plenty of juice.

 

7   Dew forms on your lens.

As soon as the front element of your lens reaches the dew point, you’re done for the night. Well, I guess if want your stars to have big halos around them you could keep shooting. The solution is to warm the front element slightly so it doesn’t reach the dew point.

One way is to use commercially available dew heater straps that operate on 12-volts. Another, and the one I use whenever I am very far from my truck, is to apply hand warmer packets around the lens barrel. I’ll be talking about this in detail in an upcoming post.

The results of a dew-covered camera lens.

The wind was blowing and I didn’t think dew was likely to form. But the wind died down while I was waiting in the truck and I didn’t pay attention. Big bulbous lenses like the Nikon 14-24 are especially prone to dew formation, since the front element is more exposed. Dew forms on the center of the lens first. The Geminid meteor and the stars around the perimeter are sharp, but Jupiter has a horrible halo and Orion is fuzzy. Fainters stars in the center are obscured entirely.

 

6   Hey, who turned the lights on?

You’re all set up to shoot a terrific night scene when, just before you press the shutter button, some bloke turns on a flood light or drives around the corner with his high beams on. Doesn’t he know you’re trying to take a photo? There’s usually nothing you can do, but if you happen to be shooting somewhere where you have some control over the surroundings, you’ll want to exercise it.

5   Hey, who turned the lights off?

You’re all set up to shoot a terrific night scene when, just before you press the shutter button, some bloke turns off the lights. This happens a lot when you shoot cityscapes and buildings. The lights on many structures, such as bridges and tourist attractions, are set to go off automatically at a certain time, often around midnight. So when you see a nicely lit scene and plan to return later, don’t assume it will look the same. Do some research.

4   You fall asleep.

It’s bound to happen. You set up to shoot continuous exposures for a star-trail or time-lapse sequence, then crawl into your car to wait it out. You fall asleep and your camera ends the sequence, just sitting there waiting on you to return and do something else with it. But you don’t return. The sun comes up and you wake up to somebody banging on your window, shouting something about trespassing.

Get an alarm clock. A LOUD one.

Night view of Queensboro Bridge in New York City.

I started shooting New York City’s Queensboro Bridge late one evening and was all set for a long session. But after firing just a few shots, someone turned the lights off! Nikon D700, Nikon 24-70 f/2.8 lens, ISO 200, f/11, 20 seconds.

 

Queensboro Bridge in New York City at night.

After the lights went out.

 

3   What day is this?

Oh, this is embarrassing. I almost didn’t include it because I didn’t want to have to admit that I’m guilty of it.

If you’re a serious night photographer, you’re planning your shoots well ahead of time, using all sorts of charts to let you know what’s going on. But planning isn’t worth a hill of beans if you don’t pay close attention to those charts.

On more than one occasion I’ve gone out to photograph an Iridium flare or the International Space Station, only to see nothing in the sky. Then I’d study the charts a little more closely and realize that I was there on the wrong day, or was there in the evening instead of morning. When it happened a few months ago I swore it would be the last time, but I’m afraid it just happened again last week. Man, what an idiot!

2   I swear I didn’t touch that button.

Yes, you did. It’s night. You’re cold, sleepy, hungry, thirsty, and you’re neck hurts from trying to compose a scene while lying on your back and shining a flashlight so you can see your subject. You’re not thinking things through like you should, and you’re not following your checklist before you fire the shutter. So you shoot at ISO 25,600 instead of 800 and JPEG instead of RAW. Only you didn’t bother to check the photo thoroughly right after you shot it, so it’s too late to do it right.

1   Sir, step away from the camera.

There are few sure bets. That Barack Obama will never be invited to give the keynote address for a National Rifle Association convention is probably a safe one. Another one is that you’re going to have a hard time convincing that cop that you’re just out there to take pictures. He sees a person doing surveillance work for a terrorist activity, not someone trying to get a good score at the next camera club meeting.

You can help your cause immeasurably by carrying some copies of your night photos with you at all times. Don’t try to tell him what you’re doing; show him. And give him your business card. If you don’t have one, make one. In fact, you might want to make a special business card just for this purpose. Something like, “Kevin Adams, night-photography professional, using specialized photo gear to capture night scenes in urban and natural environments.”

This might even work. But I’d also suggest you always keep your attorney’s number handy for that phone call. And be aware that a gremlin’s favorite hangout is a jail cell!

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