Nighttime is the right time

The summer season is vacation time for most people. Some families may drive on short trips to relatively local tourist attractions, while others may fly off to more faraway/exotic locations. Whether you take a holiday near or far, photos of your vacation are always a part of the equation.

Most will schedule their itineraries to see the sights during the day and put away their cameras after the sun goes down, but don’t forget that nighttime can be a great opportunity for travel pictures as well as the day.

There are a couple of things to think about. Obviously, there is less light at night, so one has to think about compensating for the relative darkness. You’ll either have to increase you camera’s ISO (its light sensitivity), increase your exposure (by using a wider aperture/slower shutter speed combination) or both. The trade off with higher ISOs is more noise, the tiny (and sometimes not-so-tiny) speckles that a photo can get. The higher the ISO, the more noise you’ll get.

Using the slower shutter speed/wider aperture can avoid noise but it will be more difficult to hold the camera still, and you’ll have blurry pictures due to camera shake. The first and best option to quell camera motion is to use a sturdy tripod. The main drawback is that it can be large and bulky to carry around and difficult to pack on a trip. It may not be too much of a problem if you’re driving: you can just stow it in the in trunk of your car with the rest of your luggage. But if you’re flying, every inch of space and ounce of weight comes at a premium, so bringing a tripod may not be a viable option.

There are a few techniques you can use to hold the camera still without a tripod, however. First, at around 1/60th to 1/15th of a second, it’s still possible to hand-hold a DSLR camera, but with lots of patience and practice. You can try bracing yourself against something solid, such as a pole or a wall. Tuck your arms in, press the camera against your forehead as you look through the viewfinder, breathe slowly (or even hold your breath). Cradle the bottom of the camera with the palm of your left hand and as you press down on the shutter button, slowly and evenly press up with the bottom hand with and equal about of pressure. It takes lots practice to master — and make sure you don’t drink a lot of coffee or Red Bull before hand.

For even slower speeds, there’s just no way that anyone can hand-hold the camera securely. Without a tripod, you’ll have figure out a way to simulate one. First, find an immobile surface, such as a fence, wall, post, etc. Place your camera on it and press down on its top sot that it doesn’t move while simultaneously pushing the shutter button. Be careful not to move the camera as even the slightest motion can cause your photos to be blurry. The beauty of this technique is that, from DSLRs, to point-and-shoots, to cell phone cameras, you can use it for any kind of device.

On a recent trip to San Luis Obispo, my family and I visited nearby Avila Beach. The waves serenely curled up on the sandy shore just in front of a quaint row of beachfront shops and restaurants. A pair of swing sets allowed children (and some adults) to play right on the beach. The sun set beyond some hills along the cove that shelters the town, and the azure sky of “blue hour” descended upon the small town. I bumped up the ISO as high as I was comfortable with on my camera (about 800 on a Canon EOS 20D). Streetlights and bright neon of the oceanfront businesses popped on, and a full moon rose over the small town. It took on a slightly different feel, still quaint but somehow with a little more depth.

When my daughter and I took a short trip to New York, we set aside time to explore Manhattan at night. New York truly is the “city that never sleeps.” There is something going on somewhere at anytime of the day or night. And from Radio City Music Hall to the Empire State Building, everything is lit up at night.

Times Square at night is a must for any tourist, and we were no different. There is so much light there that one can easily hand-hold a camera without much of a problem. I think the biggest concern is trying not to get jostled by the multitude of other sightseers there.

After Times Square, we made our way to Rockefeller Center. On the 70th floor is the Top of the Rock observation deck that looks out onto the city, and the view from it at night is breath taking. (There’s one on the Empire State Building that’s even higher up, but if you want the Empire State in the photo, Rockefeller Center is your bet.) We were traveling light and didn’t bring a tripod, so I placed my camera on a concrete wall around the upper portion of the observation deck. I held it down securely and took several time exposures of the city. My daughter even took some fancy abstract photos by zooming the camera’s lens out during her exposures.

When you travel, go ahead and keep your daytime itinerary during your vacation, but just remember to build in some time for some night shots, because when it comes to pictures, nighttime can often be the right time.

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