It’s kind of funny the way people are often interested in what camera settings you used. Do you find that?
It’s largely irrelevant, because you can’t go out to the same location at roughly (or even precisely) the same time of day, dial in the same settings and hope to get the same results. Why’s that then? Well, there are so many other variables: the weather conditions will affect the air quality and clarity, it may be overcast when originally it wasn’t, others will probably not be using the same camera and lens and even if they are, they might respond differently; and those are just some of the variables. On top of that there’s the post-processing to factor in.
What’s more important is knowing how to use your settings to get the results you want knowing how your particular kit behaves.
Let me talk you through the above three photos all of which were taken on the same night in Perth, Scotland. I had been to the location before with just my iPhone to take some scoping out shots and get a sense of what I wanted to come back and shoot properly. That pre-shoot visit was really helpful in allowing me to get a sense of how the lighting was working, the scale, and some preferred vantage points. Based on that, I began to think about what kind of shots I wanted to achieve and how I would go about getting them.
For the shots across the River Tay, I was certain that I wanted to soften the water and therefore blur the reflected light which would offer a contrast to the sharper definition on land. To achieve that, I knew I would need a long exposure. However, I also wanted to minimise grain (or noise, if you were raised in the digital age) which might be an issue with a long exposure at night. I opted to shoot at ISO 100, knowing that the relative lack of light sensitivity at this setting would push for a longer exposure. So, I’ve now considered ISO and exposure time (shutter speed) leaving the issue of aperture. Here, I was mainly concerned to shoot near the sweet spot of the lens, the aperture where the lens is sharpest and performs best. For the lens I was using that was going to be somewhere between f8 and f11. So, I opted for aperture priority, setting that to f10 on an ISO setting of 100. I then had a look to see what the camera was choosing for an exposure time. For both shots across the river, that was coming in at around 30 seconds which I was happy would be long enough for the effect I wanted, and so it turned out. Had it been longer, I might have had to consider changing the ISO. It’s a juggling act.
I used the same basic thought flow for the shot of the catering van but I wanted something more subtle here. The plan was to include some human interest but in a way that a slow exposure would blur the movement of the people. However, an exposure time of 30 seconds would be too long and could almost render the people invisible. I was looking for something nearer five to ten seconds, but also wanted to shoot within the sweet spot range and keep the ISO low. In the event, the lighting here allowed me to shoot at f8, stay at ISO 100 and get the kind of exposure time I needed. I’m certainly pleased with the result.
Post-processing was fairly light touch, really and done only in Lightroom. I’ll often use Photoshop for sharpening, but in this instance Lightroom did all I needed. One of the issues with night photography with the range of lights here, is that some areas had highlights that were just too bright so I needed to treat them specifically with the brush tool.
So, there you have it. Don’t be too bothered about what settings anyone used for their photos. I know it’s interesting and I’m as culpable as anyone for often providing that information, but it actually tells you relatively little that’s actually all that useful. Better to understand how to use the settings to achieve the shot you want, whether that’s in a very structured pre-planned way or in the moment when a composition lies before you.
Most of all, have fun and enjoy the good feeling of pulling off a photo just as you envisioned it.