Turning Night into Day

January 02, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I started doing “Night to Day” images almost by accident. I had set out to take a star trail photo and had taken just a simple 30 second exposure at a high ISO to check my framing. When I got back to my computer I looked at the file and played around with the processing and loved the way the night looks as if it’s exposed like a daytime shot. The moon can cast such a strong shadow as well as really light up a scene during the course of a long exposure. About a week later I set out to try this method and I fell in love with it.  There is so much story told in the images. Stars move across the sky(actually the Earth is rotating and the stars are stationary) that look almost like meteors, the clouds streak across the sky and the water turns to glass and there is something magical about moonlight on a camera’s sensor that I just can’t get enough of. So many unique advantages appear during the long exposure which sets it apart from a typical daytime shot of the same scene.   Through the next several paragraphs I’ll walk you through how to set up and take your “Night to Day” shot.

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25 minutes, f/5.6, ISO100. Although it was relatively cloudy this night, the clouds streaked across the sky adding a really cool effect.

Gear: For this type of shot, there are a few special requirements. First and foremost, you need a stable tripod. Night photography means long exposures and your camera must be completely still if you want a crisp shot. I can’t say enough about having a very stable tripod. It is as important as the camera is. Second, you will need a camera with a bulb mode. Most cameras will only go to 30 second exposures and you will be going much longer than this. That brings us to our next piece of equipment, remote cable release. This can be either a manual shutter cable or a programmable intervalometer. I know some cameras even have more advanced devices which communicate via wifi through your smart phone. Either way, you’ll need one.  A very bright flashlight which will be used for focusing and composition.

Other than camera gear, I also suggest bringing a chair or sitting pad, snacks, cell phone with games, maybe a book or a magazine and a low light or red light headlamp. These exposures can get really long, upwards of 45 minutes. Find something to occupy yourself.

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4 minutes, f/7.1. ISO250

Ambient Conditions: Not every night is great for this type of photography. You will need at least 3/4 moon on a relatively clear night for the moon’s light to illuminate the scene enough. The best time is the couple of days before and after a full moon. You will also want to wait for both the sun to be set for about and hour and a half and the moon to have risen at least an hour and a half. And of course, if you are doing this in the morning, an hour before sunrise and before an hour until the moon sets. The reason for this is first for the sun, you want all the sun’s light gone, that interferes with the light from the moon and gives you a different feel. You can still end up with a cool image, but it won’t have the same appearance as a shot lit entirely by moonlight.

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16 minute exposure starting just after sunset and just before moonrise.

Compose your shot: This can be difficult in the dark so make sure you have a strong flashlight. Obviously if you have enough time, get to your locations while it is still bright outside and go through the motions of setting everything up. I will generally compose my night shots 1mm above what I plan on taking it with. That means I’ll compose at 13mm and shoot at 12. This helps make sure everything I want is in the frame and leaves room is my horizon isn’t perfect or if an edge object didn’t make it entirely into the frame.

Focus: In doing night photography, I have learned the value of hyperfocal distance. I always like to shoot at ISO100, so that leaves me with shutter and aperture to control the exposure. Typically with daytime landscapes I’m shooting at f/8 or f/11(sometimes higher, sometimes lower depending on the situation.) but having an aperture in that area for night photography can drastically increase your shutter length to very long durations and it isn’t entirely necessary. When shooting with an ultra wide-angle lens, you can have nearly an entire scene in focus at f/4. You can figure this out using any of the many depth of field calculators. Here’s the one I use. Using the settings for my setup (60D, 12mm, f/4), it figures if I focus on the spot 6.26 feet in front of me and I will have everything from 3.13 feet in front of me to infinity in focus. Now, I’m not out there with a measuring stick figuring all this out. I guesstimate the distances and have just gotten good at them over time. In using this method, focusing on a calculated distance might leave you focusing on nothing but blades of grass, which can be very difficult at night. For this, if there is an object at my hyperfocal distance, I’ll shine my bright flashlight on it and use Live view and 10x magnification and check my focus. If there is not an object, I’ll place my flashlight on the ground at the hyperfocal distance and use Live View 10x magnification to set focus.

Hyperfocal Distance

Hyperfocal Distance for a Canon 60D @12mm, f/4

Calculate Exposure: When calculating my night exposures, I’ll start with a 30 second exposure, f/4(or whatever your lowest aperture is) and ISO6400. From there I will look at the HISTOGRAM. Do not look at the image preview. The preview on the LCD is not very telling if you have the shot exposed properly. Exposure is important during night photography because pulling up dark nighttime shadows in an under exposed image in post will reveal a lot of noise. Here is where you want to favor the “expose to the right” method. It’s where you set your exposure so your histogram is all the way to the right side without clipping. This gets rid of any dark shadows and keeps the image bright and lower in noise. So, check the histogram and make sure you are away from the left side of the histogram. If not, change your settings accordingly and repeat until you get a good histogram with no clipping of shadows or highlights and the bulk of the histogram is to the right. From there, calculate your exposure to ISO100 and whatever your aperture is going to be set at. For example, if 30 seconds, f/4, ISO6400 looked good, its equivalent exposure would be 32 minutes, f/4, ISO100. You can do this in your head or use an app to calculate it. When I know I’m going to be in the 20+ minute range, I’ll normally do both, just to be sure.

Shoot To The Right Histogram

This is what your histogram might look like.

Now that you’ve composed your shot, focused your shot, and calculated your exposure you’re all set right? Well almost. Now let’s go over some additional settings. First and foremost, shoot in RAW format. This is very important. When you shoot in RAW format, your camera retains the most information about that image and saves it for you to manipulate later in post processing. Things like changing the exposure or the white balance in post will yield better results with the RAW file than it will with the saved JPG output from the camera.

Next you will need to decide if you want to use your cameras Lone Exposure Noise Reduction function. (I am a Canon user and that is what they call it, Nikon has their version of the same function.) I like to utilize this because during the course of the long exposure, the sensor heats up and pixel sites will become “hot” and leave spots all over your image which typical noise reduction does not take care of. This is also more prevalent with crop sensors than full frame sensors. What it does is it takes a second exposure, using the same settings from the first but with the shutter curtain closed. It then finds all the hot pixels and maps them out and writes it to the RAW file, thus cleaning up your image. During this “second exposure” you can pick up your tripod and walk around and start to set your camera up for your next shot because remember, the shutter is closed. I find this much more appealing than going through in post processing and cloning out hundreds of little spots on my images. It can sometimes take a long time, depending on what your exposure is, but I’d rather spend more time in the field than on my computer.

Now your ready to take your shot. Once you’ve ensured you’ve set everything up to your liking, fire that remote cable release button. The last thing you want to do is forget something and wait 30 minutes to realize it.

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Turning night into day during the fall season brings wonderfully saturated colors with little to no channel clipping due to the soft moon light.

I hope this gives you a great head start on taking really neat nighttime images and that you’ve found this post useful. I’ll update this post with new or corrected information if I find it and let me know in the comments if you have any tips or tricks you’d like to add. As well, if this article helped you take a Night to Day image, I’d love to see it.


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