Why Bracketing?

YosemiteAhwahneeSo how do we get that one ideal exposure in night photography?

The answer is … there isn’t one. That is, there isn’t just one.

Maybe the question oughta be, how do we capture an expressive image at night?

Getting a technically accurate exposure is not always the same as finding an expressive one. The former is commonly treated as purely objective, and can be analyzed to death. The latter is more subjective, and rests solely on what we see and how we see.

Unlike daytime photography, there is a lot less conventional wisdom about how nighttime images should look. Getting an expressive exposure is not just about matching what we see with our naked eye. Bracketing gives us the freedom to explore the possibilities.

One of the great benefits of bracketing long exposures is that we end up finding more than we are looking for. After all we are not just trying to take pictures. We are striving to make expressive images that reflect our own personal style and vision.

The more image variations we capture, the more options we have to choose from, and the greater the opportunities to discover, or rediscover, our ideal of the light we see at night.

Under exposure can produce an extremely low key, minimalistic style image that is dark and mysterious with very few details.

Over exposure can create a high key, impressionistic image with a strong sense of light, or a gentle glow reminiscent of soft focus lenses used early in the 20th century.

The result of over exposure is not the same as changing the luminance curve during image editing. The subtleties due to light spread create a unique look that cannot be duplicated through image editing alone.

Not all exposures of a given scene are necessarily desirable, or meet our aesthetic criteria, but we don’t really know until we actually witness the possibilities.

We expose ourselves to the possibilities by exposing our camera to the unexpected. And in the process, we learn to see how our camera sees, and embrace the unexpected.

IMAGE : The Ahwahnee, Yosemite, CA

  • Mouse over the image above to view the scene from an average exposure. If mouse over does not work, go to Why Bracketing? on my blog.

The longest exposure, or should I say the most over exposed shot from my bracketing session, produced a high key image. Lens flare haze contributed to the strong sense of light, giving the scene a more evocative look than an average exposure.

Most of my nighttime images are low key in nature. I chose the high key interpretation, over the less exposed renditions, to portray the setting in saturated light. This bathed the scene with a softer, more romantic atmosphere.

This high key image is the result of bracketing then selecting the 2 minute exposure shot at f8 with TMAX 3200 film. The average image is a blend of 15, 30 and 60 second exposures.

IMAGE TINT : GalleryCoolGray

The cool tint was chosen to convey the sense of light infusing the cold winter night.

This B&W image was tinted in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App SuiteProfiler. The Profile was derived from the “GalleryCoolGray” Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Why Bracketing?

Find a night scene with a full range of highlights and shadows. Perform a bracketing session making sure you capture plenty of under and over exposed images.

Afterwards identify the exposure that matches what you observed at the scene. Compare this to the less and more exposed images to see if any of the “unrealistic” versions have a stronger impact on you than the expected shot.

Be sure to review the Safety & Precautions page.

FEEDBACK : Why Bracketing?

Leave comments on this post to share your ideas and experience, or ask questions.

NEXT TIME : “Inspirational Light”


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Light Metering

010_AbqRailRunnerSleeperAnd now some bad news … light meters cannot be trusted at night.

But the good news … there’s no big mystery to understanding how light meters respond to nocturnal lighting conditions.

First of all, light meters don’t work in the dark, otherwise they would be called dark meters. When light meters fail, you are literally left in the dark, not knowing what to do next.

Secondly, light meters are overly influenced by light sources. Excluding light sources from your metering frame will remove the interference. Pointing your light meter in a different direction with similar lighting is the best approach.

If you are anticipating an expanded moment with incoming or outgoing light, you can trust a light meter reading taken without light sources. It is safe to vary your shutter speed a bit to capture the changes you’re after.

You need not worry about metering light sources directly, they will take care of themselves, as will lighting changes introduced during exposure.

Light meters only help us find the best “starting point” exposure. Keep in mind, you still need to Bracket to cover your ass.

Follow these steps to determine your “starting point” exposure when using your light meter:

HOW TO : Light Metering

  • review Bracketing steps outlined in Exposure Guidelines
  • pick your own aperture, or use the setting recommended in Aperture Settings
  • make sure your digital Auto Exposure (AE) is set to MANUAL

HOW TO : Light Metering Conditions

  • if light metering with light sources, go to Action #1
  • if light metering without light sources, equal shadows and highlights, go to Action #1
  • if light metering without light sources, more shadows than highlights, go to Action #2
  • if light metering without light sources, more highlights than shadows, go to Action #3
  • if light meter does not work because it is too dark, go to Action #4

HOW TO : Light Metering Actions

  1. use metered shutter speed for starting point exposure
  2. use double the shutter speed for starting point exposure
  3. use half the shutter speed for starting point exposure
  4. use 15 seconds for starting point shutter speed

IMAGE : Rail Runner & Sleeper, Albuquerque, NM

In 2010 I was one of six photographers selected by the Albuquerque Arts Program to photograph the city. My portfolio, “Rhythm of the Night”, depicts people and the city in motion. This is one image I shot for the assignment.

The Rail Runner is a commuter train that runs between Santa Fe and Belen. I went to the downtown station, and the first thing I noticed was this guy asleep on the bench.

To capture him with a train pulling into the station, I first set my aperture to f16 to handle the long depth of field.

The bright lights impacted my light meter, so I pointed my camera down, excluding the direct lights, to measure the proper shutter speed. I then doubled the shutter speed to record the details in the shadows.

Four trains came and went, and the sleeping guy never budged. This gave me the opportunity to capture more than one exposure of a train arriving while he slept.

The trains approached me very slowly, giving me the time I needed for my exposures. Eventually a train left and the guy was gone. I guess he woke up at the right time.

The small aperture setting created thinner light trails. It also increased the aperture starring of the bright lights.

The wide angle image was a 30 second exposure shot at f16 with TMAX 3200 film.

IMAGE TINT : GalleryWarmCool

I selected a warm tint with cool highlights to strengthen the tonal separation and enhance the clean, sharp look of the lights and light trails.

This B&W image was tinted in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App SuiteProfiler. The Profile was derived from the “GalleryWarmCool” Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Light Metering

Challenge yourself by photographing scenes that are “too dark” and “too light”. That is, search for subjects that are difficult to meter, as well as ones that include light sources.

Follow the light metering steps to determine the “starting point” shutter speed for your desired aperture setting. Perform your bracketing steps as usual.

When there are light sources in your composition, practice metering by excluding the lights from your reading.

Record the exposure choices you made to begin each bracketing session. Review the results to learn from your experience using your light meter.

Be sure to review the Safety & Precautions page.

NEXT TIME : “The Eye In Discovery”


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Aperture Settings

008_CarlsbadTrainBridgeNorthsideHow stationary and moving light sources reveal themselves in an image is strongly influenced by our aperture settings.

The length of a light trail, created by a moving light source, is dependent on the time of the exposure.

The width or thickness of the light trail is determined by the size of the aperture. The wider the aperture opening, the wider the streak of light recorded by the camera.

We will address the effects of aperture size on stationary light sources in the next post.

HOW TO : Aperture Optimization

In my earlier post exposure guidelines, I recommended shooting with an aperture setting of f5.6 at ISO 400. This was based on a relationship between your aperture and ISO sensitivity settings for recording desirable light trails.

For optimal moving light source treatment in an image, set your aperture according to the following equation and examples:

f-stop = SquareRoot ( 0.08 * ISO )

f4.0 ⇐ ISO 200
f5.6 ⇐ ISO 400
f8.0 ⇐ ISO 800

This is a rule, and you should not break it … just kidding.

It is safe to vary this by + or – one f-stop, but any aperture setting outside of this range may be less pleasing, and may render light trails that are overly thick or underly thin.

I encourage you to treat this equation as a starting point for your own experimentation, in search of your own visual aesthetics.

IMAGE : Rail Bridge, Engine Lights & River, Carlsbad, NM

This railroad bridge crosses the Pecos River. Every morning a cancellation of train engines travels north across the bridge to the railyard, where freight cars are on hold.

Yes, “a cancellation of trains” is the correct collective noun.

Five mornings I was up before dawn to capture the engine lights streaming through the frame of the bridge toward me.

I opened the shutter just as the front engine began illuminating the trusses of the bridge. My biggest challenge was to close the shutter at the right time so the streaking lights complemented the shape of the bridge.

This was my favorite of five exposures, all shot with the recommended f-stop for my film speed setting, ISO 800. The length and width of the light trails are aesthetically proportional to the bridge, matching what I envisioned in my mind’s eye.

This was a 45 to 50 second exposure taken at f8 with TMAX 3200 film shot at ISO 800. The engine lights were crossing the bridge in the image for only 5 to 10 seconds.

IMAGE TINT : GallerySteelGray

The cool steely gray toning was chosen to evoke the look of the bridge in the cold damp air. The same toning was selected for the image in my previous post.

This B&W image was toned in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App SuiteProfiler. The Profile was derived from the “GallerySteelGray”  Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Aperture Settings

Seek out one or more moving light sources to photography. Take a series of bracketed exposures using the recommended ISO and aperture combination.

Perform more bracketing sessions with different apertures without changing your ISO.

Compare your results to see the difference in light trail widths. Decide what aperture to ISO ratio looks the best to you. Start using that to capture your expanded moments.

Some examples of moving light sources are headlights, flashlights and stars.

Be sure to review the Safety & Precautions Page.

NEXT TIME : “Aperture Starring”


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Framing, Leveling & Focusing

006_JemezGilmanTunnelsThree fundamental preludes to capturing an image are framing, leveling and focusing.

These are fairly simple tasks in daylight, not so easy in low light.

Composing an image on a digital monitor or in a viewfinder is more demanding at night.

Typically framing is the first order of business, but will take more discovery work than during the day. You will most likely point your camera in different directions to examine the scene for framing and focusing.

Mama always said, “Level is as level does.” Leveling is visually subjective, and is especially difficult to gauge in the dark. Often what “level” means is relative to the visual elements in the image, and should be evaluated when viewing the resulting image.

Here are some suggestions to aid you in your image quest:

HOW TO : Framing

  • use a flashlight to light objects while viewing the scene
  • highlight corners of the image with light sources, like a lantern
  • take test shots, view on your digital monitor
  • take test shots with your flash, then view
  • use digital AF-assist illuminator
  • increase ISO to view on your monitor

HOW TO : Leveling

  • mechanical approach is to use a leveling bubble on your camera or tripod
  • flexible approach is to zoom out a bit to allow room for final image adjustment

HOW TO : Focusing

  • be sure to set digital Auto Focus (AF) to MANUAL
  • focus at infinity first then shorten focal length until in focus
  • focus on something well lit at the desired focal distance
  • use a flashlight to highlight a point of focus
  • take sample exposures, view on your digital monitor
  • measure distance with a tape measure for close subjects

IMAGE : Gilman Tunnels, Jemez Mountains, NM

The Gilman Tunnels are two miles up the canyon from our home. The logging industry transported timber by train through these tunnels over 60 years ago.

One moonless night I drove up to photograph the tunnels during a snowstorm. In my mind I pictured a scene filled with snowfall. When I arrived it was pitch black, no light at all. It was snowing very hard but I could not see anything without a flashlight.

“What to do? What to do?”

I drove through the first of two tunnels, parked my car and left the headlights on. I then walked back through the tunnel to set up my tripod and camera.

I used a lantern to light various points to help me frame and focus. Finally I left the lantern near the entrance to add fill lighting for the tunnel and the rock wall on the left.

I zoomed out a bit to give myself some wiggle room for framing and leveling the image after the fact. Good thing, leveling my camera did not produce an image that appeared level.

This is a good example of a minimalist style image even though it was a 12 minute exposure shot at f8 with TMAX 3200 film. Did I mention that it was very, very dark?

IMAGE TINT : GallerySeleniumGoldToner

In the darkroom Selenium toning creates a cool purplish hue in the darker tones. Combined with moderate Gold toning, the highlights are shaded bluish gray. The toning effect was selected to convey the look of cold light on the rocks.

This B&W image was toned in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The Profile was derived from the “GallerySeleniumGoldToner” Color Map created in SuiteProfiler.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Framing, Leveling & Focusing

Practice framing, leveling and focusing in a low lit room or backyard. Make use of the suggestions above to familiarize yourself with composing an image in the dark. Experiment with various approaches to discover what suits you best.

When you are comfortable, take your camera out at night, and seek out a very low lit scene. Challenge yourself but don’t overdo it. Compose and bracket to see what your camera sees.

Be sure to review the “Safety & Precautions” Page.

NEXT TIME : “The Expanded Moment”


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Exposure Guidelines

003_SanJoseHotelDeAnzaNight Photography can seem a little daunting at first, but not to worry, there is method to the madness.

The most practical approach to capturing good nighttime exposures is Bracketing, or as a friend of mine says “BLH”, meaning Bracket Like Hell.

The idea is to capture as much image data as you can through a wide range of exposures.

There are many reasons for bracketing. It is not just about getting the “right exposure” as in the daytime. We will discuss more about this in future posts.

For now, follow these basic Exposure Guidelines for both digit and film cameras:


  • set ISO to 400
  • set White Balance to Automatic
  • set Auto Focus (AF) to MANUAL (AF may disable camera if too dark)
  • set Auto Exposure (AE) to MANUAL (AE will under expose at night)
  • turn off Flash
  • set Shutter Speed to BULB for unsupported exposure times (e.g. > 30 seconds)


  • set ISO to the Film ISO, Film with ISO 400 is good for long exposures
  • correct White Balance for daylight color film with an 80A blue filter (optional)
  • do not use Flash
  • set Shutter Speed to BULB

EXPOSURE : Aperture

  • set Aperture (f-stop) to f5.6
  • do NOT change ISO or Aperture settings during Bracketing

EXPOSURE : “Starting Point” Shutter Speed

  • use Light Meter to establish the Starting Point Shutter Speed (if possible)
  • OR, set Shutter Speed to 1.0 second (if too dark for Light Meter)

EXPOSURE : Bracketing Shutter Speeds

  • make Starting Point exposure
  • make 3 to 5 subsequent exposures by doubling each exposure time

EXAMPLE : Bracketing Shutter Speeds

  • make Starting Point exposure of 1 second
  • make subsequent exposures of 2, 4, 8, 15, and 30 seconds
  • NOTE: do NOT change ISO and Aperture settings during bracketing

IMAGE : Hotel DeAnza, San Jose, CA

In 1991 I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area. One night in January, I looked out the window around midnight and saw fog, lots of fog. I grabbed my camera equipment and headed out.

I really had no idea what to do exactly. I just knew I needed to Bracket and hope for the best. I was so taken by Hotel DeAnza in the fog, I shot an entire roll of film to make sure I captured the right exposure, as well as the right composition.

That was the first time I had ventured out into the night to photograph. I did not get home until 6AM. No time for sleep, I got ready and left for work. I could not believe how much fun it was. I was especially excited after I developed my film. There was no looking back. I was completely captured by night photography.

The most successful exposures were 15 and 30 seconds shot at f8 with TMAX 3200 film. Bracketing gave me the result I was looking for.

IMAGE TINT : GallerySilver

Silver toning was chosen to accentuate the soft sense of light created by the fog.

This B&W image was tinted in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The cool tint was created to evoke a sense of the cold foggy night.

The Profile was derived from the Color Map “GallerySilver” created in SuiteProfiler. You can open the Color Map in SuiteProfiler if you have a Mac.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Exposure Guidelines

Go out into the night and find a low lit scene, something moderately challenging. Avoid places that are brightly lit. Set up your camera and tripod, then follow the Exposure Guidelines to capture a series by Bracketed exposures.

Afterwards examine your images for successful exposures.

If you think you did not succeed, do not get discouraged. Return to the same scene, follow the guidelines, but adjust your Starting Point exposure. If your images are all too dark, increase the Starting Point Shutter Speed. If your images are all too light, decrease it. Perform a series of Bracketed exposures again.

Be sure to review the “Safety & Precautions” page.


NEXT TIME : “The Great Diversity of Light”


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Camera Equipment

002_DurangoEngineEngineerThe practice of photographing at night means setting up your camera equipment and taking long exposures in the dark.

We will review the details of nighttime exposures in the next post but for now here is a list of the camera equipment you will need to capture your masterpieces in the dark.


  • camera & lens – of course
  • tripod – to hold your camera steady
  • extra lenses – for the possibilities
  • cable release / remote – to open & close the shutter
  • flashlight – to see what you are doing
  • watch / timer – to time your exposures
  • lens wiping tissue or clothe – condensation happens


  • light meter / spot meter – on or off camera
  • flash – off camera for use during a long exposure
  • lantern / extra lights – for lighting or focusing
  • neutral density filters – for longer exposures

REMINDERS : Safety & Precautions

  • Safety First! When you are ready to go outside to photograph, make sure you feel safe. Do not go out to photograph alone, especially into unfamiliar territory. Be sure to dress warmly and comfortably, even on warm nights it can cool down quickly.
  • When you do go out to photograph at night, do not set things down in the dark. It is easy to forget or overlook equipment that you cannot see. Be in the habit of keeping everything on you or in your camera bag.
  • Do not breathe on your lens. On cold nights you can easily fog your lens. You can even cause your lens to ice up when it is below freezing.

IMAGE : Engine & Engineer, Durango Railyard, CO

When I first saw this guy on top of the engine I knew I didn’t have much time. As I ran down the tracks I extended the legs on my tripod. I also double checked that the aperture was at f8 and the shutter was set to “bulb”.

Once in place, I had to frame and focus quickly, then open the shutter. My goal was to get as long of an exposure as I could. So instead of timing my exposure, I waited until the engineer started to move. The exposure turned out to be between 30-45 seconds, pretty perfect.

If I had taken a minute longer to start the exposure, I would have missed it. My experience of handling my camera equipment in the dark really paid off.

IMAGE TINT : GalleryAmber

This B&W image was tinted in Adobe Photoshop with an ICC Profile I generated from my Mac App “SuiteProfiler”. The profile was applied to the image with the “Convert to Profile…” command.

The Profile was derived from the Color Map “GalleryAmber” created in SuiteProfiler. You can open the Color Map in SuiteProfiler if you have a Mac.

Click these buttons to download the ICC Profile and SuiteProfiler Color Map:

EXERCISE : Camera Equipment

Practice setting up your camera & tripod in a dark room in your house. Turn off the lights and use only a flashlight. Make sure you are familiar enough with your camera to make your settings with “your eyes closed” or close to it.

Make sure your digital camera is set to “Manual Exposure” and “Manual Focus”. Your camera may not allow you to take pictures in “auto” modes in the dark.

Shine your flashlight on something, then practice focusing and framing through your viewfinder. Check if you can get a reading with your light meter.

This will prepare you for shooting in dark environments comfortably. Nothing worse than trying to learn something new in the dark.

NEXT TIME : “Exposure Guidelines”


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