Night Photography Tips

By AR on May 13, 2016

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Night Photography Tips

Words and Photos by Ian Coble

Trying to shoot photos of your RC car can be a daunting task. Often times, still photos look static and boring with no sense of motion or action to engage your viewer. In this blog post we’re going to look at some simple ways to spice up your photography of your RC car by shooting at night time.

We’ll start out with some quick and easy techniques that anyone can add to their skill set to produce better photos. Towards the end of this post, I’ll get into some more technical concepts if you want to really “dork out” on the nuances of night photography.

The following are some basic tips to keep in mind regardless of what type of camera you’re shooting:

When you’re first getting started, try to focus on your camera angle. It’s really easy and natural to want to shoot from your eye level. It doesn’t require bending down and it’s easy… hence making it the go to angle for most photographers. But when shooting RC cars, that “eye level” angle makes the car look like a miniature toy and not something interesting. I’ve found it best to get pretty close to the ground (6-12 inches off the ground) for the best results.

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If you shoot at night, (in full darkness) you’re going to be limited as to what your camera can “see”. While you’ll be able to see the lights on your car, just about everything else will be pitch black. (If you’re using a DSLR camera, your camera’s sensor will be able to pull detail out of the darkness, but if you’re using your smartphone, there’s not a lot of hope.) For best results, try shooting the 45 minutes before sunrise or after sunset. The residual light on the horizon will give a soft glow to the sky and will allow your camera to take nicer/ more appealing photos. Try including the sky in the frame and that residual light will also give added depth to your photos.

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If you have to shoot at night, in full darkness, consider bringing along a flashlight to help add more detail to the landscape. With your cameras (or smartphones) shutter open for a long amount of time, you can use a technique called “light painting” where you use your flashlight to add light into areas that are too dark. What does that mean exactly? With light painting you use your flashlight like a paintbrush. Shine it wherever you want more detail in the final image. You can do this by shining it along the ground to bring out added detail in the dirt, or by shining it on the trees so that you can see the detail in the leaves. Finally, you can also use it to “paint” more detail into your car (keep reading to learn more about this application)

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Let’s start out simple and use the camera that most everyone carries with them every day… your Smartphone.  Aside from the fact that you most likely already own one, there’s very little in the way of added gear that you’ll need to invest in. All you’ll need to do is get an app that will allow you to shoot photos at slow shutter speeds. I use SlowShutter as my personal go to app for this. It’s cheap at $.99 and isn’t difficult to figure out.

(If you’re using SlowShutter, be sure to adjust the settings, in picture resolution to 8MP (30fps) or your photos will be so small they’ll be unusable for anything other than looking at them on your phone. I made this mistake my first time using the app and most of my photos didn’t turn out).

Aside from your phone and an app, you should really consider a tripod and tripod adaptor for your phone. But don’t worry, you can pick up both for pretty cheap. A small backpacking tripod should run you between $25-$50. I personally use the Manfrotto 709B tripod and love it’s adjustability and packability. Also, you’ll need a smart phone adaptor which will run around $30. My go to choice is the MeFoto Sidekick 360 phone mount.

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Now that we’ve covered the basic gear that you’ll need, let’s take a look at some easy techniques to get the best photos possible.

There are two primary types of shots you can shoot with your smartphone:

1. Long exposures: where the lights on your car leave a trail where ever it’s been. You won’t be able to see the car, but you’ll have streaks of light instead. This is great if you’re trying to capture the landscape and get a sense of where you’ve been.

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To achieve this, set your phone on your tripod and set your shutter speed to somewhere in the 5-15 seconds window (this will be dictated based on how far you want to capture your RC car moving). Click the shutter and then begin driving. Try not to go straight at your smartphone (as the lights will create lens flare) but instead, go at an angle or across the frame. The further you go and the more turns you make, the more interesting your photo will turn out.

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2. Shorter exposures: where your car is visible and crisp with light streaks behind it. These photos are great for showing the details in your car while also giving the image a sense of movement or speed.

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These shots are a little more difficult to achieve, but the results can be really fun.
To achieve these types of photos, switch your smartphone app to “light trail” capture mode (assuming you’re using SlowShutter). Position your RC car close to your smartphone and frame it up so that it’s at about a 45 degree angle, so you can see the details in the car. Focus your phone on your car, then click the shutter.

Here’s where it gets a little tricky. Once you click the shutter, wait for about 5-10 seconds before you do anything. The longer your car sits in one place, the crisper its image will be in the final photo. Once you’ve waited that time, now drive your car in REVERSE, away from the camera. This might sound counter intuitive, but it will create the light streaks that you’re trying to achieve… trust me.

This is a perfect time to add some light painting into your shot (mentioned earlier). While your car is sitting still for that first 5-10 seconds, shine your flashlight around the car to get more detail into it. Turn off the flashlight and drive in reverse. Your car will have more detail this way.

Play around with the duration of your shutter speed and how far you place your smartphone from the car to achieve different looks. Also, if you can find hilly terrain to shoot in, even better, as it will add a vertical movement in the frame instead of just left to right.

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If you’re liking this style of photography but want to move to a higher quality camera than your smartphone, then this next part is for you. Any camera that has the ability to control shutter speed will work for night photography, but a DSLR is going to be your best bet as it has the most room to control every variable. Other than that, all you need is a tripod.

(In the name of keeping this post short, I won’t go into too much detail, but if you’d like to learn more please check out my night photography tutorials I’ve done HERE and HERE .)

Most of the techniques that I described earlier will work on your DSLR just like they worked on your phone. However, the resolution will be better and you’ll have more detail in the dark areas of the frame.

There is another technique that I haven’t touched on yet, that only a higher end camera will be capable of. This technique is known as “rear curtain synch”. It involves using the flash on your camera during long exposures and programming the flash to “pop” right before the shutter closes (at the end of the exposure, instead of at the beginning). (Most higher end cameras will have a setting for flash type. Look at your cameras manual and see if allows this type of shooting.)

Using this style of shooting will allow you to drive your RC car across the frame and capture the light trails behind it, but with the added bonus of freezing the entire scene (including your RC Car) at the end of the exposure. Scenario 2 from our Smartphone example is similar to this, but this technique is much more precise and doesn’t require you to sit still for the first 5-10 seconds… or drive in reverse.

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Now that you have the basic techniques and the know-how to carry them out, get out there and practice and experiment. At first it will be confusing, but the more you try it, the easier it will become and the better your results will be.

Good luck and enjoy!!!

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About the Author: Ian Coble is a Commercial Sports Photographer specializing in Action Sports. He’s been shooting professionally for 12 years and has worked with some of the worlds best athletes for clients like Red Bull, ESPN, REI, K2, Eddie Bauer, North Face, Oakley and many, many others. While RC cars might not seem like they have a lot in common with action sports, the camera techniques used are very similar. As an RC fan, Ian was stoked to work on this blog post with Axial to share some of his tips. Check out his website at www.iancoble.com if you’d like to see more of his work.


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