Slow shutter night landscapes

Here is my method for daytime landscapes which is also suited to long exposures of at night of cars.

  1. Focus on something a third into the scene preferably a point that is well lit and has good contrast, like a point on the road. You could try aim at the grass, but if the grass is in the dark in your photos then you camera will probably struggle and decide to focus to infinity. (regarding contrast if you try to focus on a plain white ceiling and you’ll find the camera has nothing of contrast to focus on, so focus on a light on the ceiling in that situation)
  2. Do trial exposures. No tripod necessary yet. Leave ISO on Auto and max of 3200 or higher is fine. Set your camera on Aperture priority at the brightest (f/3.5). Hold still, lean against something maybe and take a photo.You might get something like 1/8s or 3seconds, but the you will get an indication of exposure. If the camera sees a mostly dark sky, it will compensate by burning out the ground to bright highlights. If you have a street lamp in the middle of the photo, the camera could underexpose. Make adjustments to EV starting on 0, use positive numbers to brighten the photo and negative numbers to darken. Use hole numbers like +1, +2 and then refine further (+0.7, or +1.3 etc.). This process is easier with high ISOs and short exposures since you don’t have to wait 30 seconds to find out that your photo was 2 stops two bright.
  3. Set up focus settings. Focus on the point you want, set the switch on the camera (or lens) to Manual, put the camera on the tripod, to Vibration Reduction off (since not handheld anymore),
  4. Set exposure settings. set ISO on the lowest setting (such as ISO-200, and not on Auto) use Aperture priority at f/11 for maximum depth of field and lens sharpness.
  5. Set timer settings. Set the timer on (among single, burst, remote, timer settings). Go into the menu and set Timer to 2, 5 or 10 seconds (depending on wind and how low stable tripod takes to stop shaking once you push the shutter button). Set mirror-up delay in the menu to On. (exposure starts a second after the mirror inside flips up, to reduce vibration)
  6. Take a photo. The exposure will probably be 5 to 30 seconds. If you are really working in the dark or you are trying to get the stars in. Zoom in on the screen afterwards to check the sharpness.

Other tips:
Use manual white balance or choose one of the presets such as Tungsten for artifical lighting.
For the most flexiblity with adjusting brightness and white balance afterwards, take photos in RAW rather than JPG.

The reason for the aperture of f/11 other than having a long exposure, is that lenses are not their sharpest when wide open (f/3.5, f/5.6 etc.) and sharpness increases towards f/8, f/9 until a peak at f/11 is reached for most lenses. Then lenses suffer the diffraction effect as the aperture becomes a narrower circle. Image quality decreases from f/13 onwards and gets blurry at f/32.

If the scene is really dark and you need longer than 30 seconds at f/11 but the camera doesn’t go longer than 30 seconds, then rather set the aperture wider to f/5.6 or something. SLR cameras have a bulb setting where you hold the shutter down for as long as you want such as 5 minutes, but you would shake the camera unless you use a remote.

When editing in RAW, use fill light and lower contrast to make the black shadows not so dominating. Just don’t overdo it. Shadows make an image look solid and balanced, also grain and colour noise get bad when you brighten shadows too much.

Lightroom 3 lesson – lesser known tips

Black and white filter

Below is a photo taken at a club with flash and a long exposure, close to a second. When you choose Black and White in the top right near Basic develop settings, a filter is applied based on the strength of certain colours in the photo. In this situation, a straight colour conversion to -100 saturation seems to darken or hide the blue ambient light, while the auto B&W filter brightens the blue/purple channel.

Colour, saturation zero.

Colour, saturation -100 (or Black & White with filter zeroed).

Black & White with filter on auto.

Another way to change the brightness of certain areas is to leave saturation at -100 and then change the white balance. Skin tones become dark and unnatural at cold white balance settings. For photos of a band on stage, changing the white balance in black and white can even seem to change the direction of the lighting, such as having red lights from the left brightened and blue lights from the right darkened at a warm white balance, then the opposite at a cool white balance.


  • Press F twice for full screen view.
  • Control + Tab to hide or show side bars.
  • Press J to show clipping.
  • Right click on the background past the edges of a photo and change the colour from white through black. I leave it on black with pinstripes.
  • Control + Shift + Alt + E: exports the selected photo(s) with the same settings (size, folder, output sharpening etc.) as the previous export.
  • Confirm cropping by pressing Enter on the keyboard. instead of clicking Done.
  • Press X to rotate the cropping outline by 90 degrees.
  • Press O to cycle through overlay modes. The default is the a big grid. The rule of thirds is very useful and there is a variation on the rule of thirds which can centre and strengthen compositions. The Golden Spiral is also great and I find it often more suitable when cropping 4:3 rather than 3:2 ratios.
  • Press Shift O to rotate the overlay (there are many ways to display the Golden Spiral.

If you have tagged a photo, cropped it and edited it, then the picture and the bottom will look something like this, which each icon indicating the step was performed.

The bar at the bottom of the screen

If you are in Develop mode and click on the tag icon, you will be taken to Libary view and the tag section. Similarly, clicking the +/- button will take you back to Develop mode and the middle one goes to crop view.

A full list of keyboard shortcuts is viewable on the Lightroom 3 help website here.

Check out the lesson I wrote for automating lens corrections on import: here.

Lightroom 3 lesson – automating lens corrections on import

I take photos in RAW format almost all the time, which allows lens correction profiles to be applied in Lightroom 3. (If you apply it to a JPG, the profiles are very limited and apparently Nikon JPGs have CA corrected already).

Once I have imported a batch of RAW photos from my camera, I would filter view by the 18-105mm lens and apply my lens correction preset with the corresponding slider values, then do the same for the each lens that I used. This got tiring as I wanted this to happen automatically every time I import photos, so I figured something out.

[STEP 1] Under Library view, filter by a certain lens.

[STEP 2] Choose a file RAW that you have imported and not edited. Or make a virtual copy of an edited photo (right click, create virtual copy) and then under the Develop Tap, click Reset to put all the settings back on the photo back their defaults, typically with Lens Correction off.

[STEP 3] Go to Develop tab \ Correction \ Profile. Put a tick in the box for Lens Correction. Leave the Setup with the default slider values.

[STEP 4] Hold down Alt on the keyboard – the Reset button in the bottom right becomes Set Default. Click on it.

Click Update to Current Settings.

What we are doing now, is using the current settings for Lens Correction – On and Default – as the new settings for any new photos that are imported or have their settings reset (default will automatically recognise the lens from the metadata). We are also setting the defaults for other develop settings like White Balance (As Shot is fine), Exposure (zero), Clarity, Sharpening, etc. Under Camera Calibration, I set Camera Standard as a default since it usually yields better colours than Adobe Standard.

(Note: In Lightroom 3, Set Default is specific to a camera, so I had to do this process twice for Lens Corrections on both cameras, once on a photo taken by my D7000 and again for a photo from my D90. This gives the potential of setting something like my D7000 photos have a strong contrast curve and D90 photos to have stronger sharpening, but I choose to keep them the same overall.)

[STEP 5] Set the sliders under the lens profile. For my 18-105mm, I set it to (70, 100, 60), which becomes a Custom setup. Then click Save New Lens Profile Defaults from the dropdown menu.

[STEP 6] Reset an edited photo or import a new photo from your camera. Notice that Lens Correction is now On, the correct lens has been chosen and the Setup is Default, but includes the custom set of 3 numbers for that lens have been chosen by you for that lens.

[STEP 7] If you have another lens, repeat the process in Step 5. I changed the Library filter view to find a photo taken with my Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8, then set the numbers to (71, 100, 0) and saved it as the new default for that lens. I repeated for my other two lenses.

  • You can’t cheat by staying on one photo and changing the Lens Profile to a different lens. For a photo taken with the 18-105mm, if I set the lens profile to 24-70mm f/2.8 under corrections, then specified the numbers and saved as a default, then the default for all photos taken with my 18-105mm would now be corrected based on the 24-70mm f/2.8 profile, which doesn’t make sense as each lens has different directions and strengths of the problems, depending on their build quality. Also, the 24-70mm would not know how to correct problems at focal lengths below 24mm or above 70mm.
  • It seems I only had to save a new default of sliders for the 24-70mm f/2.8 on one photo from the D7000 camera and then it also applies to the D90 photos taken with the same lens.

– – –

Typical settings I use:

  • Distortion: Choosing 100% is useful for correcting barrel distortion at 18mm, when you have straight lines in architecture, but in general Io keep it at 70% for the 18-105mm to avoid overly stretching objects and faces which are near the edge of the photo. Note that for photos at 105mm, the distortion is in the opposite direction (pincushion distortion) – manual distortion correction would be cumbersome for each focal length but the profile corrects appropriately. I set the distortion corrcetion to 90% for my 70-300m as it is hardly noticeable when turning it on and off, so I don’t worry about unnatural stretching.
    • For panoramas, I find distortion control at zero is better.
    • For perspective control tall buildings etc. set the profile control first and then correct perspective (Vertical, Horizontal) under Manual.
  • C. Abberation: I haved checked at 1:1 view and foundthat the lens profiles are very good at correcting CA when set to 100%. Each lens has different colours, directions and strengths of the abberations and also at each focal length, so a profile takes pain out of doing this manually.

    CA uncorrected in photo taken at 18mm. Zoomed to 2:1 on screen.

    CA corrected by setting profile slider to 100.

  • Vignetting: I often enjoy the natural vignetting effect (darkening around corners, sometimes I apply it myself in Effects. But with my 18-105mm I tend to take a lot of photosof landscapes or people where I want the lighting to be even rather than artistic, so I turn vignetting correction to 70%. Vignetting is particularly an issue for the 18-105mm at 18mm and at 105mm (you can even see it in the viewfinder at 105mm). Lens tests for it show that the problem is reduced by stopping down to around f/8. For some of my lenses, I leave vignette correction off at zero, as a matter of build quality and my taste for suitability at those apertures and focal lengths.

You can view a list of my lenses and other equipment here.

A lesson I wrote on lesser known tips and shortcuts in Lightroom 3 – here.

Concert Photography Tips – DSLR settings

You can see a growing of many list of concerts I have taken photos at, mostly small dimly lit clubs and couple of large stages in Cape Town, South Africa. I took the photos in this article with a D90 and a Nikon 18-105mm kit lens or a  Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8, edited in Lightroom.

Dim stage with a slow kit lens

LA Cobra - 18mm, 1/80, f/3.5, ISO2000

A kit lens that comes with the camera will typically say f/3.5-5.6 which is considered “slow” as you have to use longer exposures (meaning blur) or higher ISOs (meaning noise) to achieve as much light as a higher quality low-light lens (read on for that).

  • Aperture: 3.5 is the best at a wide angle, your lens will be forced to f/4, f/5, f/5.6 or f/6.3 as you zoom. So for bright photos, stand closer, zoom less and crop more on your computer.
  • Exposure: 1/125, 1/100, 1/80 or even 1/60 if you already have a high ISO and have something to lean on to stablilise yourself, you have a VR or IS lens,  or the band is standing fairly still.
  • ISO settings: Turn AUTO ISO Off so that it stays at a value you fix. I prefer ISO 800, I use 1600 at some venues and if its really dark I use 2000 or 3200. Those last two mean you should probably turn the camera’s noise reduction to High, or leave it off and use higher values in Lightroom 3 etc.
  • Mode: Manual

Dim stage with a low-light lens

Stonecollar - 24mm, 1/100, f/2.8, ISO800

  • Aperture: A zoom lens with f/2.8 on it will stay wide open at that aperture throughout the zoom range so that you don’t lose brightness as you zoom. Even better can be a prime lens such as 50mm f/1.8 or 30mm f/1.4.
  • Exposure: 1/160, 1/125, 1/100 or even 1/80
  • ISO settings: Usually 400 or 800, sometimes having to resort to 1600 or 3200 at some venues but still achieving professional and fairly noise free photos.
  • Mode: Manual, or Aperture priority with an EV of say -3.

Bright stage, any lens

Wishbone Ash - 42mm, 1/400, f/3.5, ISO400

  • Aperture: you can probably afford to use values like f/4 and f/5.6, or like f/8 and f/11 if the lighting is shining right at you, which will also give a starburst effect. These settings allow use to get more of the musicians in focus (wider depth of field) while also reaching your lens’s “sweet-spot” for sharpness usually two stops above the widest. e.g. on a f/2.8 lens the sweet spot is f/5.6, on f/3.5 it’s f/8
  • Exposure: you can probably use 1/200, 1/320  or 1/500 which will freeze musicians and their hair as they jump about the stage.
  • ISO: If the lighting is pretty constant, set AUTO ISO ON with values from 200 to 800 and set a value for  Exposure Value (EV) compensation at like -3 or -2. The ISO will change based on if you are aiming at a light or dark part of the stage. If the the lighting is changing every second so that your camera always gets the photo brightness way off,  you are better off setting ISO yourself (AUTO ISO OFF) and using Manual mode.
  • Mode: Manual, Program, Aperture Priority (e.g. f/2.8 for narrow depth of field), Shutter Priority (e.g. 100 for wider DOF or 200 for freezing action).

Small stage with flash

Heldervue with mixed remote flash (from below) and stage lighting - 24mm, 1/60, f/2.8, ISO500

I have only used my new flash (SB-600) so far at once concert and it was a dark venue with lights aimed at the guitars rather than musicians’ faces. But my flash was capable of lighting up the stage well, or the whole crowd when I aimed it over their heads.

I like to use handheld off-camera flash (remote) and bounce it off the low ceiling (works well even though its black).

I use the built-in diffuser camera most of the time since I am close to or on the edge of the stage.

The point of flash is to get sharp pictures (little or no blur) even in dimly lit enviroments, as well as using it creatively. An advatange is that you can use lower ISO values such as 200 to reduce noise, but even at 400 or 800 (which makes the flash seem to reach further) I had no problems of noise in the bright or shadowy areas. I used JPG and Normal Noise Reduction – when not using flash, I highly recommend using the RAW format unless you hate post-processing which involves touching up your photos without losing image quality.

So I suggest…

  • Aperture: f/2.8 or f/3.5 for narrow depth of field effect. This makes photos look more professional if the focus is right and the wider value will also mean brigther photos especially shooting musicians at a distance. Use f/4, f/5.6 or f/8 if you are close the musicians and you want more of them to be in focus (face as well as guitar, or guitarist and bassist).
  • Exposure: Using 1/60 (default in program mode) will let it a decent amount of ambient stage lighting but might get ghosting and blur on strumming hands. You can use a shorter value in Shutter Priority or Manual Mode, or set flash on Rear Curtain sync on the camera.
  • ISO settings: 200 to 800 should be fine. If you leave AUTO ISO ON, you should probably set Exposure compensation (EV) on the camera. Also generally set Flash compensation (FV) on the camera or flash to a lower value so that the flash lasts longer or pictures are darkened.

Reburn's singer showing front curtain flash ghosting - 24mm (cropped photo), 1/60, f/2.8, ISO400

Turn High Speed Sync on and it will automatically kick in should you use shutter values shorter than say 1/250 of a second, but it’s not really necessary for concerts.

I like to be able to change quickly between flash and non-flash shots with as few buttons as possible. So I set my camera up as follows: External flash is on, camera in manual mode at 1/60 and whatever aperture I need. Auto ISO is ON with values 200 to 1600, but stays at 200 while the flash is on. I turn the flash unit off, ISO changes to 1600 (because the scene is dark) and I change exposure to something like 1/100 (2 turns of the dial) and aperture to f/2.8 if it wasn’t there already.

Depth of field

Black Market Riots - 65mm, 1/100, f/2.8, ISO250

If you are using a low light lens (f/2.8 or faster), then depth of field will be much smaller (less in focus). This is great for artistic reasons (see the photo above) but if you don’t want that effect all the time, use a value like f/3.5 or f/4 when lighting is bright during a certain song, stand further back,t use the wide rather than zoomed end of your lens. Set AF-area to Single or Dynamic rather than Auto, then you can use  AF point system in the viewfinder to aim at eyes and faces, usually on the musician closest to you. Focusing in Live View seems to be slower and less accurate in my experience but helps alot when used with Manual focus (set on both your lens and your camera body) if your camera struggles to find something to focus on.


A good lesson I found on choosing lenses for concerts. Choosing Lenses For Concert Photography