What manual settings for a Canon Rebel XTi are ideal for night shots?
May 20, 2008 1:49 AM   Subscribe

How do I take night shots with my Canon Rebel XTi without looking like a nerd with a tripod?

I recently bought a Canon Rebel XTi camera in hopes of taking pictures with a better quality than my point and shoot camera. I've taken a lot of pictures throughout the day, or indoors using the flash with no problem. However, trying to take a picture indoors without the flash, or attempting to take a night shot of a city skyline or neon lights, and it's all blurry.

I've already gone through two books specifically for the Rebel XTi, but they surprisingly don't go over taking photos at night. I know a lot of people recommend getting a tripod, but I already feel like a big goober with the camera around my neck like a tourist, and a tripod isn't practical in some of the locales I want to shoot. So, my question is...what are the ideal manual settings for my type of camera to take these pictures? Using any of the auto settings just leaves the shutter wide open for about 5-10 seconds before it shoots and I just get blurs or ghostly images. Is there some accessory I should be, aside from tripod, that would aid me in my quest to take night shots around the city?
posted by jimdanger to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
At least 2 or 3 of the following:
1) Monopod
2) Faster lens (what are you using?)
3) Lens with Image Stabilization
4) Higher ISO
posted by 0xFCAF at 2:05 AM on May 20, 2008

How much do you know about how a camera works? It really, really helps. Basically, you have 3 settings that you can manipulate in order to get your result (in manual mode, of course): aperture, speed and ISO. Generally speaking, in taking night shots without a tipod, you'd set your aperture to maximum value, and ISO as high as possible (do note digital cam noise especially in low light conditions can be really horrible, I never go over 200 myself). There are some great resourses online, so check them out. Learn how to shoot manual, you'll never regret it!

As for the tripod, well, in some situations it's the only way to go. However, I do most of my shots without one: I have trained myself to be totally static so I can take shots up to about 1 second (you can do it too, easy). It totally helps finding a support point, like a wall, to lean against (this can make ALL the difference). If that's not an option, I just find something I can rest the cam on.

And shoot, shoot, shoot.

Good luck!
posted by neblina_matinal at 2:06 AM on May 20, 2008

Welcome to low-light photography. There's really only a couple of things you can do to improve your shots on a dSLR like a Rebel, assuming you can't change the ambient light level:

1) High ISO. This is the easiest (and cheapest) way to reduce blur on your photos, though you pay the price in terms of increased sensor noise. Your Rebel can probably shoot ISO 800 without any appreciable loss in image quality (unless you're one of those people who's very sensitive about image noise), and ISO 1600 is probably acceptable for snapshots and smaller prints. Eagle-eyed Mefites may downgrade those figures to 400 and 800 respectively. Higher ISO means you can shoot with a faster shutter speed for a given aperture, meaning less blur.

2) Lower f-stop. The wider your aperture (wide aperture = low f-stop), the more light the lens lets in, which means you can use a faster shutter speed. If you're using your Rebel with mostly automatic settings, chances are it's already opening the aperture on the lens as wide as it can go, though check the exposure readings to make sure. The wide end of any zoom lens will have a wider maximum aperture than the zoomed-in end (ever notice how your lens has two f-stops in the label, like f2.8/4? That's max aperture for the wide and tele ends of the zoom). So always go as wide as possible when shooting in low light. Aside from that, the only other way to improve the f-stop situation is to buy more lenses. Prime lenses are often very fast; by sacrificing the zoom mechanism in the lens, you gain several stops. You can buy 50mm f1.4 or 1.8 lenses quite cheaply, for example. Zoom lenses with wide max apertures are quite a bit more expensive, though—think thousands of dollars—so that's not really much of an option.

3) Image stabilization. Some lenses come with optical image stabilization, which does lots of funky mechanical stuff to compensate for camera movement while you're taking the shot. In other words, your chances of getting a crisp shot are increased at slower shutter speeds. But note that the IS effect only works one or two steps slower than the usual optimum shutter speed (for handheld, the rule of thumb is 1/x seconds, where x is the focal length of your lens). IS also won't work very well if you're shooting objects in motion.

Here's your real problem: none of the above options will save shots requiring shutter speeds in the seconds, though they may help with poorly-lit indoor shots. If you really want to shoot at night, it's tripod or nothing, I'm afraid. All you can do is try to reduce the size of the tripod (there are tons of pocket tripods on the market) or else use objects around you like ledges, poles, etc. to help steady the camera. Someone also came up with the idea of wrapping a long length of string around your camera somehow, then letting the string dangle to the ground where you step on it, and then pull up on the camera so that the string is taut when you're in shooting position; I've never tried this poor man's tripod but it might be worth a shot.

One extra tip: for long exposure shots (say, longer than two seconds), you should REDUCE the ISO to its lowest setting. The benefits of high ISO are essentially useless for long exposures, and you'll just get a lot of added image noise for no reason.
posted by chrominance at 2:10 AM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

The only way you'll look like a nerd when using a tripod is if you look like you don't know what you're doing with it. Otherwise you'll just look like a photographer who's smart enough to know that shooting sharp long exposures requires a stable camera platform.

There is no single set of manual settings I can suggest, since there are simply too many variables; everything from the quantity, quality, and color temperature of the light to the ISO setting and other camera settings you choose.

Bite the bullet and get a decent tripod. Mount the camera on it, and use the self timer to trigger the shutter release if you don't have a remote release for your camera.

Do some experimenting and you'll see that you actually have a lot of latitude when it comes to shooting skylines and city lights especially. There will rarely be a single "correct" way to shoot them. Instead, different settings will produce different results. For example, try different manual white balance settings, bracket your exposures, etc. Many times one way isn't necessarily better than another, but will simply be different.
posted by imjustsaying at 2:13 AM on May 20, 2008

Just FWIW, Noise Ninja or Neat Image are your friend when it comes to high ISO shooting. Also, if you take many shots of the same thing, you may well find that one or more of them come out reasonably sharp.

But yes, there's nothing wrong with using a tripod. Unless you're trying to shoot candids, in which case you need to break down and get a faster lens, if there is indeed some light to work with. Indoor shots, for example, will be fine in most cases with an f1.8 lens, even if the exposures are impractical at f3.5. If you get yourself one a cheap 50mm fixed focal length lens, you'll be able to get the night shots better. (but you'll have a telephoto lens, so it may not be wide enough in cramped quarters)

There do exist zoom lenses that have wider apertures, but they're high dollar. Personally I just use the flash indoors and bounce it off the ceiling unless there's a particular reason not to.

And yes, if you have the tripod or other stable platform, turn the ISO back down and use a longer exposure, unless of course you require the faster shutter speed for another reason.
posted by wierdo at 2:25 AM on May 20, 2008

One trick that sometimes works for me is placing the camera on a flat surface and setting a short self timer.
posted by bertrandom at 2:26 AM on May 20, 2008

All good points above. One further thing i'd recommend is to remove any filters you may have on the front of the lens. These are great in normal conditions to at least protect the lens, but at night they create horrible flare.
posted by Fezzer at 2:38 AM on May 20, 2008

Have you considered a mini-tripod? They come very small.
posted by sophist at 3:59 AM on May 20, 2008

I got this and took pictures like this and this and this (yes, thats the moon)
posted by Mach5 at 5:21 AM on May 20, 2008

One other tool to have around is a beanbag. You'll find them for a few bucks at the camera store, or you can make your own. The beanbag will allow you to better position your camera if you can find a flat surface (e.g., a car hood, mailbox, fence rail).

You might also be able to emulate a monopod by using string. Generally, monopods and tricks like this will buy you a stop or two at most, and that might help for more spontaneous low-light shots.

In the end, you're going to have to buy a tripod, if you want nice static shots.
posted by chengjih at 5:27 AM on May 20, 2008

A wide aperture lens (the 50mm 1.8 is quite tight on the 400D, creating an effective 85mm length, but is quite inexpensive. Personally, I mostly use a 28mm 1.8), a high ISO (it's better to get a grainy picture at 1600 than no picture at all) and a good awareness of the qualities of light and how your camera will react to them are going to be your key weapons.

Most shots handheld below 1/60th of a second will have some degree of camera shake. If your lens is longer than 60mm, then replace that number with 1/the lens length. You can reduce the potential for it by leaning against stuff, bracing your arms against your body, holding your breath, or by using a string stabiliser.

If you feel self-conscious with the camera around your neck, do what I do and wrap the camera strap around your hand and carry it around like that. It's a lot more subtle in my opinion.

If you're in a situation where you need a long exposure, you're just going to have to stabilise the camera somehow. A tripod does not make you look stupid. It's a tool, just like a wrench, or an SLR for that matter. If you need long exposures in places where you can't take a tripod, a monopod or just finding somewhere to leave your camera are the only options.

Just a note - for non-handheld long exposures, turn on mirror-lock up in the custom menu and set a delay timer. That'll stop the mirror from making the camera jump, and stop your finger pressing the shutter from jarring the camera too. Even better, get an inexpensive shutter release cable from eBay. I bought one for under £5 that works perfectly, and I think a wireless one can be had for not much more.

Good luck, and don't hesitate to ask additional questions. Feel free to Mefimail me if you like, too.
posted by Magnakai at 5:38 AM on May 20, 2008

Just carry the tripod and don't take the camera: your nerd points will be the same, and you still won't get the pictures.

Seriously: get over it. Take a tripod.
posted by bonaldi at 5:56 AM on May 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

tripod can't be beat...next best is a beanbag...third is to find a wall/ledge/bench/curb that you can prop your camera up on.

Lastly, definitely look into using your delay timer to kick off the picture. That makes a world of difference.
posted by mmascolino at 6:20 AM on May 20, 2008

Seriously, the best accessory for your low-light photographic is a Bogen/Manfrotto mini tripod. Yes, they are a bit costly, but they are cast-metal and nearly indestructible--you can put it in your bag, back pocket, side pocket of Carhartts or just carry it around inconspicuously... but to use it opens up a wide variety of options. Set it horizontally on a wall, car, table, for a normal tripod experience, but you can also use it to brace yourself vertically against a wall to minimize vibrations. Really, this has been the biggest non-camera addition to my photo-taking experience, and I highly recommend it.
posted by zachxman at 6:21 AM on May 20, 2008

start learning the ISO settings ... handheld at night will essentiall come down to shooting 800 or 1600 iso (I think there is a custom function for 3200 ISO but you'd have to confirm that with someone else). get a faster lens, something that can shoot f2.8 or faster (the 50mm f1.8 is cheap and there is even a 1.4).
posted by krautland at 6:27 AM on May 20, 2008

You need to worry more about the quality of your images instead of your "image."

I've never heard "tripod=nerd" before. Or "camera strap=big goober."

Here are the correct equations:
Tripod = sharp pictures
Neck strap = I don't have to buy another camera because I dropped mine trying to look cool

If you want to do serious photography, there are certain tools you have to use. If you want to be inconspicuous, get a tiny point-and-shoot, leave it set to automatic, and be happy with snapshots instead of photographs.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 6:38 AM on May 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I will agree for the nth time that yes, you need a tripod. Yes you should be shooting at low ISO to get the cleanest files. You should also be stopping down the lens to at least somewhere over f8 to get the sharpest files. I always shot at f16 to f22 with my night stuff. And to really get the sharpest files, you need a cable release or a remote release.

I sort of know what you are saying about the whole "I look like a geek with a tripod thing" . I have done it, and will gladly do it again and never felt geeky. I was usually more concerned about getting jumped. At least the tripod would have allowed me something to hit them with.

Now as an even bigger photo geek the only time I ever laugh to myself when I see someone with a tripod is when it is on a bright sunny day and they are using an entry level camera. I know I know that sounds elitist, but really, unless you are doing commercial work the tripod can be left in the car. They end up just slowing you down too much.

One option I have been looking into is a Gorilla Pod. Link here. May be worth checking out.
posted by WickedPissah at 7:15 AM on May 20, 2008

And to really get the sharpest files, you need a cable release or a remote release.

or use the timer.
posted by jazzman at 7:34 AM on May 20, 2008

You could consider dressing better.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 8:43 AM on May 20, 2008

I second doing some reading into how a camera "thinks," if you haven't already. That, and practice/experiment will get you confidence for how to set the camera - and also will teach you when to let the "correct exposure" setting that the camera tells you be wrong and still get the shot you want. The camera wants to adjust to bring the shot to a middle area between light and dark - but if it's night, or indoors with just candles or other such shadowy scene, then really you want a sort of under-exposure because you probably want the shadows to be shadows.

So, for example, say you're indoors, don't have a tripod, don't want the flash. Try this: set the camera to "T" mode (that's shutter priority), at something like 400 or 800 ISO. Most people can hand-hold a steady image at the "60" setting, or as slow as "30" with some concentration. Try either of those, with the flash closed. Depending on lighting conditions, the camera may blink at you in the viewfinder, saying it cannot open the f-stop aperture wide enough for what it thinks is enough light - but take the shot anyway and see what happens. Because sometimes it's exactly what you want in the first place. (Other trick there - take the image in RAW format, then you can push the exposure another stop or so brighter on the computer.)
posted by dnash at 10:44 AM on May 20, 2008

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