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Photographing buildings in the spotlight at night

edited January 2016 Posted in » Nikon D3200 Forum
Hi Guys, just started with this camera. Just looking to get the best possible settings for this type of photography, like churches, castles, or ruins (with dark surroundings, not urban surroundings). As long as I have a starting point, from there I can experiment further with the settings. Hope you guys can give me some good tips!


  • edited January 2016
    Much will depend on how the buildings are lit, and on what you want to depict.

    If there is not much light, the camera's meter will tend to try to overexpose, turning the entire scene into something looking a bit like moonlight. This is not necessarily bad, but it's different. If you shoot raw you can lower the exposure to darken it, and if no highlights are blown this may be the best way to get a picture that is very clean in the dark areas and free of digital noise.

    If there are bright lights, such as Christmas lights, the scene will be a little closer to realism, but the brightest points of light may blow out. That also may not be so bad, as points of light hold little information.

    If the buildings are floodlit, exposure will come closer to what the thing really looks like at night.

    Chances are that unless you equip yourself with more flash than the camera provides, you will not get good flash coverage of anything but relatively close details.

    I would suggest that a tripod is an absolute must for this. With a tripod, you can use either the timer or the infrared remote (nicer and you don't need to reset after every shot), and thus need not concern yourself at all with shutter speed. You can use Aperture priority, and if you need depth of field, as you likely will for buildings, set it at somewhere around f/8 or 10. You lose some sharpness going past 11 or so, so don't stop further down unless you must have the depth of field. At sufficient distance to get a whole building in, you're probably OK at f/8, which is usually the sharpest stop for the kit lens.

    You can go for a fairly wide angle quite easily and get more depth of field, but beware of tilting the camera too much if you are close to a building. Wide angles will bring considerable perspective distortion. You can correct this digitally later, but in doing so you will lose some picture area, so if you must shoot at a tilt, make sure there's some waste space on the sides that you can lose when you correct it.

    For the least digital noise, use the lowest ISO, and make sure you turn off Auto ISO in the menu, otherwise the camera will crank it up to try to keep your shutter speed above 1/30, which you don't need to do.

    There is a noise reduction option in the menu that may also help a little. However, when you use this, it will double the processing time of each shot. That's no problem when you're doing leisurely shots on a tripod usually, but people who turn it on and don't know what's going on sometimes think there's something wrong with the camera or the memory card. What the camera is doing is taking a second picture at the same speed with the shutter closed, and then subtracting the noise in that one from the one you took.

    I would try a base shot with no compensation, and then if you don't like the lightness or darkness, you can compensate.

    There are, of course, all sorts of interesting ways you can modify this whole occasion. You can, for example, set the camera to do a long, or timed, exposure, and selectively light parts of a dark scene with flashlight, or flash.

    In the past, on film, I've gotten pretty nice results at night with the shutter open, and a hand held flash off the camera, using the test button to fire the flash into various areas. Takes practice, but can be done to light an area wider than what a single flash can do, or to light only a selected area that's not where the camera would have done it.

    This would be done in manual mode. Set your aperture at whatever you want, and set a manual shutter speed, operating your light while the shutter is open.

    The D3200 can natively go only to 30 seconds. Beyond that, there is "B" setting but that holds the shutter open only when you push the button; too shaky even on a tripod. However, if you use the infrared remote (very cheap and handy), it becomes a proper time exposure, with the first button push opening the shutter, the second closing it. B&H and others have a remote for something around 6 bucks, and even the Nikon version is not too bad. A must if you do much tripod work. Among other things, although the self timer also works, you must reset the release mode each time with that. With the remote, you can set a time before it reverts to regular mode, so you can shoot multiple remote shots without resetting.

    Finally, we get to Auto Focus. Unless you can find a point of light or detail, auto focus in the dark can be very difficult. If there is a point of light you can go for, use Single servo AF, focus on that, and then, while holding the shutter button down part way, you can recompose if you need to.

    On a tripod, you can switch to Live View, and this makes manual focusing much easier if you can't manage AF. AF in Live view works differently, and may be either better or worse, depending on circumstances. You'll need to experiment if you use LV and auto focus.

  • edited January 2016
    Ok, thanks a lot. From here on I can go forward!
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