The word photograph was derived from Greek, and it basically translates to drawing with light. I like to think of photography as painting with light because it sounds artsier. Even though there isn’t much light to paint with, you can still take photographs in low light situations.
Many times, while traveling, my wife and I have come across a situation like a cave tour, a heavily shaded forest, and all manner of other occasions where we wanted to photograph, but ambient light was a limited resource. Below are some tips and equipment you will need to capture some night photos on your travels.
Get a Good Tripod
Before the tiny digital cameras, we now carry in our pockets, film cameras had a little door called a shutter that would open, expose the film to the light, and close again. The longer the shutter was open, the more light would be absorbed into the film, and the brighter the image would become. The speed at which the shutter opened and closed was cleverly called the shutter speed.
Low light situations call for longer shutter speeds to gather enough light for a properly exposed photograph. As the shutter stays open longer, it becomes impossible to take clear photos while handholding the camera.
This can be a problem for both smartphone users and DSLR users. You can use a sturdy tripod to eliminate the camera shake.
Tripods come in many different price points, and unless you plan to take up night shots as a passion, you don’t need to spend $300 on one. From my personal experience, anything in the $30-$50 range is fine. Amazon has many in that price range, and some come with universal phone mounts for smartphone photography.
Increase the Light
It might sound like an obvious statement, but you can always add light to get a better shot if you find yourself in a low-light situation. You can do this in many ways, but the easiest is to bring a bright light with you. A flashlight can work if you have nothing else. I carry a small light with me in my pocket. It doesn’t take up much room in the RV either.
It is possible to shine a light on anything you want to highlight in the photograph, such as a person. Natalie took the photos below with a smartphone.
In the photo above, my wife, Natalie, took three shots right after sundown. Natalie took the first photo with no flash. You can see that the smartphone did a pretty good job of getting me and the background exposed. I am a little dark, though.
She took the second photo with the smartphone camera flash on. The flash did a great job of lighting up the foreground and me. I feel that the flash lit up the foreground too much. I want the photo to focus on the lighthouse in the background while lighting me up too.
The third photo was taken with the flash off once again; however, she shined a flashlight on me when she took the photo. Photography is definitely an art, meaning it is open to interpretation. I feel the last photo does the best job of highlighting the subject in the foreground and the subject in the background. Had we not played around with the flashlight, we would not have been able to get that photo.
Another example of using light to your advantage is the photo above. I also took these photos with a smartphone at night. I snapped the photos on the left with the flash on. You can see I got well-exposed photos, but they look rather flat. The moss on that log and the pinecone had way more texture than the photo had shown.
To show the texture, I needed to bring a light source in from the side. This would cast shadows and create contrast. In the photos on the right, I used the same flashlight from the previous photos to light the moss from the side. I’m probably not winning any photography awards anytime soon. Still, you probably agree, the moss lit from the side produced a more interesting image.
Many scenarios might benefit from the extra light source. Natalie and I have found ourselves hiking in some heavily wooded areas while RVing. These environments can be rather dark when the trees block out the sunlight.
When you know you will be in a low light situation, bring a small flashlight with you. The trick is to play around with the light to get different looks. You will take a lot of bad photos, dark photos, or just photos you hate at first, but keep playing around, and eventually, you will find out what works and what doesn’t.
Learn to Use Manual Mode
Managing your camera settings allows you to decide exactly what a photo you are taking should look like. The trick is learning how to use it. It takes practice, but if you really want to take photos worthy of framing, manual mode is the way to go, whether you are taking night photos or day photos.
Smart Phone Users
If the camera app that came with your phone does not have a manual mode, there are many apps out there that allow you to adjust the shutter speed and other camera settings.
To find one, go to the app store and search for “manual camera,” and find an app that you like. I have an Android phone and use the pro version of Camera FV-5. Halide is a highly rated app if you have an iPhone. With each of those apps, there will probably be a bit of a learning curve. It’s best to spend some time snapping photos with them to get the hang of it.
If you have a modern dedicated handheld camera, then you probably have a manual mode. Check out your camera’s manual to find out what buttons change which settings.
How a Camera Works
This is going to be a rather brief explanation of how a camera works. One could devote many pages to explaining how each aspect of a camera works. I actually did so in my e-book titled Photography 101: A Beginners Guide by Levi Henley. I’m a little biased, of course. Still, if you want to learn more about photography, it’s a good resource and available on Amazon. Shameless self-promotion aside, here is how a modern digital camera turns light into photos.
- Light enters the lens for a predetermined amount of time. (shutter speed)
- The hole that allows light into the lens can be opened or closed to allow more or less light in at once. (F-stop setting)
- The light hits a chip covered with thousands of sensors that detect the light and digitally record the intensity, color, and location of each pixel (dot). You can set the chip to be more and less sensitive to light. (ISO)
- The camera uses this information to create the image you see on your screen.
You may have noticed three terms in the list above. The three main camera settings you can control on manual mode are F-stop, shutter speed, and ISO. The video below does an excellent job of explaining how to use all of those settings.
Here is an example of using manual mode to capture an image the way I wanted it to look.
Natalie and I were exploring a cave we came across while traveling. There was absolutely no light inside. In the first photo I took of this passage, I just set the camera on automatic and used the camera’s flash. I got an okay photo, but it didn’t show that passage winding back as far as I could see with my flashlight.
In the right photo, I did an interesting trick that can only be achieved in manual mode. I set the camera on a tripod and turned my shutter speed to 25 seconds to keep the shutter open. I set the F-stop to f/22 for a wide depth of field and clicked the shutter button.
While the shutter button was open, I took that trusty flashlight and waved it all around the scene like a paintbrush. Yes, in manual mode using long shutter speeds, you can literally paint things in with light.
When RVing, it’s hard to collect things on your travels. Space is limited. Getting into photography is a great way for RVers to take souvenirs from all the places they visit. Traveling gives us RVers a distinct ability to collect photographs from many amazing locations. When one takes the time to learn how to use the camera, they can create beautiful art. You can get the necessary knowledge of photography by using resources like YouTube or books. I’m not the only one who has written a beginning photography book; Amazon has hundreds. Read as many as you can.
The most important tip, though, is that knowledge will only take you so far. The practice is what builds your skill. So go out and shoot. Take lots and lots of photos and experiment. It’s a great traveling hobby.
About The Author: Levi Henley
Levi Henley and his wife, Natalie, have been full-time RVers for over 5 years. They have also been Coach-Net customers for the same amount of time. They travel and workcamp around the U.S. in their 26-foot Itasca Sunstar motorhome with their two cats. They write for multiple RV-related publications and recently co-wrote “Seasonal Workamping for a Living: How We Did It.” You can follow their adventures on the road at henleyshappytrails.com
John W. ~ “I have been a Coach-Net member for quite some time now and I have never been disappointed. Just knowing that I have the “Coach-Net blanket” of safety and security gives me peace of mind that I never want to be without. Yes, there are other roadside assistance services out there but I am not giving up what I know to be the best.”