Night photography 101: Focusing in the dark

*A quick note before we begin: I teach these techniques as well as many, many others in my night-sky photography workshops. For more information, check ’em out here:*

Without fail, the first problem that most photographers encounter when trying their hand at low-light or night photography is an inability to focus. After all, they’re used to autofocus, and their gear has likely been doing much of the focus work for the photographer up till now. As a general rule for night photography, I completely forget that my camera and lens can autofocus. I flip the switch to manual, and I don’t look back. There’s something about the endless whirring of a lens’s autofocus hunting that drives me crazy—it’s like a tiny voice from your camera whispering, “Psssst! Hey! This photo’s going to suck!”

So, step 1: I turn off autofocus.

For step 2, I’m going to assume you’re shooting on a DSLR with live view. For those of you on a DSLR without live view, I feel your pain. I did a fair amount of night photography on a first-generation digital Rebel, and it was very, very difficult. But times have changed and cameras have evolved, so I’m guessing that you probably have live view on your camera. If so, turn it on. The LCD on the back of your camera is probably still black, albeit with a few glowing symbols around the display’s periphery.

Next, I’m going to assume you’re using a tripod. After all, it’s only about 100% necessary when shooting at night. (Unless you’re engaging in a form of light painting called “camera painting,” in which you move your camera while shooting stationary lights during a long exposure.) While your camera is securely mounted on its tripod, find an object in the foreground that you think should be in focus. Illuminate this object with your flashlight. Can you now see this object on your LCD? If not, you may need to illuminate it with something brighter (one of the best night photography investments I ever made was in a brutally powerful, pocket-sized flashlight—I’ve actually driven down rural gravel roads, waving it out the window like a spotlight while looking for interesting scenes to photograph).

If you’re using a bright flashlight on the object and you still can’t see anything on your LCD, this is when I do one of two things: first, I check to make sure I took off my lens cap. If the lens cap is off, I check to make sure that my 10-stop neutral density filter is not currently on that lens. (Both of these scenarios occur with surprising frequency. And they’re both kind of embarrassing.) If you still can’t see anything on your LCD, and you’ve turned on live view, have no filters on your lens, your lens cap is off, and you’re using a powerful flashlight on an object in the foreground, then there’s a strong possibility that there’s something wrong with your camera. Please see my earlier condolences for those photographers who are shooting on a digital camera without live view. Now extend those condolences to yourself, on my behalf.

Step 5? 11?: Zoom in on the object that you’re illuminating in your foreground. On a Canon camera, this is accomplished by using buttons with magnifying glasses and + or – symbols on them. Zoom in as far as you can. Holding your flashlight in one hand, use your other hand to manually focus your lens on the object. Get your focus super sharp, then zoom out, and, if you want, turn off live view. You’ve found your focus for that particular photograph.

However, sometimes there is no object in the foreground. Or, at least, anything with any real detail is too far away to light with your flashlight while focusing your camera. In this case, what I like to do is create an object in my foreground by putting my own flashlight there, and pointing it back at the camera. In some cases, if your flashlight is too bright and rendering your live view display into a giant amorphous blob of light, you can place the flashlight at about a 45-degree angle so that it’s not pointing directly at your camera.

Other options include taking off your ball cap and placing it in the foreground, going back to your camera, and then shining your flashlight on your ball cap to find the focus. (Note: A baseball cap is a handy night photography accessory that can shield the side of your lens from undesirable lighting that causes lens flare, temporarily cover the front of your lens should something unexpected happen in the middle of your long exposure, or cover the eyepiece of your camera if you’re worried about light leaking into the eyehole. In short, a dark ball cap is just about standard night photography gear, and you should really think about owning one.)

Other objects that you can focus on at night using live view include the moon, stars or other celestial objects, streetlights, the edges of a backlit object obscuring a light source—in short, any light source you can find can help you out.

Some photographers don’t bother with focusing in the dark at all. In the warmth and well-lit comfort of their home, before they even leave, they find their focus and then tape the focus ring in place with gaffer’s tape. Personally, this seems like a desperate move to me, as throwing sticky tape on any part of my camera or lens gives me the creeps. But if you absolutely cannot find your focus in the dark (maybe you don’t have live view), than it’s probably not a bad way to go. It’s certainly better than taking a bunch of blurry photos.

Lookout tower in Tillamook State Forest: You didn't think I'd put up a blog post with no images, did ya?

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