Photo above: Copyright lululemon athletica | Photographed by Matt Korinek 1/1000 sec at f/2.0, ISO 3200
Light at night
Night photography is both beautiful and rewarding. My friend Paul Zizka is the king of amazing nighttime selfies in the Canadian Rockies (seriously, I have a feeling he might be a vampire based on his volume of night photos).
Many of his images require a long exposure to burn in the stars or aurora borealis onto the camera sensor. If he puts himself in the frame, he often has to stay very still in order minimize blur.
However, capturing fast motion like running is a whole different beast. Unless your creative vision is to blur the runner, you’re likely going to need to use some other techniques to freeze the action. If you interested in trying to capture someone running at night yourself, read on:
Night Run Photography
The problems with trying to capture someone who’s running at night are all related to the lack of light. Issues such as auto-focus hunting, blurriness and colour shifts all come up.
I’ve shot running at night a few times, and am here to share what I’ve learned.
Usually when I shoot fact action fitness activities like running, I start with a shutter speed of at least 1/500 of a second. To capture runners, my baseline is 1/1000 of a second.
Here are some different tips and techniques on how to capture someone running at night. In all of the techniques below I highly suggest you shoot in RAW so that you can control noise reduction, colour temperature and other settings after the fact.
Blue hour shooting
Once the sun goes below the horizon, the residual light will often create a beautiful bluish colour in the sky. In the case of the images shared in this post, the clouds hid this blue colour and instead reflected the colour of lights from the city. This light lasts for about 1 hour after sunset, hence the name “blue hour.”
Although the light is still significantly reduced at this time, it’s not as dark as true night. The high ISO values that current cameras can go to give you a fighting chance to capture something. You’ll need to be okay with either high amounts of grain, a bit of blurriness or both.
In the case of blue hour shooting, you’re going to have to bump up your ISO quite high. How high will depend on what aperture your lens will open up to (the lower the number the larger the aperture), what shutter speed you’re aiming for, how fast the runner is running and what level of noise you’re comfortable with.
One hour of shooting as conditions change will go by much quicker than you think. You’re going to have to make these decisions quickly, because that light will be fading fast!
Some tips of how to photograph run during blue hour include:
- Start with ISO – Most people might think it’s odd to start here. The thing is, when capturing night run photography, I know there’s going to be noise. I accept it. So I’ll usually set my camera to an ISO that I know has a noise profile I’m comfortable with. For me, that’s ISO 1600 on my Canon 5D Mark III. What ISO you’re comfortable with is a personal choice based on what levels of noise you feel you can get away with and what your camera can deliver. This is when full frame cameras show the advantage of having a larger sensor.
- Use a prime lens – these lenses generally have a larger aperture than zooms and will let more light in.
- Shoot wide open (if you can) – You need to trust that your lens will sharp even when wide open to make this work. I have certain lenses I would trust wide open, while other lenses I would choose to stop down to a slightly smaller aperture (usually 1/3 or 2/3 of a stop).
- Run slow – If you runner is going full speed, you’ll be making your life much harder for yourself. Have them slow down their motion while keeping the same intensity of movement will give you some more wiggle room with your settings.
- Choose your shutter speed wisely – Pick one that will allow you to capture the action with the amount of blur you’re comfortable with. Remember that blur will be most evident at the extremities (hands and feet) as they’re moving the fastest.
- Tweak your ISO – Based on the aperture/shutter speed combination that will get you your desired look, start adjusting your ISO if needed. When forced to, I will slightly underexpose a shot to get the right shutter speed and worry about the noise later in my RAW post-processing. You’ll have to continue to tweak as the light fades.
- Consider your focus – You may be able to use auto-focus at the beginning of blue hour, but as the light fades, it will start hunting and failing. When this starts happening, the best thing you can do is focus on a specific point and then have your runner run through that point. You will need to click the shutter at the right time to get it right as your depth of field will likely be quite thin (if you’re shooting wide open). Also be aware that the initial focus might be off, so you can either use a small headlamp to illuminate the runner on the point you want them to run through or using a high-contrast target to give your focus system the best chance.
Adding Continuous light
One thing you can do to extend your blue hour shooting is bringing a continuous light with you. It can also allow you to shoot after blue hour when it’s fully night. For the style of photography I usually do, you’ll want make sure the added light looks realistic.
The conundrum you’ll face is that when the light is still bright, the continuous light won’t add much to the shot. That makes it easy to look realistic, but it also means that it won’t have much impact on your settings. Later, as the light fades, the light will appear to be stronger and will make a bigger difference to your settings (due to the relative brightness of ambient and artificial light), but that can lead to an unrealistic look.
You can use these lights on the same axis as the camera lens to draw out the reflectivity of any reflective garments. Or you can bring it in from an angle that would naturally occur (i.e. downwards like a streetlamp). Of course you can always play around with different angles and multiple lights for creative explorations. The tips for photographing during blue hour still ring true.
What to use
You can definitely use a LED video light like one from the Manfrotto range. The cost, weight and light output vary greatly between models. Higher end models may be heavier but they are brighter and allow you to control the colour temperature of the light, which gives you the possibility of matching the colour of your local streetlights. I’m really keen to try one of these on my next night run shoot.
If putting down a bunch of money isn’t an option, you could rent one. Otherwise, you can use something you already have on hand. In my case, I’ve used a Black Diamond LED headlamp on the shoots I’ve done. This extra light can also be useful when using auto-focus.
Using a Strobe light
If you’re still getting too much blur with continuous lighting, portable strobes (or speedlights) may be the answer.
The great thing about strobes is that if you’re shooting in complete darkness, you’re almost guaranteed to freeze the action. The shutter speed you choose won’t matter (much). Instead it is the duration of the flash itself that will allow you to capture running at night without any blur.
Where shutter speed can be an issue is when mixing strobes with a “long” exposure; it can cause ghosting. That’s where the ambient exposure of the background actually shows through the body of the runner. In order to mitigate this, make sure your subject is strobed in front of complete darkness and not in front of areas that have light.
The other thing that can come up with strobe shooting at night is that the images look fake. Since you need almost complete darkness, it’s very difficult to balance your ambient light with the power and colour temperature of the strobe. Getting the settings right for run photography with a strobe deserves its own blog post.
Strobe lights during blue hour
Strobes don’t always help during blue hour. The drawback of using strobes at this time is due to the sync speed limitations of Digital SLRs. You’re going to be stuck at a shutter speed of around 1/200 of a second (depending on your camera) which is not fast enough to freeze extremities.
You may get ghosting, or a mixture of blur and frozen motion. That’s because the flash will freeze part of the motion (either at the front end of the exposure or at the back end in the case of rear curtain sync) but the ambient exposure will be blurred due to the slow-ish shutter speed.
It’s possible that these issues can be resolved by using the native HSS (High Speed Sync) of either Canon or Nikon, or Hypersync available with certain PocketWizards or even the most recent HSS announcement from Profoto. I haven’t tried these myself yet (but am planning to do so!).
Give it a go
I hope that these tips and techniques on how to capture night run photography get you motivated to get out and try it for yourself. Even if you don’t get an image you like, you’ll find that you’ll have learned something that you can solve for the next time.
If you do try any of these techniques or if you know of any great night run photography, I’d love to see it. Post a link and description in the comments to share. It’s always great to be inspired by other photographers and what they’ve created.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments.