Technique: Use a tripod and select a slow ISO; then after making a test shot, adjust exposure to ‘overexpose’ by about one stop, while using the self timer to actuate the shutter to avoid camera shake.
As described in Installment 3, the Lumix LX-3 is a compact lightweight digital rangefinder camera that features excellent optics (Leica Vario-Summicron f2.0-2.8/5.1-12.8 [mm] ASPH) and the ability to set functions manually. I’ve found this is a great tool for making urban night photos, and I’ve developed a successful technique well-suited to nocturnal railway images. I made this image with my LX-3 on January 11, 2012, at Schwarzach-St. Veit, Austria, which features double-headed Siemens Taurus electrics on a steel train.
Schwarzach-St. Veit offers a well-lit moderate-size station near the junction of two routes, one of which is the OBB (Österreichische Bundesbahnen/Austrian Federal Railways) main-line over the famous Tauern Pass through the Alps to Villach (with international connections beyond to Italy and Slovenia). Some Irish friends and I were on a week-long visit to Austria. On this evening, after dinner at a nearby hotel, we spent a little while at this station watching trains and making casual night photos. This OBB steel train had come in from the north and was awaiting a path over the Tauern, and so had paused for several minutes, which provided ample time to make some time-exposures (long exposures). Rather than go through all the effort to set up a large tripod, instead I opted for a relatively compact ‘pocket’ tripod with ball head (to adjust the angle of the camera), which I positioned on a snow bank piled at the center of the platform. Instead of using one of the LX-3’s many automatic modes, I opted to set ISO, shutter speed and aperture manually, which is easily accomplished using the ‘Q-menu’ toggle switch at the back of the camera to step through the appropriate selection menus. (Other cameras that have the ability to make manual settings will have similar means of making adjustments — consult your camera manual or guru for details.)
When making night photos, the tricky part is obtaining a satisfactory exposure while keeping stray light away from the lens. For night photography, ‘faster’ isn’t necessarily better and the first thing I did was select the slowest ISO. The slowest ISO results in less noise, offers better exposure latitude (range of exposure captured from the highlights to shadows), while offering a sharper and more saturated image. Through experience, I’ve found that the LX-3 produced its highest image quality at ISO 80, and above ISO 200 its images tend to toward the unacceptably noisy (‘grainy’ or pixilated to the eye). Since my subject is static and the camera was secured on a tripod, there’s little advantage in selecting a Higher (faster) ISO. Its true that higher ISO allows for faster shutter speeds, but in this case the difference of a stop or two would be effectively irrelevant; since the light was so low, my exposures would be relatively long anyway.
To calculate the appropriate exposure, I’ll make and analyze a test image. Here, my process may seem counterintuitive and it requires me to override the camera’s programming. In a nocturnal situation, where the sky is completely dark and there are a variety of hotspots caused by electric lamps (and in this case, acerbated by bright piles of snow), I’ve found that the LX-3’s automatic metering modes tend to seriously underexpose the image (in other words, it fails to allow sufficient light to reach the sensor). This is a result of the metering biased for daylight situations which has tendency weigh the effects of bright lamps too heavily and thus overly shorten the exposure time for a nocturnal setting. Strictly relying on either the camera meter or the basic automatic settings is an underexposed digital image. (Lumix offers some automated programmed settings to serve these situations, but I prefer to do this manually).
Another problem is the camera display image. In extreme circumstances, such as night photography, the jpeg displayed on the camera screen is a ineffective tool for correctly gauging exposure. Not only is this jpeg compressed and optimized for computer-screen viewing, but on-camera it is presented much lighter than the data in the actual file and so doesn’t provide an accurate assessment of the scene. So, what looks great on the back of the camera may in fact be way too dark in the file.
To overcome these difficulties, I make a test exposure with the camera, then carefully observe the histogram to make manual corrections that increase the exposure. In this nocturnal circumstance the majority of the histogram exposure graph may be too far to the left (indicating overall under exposure). Since I want to retain some highlight detail, I’ll make a second exposure, usually between ½ and a full stop over exposed (that is, I make the exposure lighter than that recommended by camera-meter, usually by increasing the amount of time the shutter is open, say from ¼ second to ½ second; or by using the exposure compensation feature, see below), and then gauge the histogram so that there’s a hint of highlight hitting the far right, but with the majority of the image-data filling the central portion of the graph (rather than too far to the left, as in the first exposure).
In a rushed situation, I might skip the test exposure and histogram analysis, and just increase the exposure by 2/3ds to a full stop. This can also be accomplished by simply adding in ‘+2/3’ or ‘1’ on the exposure compensation menu at the left-hand side of the screen (with the LX-3: using the ‘Q-menu’ toggle, go left until the ‘+/-’ is highlighted yellow on the screen, then with the same toggle, move up two clicks for ‘+2/3’, or three clicks for ‘+1’). Then you can use the camera in either aperture priority mode (‘A’ on the top dial) or shutter priority mode (‘S’ on the top dial). This is a great compromise, if you don’t feel confident reading the histogram. If possible, make several exposures, perhaps increasing them in 1/3 stop increments.
Examining the test exposures, I also watch carefully for flare caused by stray light hitting the front element of the lens. Flare greatly reduces shadow detail and may cause unpleasant or unnatural patterns in the image. While Hollywood productions in the 1970s ‘discovered’ the use of flare as a dramatic technique, and I occasionally use this myself for effect, generally speaking it is best avoided, especially in situations such as that at Schwarzach-St. Veit. If I cannot place the camera in a natural shadow (such as that presented by a mast, canopy, or other infrastructure), I’ll carefully shade the lens with my handheld notebook (or anything else that I have handy). It’s important to insure the notebook doesn’t crop the frame.
One last point, to avoid shaking the camera, I set the self timer for 2 seconds, and then gently stand back and remain still while the camera exposes the frame.
In this particular case I’d been making photos on the platform for about half and hour, and prior to the steel train’s arrival I’d already made a variety of images that helped establish my base exposure. The photo displayed here was exposed at ISO 80, at f2.2 for 1 second. I used the camera’s pattern metering to base the general exposure, then gave it an extra stop. (If I’d followed the camera meter recommendation, I’d have exposed the image for ½ second instead of a full second.)