To take good photographs at night requires a number of things with possibly the most important, after the camera of course, is a tripod. Although there are a number of ways of getting around using one, a tripod is advisable, preferably with a pan and tilt head. This will drastically reduce camera shake. Using a camera bag attached to the bottom of the central pillar is advisable, especially in windy or unstable conditions, to give added stability
A remote operation facility is useful, either using a remote control or a fixed shutter release.
A lens hood is useful, to keep out extraneous light, such as vehicles, street lighting etc.
A powerful light can be useful to illuminate certain subjects that may need highlighting.
And, of course, imagination!!! Mobile phones, mini LCD lights, candles, sparklers, any tool can be used to create artistic, even illusory, shots.
So, where to start? The rudiments, I guess. There is one important item needed for night photography. Light. But the photograph is being done at night. There is no light. Actually there is usually some form of light, whether from the moon, starlight, ambient light from buildings and street lights etc. The problem is it is very poor or weak light so slightly different techniques are needed to those of daytime photography. Firstly, in most instances, the aperture is set at its widest to allow as much of that weak light onto the sensor as possible. Next is the shutter speed. In daytime photography, shutter speeds tend to be in various fractions of a second but in night photography it is usually measured in seconds. This is why a tripod is very useful. A remote facility is also useful as it prevents touching the camera causing the shake effect to appear in the image.
dSLR cameras usually have a longest exposure setting of 30”, but sometimes a longer timer is needed. This option is available as ‘Bulb’. This gets its name from the early form of plate photography, where an air bulb connected to the camera by a tube, and applying pressure to the bulb compressed the air in the tube so pressing the shutter release and holding the shutter open until the pressure on the bulb was released so closing the shutter. A cable shutter release operates on a similar basis, but usually electronically on most modern cameras. The ‘bulb’ setting operates in the same way as the old air bulb. When the shot is ready, the shutter release is pressed and held for the desired period, allowing light onto the sensor for the required time, then released, so taking the desired shot.
Initially the length of time to keep the shutter open will be trial and error, depending on the subject, location, ambient light and effect. Spotlit buildings may need only a short shutter speed, whereas an unlit building in the country will need much longer as there is much less light. An area that is busy at night could be problematic, but by setting a longer exposure and increasing the f-stop so reducing the light reaching the sensor, will mean the people will ghost out because as they are moving, the camera sensor will not fix them on the final image and so only the subject will appear in the final shot
Night photograph also enables a photographer to play with light. An example is a fairground, where using the light on the rides, and a long exposure, creates interesting effects. Another is using a handheld light source and performing light art. Attaching a light to a piece of string and getting someone to swing it in a circle while holding the shutter open creates a circle of light and, if the shutter speed is right, the ‘swinger’ will not appear. The same can be done to create words, or images. By depressing the shutter release in bulb’ mode and holding something over the lens that prevents light getting to the sensor, using a light source, something can be ‘painted’ in the air. The lens is uncovered for a short period while the first part of the intended image is created, then the lens is covered again, always keeping the shutter release depressed. The next part of the image is prepared and the process is repeated, and so on, until the image capture is completed.
Another feature is multiple exposure. An example would be someone sitting on one of several chairs and using the above process, changing seats until all the seats have been used and the final photograph will make it seem as though the subject has been cloned.
A popular form of photography in urban areas is light trails. The best place is one with moving lights, such as a main road, fairground etc. Once the camera is set up, take a photograph at 1”, then another at 2” and so on. Compare the resulting images until the best shot is found. Using that as the starting point, take more shots, adjusting shutter speed and exposure. Also try taking the shots from a higher and lower perspective.
Back to the tripod. Sometimes using a tripod is not possible. Some places ban tripod use (yes, it sucks but no point arguing!) so use other means. A bean bag, clothing or street furniture can all double up as impromptu anti-shake equipment. If the shutter speed is not too slow, then leaning against a wall, lamppost etc may be sufficient. Even someone’s shoulder will work. A monopod can work to a limited extent.
The main thing is experiment and use trial and error. The only limit is imagination!