Understanding your 50mm lens can be crucial for night photography. You don’t have to master the 50mm lens in order to take the best night photographs, you may be able to do, although there are a few twitches to know about the 50mm night photography settings.
What are the best 50mm night photography settings? You have two options: shooting handheld or on a tripod. In the case you want to take night photographs handheld, use the aperture mode at the widest aperture settings with the ISO set automatically on a maximum ISO 3200 or ISO 6400 values, depending on your camera, as well for the shutter speed to be above 1/40sec. On a tripod, use manual mode only and set the right type of exposure for your night scene.
This just said. Furthermore, I want to divide this article into two parts, where I will largely talk about both of the scenarios of taking night photographs with your 50mm lens handheld or set up on a tripod.
You can use the table of content to jump to the required section but I rather prefer for you to read the whole article for the best info.
50mm lens night photography settings
Following the above scenarios where you are able to take photographs during the night either handheld or on a tripod, the scene and the lighting condition are the ones which make the most difference in the photographs. Furthermore, I will cover the right settings on the specific sections of this post.
Taking photographs with your 50mm lens at night handheld
It is relatively rare that you may find 50mm lenses with VR/IS (image stabilisation). More often you can find instead fast 50mm prime lenses with an aperture of f/1.8, f/1.4 and even f/1.2 as the Nikon 50mm f/1.2 manual focus lens I own.
The lenses with image stabilisation have a narrower aperture, therefore, slower shutter speed may be present with the same settings compared to owning a wider aperture lens. But of course, you have image stabilisation.
The idea behind this is that if your aim is to freeze the action during the night when you take handheld photographs, a wider aperture lens may become a priority over an image stabilisation one. This because more light can be captured, therefore, faster shutter speed with a relatively lower ISO can be used.
But if motion is not that important, then a lens with image stabilisation will work just fine as well. The motion will be created, indeed, but you can slow the shutter speed even down to 1/2 sec and still have a sharp image (you must be extremely steady, subject to the lens and IS performance), where, it is relatively very difficult to take a sharp photograph under 1/30sec shutter speed.
But my recommendation for taking photographs with a 50mm lens at night handheld will be with a shutter speed above 1/40sec if the lens is fast enough to support this and the scene/camera allows that in the given lighting situations.
The idea with the shutter speed is that this is not only affected by the night scene and the lighting conditions but by the ISO as well and the aperture as mentioned above.
1/40sec is just an estimate and not an exact setting. Check with your camera and your scene. Also, a lens with different focal length may work differently under the same settings, as an example, a telephoto lens may need a shutter of 1/100sec for a good’n’sharp photo where a 14mm wide lens may need an approximate of 1/20sec shutter speed.
The idea is that more magnification or zoom you have on your lens (bigger focal distance), more shake is induced by trying to photograph handheld and faster shutter speed you need. A telephoto lens without image stabilisation is impractical.
50mm lens on a full-frame camera (or 35mm on a crop-sensor DX camera) is somewhere on the sweet spot, before the shake induced by taking photographs in difficult lighting situations or nighttime where you can use and balance optimal shutter speed with a relatively low ISO on a wider aperture.
Understanding the aperture of your 50mm lens
50mm, as mentioned several times across my blog, is relatively what our eyes see in the reality, this you can see through your camera eye finder. But the catch is that the 50mm should be used with a full-frame camera otherwise on a DX with a crop factor this will become a 75mm.
The same goes with the aperture of the 50mm lens as this is “cropped out” on a DX camera format, as the DX camera sensor is too small compared to the full-frame if the lens is an FX lens. For the best practice and to make sure that you get the best out of your 50mm lens when is about night photography or difficult lighting situation, ensure that your lens is fully compatible with your camera (FX camera with FX lens, DX camera with DX lens)
In general, there may be available a dozen of aperture 50mm lenses, but the most popular one ever is the f/1.8.
There is a difference between f/1.2, f/1.4 and f/1.8, as the faster aperture lenses are capable of capturing more light. But not only this, in general, about the majority of the lenses are slightly soft at their maximum aperture, therefore, stepping down a bit may help with the sharpness.
As an instance, instead of using an f/1.8 to take a picture to a scene on the maximum wide aperture, I would better use an f/1.2 lens and step down to f/1.8, although the lens may be able to capture more light with the wider aperture. In the end, is not only about the widest aperture ever but to take into consideration the sharpness and to make the best out of it.
The aperture mode. What are the right values?
Using the aperture mode of your camera would be the best approach to take night photographs handheld with your 50mm lens. This because you will need your lens to be open as wide as possible (in most cases where lighting is poorly) in order to capture as much light as possible.
The value you set for your aperture in the aperture mode will remain the same, whilst the shutter speed will fluctuate due to differences of light on the scene and the ISO.
- If your lens is having an aperture of f/1.8, use it as wide as possible. During the night you will find very little to no light unless you are in a zone where lighting is appropriate for any other settings.
- If the aperture of your lens is f/1.4, you can gather more light than before. In the situation where the lighting is more appropriate and your 50mm lens will work well even at an f/1.8 value, it is a good approach to step the aperture down in order to increase the sharpness.
- In the case your 50mm lens is an f/1.2, as in the case of my Nikon 50mm f/1.2 manual focus lens, you may have a great time using this during the night as even in more challenging lighting conditions, the f/1.2 will make the difference, but in most of the cases, you may not need to use the f/1.2 values, as even at this point, the image is unlikely to be very sharp and the vignetting not to be noticeable. If the above scenarios are true, step down the aperture to f/1.4 or f/1.8 for sharper images.
It is more like for you to use the sense of considering the right values for the lighting conditions of your scene. Every scene, frame and element will have an impact on your values and settings.
ISO. What ISO to use for 50mm night photography?
In the case of ISO is a debate. The first thing I want to underline is the fact that the photographs, in this case, are taken with the camera handheld, therefore, slower shutter speeds are out of the equation. You need faster shutter speeds.
For the given scene and lighting scenario, having a low ISO value is not ideal for obtaining a fast shutter speed, therefore, you need for sure to increase your ISO. There are two ways you can do it: manually and automatically.
You set a fixed value as the aperture in the aperture mode. It can be ISO100, ISO200, ISO400, ISO1600, ISO3200 and many other values and in-between. If you set your fixed ISO value you have a fixed aperture in the aperture mode, where, the only setting left automatically to adjust over the scene lighting is the actual shutter speed. If this is too slow, increase your ISO.
The more you increase your ISO, the faster the shutter speed will become. This is a pure fact. But beware, that with the ISO increased, you have image noise-induced. More ISO = more sensitive your camera sensor to light = faster shutter speed = more image noise.
I personally tend to use fixed ISO settings when photographing with my 50mm lens and full-frame camera, where I do know that the scene is always giving me enough light for the shutter speed to be fast enough on and above the recommended values. This will avoid for the ISO to be adjusted on the wrong settings, and also, I can decrease the ISO if the lighting is becoming sufficient.
The Auto ISO
This is the most used setting by most of the photographers, easier to understand and to manage, to actually leave the ISO on auto for it to pick the right values in order to give me the required shutter speed. But here is a trick. You need to set up your right values of auto ISO to get the best out of it, otherwise, your photos may look awful.
Here is the catch: you have two settings to focus on mainly, this can be found on your camera menu (I am a Nikon user, I cannot guarantee that all the DSLR and Mirrorless models may have the same customisable settings). The max ISO and the target shutter speed. There is a direct relationship between those two.
- The max ISO is the maximum ISO value is going to be used when this is adjusted automatically according to the lighting of your scene, which can be set between two values, such as an example: Min = 100, Max = 3200. The ISO will fluctuate between 100 and 3200 to give you the target shutter speed
- If your ISO is on auto, you have a target shutter speed (not the flash one), which is the recommended one you need for your night photography. As an instance, as my recommendation, you can set this to 1/40sec, and your ISO will always fluctuate between the values so you can get the 1/40sec target shutter speed. ISO will stop there and not increase more unless the lighting changes and there need more light to compensate to reach the value. If there is enough light, the ISO will decrease in order to avoid the image to have as low noise as possible.
The one thing to know is that every camera has a different ISO sensitivity. This will carry from model to model, from a brand to another. It is important to know and understand your camera and low light capabilities. Some cameras may have difficult times to deliver images with low noise on an ISO of 3200, while some other can deliver perfectly clear photographs on an ISO of 6400 or even ISO 12800, where is barely noticeable.
As an instance with my Nikon D750 and the above-mentioned lens I use, when I am using the ISO values on auto, I tend to set the max ISO to 4000 and target shutter speed of 1/60sec. This worked well for me many times on night event photography with my 50mm lens. But your situation may require different settings.
Other scenarios which can affect the settings
There can be some other scenarios or settings which can affect or impact either positively or negatively the values of the main settings you use for 50mm night photography. One of them I want to talk about is the EV (exposure value)
For sure you know what is the exposure value. It is a button on your camera, usually situated near the shutter, which allows you to set and override all your settings for the image to be delivered either brighter or darker than the normal scene. All the other auto settings will adjust over the exposure value.
In normal mode, when this is set to 0, this does not have any impact on your image. But just to know, this is one of the main settings you have to learn for your camera and not only 50mm night photography. Understand and know how to properly use the EV values.
This EV will look something like this on your camera screen mode:
One another scenario where the settings can be affected is the focus point (autofocus). We have the same scene, where there is a source of light, subject, background, foreground. Maybe something standard and not too complicated.
If you focus on your subject which appears to be very dark, the auto settings will compensate the lighting by increasing the ISO automatically (if this is the case) and slowing down the shutter speed, for the subject to be in proper lighting condition. But now, the source of light is overexposed.
If you focus now on the source of light, the camera will read the values to be a bit overexposed, therefore, the shutter speed will increase and ISO decrease. Your light source now appears to be in proper range but the rest of the picture will look very dark, maybe even unrecoverable in post-processing.
The point would be to either create an HDR night image where you balance the shadows and the highlights into a single image or master the EV values / manual settings.
Keep in mind that although those are general settings to talk about night photography in general, with 50mm night photography it would be something similarly the same, only to take into consideration that with this focal distance, you have a limited scene and number of elements to include into your photograph.
The settings in a table.
|50mm lens||Minimum Settings||Recommended Settings|
|Aperture||Any, depending on your scene||f/1.8|
|Shutter Speed||1/30 handheld||1/40 – 1/60 handheld|
|ISO||Below 6400||Below 3200|
The bokeh at night of a 50mm lens
One of the most beautiful parts of taking 50mm night photography is the bokeh. This is above unique for two reasons: The bokeh at night is the most beautiful bokeh ever, and the 50mm is the very sweet spot where the bokeh can be really nice (although this photo may not be the perfect example)
To obtain bokeh, and for this to look as good as possible, you have to focus on a few key points:
- A source of light in the background – Or better said, multiple sources of light in the background – when this will be out of focus, bokeh will form. This would mean for you to focus on your subject and leave the background out of focus.
- The focus point / your subject – The main focus point or the subject should be either in the foreground or the middle ground and not at all in the background. The idea with this is that as the closer the subject is to you, the background will become more blurry, therefore, the bokeh will become more noticeable and better in general.
- Wide aperture – There is no bokeh if you step down a lot your aperture. Even with your 50mm at night, this will create a situation where it will be difficult to take any images handheld. But the point would be as simple to use the widest settings your camera lens allows it. Wider aperture = shallower depth of field = bokeh is better visible.
In portrait photography, using a 50mm lens at night is amazing, as not only that the 50mm lens is very recommended and often use in portrait photography, but the bokeh obtained can be legendary.
Night photography long exposures with your 50mm lens.
Okay. Now we reach the second part of this topic. Taking night long exposure photographs with your 50mm lens. In general, this will be no different from any other focal lengths and not much will be impacted other than the scene, elements and the composition in general.
The only part where the focal length will have an impact on long exposure night photographs is where is motion and in special in astrophotography where the rotation of the earth has an impact in the length of the long exposure.
Setting your camera on a tripod. What should you know about?
Once you have your camera on a tripod during the night and your 50mm lens on, you can basically do anything. You can take 2-3 seconds long exposure or basically bulb exposures as long as you want (or can). But to know that the longer the exposure is, there is more chance to get shake induced. Well, this information to share, there are two types of shakes induced (the first time you will hear about this).
- For short exposures, the touch shake. You set or touch your camera, there is a bump in the image, will get a bit blurry. Longer the exposure, this will be less noticeable, as you may not touch again the camera until the image is taken.
- For longer exposures, there is shake induced from other sources such as constant wind, people walking (as tripod set on a pier), unstable surface such as sand (tripod and camera will slightly drift), cheap tripod (where the ball head is moving because of the weight pressure), an earthquake (joking here. Or not) etc. The point is that shorter is the exposure in this case, less noticeable can be the shake imprinted into the image, where longer exposures will definitely ruin your photo.
With a 50mm lens, taking long exposures during the night, you want to find a good and strong stable surface, use a good tripod and the weather conditions are optimal. Keep in mind that longer is the focal length, the shake will be more noticeable into the image. A nightmare for telephoto lenses, but a blessing for the very wide lenses. The 50mm lens is going to be, again, on the edge of a sweet spot.
The right settings of night photography long exposures with your 50mm lens
Now choosing the right settings may be difficult and definitely the biggest impact it does have the scene and the lighting conditions (plus one more million other factors). But to start with the number one factor is the mandatory manual mode to use.
The aperture is not something to worry anymore. You can step down your aperture to f/5.6 or to f/16 (nominal values), really depending on your lens and scene. I found that taking long night exposures with my 50mm lens with an aperture of f/8 is amazing.
You don’t need to hunt bokeh here. Whatever your subject is, either a landscape, a cityscape or a house/scene, you don’t need to hunt bokeh for the long exposures. You need your image to be instead as sharp as possible from the foreground to the background.
The shutter is the only setting you need to focus on. How long is going to be your exposure? 2-3sec? Or 15sec? 30sec may sound nice, but why not 5 minutes? This is something I cannot tell you because one first time after you pick your scene or subject and set your camera on your tripod, is to experimenting with different longer exposures to see which one may be the best.
ISO – It would be extremely rare (except astrophotography) where you actually need to increase your ISO above 100. Keep it to a minimum, on manual mode, so this won’t change at all. Remember, you can take as long exposures you want because your camera is on the tripod. Unnecessarily increasing the ISO will induce image noise and decrease the clarity and quality of the image itself.
Considering the scene. What to shoot?
There can be a million and one things to shoot with your 50mm lens at night. Either if long exposure (as under this category) or handheld. But now, let’s try to cover a few things you can shoot long exposure images with your 50mm lens.
Cityscapes at night
One of the most beautiful scenes can be shoot at night is a city (bigger = better). With your 50mm lens is all about how far away you are from the city and how big it is? But in general, expect that you may not be able to capture the whole scene with a 50mm lens, therefore, either a wider (not an option for the topic) lens would be better or creating a panoramic picture from multiple long exposures (always work on manual mode) – A good example would be the above image.
A pub, a street
These elements or scenes are fantastic photogenic things to shoot at night. In special with your 50mm. But beware as well, you need to step back a bit in order to get that pub in the frame. The same with the street. The idea for this is to find a strategic point from where to photograph and the angle.
A moony landscape
Something you won’t often see in the photography zone – take this photo as an example, the only point is that the above photo is NOT taken with a 50mm lens (it is taken with a 20mm lens on a DX camera)
Again, one of the beautiful advantages of taking long exposures at night with your 50mm lens. Check our other article about light trails and how to do it in the best way.
Fireworks at night
Absolutely one another main thing which can be photographed at night with your 50mm lens. Taking long exposures only enhance the beauty of the fireworks. Check our other guide about fireworks for more information and how to do it.
A dark landscape
This is not always a practical way to take a long exposure with your 50mm lens, but sometimes, leaving your exposure open for a longer period of time where the scene is extremely dark, the camera sensor may pick up even the slightest sources of light and amplifies them. You never know how your image may look. (E.g. ferries and cruise ships travelling along the blue channel – seen from the coast – the picture will appear as the sea is cut with a white line from the sky – the line of the horizon)
Astrophotography? This will definitely be a subject for another topic. Or a book.
Photo retouching and post-processing.
After you took your night photographs with a 50mm lens, either handheld or long exposures, photo retouching may be necessary. I tend to use Adobe Lightroom for basic retouching (I am not a big fan of Photoshop, although I should be using it more often.)
Post-processing the handheld photographs taken with a 50mm lens.
When we get to the point of post-processing your handheld photographs, this appears to be a bit more complex than the long exposure ones taken on a tripod.
The exposure and balance – Aforementioned tends to be the first settings we look into as they are on the top of the list when post-processing our 50mm photographs in Lightroom. The exposure overall can be adjusted, increased or decreased until we get the desired results. Same goes with the white balance, shadows, blacks etc. But beware that every time we try to recover shadows and darks, image noise is induced.
Colour temperature – This is a standard operation to adjust the colour temperature of the image, warmer or colder. You can also slide the tint towards green or pinkish for an extra style of the image.
Saturation and Vibrance – These settings are just the basic adjustment to the intensity of the colours, which can be selectively done in the advanced tab.
Sharpening and noise reduction – Maybe the most important settings you have to deal with. Do not forget that the photographs are taken handheld in this case, ISO may be increased and in general, you may find image noise. The sharpening probably won’t be that great with high ISO either. Apply a bit of sharpening and a bit (more) noise reduction until you get the best results. Trust me, this will make a huge difference.
Spot removal – if there is anything such as glare or other unwanted elements, these can be easily removed (unless they are too big) with the spot removal.
Other settings – There can be other fine settings such as, as mentioned, selective colours, applying or removing vignette, correct the lens distortions and many others.
Post-processing the long exposure photographs taken with a 50mm lens
When we get to post-process our long exposure photographs taken with a 50mm lens, there is no much we can change, to be honest. Think about the fact that your ISO value is probably 100, so no noise. Sharpening won’t be a problem either, as the aperture is down a bit and the image may look very sharp, same goes with the removing vignette.
The only things worth looking into is the colour temperature, saturation and vibrance, spot removal and to correct the lens distortions (if this is the case)
Of course, this can easily be extended and worked into the image for the best results. And photoshop is just another and new territory to step into for complex post-processing and retouching long exposure photographs taken with your 50mm lens.
The honest conclusion
Most of the settings covered in this topic are applying for any focal length lenses not only 50mm. The reason I wanted to be specific is that not many people are focusing on writing complex articles covering some unexplored topics, and I love to do that, I love to experiment, learn, develop, research and gather all the best information to share with you.
I also love 50mm photography and I am crazy about it. This is part of my expertise in photography, the 50mm photography.
For now, I have to say goodbye and thank you for reading this post. If you have any question, feel free to ask in the comment section below. Take care, my friend.
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