Tips for Focusing in the Dark

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Taking a long exposure picture in dark conditions can be a challenge, because the camera’s auto-focus capabilities find it difficult to “see” a point of focus. Manual focus can be hard, too, because you can’t see what you’re trying to focus on through the viewfinder! In keeping with this month’s “long exposure” challenge, here are a few tips for focusing in the dark.

Nikon D300 + Sigma 10-20mm f/3.5 @ 10mm - 30sec, f/4.5, ISO 1000.

1. Use a flashlight to temporarily light up your subject (glow sticks work well, too). You will be able to see your point of focus as you manually adjust the camera lens for a clear shot. Set the focus, turn off the flashlight, and use a remote shutter release or camera timer to take the shot. The important thing to remember here is that if your camera is automatically exposing for the lighted shot, you will need to re-expose for the unlit shot. Use your camera’s manual mode to manually set the exposure you want.

2. Use your camera’s flash pulse, in the full-auto mode, to set the focus. Many D-SLR’s pop-up flashes have a pulse mode that flickers the flash when the shutter is pressed half-way. This can help illuminate the subject so you can get the right focus. Once the focus is set, turn your camera from fully-automatic to manual mode so the flash doesn’t fire, and set the aperture and shutter speed as desired.

Nikon D90, Exposure 1.5, Aperture f/3.5, Focal Length 18mm

3. Set the lens to infinity (looks like the number “8″ lying on its side), then use trial and error to set the focus. Also, here is an EXCELLENT article at DOFMaster.com that explains how to achieve Hyperfocal Distance.

4. Focus on points of light that are at a similar distance to the subject you’re shooting, then lock the focus and recompose the shot. Use the center focus point, which is typically the most sensitive. If the moon is bright, auto-focus on it and then recompose your shot with the focus locked, which sets your focus at infinity as discussed in #3.

Sony DSLR-A200, Exposure 30, Aperture f/5.0, Focal Length 22mm, ISO 400

5. Remember, if you’re using your lenses auto focus capabilities to set the focus, to flip the switch to manual focus once the correct focus is achieved (to “lock the focus”). That way you won’t accidentally depress the shutter and kick in the auto focus again at the wrong moment.

6. If you want to make a fashion statement, purchase some sort of lighted head gear that will enable you to light up subjects in front of you but leave both hands free to manage the camera. Something like a Cyclops™ LED Hat Clip Light works well and fits on any baseball cap or visor that you may already own.

I hope these tips help you out! If you have any more advice on how to achieve focus in dark surroundings, please feel free to share them in the comments.

Photo credits (in order of appearance):
- “Svartedalen House at Night #photog (EXPLORED)” by mescon on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Central Park Lake at Night” by Chuck Yeager on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “It’s awfully lonely here.” by shidairyproduct on Flickr Creative Commons.

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