How do you focus the camera at night? I remember that being my first question when I considered night photography. Until then, I did all of my shooting during the day or indoors. The only times I shot with limited light were when I was shooting sunsets and water drops. But, even then I would stop when the sun went down. In the case of of the water drops, I did my focusing with the lights on. So, I was accustomed to the camera being able to focus, since there was always a light source.
But what about focusing when there is little to no light? It’s actually a little easier than it may seem. Let me help you out.
Use a Flashlight
If you’re doing any kind of night photography, you should have a flashlight in your bag. It can serve as your best focusing aid. Shine the light on the object you’re shooting – then use the autofocus to lock in on the subject. When the subject is focus, switch to manual focus. That way the lens won’t try to autofocus, and it will keep the focus setting that you set using the flashlight.
Find a Bright Spot
If it’s not totally dark, find a light distant source and use it to lock in your focus. This can be whatever light there is. In a city – there are plenty of lights. So, it really helps to focus the camera at night. But, basically use whatever light you have available. It may only be a small bit of light – but just enough. At that point, you can make that your focus point (and leave autofocus on), or you can switch to manual focus so you can recompose your shot.
Go During the Day
If you have a chance to visit the shooting location during the day, it can be extremely beneficial. Not only for safety and familiarity (both very important), but you can also use that time to lock in your focus. During daylight, focus on a far away point, switch to manual focus, and use a piece of gaffer tape to hold the focus ring in position. Two things to consider with this method: 1. You also have to make sure you’re in the exact spot that you used to set the focus (or as close as possible) 2. you probably won’t be able to use that lens until you come back at night
When you have light and autofocus, using the viewfinder for focusing is the typical method. I personally prefer the viewfinder to Live View. But! When it’s darker – using Live View (the LCD screen) gives you a bigger screen to use for focusing. It enables you to zoom in on a particular area (either with a button or touchscreen). This way you are able to see if that area is in focus a lot better than using the viewfinder.
Using hyperfocal distance to focus at night is an important technique to learn. It’s especially helpful in night photography, but it can also apply to landscape to general photography. How does it work? Using hyperfocal length to set your focus, everything from ½ of the hyperfocal distance to infinity will be in focus.
To determine the hyperfocal length – use a calculator, like PhotoPills app or the Online Calculator on the PhotoPills website. Just enter your camera model, aperture setting, and focal length. Set your tripod at the calculated hyperfocal distance – then use a flashlight to focus on an object in front of you.
I used the calculator to make the image at the Mesquite Flats Sand Dunes in Death Valley National Park. I walked off the hyperfocal distance from the tree limb, I shined my flashlight on the limb. Once my focus was set, I switched to manual focus to lock it in. My plan is to purchase an electronic tape measure to help measure distance without having to estimate. I can just shoot the laser at my foreground subject and get a measurement.