Night Photography Beginners Guide, Part 3: Essential Accessories

Before venturing out on a long night shoot session, three items I find indispensable…

  • tripod
  • battery grip
  • shutter release cable

On my first night shoot, I tried getting by without two of the above but very quickly decided I needed all three before my next attempt.

1. Tripod

Manfrotto 055XPROB

I already had a budget tripod purchased from Jessops many years earlier. It worked OK for fast exposure snapshot type pics but for long exposures it wasn’t sturdy enough. I needed something that could deliver rock steady reliability. There are numerous options but one name that cropped up continually during my research was Manfrotto. I opted for their aluminium 055XPROB and 3-way head (804RC2). Total cost was around £160. They also offer a more expensive head, the 496RC2 Compact Ball Head,  which some people prefer for it’s ease of use in terms of adjusting and setting camera angle but I’ve found the less expensive three-way suits my purposes just fine.It’s quick and easy to use once you become familiar with it. Most importantly, the 055XPROB eliminates camera shake i.e. IT WORKS!

Checking ebay revealed most premium quality tripods hold their value extremely well, to the point a good used tripod will sell for almost the same cost as a new one. Shop around and check prices from the usual suspects. Mine came from mail order specialist Fotosense.

If your style of photography involves carrying camera gear over long distances, you may want to consider a carbon fibre tripod. Weighing in around one third the weight of aluminium, they’re much easy to cart around but will hit your wallet approx three times as much!

Don’t cut corners wasting money on an el-cheapo tripod: your frustration with inferior results will soon see you splashing the cash on the model you should have bought in the first place. You can make savings elsehwere to compensate… read on for a couple of examples.

2. Battery Grip

My first attempt at long exposure night photography was on a cold winter’s night in December 2009. Armed with an inferior tripod, homemade shutter release and recently purchased Canon 20D, I soon discovered the standard issue Canon battery doesn’t last too long when subjected to minutes long exposures in close to zero temperatures. Fortunately I wasn’t far from home, so was able to return to base and recharge before heading out again.

The cure? A battery grip.

Battery GripThey’re easy to fit: remove the standard battery enclosure access panel (check the manual) and the grip clicks into place on the base of your camera.

In my limited experience, I’ve found this is one area  you can save some money. To date I’ve purchased two non genuine grips, one for the 20D and another for the 5D. Both are aftermarket items, a fraction of the cost of genuine Canon grips. Quality, fit and performance have been faultless with both. When fitted to the camera, they look as close to the real article as I can tell.

Be careful which version you opt for. Most grips will accept two original style batteries – which is exactly what you want. They are commonly supplied with an optional accessory battery tray which allows you to operate on 6 x AA batteries. That probably sounds like a neat idea but AAs die really quick compared to the real deal. Stick with original style Li-ion style batteries for maximum staying power. As long as you buy a grip that can take two original style batteries, you’re in business.

An unforseen side benefit of using the battery grip is I no longer bang my chin on the vertical adjustment handle on the Manfrotto 3 way tripod head.

Re battery life: hard to quantify due to the large number of variables but safe to say, you’ll capture far more shots with the grip than without. Many of my night shoots last at least five hours. In the warmer months I can make it through a session without changing batteries. Nowadays I always carry six fully charged batteries – two in the grip and four in my backpack. Even when I’ve carried out multiple exposure star trail shots, I’ve yet to load batteries five and six.

Talking of batteries… when it came time to buy spares, I took a chance and purchased a few ebay aftermarket items. Again, much cheaper than genuine Canon batteries but so far they’ve performed just fine.

3. Shutter Release

Your DSLR has a socket to accept a cable shutter release. When operating your camera in ‘bulb’ mode, the shutter remains open for as long as the button is depressed. You could, if you wished, keep the button depressed manually for the duration of the shot but in practical terms this is a non-starter. You must avoid anything that might cause camera shake. A cable release isolates the physical action of opening and closing the shutter from the camera body itself, thus eliminating the risk of camera movement, resulting in a crisper image (assuming you have a steady tripod).

cable shutter releaseThis is another opportunity to save some cash – there are numerous aftermarket release cables available, costing considerably less than your camera manufacturer’s offerings. The last shutter relase cable I bought via Ebay (brand new) was less than £5 delivered!

Having said that, I’ve gone through three of these in the past year. From what I can tell, it appears the connections near the shutter button end of things is susceptible to failure. Whether the genuine article would last longer or not, I can’t say. If you decide to take the ebay route, probably best to buy a couple so you have a spare in the event one decides to act up half way through that night shoot you just drove 120 miles to get to!

With these simple manual shutter release cables, you depress the button and slide it upward to lock the button in place. The exposure continues until you release the button. This generally involves you counting time, checking your watch or shining a light on the camera display to see how long you’ve been exposing the scene. An easier method is to use a digital timer release. More expensive than the manual type but frees you from manually keeping track of exposure time.

As with most items, you have the option of buying genuine or aftermarket. You’ve probably guessed already… I went the aftermarket route and purchased a Yongnuo digital shutter release via Ebay.

Aside from entering the length of exposure required, you can also programme in a delay. For example…

Future RuinI needed a few minutes inside the house to light each room. To make my way from the camera, having activated the shutter, I had to negotiate a wire fence, clamber over miscellaneous building materials and get isnside the house. I gave myself more time by programming a one minute delay into the digital shutter release. I activated the shutter, climbed over the fence, got inside the house and looked through one of the downstairs windows , checking for the tell-tale red light on the camera so I knew when the exposure had started.

The other killer application for a digital timer shutter release is for carrying out startrail shots. In this example, I programmed 20 x 4 minute exposures with a one second interval between each. Once I clicked the button I was free to go back to the car, have a coffee, listen to the radio and eat Jaffa Cakes until the whole thing was over. Try doing that manually!

Borrego Desert StartrailsNext in the series:  non-essential but extremely useful accessories.

PS… please feel free to chip in and share stories of items you’ve find useful when shooting night photographs. All contributions more than welcome.

2 thoughts on “Night Photography Beginners Guide, Part 3: Essential Accessories”

  1. Hi John, thank you for these excellent articles on night photography. I am now in the process of giving this a go and have purchased the digital shutter release, now watching a few auctions on ebay for the 10-22mm lens and the Manfrotto tripod. hope to win these in the next few days. I have a couple of ali tripods but probably not sturdy enough given your experience. My son has the 20D camera but mine is the 1000D. Hope it delivers like yours, some really fantastic stuff you have done. I’m still learning and just a below average photographer wanting to try new things and do better. I visited Isle of Lewis and Harris in 2008 and would like to come back to take better landscape shots than the ones I got. Once again thanks for the excellent guides on night photography.

    Best wishes


  2. Hey Azzy,

    Belated thanks for your contribution. It’s been a while since I last posted on here but aiming to get back in the swing with more regular updates.
    Sounds like you have everything you need to get into some long exposure night photography. Hope it’s been working out for you?
    Give us a shout if you ever make a return trip to the island.
    Darker nights are moving in… I’ve not taken a night shot for over 4 months! Here’s to long clear winter nights 😉
    All the best from the Isle of Harris.


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