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Taking Good Handheld Photos at Night

Darkness is kryptonite to your photos--all cameras thrive on light. As the sun sets, your camera craves slower shutter speeds (which lead to blurry photos) or demands the flash (which creates harsh lighting up close and does nothing for subjects that are farther away). I've given you some advice for dealing with low-light situations in the past. Recently, a few cameras have emerged that try to solve this problem with fancy handheld low-light shooting modes. This week, let's see how to achieve similar results with your own camera and the photo editing tools on your PC.

How Low-Light Camera Modes Work

You already know the problems associated with taking pictures at night. Traditionally, most cameras do little to help. The problem is one of physics: In low-light situations, the camera has little alternative but to leave the shutter open longer to soak up more light.

But consider a camera like the Canon PowerShot SX230 HS and the Sony Cyber-Shot WX10. Both of these cameras offer night modes--with names like Handheld Twilight and Handheld Night Scene--that work sort of like panoramic stitching or high dynamic range features.

When you take a picture in these handheld night modes, they don't take a single shot but rather a series of them, very quickly, each with slightly different exposures. All of these photos are then automatically combined and optimized into a single, (hopefully) well-exposed photo that looks like you took a long-exposure night shot.

Doing It With Your Own Camera

You probably already know some tricks for getting good night photos. You can increase the ISO, use a flash, or lengthen the shutter speed (which generally requires a tripod). But you've probably never tried something like the Sony's Handheld Twilight trick. So can you replicate something like that yourself?

Sure you can. There are all sorts of ways you can take a photo you shot in low light and improve it afterwards on your PC. In fact, I've got three techniques you can try.

Improve the Levels

If you have already taken a photo at night and the result was somewhat dark and underexposed, one way you can improve it is with your photo editor's Levels tool, as I've explained in the past. Open the photo in your favorite photo editor and choose the Levels or Histogram Adjustment tool. Grab the slider under the right side of the histogram and drag it towards the middle. As you do that, you should see the photo get brighter, improving the exposure of your photo.

Beware, though: You'll only get marginal improvements from the Levels tool before the overall quality plummets, so use it sparingly.

Screen It

You might also try taking advantage of a little trick you can find in most image editors' Layers palette. Do this: Open your night photo in a photo editor and duplicate it in a second layer (in Photoshop Elements, for example, choose Layer, Duplicate Layer, and click OK).

Now, in the Layers Palette on the right side of the screen, make sure the top layer is selected and change its style from Normal to Screen. The entire image will brighten, potentially improving the shot. If that didn't quite make the grade, you can continue to add new duplicate layers and screen them until you are satisfied. But just like the Levels trick, Screening your photo layers should be used sparingly.

Stack Photos

This last technique is the one that'll give you the best results by far, and is most similar to what these new cameras do when you select the handheld night modes. Using a photo-stacking program, you can combine multiple photos of the same scene to generate what looks like a long exposure.

To try out this technique, install a program called Image Stacker. There's a free trial available, but it is limited to photos that are 640 by 480 pixels or smaller (the full version costs $17). That means if you want to fiddle around with Image Stacker, you'll need to resize your photos in a photo editing program first.

To use Image Stacker, just drag several photos into the program window, specify the output file, and click Create. You can experiment with various blending options, but I've had good results with the default Stack setting. Is it as simple or convenient as just pressing a button on a Nikon CoolPix P300? No, it's not--but experimenting can be a lot of fun as well.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "After the Rain" by Melanie Amos, Raymore, Missouri

Melanie captured this photo after a rainstorm using a Nikon Coolpix P90.

This week's runner up: "Propeller" by Myka Forrest, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Myka says: "I took this on a family trip to the Air Force Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. I'm not really into planes, but the propeller and nose design fascinated me. I took this with my Canon PowerShot S90. Afterward, I increased the contrast and desaturated the photo a bit."

To see last month's winners, visit our May Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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