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Tips For Taking Better Nighttime Laser Photos

Gsquared18

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Just thought I'd throw this info out there in case someone's struggling with taking a nighttime photo of their laser and not happy with the results. This is more of a reference manual that you can come back to if you're having trouble. So, there is no need to retain it all in the first sitting. This a living document! I have asked other members to chime in with their expertise so, keep checking back as time goes on.

Update---> I decided to make a video tutorial that'll explain everything and will include a bunch side by side comparisons of images. I work in the video production business (no, not porn) and have everything I need to create a tutorial that will be very easy to understand and follow. I want this to be a collaborative effort as I am not only one with knowledge on the topic. I would love ideas from other photo junkies as well so if anybody would like to offer up their expertise during the creation, please PM me letting me know you're interested and I will send quicktimes at different stages of the video build for you to review. You will get a video credit in the final video. More to come soon.


Attached is a picture I took earlier in the year when I had one of Jack's Opto 150mW green pointers. I did it under a moonless sky, far away from any city lights and the neighborhood could not even be seen in the live-view LCD on my Nikon D90 camera. So trust me, it was dark.

The following information is more for people interested in getting near accurate results of the beam. If you just want to play around a get the beam as bright as possible, there still is some info in here that'll help you get a more rock solid shot.




Camera
Any still camera with a long exposure option will do. Problem is, most point-n-click cameras don't have a long enough shutter setting to produce the type of image we are looking at here. "Aperture" and "ISO" if available on your model both play a vital role with the shutter. If your situation has more ambient light, your camera may be able to take the shot. Pretty much any DSLR camera these days is capable of producing a properly exposed image even in the darkest of nights.

Tripod
A TRIPOD IS A MUST. In my case, I used two tripods. One for the camera and the other for the laser which I pre-aimed for the shot. That way, the moment I turned the laser on, the dot would hit the exact spot I was aiming for. A hand held attempt on an exposed shot would cause unwanted "beam blur". The tripod I used for the laser was homemade in that I used the hollow handle on it to hold the laser in (added a picture of the laser tripod). If you can't find something that'll give you the ability to tweak the position of the laser while holding it rock steady, I know companies like o-like sell mini tripods just for lasers and are dirt cheap.


The Idea:
Use the long exposure setting on the camera along with aperture and ISO to "expose" the area or scene and the object you're hitting. Then fire off the laser at the last moment (duration varies depending on camera settings and scene) to accurately represent (or as close as humanly possible;)) the brightness of the beam.



CAMERA SETTINGS:
If camera settings scare you, don't worry, we are here to help. Once you get the fundamentals down you'll have a ton of fun experimenting with your images.

Exposure
The amount of light reaching the sensor is known as "the exposure". There are two mechanical parts of a camera that control exposure; shutter and aperture. ISO (a.k.a. gain) is the 3rd function of the camera that is used to electronically amplify light. All are explained below.

Shutter
A door that opens and closes to control the length of time light is exposed to the sensor. Every camera has one and while most are adjustable, some (basic point-n-clicks) only have this as an automatic option. As simple as I can explain it and for our purposes, adjusting shutter speed allows you to control how much light hits the sensor. The lower the number, the longer the door stays open which lets in more light. We're looking for speeds in full second increments (ie. 10, 30, 60, or more). Using these speeds during the day would completely blow out the image.

So if you chose 20 (not 1/20th) as your number, that would leave the sensor exposed for 20 seconds. If the camera was locked down on a highway at night and your other settings were normalized, your result would be loooong streaks of lights from all the cars passing by the camera (or sensor). In our world, a laser pointer and some crazy arm movements at a 20 second exposure would yield some cool images. Try it!
For static laser shots, leaving the beam on for a 20 second exposure wouldn't blow out the scene or make the beam look as thick as a light saber but it will intensify the brightness of the beam 20x. If you're going for a wow factor, leave the beam on as long as you can without overheating it.

Just so that you know, on the other side of the spectrum, faster shutter speeds (ie. 1/250 of a second all the way up to 1/3200 and more) are meant for stopping action in bright light situations like sports. Not what we're after. Using those speeds at night even with a laser would result in complete black images. Might as well take the picture with the lens cap on:D

Aperture
A tiny adjustable hole in front of the lens that controls the amount of light coming in. This one is easy to understand but more challenging to use because it not only effects what you set your shutter at but it also affects your depth of field and what stays in focus. Let's leave focus out of the equation for the time being because most of the images we are after are wide shots where focus isn't as critical.

In a nutshell, the wider the hole, the more light is exposed to the sensor. Ever had your eyes dilated during an eye exam? It's where they put drops in your eyes that over 15 minutes or so, fully open the pupils of your eyes. This would be equivalent to the aperture being at it widest opening. In camera lingo for example, that would be an f/2.8. Just the opposite, an f-stop of f/22 would squeeze that opening as tight as possible letting in the least amount of light. Kinda like getting a light shinned in your eyes at night. You're pupils instantly goes from fully wide (f/2.8) to barely open (f/22). Make sense?

Check out this chart--->http://silverstrandphoto.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/0-7645-9802-3_0213.jpg

How does aperture work with shutter? Let's assume we're using a point-n-click camera that has adjustable shutter, f-stop and ISO settings and you want to take a beam shot of your laser at night. You set up the camera on the tripod and fire off the maximum 10 second exposure the camera has with the laser on the entire time. After reviewing the shot, you realize the scene barely came out or all you see is a faint beam over a black background. Now you think you can justify to your wife, girlfriend or mom that you need a $1200 DSLR camera. We'll, don't go into debt just yet there buddy because this is where aperture (plus ISO)"may" help.

If you check the aperture setting which is what... class? That's right, the f-stop. You may see that it was unintentionally set at f/15 or more which means what...class? That's right, the opening is at it's smallest opening allowing the least amount of light in. Lowering the f-stop to let's say f/1.8 is not always the magic bullet especially at night but it may help in some cases. So let's say it helped a bit but it's still not worthy of keeping. Noooo, bad boy! You still can't justify that DSLR. One more option that may help is ISO or gain. ISO is explained down below so for now, you'll just know it's an electronic volume control for light. While cranking it up may do the trick, too much "gain" will cause graininess in the photo resulting in a lack for better term, crappy picture.

If this is the case and you have maxed out all the "light gaining" abilities of the camera, yes, you may now run to mommy to OK the purchase. Just don't tell her I sent you. I got enough on my plate.:)

**Side note -- Sorry if I offended any female LPF members by not mentioning the need of approval from husbands, boyfriends or dads. Iv'e always just assumed all the laser dorks in this place are males.:D


ISO
ISO stands for "International Organization for Standardization" and is taken from the Greek word "isos", meaning equal. Doesn't sound like it has anything to do with light gain but let's see where it takes us.

ISO pertains to how sensitive the image sensor is to the amount of light present. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive the image sensor gets and therefore gives the camera the ability to take pictures in low-light situations. More to come...



The Scene:
As I stated above, it was very dark outside so I had to fire off a few test shots (without the laser) until I found how much time I needed to expose the image to include the radio antenna I was aiming for. Of course in the final image, the neighborhood houses were nicely exposed because of their exterior lights.

The Beam:
In my case, I wanted two results. I wanted the beam and, wanted to show the dot hitting the radio antenna 3/4's of a mile away. Sure the laser can shoot much farther than that but that is the range I thought would work for both. I used a timer remote for the camera's exposure so I could see exactly when to turn on the laser with a second left. If you don't have one of these it's no big deal. Counting out loud or in your head will just be trial and error. addendum-->I originally stated that the key was to "fire off the beam one second before the shutter closes" but in reality, there is no perfect timing because every scenario is unique. But, the end result is to get the beam looking as realistic as possible while still capturing the scene.

The Stats:
Every case is going to be different depending on the available lighting or lack there of in my case and also personal taste. The is no "one way to do it" when it comes to photography. Here is what I was happy with:

Nikon D90
Exposure: 52 seconds
Focal length: 18mm
F-stop: f/13
ISO: 1000
- laser on with 1 second left.

Full camera data info link--->Jeffrey's Exif viewer

These are the setting that worked for me. The one second beam shot is NOT the only way to do it. Depending on your camera settings, you may have to increase or decrease the time the laser is on to see it; regardless of accuracy. I hope it helps others who may be struggling or don't even know where to start. I will not be offended if other members chime in with their own images and expertise. As I said, this is not the only way, just what I was happy with and thought others would enjoy.
 

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Bonnie

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Awesome picture, and awesome description.

Thanks for the detailed notes. I am still a beginner, and my experiments have not yet been successful. After reading your notes, I think I have been turning on the laser too soon.
 
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Well this should help with some of my beam shots!
Guess the next step is a better camera all i have is a nikon cool pix l18 not too fancy
Thank you
 
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Point-n-clicks may work where there is more available light like on a full moon lite night. I have a "pocket" camera (canon sx100is) and it has a 10 second shutter option. That wouldn't pull off a shot like I posted up above because of the total darkness but if you live "under the city lights", that may be enough and if the moon is out, even more so.

So don't discount the point-n-clickers just yet. Take advantage of the digital world and click off as many test shots as you can until you get the results. Just imagine if we had to do this with film cameras.
 
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DJNY

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With some updates, for example cam recommendations (+WTB and price) and this is a great sticky for the MULTIMEDIA section.
 
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Recommendations are a great idea but creating a list for the members would be exhaustive and more likely overwhelming. I'm dyslexic and have A.D.D. so going through that list would make me go batty.:scowl:

Maybe a good way to offer up cameras that "do the job" would kinda be how I did it. Post the payoff shot and a description of the scene (ie, complete darkness, city lights, full moon, etc) and camera settings if you know how to get to them.

If you don't, below is an incredible website that'll allows you to look at the camera data (EXIF) of any posted picture on the internet by pasting the link in the box. It even allows you to get EXIF data from any digital photo on your own computer by simply browsing to the location of the file. It says it'll also read videos but I never tried that. And don't get flustered when the data pops up. 99.9% of the info would make even the most experienced photographer bang his head on the keyboard.

The "Basic Information" box at the top of the data page is all you'll need and includes the brand and model of the camera used. Awesome huh? Even better, if you click the link for camera/model, it'll open up another page with a review of the camera from a well known review site. All the info you'll ever need.

So now when you post a picture, you can also attach a link of the "camera data". To see what it looks like, I just added the link to my photo data in my original 1st post. Or, we can create new a sticky post that simply shows members how to get to the EXIF viewer site and how to use it. I'll create the post with all the needed info if a mod will consider sticking it.

As a semi-professional photographer, I love using this site to see how a photographer took a particular shot. I also use it to see if people are telling the truth about an image when they claimed "it wasn't Photoshop'd". So all you people that steal other peoples beams and Photoshop them into your own photo? Your day of reckoning has come:gun:


----> Jeffrey's Exif viewer <-----

Looks like he made a iGoogle app for it as well so if you use Google Chrome, tap this link to install it on your Google homepage.https://chrome.google.com/extensions/detail/degoicjbkidnmcfidnohffepopnhhpkk?hl=en
 
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Any still camera with a long exposure option will do. Problem is, most point-n-click cameras don't have a long enough shutter setting to produce the type of image we are looking at here. If your situation has more ambient light, yours may be able to take the shot.
Don't you mean less? More ambient light = less laser exposure you can get in before you overexpose the shot. If the ambient light is darker, and the laser is the same brightness, you can make the laser beam appear brighter while keeping the other light the same, right? Good guide!

The EXIF thing looks cool. Just a note for anybody using Opera, you can also check complete photo data by right-clicking pictures and selecting 'Image Properties'.
 
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You're right randomlugia but the ambient light comment was geared towards shutter exposure durations of the camera itself and not the laser. I just wanted to let people know their point-n-clicks may work in their situation and not to give up before trying. But yes, the more available light, the faster you have to turn the laser on and off. I fired mine off with a second or less left on the counter because my 38 year old reflexes couldn't time it out quicker that that.

In my case, my exposure setting was not for the beam as it was more important that the environment and antenna be visible. I needed almost 60 seconds of exposure to see the antenna and my Canon SX200is point-n-click only goes to 10 seconds. So I had to bring out the DSLR. Plus, I knew the beam would show up, I just had to take a few test shots with it to get the most accuarate beam.
 
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You're right randomlugia but the ambient light comment was geared towards shutter exposure durations of the camera itself and not the laser. I just wanted to let people know their point-n-clicks may work in their situation and not to give up before trying. But yes, the more available light, the faster you have to turn the laser on and off. I fired mine off with a second or less left on the counter because my 38 year old reflexes couldn't time it out quicker that that.
I'm still kind of confused about "turning the laser on and off", but I just use a different method; I keep the laser on the whole time.
 
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Just thought I'd throw this info out there in case someone's struggling with taking a nighttime photo of their laser and not happy with the results. Attached is a picture I took earlier in the year when I had one of Jack's Opto 150mW green pointers. I did it under a moonless sky, far away from any city lights and the neighborhood could not even be seen in the live-view LCD on my Nikon D90 camera. So trust me, it was dark.

Camera
Any still camera with a long exposure option will do. Problem is, most point-n-click cameras don't have a long enough shutter setting to produce the type of image we are looking at here. If your situation has more ambient light, yours may be able to take the shot. Pretty much any DSLR camera these days is capable of producing a properly exposed image even in the darkest of nights.

Tripod
A TRIPOD IS A MUST. In my case, I used two tripods. One for the camera and the other for the laser which I pre-aimed for the shot. That way, the moment I turned the laser on, the dot would hit the exact spot I was aiming for. A hand held attempt on an exposed shot would cause unwanted "beam blur". The laser tripod I used for the laser was homemade in that I used the hollow handle on it to hold the laser in. If you can't find something that'll give you the ability to tweak the position of the laser while holding it rock steady, I know companies like o-like sell mini tripods just for lasers and are dirt cheap.


The Idea:
Use the long exposure setting on the camera to "expose" the area or scene and the object you're hitting. Then fire off the laser at the last second before the shutter closes to accurately represent (or as close as humanly possible;)) the brightness of the beam.

The Scene:
As I stated above, it was very dark outside so I had to fire off a few test shots (without the laser) until I found how much time I needed to expose the image to include the radio antenna I was aiming for. Of course in the final image, the neighborhood houses were nicely exposed because of their exterior lights.

The Beam:
In my case, I wanted two results. I wanted the beam and, wanted to show the dot hitting the radio antenna 3/4's of a mile away. Sure the laser can shoot much farther than that but that is the range I thought would work for both. I used a timer remote for the camera's exposure so I could see exactly when to turn on the laser with a second left. If you don't have one of these it's no big deal. Counting out loud or in your head will just be trial and error. As long as you're not exposing the laser for more than a second before the shutter closes, you should have a near-true representation of the actual beam brightness (or whatever the term you guys call it).

The Stats:
Every case is going to be different depending on the available lighting or lack there of in my case and also personal taste. The is no "one way to do it" when it comes to photography. Here is what I was happy with:

Nikon D90
Exposure: 52 seconds
Focal length: 18mm
F-stop: f/13
ISO: 1000
- laser on with 1 second left.

Full camera data info link--->Jeffrey's Exif viewer

This is just my own personal experience taking pictures with lasers at night. I hope it helps others who may be struggling or don't even know where to start. I will not be offended if other members chime in with their own images and expertise. As I said, this is not the only way, just what I was happy with and thought others would enjoy.
Thanks for the great tips and the neat photo !

I'm still somewhat of a laser noob (but learning :) and as I have time there are some inexpensive digital cameras and video camera I have that I need to try to see if I can get to take laser photos at night.

(I have some neat ideas for laser photos but need to see if I can take any with the cams I now have)

(+ Rep for you for the neat photo and the photo tips !)
 
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I'm still kind of confused about "turning the laser on and off", but I just use a different method; I keep the laser on the whole time.
I think he wanted the beam to appear as realistic as possible, and if it is on the whole time it makes it look more like a lightsaber :eg:
 
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I'm still kind of confused about "turning the laser on and off", but I just use a different method; I keep the laser on the whole time.
Long exposures amplify the light to the camera sensor. If in my case it takes 60 seconds to bring total darkness to light, just imagine how bright the beam would be if it were on the entire time. That would be 60x brighter than its normal operating brightness. At that intensity, Darth Vader would say "Damn!! That's a bright friggin beam". And, if it didn't actually blow out the entire scene, it would look so bright and thick, people might think you turned your arm into a light saber. randomlugia just proved me wrong on this with a recent photo. I gladly stand corrected and am not worthy:eek: Even so,you're NOT doing is wrong. It's just that it's not "accurate" and people looking for pictures of "the beam" will not see the real deal.

For example, If you take a 5mW greenie and do a 5 second exposure in a dark room or outside at night, the beam will get amplified 5x its normal brightness. So you're 5mW is now looking more like a 25mW. If you post that picture and people see it, they'll assume if they buy the same one, their beam will be that bright.

Here's a video example where I got flack for the beam being ticker than real life because I used fog. It looked cool as heck and I thought it was worthy of posting anyway. The fog did intensify the beam.

YouTube - Optotronics 150mW Green Laser #2
 
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Sorry, I didn't realize you were going for realistic; I like it as bright as possible.
But then again I'm using a less powerful laser, and it's never looked "too bright", at least in my opinion.
 

RA_pierce

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In full manual mode you need to also take into consideration the aperture setting.

Shutter speed is not the only factor that determines the exposure of the image.

Setting the f-stop determines how wide the aperture is - it's another way to control how much light is focused on the sensor as well as the depth of field.

When you are trying to shoot in low light, it is best to set the camera to a low f-stop (wide aperture) and a relatively short shutter speed.
This lets in more light while reducing motion blur.

Getting the correct balance between shutter speed and aperture is complicated so I won't get into that.
We have a few great photographers on this forum (Traveller and Emc2 come to mind- IIRC Emc2 shoots professionally). Maybe they will chime in and give some tips.
 
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Sorry, I didn't realize you were going for realistic; I like it as bright as possible.
But then again I'm using a less powerful laser, and it's never looked "too bright", at least in my opinion.
I agree, that always looks cooler - avatar - :drool: but if your trying to sell it and don't want people feeling ripped off, I can see why its important to look realistic.
 




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