Taking pictures is an art - which for some means that it requires a lot of discussing composition and smelling your own farts. For me, it means that there is no right way to do things, and to get great results, one must never stop experimenting. Here are my tips on how to take a good looking night photo.
A camera is a tool, meant to capture light at a moment in time. It does this by funneling light through a lens, ending up at a light-sensitive sensor that is exposed when a shutter is opened. You can learn the basics of how a camera works here.
To have the best possible image available, you'd need to have a sensor that can take in and process an image quickly. That's why for the best results, you should use at least a micro 4/3 camera or DSLR. These are the cameras that have removable lenses and have a full manual mode. Some of the higher-end point and shoots can handle this, but their sensors and lens apertures may be too slow to have a decent picture in low light. While I've covered the extensive gear I use for auto shows, you don't need to spend thousands of dollars on equipment. There are plenty of used digital DSLR bodies and lenses for well under $150 that can get you started and taking great looking pictures if you have a tight budget.
On top of a camera and lens setup, you'll absolutely need a steady tripod to be able to take longer exposures (longer times when the sensor is exposed), due to the lack of light. To get going, any cheap one will do, but beware - the plastic ones on sale at your local WalMart have a tendency to shake at anything approaching a light breeze, and aren't the most accommodating to heavier cameras, so on shots where you have to have the shutter open for a relatively long time, this could present an issue. I'm using a non-professional-but-good-enough Davis & Sanford BHQ8 tripod with padded grips for easy carry, and fully articulating legs so I can put the camera into nearly any position quickly.
Subject And Background:
There isn't a right way to do this, as I've seen "rules" posted by professional photogs, that are later broken in amazing form by other photogs. For my purposes, I got my grubby mitts on a 2015 Aston Martin Vanquish, which I posted on Twitter. It seems my local car rental place was out of Corollas. I wanted the car to be the centerpiece of the shot, so in a pinch, I chose a desolate wooded area that seemed to fit the bill. Just make sure that there aren't any harsh street lamps on the car, unless you're going for that effect. The reason is that street lamps can create weird reflections and screw up the white balance (making the picture warmer, or cooler).
Wait until the sun is completely down. Set your camera on your tripod firmly. Arrange your composition (if you're having trouble with this, you could follow the rule of thirds). Put the camera in full Manual mode. It's usually the "M" on the mode dial. Don't panic.
If your camera has a live view mode on its LCD screen, turn it on. It'll be helpful in exposing the shot. Set the lens' aperture to whatever the sharpest setting is that has the entire car in focus. Focal length depends how far away from the car you are, but for most entry-level lenses with a maximum aperture of f/3.5, if you're a fair bit away, you can get everything other than the foreground in focus, which would work. Remember, we want as much light as possible entering the sensor at once. Aperture is what controls depth of field, and can give you that sharp subject, out of focus background effect when wide open. If you lower the aperture or "stop it down", increase the number after the "F", you are taking in less light than if it was wide open, so make sure you adjust your exposure and sensitivity settings accordingly.
Since you want the picture to be noise free, place the sensor's sensitivity, or ISO, as its lowest setting- which should be 100.
If you're on liveview, you'll notice the screen is almost completely dark. What you do now is move the exposure up. Usually that's done by turning the scroll near the shutter button, the exposure represented in time.
Autofocus the lens. This will get the subject in focus, and it will turn on the light metering. This is what will tell you how long to expose the image. There's a marker underneath the exposure meter, telling you when the correct exposure is reached. In theory, the correct exposure is when the meter reads 0. Negative numbers mean that the subject will be underexposed, and positive numbers mean that the subject will be overexposed.
Find the Drive Mode button and take it off of One-Shot and put it on 2-second delay, since that will eliminate the slight shake you may get from taking your hand off the shutter.
You're now ready to take a picture. Press the shutter, wait until the exposure is over, and check your image to see if the exposure works for you. You can now increase or decrease exposure, and play around with other settings to get desired effects.
Effects and Tricks
Light Painting: When the shutter is open, if you have an external light source, like a cell phone flashlight, you can paint the picture with that light. You can use it to light the subject a bit better, as I did in this picture by slowly walking around and illuminating the foreground:
You can also use it to write things in the air if you're juvenile like me.
Another great effect is when cars drive by, they give a flowing straight line across the image:
The effect is even more pronounced if you can capture it from the other side - here's one I took earlier last year:
Zooming In: If you have a zoom lens, like I did, during a long exposure shot, you can simply pull in or out the zoom ring to create an interesting blur effect.
Transparent Body Panels: With long exposures, you can also create images that will create transparent body panels. For example, I had a 14 second exposure with this shot, 7 seconds with the hood up, and 7 seconds with it down:
Since I wanted to remove the open hood portion, I took another picture with the hood closed:
And then in photoshop, I overlayed them and erased what I didn't want, creating an Aston Martin with a transparent hood.
You can experiment with different angles, exposures, and then bring them home and edit them to your heart's content.
And for a change of scenery, here are a few taken of Alex Roy's Porsche 928 GT:
You can also open a photography page on Facebook like I did (go and like it!) and have an online portfolio to show to your jealous, jealous friends.
If you have cool night pics to show, post them in the comments, I'd love to see them!
Tavarish is the founder of APiDA Online and writes about buying and selling cool cars on the internet. He owns the world's cheapest Mercedes S-Class, a graffiti-bombed Lexus, and he's the only Jalopnik author that has never driven a Miata. He also has a real name that he didn't feel was journalist-y enough so he used a pen name and this was the best he could do.