I'll start from the beginning by telling what equipment you will need, because if you don't have the right equipment shooting will be a lot harder than it needs to be.
This is a list of equipment that I use for night photography but I shall include a range of equipment that can be used to suit all price ranges. There is also your optional equipment which can vary in side and weight due to what you are shooting.
Mosts DSLRs will do the job, compact cameras will not work because of the lack of manual override or if your shoot film just an SLR with manual functions will do but the rules do slightly change for film night photography because the film exposes slower than a digital image. There are 3 price ranges of DSLR, they are Entry Level, Semi-pro and Pro. Any of them will do for night photography and light painting but the results will vary.
Canon EOS 5D Mkii
I use a top of the range DSLR and it has all the important functions you need for night photography. The main ones being BULB mode and Noise Reduction. I shoot all of my night work on BULB mode because it gives me complete manual override of what the camera thinks is correct. I did not start out on a top of the range DSLR though, I first started out on a semi-pro DSLR the Canon EOS 30D and it did a great job, even an entry level DSLR like the Canon EOS 500D will do the same job. Just remember the more expensive the camera the higher the mega pixels and better quality sensor. So all you need it a DSLR the price isn't really important because if you out grow your DSLR you can upgrade.
It is important you do not get a camera out of your technical experience even if you can afford it. It makes me laugh when you see a middle aged man at his kids sports day or nativity play with a few thousand pounds worth of DSLR on auto mode using auto focus. Researching cameras before you buy is the most important thing that you find a camera that is right for you. My personal preference is Canon and it always has been and always will be, I have tried to shoot on a Nikon that was on hire but it is back to front to me, but I know people who hate Canon and love Nikon. It will always be a battle between them like the one between Mac and PC, so whatever suits you. Canon and Nikon are the top two camera companies and I would highly recommend both of them, other companies like Sony and Samsung specialise in other areas like televisions and phones so cameras are not their main priority but they are a lot cheaper, just something to remember when shopping. If you wanting quality but not wanting to pay the price then second hand is a good way to go, making sure you check for things like shutter count and drop marks and scratches, if this is not your cup of tea then most camera companies offer refurbished models with a new sensor and shutter for a reduced price.
To me a battery grip is a must have because you can double your battery power, this can be expensive though so even if you can't afford a battery grip I do suggest getting a second battery. When shooting at night the battery power drains a lot faster because of the colder temperatures and also because we are leaving the shutter open for long periods of time this also drains battery power faster. Also the noise reduction drains just as much power because how ever long your exposure is the noise reduction will take that exact same time. So I use a battery grip loaded with 2 batteries. This gives me the extra battery power needed to withstand the cold temperatures and long exposures. Battery grips are available for most DSLR's you just have to find the one for your camera. Even if you can't afford an official one there are now a lot of third party none official ones which are less than half the price. I would do some research in to them before buying one, try looking at customer reviews to see pros and cons.
Canon batteries can be quite expensive around £35 for low entry DSLR's and can be up to £70 for top of the range DSLR batteries which I feel is far too expensive. You can pick up a canon replica for about £5 off ebay from Hong Kong which is far more reasonable, but again make sure you do your research and find out if it would be more worth while to get the official one, if you shop around on ebay you could get an official one for a good price, or even find a second hand one.
Most DSLR's use compact flash but some of the lower models take SD cards, which is not a problem. The size isn't too important either. Often you won't need a massive card of because your shooting using long exposures you won't be taking thousands of photos unless stacking. I suggest to start with a 2GB card and it doesn't hurt to carry a spare or two. In case you forget your original card or something else happens that you might need a backup. I've done it before, got to location 15 miles from home set up my shot and realized I have left my card at home. From that day on I always keep a spare card in my wallet just in case.
Again you don't need an expensive shutter release, they all do the same job. Canon ones retail at about £40 and i've seen some at £70 which again is quite unreasonable seen as many things can happen to it. You can get one off ebay for less than £10 from Hong Kong. I would not suggest trying to use BULB mode and using your finger because you're holding down the button with your finger for 5 minutes you will move the camera or tripod and be annoyed at the end of it because you have camera movement and have wasted 5-10 minutes. I have also known people to use tape to try and tape the shutter button down but it is very unreliable and it's not as good as the real thing. For a while when one of my releases broke and I was still wanting to shoot until the new one came, I managed to fashion one out of an old microphone plugged in to my camera using the on/off button as the open/close shutter. Worked fine until my new one came.
There are two type of shutter release, Wired and Wireless. It's all about personal preference, I have used both and I'm not fussy. Sometimes wireless has it's uses if you have to get in to position before the exposure starts. Wired is fine otherwise. Wireless does have some flaws though involving signal strength and such, there is nothing worse than being half way through a shot while light painting and walking out of the infrared sensors range and being cut off short. Chances are you'll be too far away from the camera to hear the shutter opening and closing, so you only find out when you think it's the end of the exposure and you've wasted a lot of precious time. Wired has had it's disadvantages also though, your shutter release does take quite a beating, and you usually tread on it, trap it in your car door, or just bash it about on your tripod trying to find it. All of this thing can lead to lose wires, which again can really mess up your exposure. I had a wired shutter release that would take a picture the second you plug it in, so I would have to do my exposures this way until my new one came. I have also had a release that didn't want to take pictures when you press the button down but decided to take one when it wasn't pressed down, it also ended my exposure early and made a stressful evening, once a shutter release breaks I have tried on numerous occasions to do some handy fix it work but never had any successes permanently. Best advice is just look after your shutter release; it's a vital bit of kit. It also doesn't hurt to have a spare. Again make sure you get the right one for your camera and read customer reviews before you part with your money. I have once received a shutter release that did not work and there is nothing more annoying when you want to be out shooting. There is a lot of trial and error involved as well, I have now found a company and a certain wired and wireless shutter release that have not failed me in over a year.
I have a few tripods that I use for different occasions. I have a Benbo because it is the most flexable tripod. It can shoot the standard tripod position, It can shoot extremely low angles and most other situations you might find yourself in, it is also very light which is handy for when your are making your way around abandoned buildings. It cost me around £100. I have another strong tripod which I bought from Jessops for £100 again, I like it because it has a strong mount for my camera and is a little more durable than the other. It does have it's disadvantages also though the main one being it weighs a lot. I also have a mini tripod on hand, it only extends to about a meter but collapses in to my bag and weighs nothing. Again this is about finding the right tripod for you, some people can spend over £400 on a custom designed Manfrotto tripod which I think there is just no need, as long as the tripod can take your cameras weight and any other additions you may have such as a battery grip, lens and flashgun. For a few years I was shooting on a £10 tripod from Tesco and it did the job until I outgrew it and it broke.
I used to shoot using a Canon 10-22mm on my 30D because it is designed for a cropped sensor. Most cameras have a cropped sensor apart from the 5D/5Dmkii/5Dmkiii, so when I upgraded I had to upgrade all my lenses as well as my camera. The 10-22mm is one the widest lens before going fisheye for the 30D or any cropped sensor camera. Because the lens is made for a cropped sensor and is an EF-S lens it would not fit on a 5D mkii because it is a full frame sensor and used EF lenses not EF-S. The full frame version of this would be the 17-40mm. These are both very expensive lens though and there are cheaper options from 3rd parties. I like them because they are very wide and give me the best angles. When I started doing night photography I was only using a standard 18-55mm kit lens which there is nothing wrong with but it does have it limitations and soon outgrew it. I got some really good work with my kit lens and I'm sure anyone else could too. I also use a 15mm Sigma fisheye, Canon also make the same 15mm fisheye but it is a lot more expensive, and again there are cheaper alternatives.
I use the Canon 580ex flashgun. It has the most varied settings that I need for lighting techniques. It has full powered bright flash, It also has strobe settings and can be used in conjunction with other Canon flashguns. The good thing about speedlite flashguns is that if has infrared which can help with focusing at night and wireless triggering which I will explain later on. I also use some old flashguns sometimes which are a lot cheaper and are just as good, the settings are a little harder to understand but once you have the hang of it, it can be a cheaper option for light painting. A little something I invented myself and is a life saver for me. I usually end up stuffing my flash guns in my back pocket, it's not the safest as they can full out, and when I need to kneel down or bend down it's quite uncomfortable. So I made a flash gun holster out of an old belt and the soft case my flash gun came in, with a bit of sewing I fastened the flap back over the case to make a slit for the belt to go through, now I wear it at night and literally carry my flashgun around like a gun. It's not exactly quick draw but it's easier to get to and doesn't tend to get in the way.
Flash Gun Battery Pack
Seen as you will be going through batteries like toilet paper if you can afford it these are great, increases your battery power and reduces recycling time. Helps not having to carry a few sets of batteries around, also can clip on to your belt and plug in and out of the flashgun with ease.
You will need a lot of AA batteries, for your flashgun/flashgun battery pack if you have one, torches and anything else that may drain power. You will have buy them quite quickly if using standard AA batteries, the only option when using standard AA's is to buy in bulk or buy cheaply. Obviously the cheaper ones will run out faster than the more expensive ones.
Re-chargable batteries are a much cheaper way of operating, although they are more expensive they will last a lot longer and are more environmentally friendly.
Like I said previously, more expensive to start with, having to buy the battery charger as well as the batteries, but the option to not have to buy batteries again, especially when in desperate need is great. There is nothing worse than about to go shooting and realise your flashgun batteries are low and all the shops are closed. With re-chargables you just stick them on the charger for an hour before leaving and away you go, you can even plug them in to the fag lighter on your car and charge while traveling, this is a good option when on a road trip.
Wireless Flash Triggers (Pocket Wizards/Poverty Wizards)
Wireless flash triggers help me light paint in really tricky places where I can not fit like in a small drawer or a hole in the floor. The first trigger goes on the flashgun, the second goes on the camera or in my hand in this case. Then when I press the button the flashgun will flash. The most famous flash triggers are Pocket Wizards, which retail at about £150 which is far too expensive for non commercial use. I got my cheaper ones off ebay which have adopted the name Poverty Wizards from Hong Kong for about £15, they do the same job but cheaper. They will not be as good as pocket wizards but if you don't have the money to spend then don't, they do have a few draw backs involving signal range but it is nothing that a slight move of the flashgun can't fix, they are well worth the £15 I paid for them and is not the end of the world if you tread on one or drop it on the floor.
Torches are obviously always a good idea with night photography and not just for seeing where you are going. There are a few types of torches at many price ranges and they all do something different. Hand held torches, head lamps or even lanterns all available in LED and Halogen. They can be a vital light painting tool for picking out finer detail that a flashgun can't handle, because the flashgun is such a wide flash of light it can light things you don't want it to or even wash out the detail because it is too bright. Using a torch you can control the light when ever you want, with some torches you can control the amount of light coming out of the torch, even on normal torches you can control the amount of light with your hand, your jumper or a tissue. Torches can also be a vital tool to help you focus at night which I will talk more about later.
Remember LED torches give a blue/white cast, Halogen Torches give a yellow/orange cast, depending what you are trying to accomplish one may be better than the other in certain situations. The thing I invented for my flash gun, I also have one for my Led Lenser X21 so I can also wear it on my belt for when i'm not using it, saves me putting it on the ground and treading on it, or getting cold hands carrying holding the metal.
You will always run out of batteries when you need them most so it is always handy to carry a dynamo (wind up torch) so you can always find you way back to the car or even do a bit of light painting and save your batteries for the flashguns. Downside is they are not very bright and need a bit of winding.
Head torches are a good thing to have because it is a light source that you do not need to guide with a hand. This is not for light painting but seeing where you are going. You only have 2 hands which are usualy full so this makes it a bit easier. Often come again in LED or Halogen, and can come in rechargable or regular versions.
An alternative to the traditional head lamp is a cap torch, it clips on to the peak of your cap and acts in the same way a head torch would. A regular head torch has straps all over making wearing hats near impossible because of the straps, the torch itself or a battery pack sometimes attached at the back. Caps or hats can be a way or staying warm so this may well be a more positive alternative.
Over the years I have made and perfected my own lighting gels, which my sponsor Rosco has helped my bring to light in my very own product "Noctography Lighting Gels" I spent months working along side Rosco testing out 1000's of gels to find the perfect light painting colour combination in the most durable and heat resistant gels made. In the pack of gels I have made are the worlds finest lighting gels on a 6X4 inch swatch book, reinforced and mounted on a ring. Each gel is individually labeled for easy recognition at night and has an individual eyelet to ensure the hole where the gel is mounted is not worn down after repeated use, this is also reinforced to stop ripping or breakages. The colours in the pack can even be layered to create new colours. e.g if you mix the Green gel with the Blue gel you will create a turquoise, the gels are also big enough to fold over in to two layers of the same colour to create a more intense colour. I mount my swatch book on a lanyard which makes light painting even easier, this enables you to have the gels around your neck and easily accessible from a quick release clip on the lanyard. I have now released the mkiii lighting gels with more colours and improvements.
The most important thing is to have something to put all of this equipment in. There is a camera bag for every price range and every size. I personally have a few different camera bags that I use, I change them depending on what type of shoot I am going on, some times I travel light and other times I take everything. Do your research before buying one because you don't want a massive bag if you have a DSLR with 1 lens, the same as you don't want a tiny bag with £5,000 worth of equipment. Lowepro are a very good make and possibly the most common make of camera bag, they have just about everything you will ever need, rain covers, laptop holders, a pouch for everything, there are many other brands on the market and many other bags just make sure you find the right one for you.
You may, more than likely will come in to injury whilst out, especially in abandoned places. This can range from a cut finger, nettle stings or a headache to treading on a nail, something falling on your head or even getting burnt. It's best to have a little meddical kit containing some plasters, bandages, pain killers, cream and other essentials. If you bought a decent sized camera back you won't even know it's in there.
This may seem like a funny one, but there is nothing worse than doing a long star trail and not having any where to sit down, especially here in the UK where the grass is wet a lot of the time, and there is not always some where to sit on so you end up standing and crouching over and over, by the end of the night your knees and back hurt. So I started taking out a camping chair or a camping stool. Both very cheap and light, and you can strap them on to your camera bag.
Sparklers are always fun at bonfire night, they are also a nice light painting tool to spice up your night photos. Doing light trails, light drawings, light writing or a light orb. All of these look good in a picture and you don't get anywhere without trying new things. The main advantage is they are cheap and often reduced after bonfire night.
Why not try adding fireworks in to your photos. Being careful where you are and taking appropriate safety precautions. It would be a nice twist on an abandoned building to have fireworks coming out of it. Of course this may attract some unwanted attention.
Wire Wool works in a similar way to sparklers. Set it on fire and wave it around, the sparks paint in to the image. Used correctly it looks very effective. Be careful obviously. I have had a few mistakes using wire wool and you need to be prepared just in case of any mishaps.
El wire stands for electroluminescent wire, I think the shortened version is easier to say so lets stick to that. The wire has a neon tube look but has the flexibility or a piece of wire. Available in many colours and also available in a tape and a panel. When used in long exposures it can create a nice misty effect not achievable with another tool. Comes in a variety of thicknesses and does not create any heat.
Battery Operated Christmas Lights
Literally anything can be used for light painting, and battery operated Christmas lights are a great place to start, swing them round in circles, drag them along the floor, do whatever you like with them and you may come out with an interesting picture. Can also be swung around on a pivoted axis to create an Orb.
Quite a large piece of equipment but well worth carrying about with you, made out of a bicycle wheel with christmas lights wrapped around the edge, when spun in a circle on long exposure, it creates, a dome.
Poi make great light painting tools, they are often seen in street performances or the circus and are seen spinning around in an artistic fashion, these can be used in a similar way to create some wonderful light paintings.
Night Vision Goggles
An amazing item to have in your bag but they are expensive, if you are serious about night shooting it may be something to look in to. Just makes night time that bit easier, especially with light painting in the dark at an unsafe location. They are also handy on live sites where torches are a big no. The goggles have a few modes where they emit an infrared light invisible to the naked eye and to your camera because of your infrared blocker, sort of works like night mode on a video camera, you can find a few good deals for them on the internet, as the very expensive ones are army spec and if you got caught with those you would probably be suspected of terrorism.
A Sat Nav is most peoples best friend and it certainly is mine, find a location online, find the postcode, tap it in and away you go, find somewhere on the go, pin point it and come back any time you like, soon you will have them all over the country and have a database of locations at the touch of a screen.
Who doesn't have a smart phone in this day and age. It has everything you need in the palm of your hand. The apps on the phones are what makes them special, Sat Nav, Sun Set/Sun Rise, Lunar Calendar, Star Maps, Compass, Music, Video, Email, Weather and literally everything you may need to help you along the way with your night shooting, and the fact that it is a phone as well is a bonus.
Post Production Equipment
It's personal preference for a lot of people about which is a better Mac or PC, but for myself in photography a Mac is better and faster for what I need to do. All photography industry professionals use Macs because they are so fast and reliable. Weather you have a large desktop Mac or a Macbook they are both very powerful machines and are fully capable of photo editing. The advantage of having a Macbook is you could possibly take it out with you if you desired.
A must when photo editing. I personally don't use photoshop in the way of image manipulation but because I shoot raw I have to put the file through photoshop to convert it in to a jpg. Some people use photoshop to an extreme and convert what was a photograph in to a digital manipulation. Even if you don't use it much it's worth having, you never know when you may need a clone tool.