Taking photos at night is often something that photographers avoid, because of some of the unique challenges it presents. I will share some night photography tips and techniques for beginners so that you are comfortable taking your camera out after the sun sets and capture breathtaking cityscapes or portraits. Creativity is not limited to just daylight.
Whether it’s the energy and buzz of a big city you are traveling to, or the place where you live in; every place has its own story to share, after dark. The photographic rules that we follow during the day don’t go well at night, so I’ll go through few fundamentals of night photography.
If you wish to dig deeper into the secrets of night photography then do check the comprehensive video course by Photographer Jim Hamel at Digital Photography School.
Following are the 18 quick tips for shooting after dark.
1. Get used to your camera menu
Make sure that you learn your camera and understand the menu settings. This is a pre-requisite to effortless photography, regardless of the time of the day but is especially important during night photography. To learn more about your camera, consult the manual that came with it. If you misplaced your manual, copies are available online. You will also find tutorial videos online specific to your camera model.
Understanding your camera dials and buttons saves you time and confusion when you are out shooting in the dark.
2. Use a tripod
Use a tripod when shooting at night. It’ll make sure that your images are sharp as you’ll be using low shutter speeds, most of the time. Otherwise, you’ll have to increase the shutter speed which in turn will push the ISO up, introducing noise in your images. If you do not own a tripod; get one. There are plenty of budget-friendly options and higher-end models. You won’t regret the investment.
If you’re not carrying a tripod then look for a sturdy platform where you can place your camera; like a park bench or a car, or even on the ground at a proper angle. Turn off the image stabilization of the camera while on a tripod.
3. Use a remote release
Using a remote release provides added stability to the camera while shooting. You won’t have to worry about pushing the shutter button and accidentally blurring the image due to camera shake. If you’re not carrying a shutter release, use the self-timer mode of your camera. The intent is to leave the camera untouched while making the exposure.
Mirror lock-up function can also be used to further reduce camera body shake.
4. Shoot RAW
Shooting RAW is advantageous in general, but especially during the night because RAW captures more details in a lossless format than what you get from a JPEG. This allows for more flexibility during post-processing. Shooting RAW also gives you the opportunity to play with the image white balance during post-processing to suit your taste.
5. Use wide-angle lens
As most of the composition is darker, a wide view gives a better perspective of the scene. So using a wide angle lens (anything below 35 mm) helps to capture a wider stage and portray a better story of the night scene. Put the lens hood on as that will eliminate unwanted lens flares from street lights or other light sources that are not intended within the frame.
6. Switch to Manual mode
Manual mode allows you to take control of your camera’s settings. While automatic is great for beginners, it struggles during the night due to lack of light. The camera meter fails to identify and expose the scene correctly.
A photo at night should look like a photo at night. It should be dark, where intended. While automatic or semi-automatic exposure modes will try to expose the photo correctly and over-expose the photo in that process. Switch off the on-camera flash, as well. The flash will just wash out the photo and ruin the look.
7. Aperture settings
For night photography, a wide aperture is ideal. The lower you can set the aperture number, the more light will reach the sensor, and more details captured. When shooting at night, you want your lens to pick up as much of the ambient light as possible.
A lens with an aperture of f1.4 or f1.2 would be optimal, but that does not mean you can’t use other lenses. Just dial into the maximum aperture of your lens. A wide aperture also helps to keep the ISO down, saving the image from grain or noise.
If you have enough ambient light around then higher aperture values are suitable. A small aperture opening will turn street lights into starbursts. Experiment depending on the available light.
8. Shutter speed settings
Shutter speed selection depends on the look you are going for. If you want to freeze action and there is sufficient light available, a fast shutter speed will help. If you are just trying to capture a scene, decently exposed, and are okay with a little motion blur, then go for a lower shutter speed. Panning along with your subject-in-motion will give interesting shots.
For longer exposures (generally above 30 secs) use the ‘Bulb’ mode on your camera. A remote cable release is needed in that case.
9. ISO settings
ISO can be tricky. Not only will it depend on the aperture and shutter speed that you have chosen, but also on the available light that you are working with. The best way to determine the ISO is to get your aperture and shutter speed where you want them to be and then adjust the ISO using trial-and-error method. Keep in mind; higher the ISO, higher are the chances for your photos to get grain or noise.
ISO range between 800 to 1600 is a good place to stick with for most beginner cameras. Lower the shutter speed (or increase the exposure time) to keep the ISO within limits.
10. White balance settings
White balance is a personal preference. No color temperature is “perfect” for night photography. The best way to find your desired look is to play with the settings while shooting and see what captures your fancy. Dial in a specific Kelvin temperature to have full control. Auto white balance is convenient but easily gets tricked by mixed light sources.
Shooting in RAW makes it convenient to change white balance during post-processing.
11. Focus manually
No matter how good your camera is, autofocusing suffers in low light situations. Manual focusing can be intimidating but with practice, it will take your night photography to the next level. It’ll ensure that the camera will focus on the plane-of-focus that you decide, and not the camera.
Switch to Live View mode and it will help you see and lock the focus better when it’s dark. Zoom in 100% to make no mistake. Some cameras lock the mirror up while shooting in live view, so added benefit there. Check if your camera has that feature.
12. Bracketing exposures
Bracketing is to take multiple photos of the same scene with the same composition, but with different exposure settings. You may go up to five or seven photos, but to begin with, it’s three different shots taken one after the other. You first take a normally exposed photo, the second is intentionally underexposed, and the third image is overexposed.
The theory behind this method is to ensure that you capture a range of exposure of the same scene, and blend them together in Photoshop, later. This allows you to overcome areas of strong contrast in the image.
Check out exposure blending by David Peterson in this video.
13. Capture light trails
Capturing light trails is fun. Use low shutter speeds. Longer exposures will allow the vehicles to move through your image and create the trail. Shutter speeds between 15 to 20 secs give enough time for the traffic to enter and leave your frame. Select a location where you can see traffic coming from multiple directions.
15. Shoot through glass
It always pays to shoot from a higher vantage point at night with all the shimmering city lights in view. If you are in a hotel room with a decent view, shoot through the window glass.
Stick the lens on the glass and cover the camera from behind with a piece of cloth. This will stop the reflections from your room’s lights to reach the camera lens. Use a large aperture. You’ll be far from your subjects anyway so getting most of the frame in focus won’t be difficult to achieve.
16. Shoot portraits
Shooting portraits at night with available light gives interesting results. Camera flash will wash out your subject’s face and it will look separate from the background as well, due to different light sources around. So turn off the flash and look out for any bright light source available. It can be street lights, advertising neons, or light coming from a shop.
Place your subject so that they face towards the light. Experiment with side lighting and get dramatic portraits. Use a wide aperture so that you don’t lose much on shutter speed. Because photographing people with low shutter speed can be challenging. Use a tripod if the shutter speed falls below 1/60 secs.
17. Get to the location early
Arriving early gives you plenty of time to scout the location and set up your equipment while the sun is still out. You will have time to prepare and play with the settings on your camera to make sure everything is perfect for the desired shot. You’ll also find time to look for various compositions possible and to observe how changing light conditions will impact the scene.
18. Bonus tips
Remove all filters while shooting out at night. Multiple reflections from the street lights and other light sources can cause unnecessary lens flares. Carry a flashlight to avoid fumbling around in the dark. Carry spare batteries, as well.
Stick to the rules of composition. Like the rule of thirds: frame the image, such that the sky appears only in the upper third section. Try the other way around, too. Play with negative space. Look for leading lines e.g. streets or bridges leading to point of focus. Photograph reflections in water puddles. Take both landscape and portrait format.
If it’s cold outside, dress in layers and keep yourself warm. Avoid fogging up your lenses by following this quick tip when moving from a warmer to a cooler environment or vice-versa.
Practice and practice
I hope you found this quick night photography tutorial helpful. The best way to feel confident is to get outside and practice. Visit photo sharing sites, look out for night time photographs. Motivate yourself to go out in the dark even after your day’s work. Bookmark this list for reference and set out to seize those gorgeous night shots.
Experiment with aperture and shutter priority settings. Try different angles. Lay your camera on the ground with lens up. Look out for reflections. Explore various settings rather than sticking to the obvious.
If you are looking for an in-depth tutorial on night photography, I would recommend the Digital Photography School’s Night photography course by Jim Hamel. This extensive video tutorial will take you from planning to the final shot.
Keep pushing yourself and don’t get frustrated if your image is not perfect the first time. Practice will take you there. So next time it gets dark, don’t put your camera in the bag, yet. Leave your comments and thoughts below and share your night photography experience.