Night photography, despite the challenges of getting the right exposure, may provide you with more dramatic and interesting images than you could get shooting during the daytime. Here, we offer you some night photography tips to help you learn how to use a dimly lit scene into a breathtaking photo.
With our night photography tips, you'll no longer be shooting "in the dark" but instead will know just how to create some amazing photographs.
What Is Night Photography?
Night photography can transform urban scenes, rural areas and even natural environments into more interesting and exciting images. Everything looks very different at night, and thus you can offer photos of places that are familiar and yet all-too-unfamiliar at the same time. This is particularly true for cityscapes that look fundamentally different at night.
Before we dole out some basic night photography tips, it is important that you first understand the proper settings when shooting in a low-light environment or capturing a subject with a dark backdrop.
While photography is not an exact science, which means that proper setting will depend on a myriad of elements, it remains critical that you know how shutter speed, aperture and ISO — the so-called exposure triangle — can affect, combine with and impact each other.
Tips for Taking Photos at Night
The following are some great night photography tips that will help you shoot low-light scenes like a pro in no time.
In general, slow shutter speeds are ideal for low-light conditions. Slower speeds are used during night photography because the camera shutter is more open, allowing additional light into the sensor.
Slow, long-open shutter speeds work well when you are shooting traffic scenes and want the streaking lights of headlights or tail lights blending into solid streams. It also works great at running water.
However, using a slow shutter speed comes with one caveat: the camera becomes extra sensitive to shake — even the subtle tremble in a photographer's hands. Hence, one of the most sacrosanct night photography tips is to invest in a sturdy tripod and possibly a remote shutter release so you can shoot without having to touch the camera.
The aperture is a “hole” in your lens through which light travels into the camera. In a dimly lit environment, you should open up your aperture more than you would during the day. The lower the F-stop number, the more open the aperture. So, while you would use an F-stop of 22 perhaps on a sunny day, you would use something from the far end of the spectrum to open up your aperture and make the most use of the low light that is available.
While opening up your aperture reduces the depth of field, this is rarely an issue in night photography because the background or sky will be dark anyway.
Your camera's ISO levels, which is measured in numbers, can lead to a brighter photo in low-light conditions like those found at night. Still, using a higher ISO reading to increase your light, comes at the tradeoff of more graininess, or "noise", in your image. That's why we recommend, if you want sharp night images free of noise, that you keep your ISO setting as low as you can and make up for the light difference by keeping your shutter speed slow and your aperture open.
General Night Photography Tips
- 1Get a DSLR, a mirrorless camera or an advanced point-and-shoot camera that is extra-sensitive to light. If your camera can handle higher ISO settings of 6,400 or even higher, then you'll love shooting at night. Some cameras on the market today feature an ISO rating of 25,600. With that high of an ISO, there's no dark room or environment you can be in where you'll even need a flash!
- 2Look for a lens with a relatively wide angle and that can work fast.
- 3Invest in a sturdy tripod and its accessories. Because you will use slower shutter speeds, even the slightest camera shake would be visible in your pictures. Hence, you’ll need a solid tripod. (Tip: If money is not an issue, choose a tripod made of aluminum or carbon fiber since it is durable and light. You may also consider buying a mini tripod for tricky angles.)
- 4Purchase a remote shutter release. It allows you to shoot photos without touching the camera, further reducing the “shake" of a human hand as a finger manually trips the trigger.
- 5Use a headlamp with a red light. This will help you adjust your camera without ruining your night vision.
- 1Put your camera on manual mode. This means you will control everything — the aperture, ISO and shutter speed, included — so you can truly craft your image. While this may sound daunting for beginners, it is actually much easier to shoot in this mode than any other mode.
- 2Use manual focus. While modern cameras have a more reliable autofocus than models of the past, your camera's brain can still struggle to focus in low-light condition. To further promote a crisp photo, turn on the Live view Mode and press the zoom-in button.
- 3Take advantage of some modes. In some situations, you may want to use your camera's bulb mode, in which the shutter stays open as long as you hold the button down. This allows you to make exposures as long as you want, even if that means several minutes.
- 4Consider using aperture priority mode, or AP mode. It is ideal if you don’t have moving subjects. If there are moving objects like cars, switch to shutter priority mode, in which your camera automatically selects the aperture while you manually choose your shutter speed. Shutter priority mode also works well if you are photographing stars as they move across the sky. In this mode, you will be able to capture the starlight trails.
- 5Tinker with different ISO settings. Higher ISO levels give you brighter images, although it inevitably increases the noise. With that said, know that today's high-end cameras can significantly reduce graininess even after cranking the ISO setting up to 3,200 or higher. But if you’re just using an average consumer camera, stick to a lower ISO, i.e., 1,600 or at least near this number, and most likely you can still take a nice, sharp image.
- 6Bracket your exposures. This technique allows you to find the best exposure at night-time by taking a series of photos at different exposure settings, with each image you take getting brighter or darker incrementally. Thankfully, no longer are we in the days of costly film, because digital memory cards mean that bracket exposure series no longer cost you film or money. Instead, the technique is great for reducing your guesswork and saving you time.
- 7Control your color. Your camera has white balance presets to accommodate different lighting conditions. While it also has an auto white balance option, which is quick and convenient to use, it often struggles with mixed lighting conditions or scenes with one highly predominant color.
- 8Shoot in RAW. These types of files, noted by the .RAW extension behind the file name, prevent grainy pictures that commonly plague other formats, particularly JPEGs because of their limited bit files. In a nutshell, the more bits, the smoother the transitions between colors and the more vivid they appear.
- 9Acclimatize your gear. Warm and humid conditions, fog and temperature changes may result in blurry images because the moisture can block the light passing through the camera lens. This can particularly affect long exposure settings. One way to deal with lens fog is to use a clear filter, which protects the optical glass from direct moisture. Make sure your lens stays the same temperature as outside if you're going to be shooting outside. Going from an air-conditioned environment to a hot, sticky night will only cause your lens to fog up.
Getting the right exposure is one of the most critical night photography tips. To get the hang of it, choose a subject with unchanging lights and shadows, take several test shots and practice making the necessary manual adjustments. With regular practice, what you know about the exposure triangle and how the ISO, shutter speed and aperture affect each other will be second nature to you.
Night-time is a great opportunity to try creative shots and tinker with varying settings to achieve the effect you’re after. For instance, light streaks and light painting require longer shutter speeds. You could also use shutter priority mode, since you’ll only select the shutter speed while your camera will automatically choose the aperture.
While it might be difficult to find interesting scenes at night, city guidebooks could be of great help. You can also scout for new locations by using apps and websites specifically geared toward landscape photographers.
If the cityscape has a certain appeal to you, then don’t be surprised when even the most mundane subjects such as individual buildings, streetlights and traffic flow deliver a dramatic image with a black sky, streak of lights, mixed color and light conditions, and other variables that only appear at night.
In a nutshell, you can use the night photography tips we've provided to help you become more methodical in perfecting your ambition. You should know how to use the proper settings for the elements you're dealing with. Then, and only then, can you improve at shooting in the dark.
As with any endeavor, night photography takes countless hours of practice. In addition, being highly observant will bring life to your work and so it can be of great help to study the photos of “masters” to learn their core methods and incorporate them into your own style.