If you’re looking to expand your capabilities as a photographer, try taking a shot in the dark—literally. Night photography is a challenging and exciting field. Between low light and moving subjects, it can be incredibly difficult to compose a high-quality picture after dark. But if you’re willing to learn the right techniques, night photographs can be a stunning addition to your portfolio. The good news? You don’t have to be a professional photographer to capture the magic of the night. Here, we’ve rounded up some advice on top-quality tools, helpful mental exercises, and best practices for shooting in low-light scenarios.
Get the Right Equipment
No matter how much you practice, you’ll have a difficult time taking quality night photos without the right equipment. Aside from a DSLR camera, the most important piece of equipment for night photography is a sturdy tripod. Holding the camera in your hand, even if it seems steady, will almost always produce a blurry photo. Because there is less light at night, cameras run at a slower shutter speed, which can catch any vibration or change in light. To get a crisp finished product, the camera needs to be able to pull in all available light—without movement. Any size tripod will work as long as your camera can attach to it securely.
Other equipment can be incredibly helpful in getting the perfect night shot, too. If you’re building your gear kit, consider adding the following items:
- Remote control or cable release system: This allows photographers to take steady pictures from the tripod, whether they’re nearby and simply don’t want to shake the camera or standing at a distance and hoping to snap a shot remotely.
- Wide-angle lens: This powerful tool for capturing more of the scene can also help bring in more light, depending on where you are shooting.
- Flashlight or headlamp: This is a simple and effective way to add more light to an area, whether you’re hoping to use it in a photo or simply scouting out an area. Flashlights can also be used in light painting for a more artistic effect.
- Extra battery: Long exposure—a common method in night photography—tends to drain camera batteries, so make sure yours is fully charged and consider bringing an extra battery, as well. There’s nothing worse than setting up the perfect nighttime shot only to realize your battery is out of power.
Shooting and Editing Night Photos
An all levels class on best practices for shooting and editing photos with challenging lighting.
Change Camera Settings
Choosing the right camera settings is essential when shooting at night. First, you’ll need to switch to manual mode. Although some photographers are nervous to leave behind the safety net of automatic settings, shooting in manual mode offers much more control. You also want to make sure your camera is set to shoot images in RAW, which is an image type that doesn’t compress, encrypt or process files. Your image file remains exactly how it is when you take the photo, which creates a more natural finished product and not one that has the risk of being corrupted. RAW files also make it easier to edit night photos and still retain their natural beauty.
The autofocus feature on most cameras won’t work when it is too dark, either, so photographers will also need to focus on their subjects manually. The infinity focus setting on most cameras works well, but it often requires taking a picture and then adjusting the focus manually as needed. Once you’ve got the right focus, don’t move the tripod, and be sure to turn off autofocus so the camera doesn’t try to re-focus on its own. Many photographers recommend using live view (looking through the camera’s LCD screen) to see more detail on a dimly lit scene. When in doubt, try zooming in and checking the focus on the screen.
If you usually use image stabilization or vibration control on your camera, turn it off when using a tripod. The feature is useful for hand-held shooting, but it can actually add small movements when used at night on a tripod. It may seem counterintuitive to turn this feature off when you want your camera to stay steady, but since the tripod takes care of holding the camera still, it’s best to remove the risk of added movement from the vibration control setting.
Set your aperture, or f-stop, as low as your lens allows. This changes the size of the hole in the lens, similar to how the pupils of our eyes adjust when it is dark to let in more light. The lower the f-stop, the more open the lens is. Because nighttime photography is done in such low light, you want the lens to be as open as possible. Some lenses have lower f-stops than others, but most lenses go down to f/5.6, f/3.5, or f/2.8, all of which should work well for night photography. Aperture also affects the depth of field. Using a lower f-stop limits the depth of field—which isn’t a huge problem in this case, as any depth of field changes you make will be much less noticeable in nighttime photos. Flash usually won’t improve the lighting in a photo, especially if you’re shooting a wide landscape, so it is better to just turn it off and let the aperture and shutter speed work on the light.
Another important setting is the camera’s ISO, or the brightness of the image. A higher ISO makes for a brighter image, but it also allows for more noise, which can create a blurry nighttime photo. The key is to find the right balance that lets in enough light while still leaving out most of the noise. Start with an ISO of 1600 and adjust as needed. If the photo is too bright, especially if you’re photographing a cityscape with lots of light, drop the ISO to 800 or lower. The goal is to find the balance between having enough light and not having a grainy or blurry photo. This is a setting where higher-quality equipment can pay off: In general, professional-grade cameras do better with higher ISOs and can eliminate much of the noise that may exist in a photo taken at the same ISO with an entry-level camera.
Next, set the shutter speed. The shutter speed dictates how long it takes an image to record. Start with a shutter speed of 10 seconds, and then adjust from there as needed. Because it is so dark at night, a slow shutter speed allows the camera to have more time to pull in as much light as it can around it. If the 10-second shutter speed is still producing a dark image, increase it to 20 or 30 seconds. Some professional nighttime photographers set their shutter speeds to be 30 minutes or more to get the perfect shot.
Nighttime Shooting Tips
For Concert Photos, Low-Light Portraits, and More
Staying still is important during nighttime shooting for the same reason a tripod is—the camera needs to be steady to soak in as much light as possible. As noted above, night photography requires a slow shutter speed of at least 10 seconds, which means it takes the camera that long to record an image. Any movement in that 10 seconds will cause the photo to be blurry. Even pushing the shutter button can produce vibrations that create blurry photos. For best results, use a remote control or set the camera’s built-in timer, which allows the camera to be still between the time you press the shutter button and when the picture is actually taken. If you find that your photos are still blurry, try extending the timer length.
Play with Light
Once you’ve mastered standard DSLR photography tips and understand how to take a basic night photograph, you can start experimenting and playing with light. Changing the ISO or shutter speed on a camera can produce interesting light trails that intentionally show movement, especially in cities or around cars and vehicles. You can also experiment with different sources of light, such as using street signs or stars to illuminate the subject of the photo and move artificial light to create light paintings.
Light changes during dusk and sunset. If you want to capture some of the natural colors of the night sky, plan to photograph within 30 minutes of sunset. Arriving at your location early, before the sun goes down, can also help you get your bearings and give you more time to compose and frame the shot before it gets dark.
More Tips for Sunset Photography
Learn how the fundamentals of documentary photography can improve your photos at sunrise and sunset.
Break the Rules
Once you have a good grasp of the rules, you can start breaking them. Try shooting on film to see how it changes your finished product; just bring a DSLR camera along, too, if you want to have an idea of what the film version will look like before it is developed. You can experiment with reflections, water, and shadows. Incorporating people into nighttime photos can also add complexity: It can be difficult, especially with such a long shutter speed, but human subjects can lend emotion and texture to a shot.
Play around with composition techniques, using things like leading lines, foreground, and various angles to add visual interest to your nighttime masterpiece. Look at things from a different point of view, showcasing a nighttime glimpse at landscapes and locations most viewers may never see after dark themselves.
Astrophotography, or shooting constellations and the night sky, is also very popular. In this field, photographers use incredibly long shutter speeds to show stars streaking across the sky. You can also experiment with the moon as a source of light or as the subject of photos. Pay attention to the weather, too: Night photos of storms or other natural phenomena can be incredibly captivating. For example, you might be able to snap a dramatic shot of lightning striking at just the right time by setting your camera to take multiple long ISO photos back-to-back: Most of the shots will just show the storm, but you could get lucky with one capturing the perfect bolt of lightning.
Just like daytime photos, pictures taken at night can be edited. If your photo ends up looking noisier or grainier than you want, you can remove much of the extra grain in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. Many photographers also adjust the white balance, which tends to be off-kilter in low light. Filters and other editing tools can also highlight certain areas of the photo, enhance the light, or warm up the colors. Great editing starts with a great photo, but post-production effects can take that photo to the next level and create a true masterpiece.
Night photography can’t be mastered overnight, but there are lots of ways to learn photography online and gain specific techniques for shooting in low light. For best results, keep experimenting with your camera and tripod in many situations. Every night scene is different, with different light sources and subjects to capture. Keep practicing and adjusting the elements until you are comfortable. Expect that no matter how much you practice, a session at night will take longer—there are simply more variables and adjustments to make. But while it may take more time and effort than a daytime session, the results will almost certainly be worth it.
Nighttime photography is a fun and beautiful skill to add to your photography repertoire. Start by learning the rules and techniques, then get out there and practice. Before long, you’ll be putting your spin on the practice and making (or breaking) your own rules.