Too many photographers limit their photo adventures to daylight hours. For every photo that is taken in the daylight, there is an equal and possibly better one to be taken after dark. Night time photography is often overlooked and underrated.
Images captured after sunset aren't just about night sky photography. Anything that can be obtained during the day can also be shot at night. The only exceptions would be images that require fine detail, like portraits or wildlife pictures. If it moves, it will likely be blurry at night.
Night Photography Basics
Night photography is synonymous with long-exposure photography. That means that to capture images in very little light, the camera's shutter must stay open over a period of time. If something is moving, it's going to be blurry. You must read our Beginners Guide to Astrophotography, with tips and techniques of how to take those mind-blowingly beautiful shots of our natural world.
The very best modern cameras are very good at working in low light. Having the highest ISO setting is good marketing for them. But even if the camera is capable of operating at extremely high ISO settings, the image quality at those settings might not be great. It will always be grainer than an image taken at a lower ISO setting.
With these limits, it should be pretty apparent that you won't be able to pick up your smartphone or point and shoot camera, walk outside on a pitch-black night, and take great photos as you do in the middle of the day. You're going to need some special techniques and tools to get your camera to work in the dark of night, and a nice DSLR or mirrorless body will help a lot.
Some cameras have night photography settings built-in. These usually combine the settings discussed below in some way. Some create auto-processed HDR images by taking a selection of bracketed images. Regardless, they still have the same limits placed upon them. They are more often then not going to be blurry without proper planning. Here are 25 Simple Photography tips that will help you become better at your craft and take those stunning pictures that you always wanted.
Finding great photography places near you isn't very hard, but sometimes it's hard to realize that what you need is a burst of creativity. Often, breaking out of your shell and trying something new is just the ticket. Read our article with ideas and inspiration on how to find great photography locations near you, wherever you are.
Camera Equipment for Nighttime Photos
The number one thing to realize about night shooting is that the camera needs to be stabilized on a tripod. If you're trying to use a smartphone or point and shoot camera, you might try a table, chair, or bench. Anything to get the camera out of your hand and away from your body.
Even when we feel like we're standing perfectly still, our bodies are moving all the time. When shooting long-exposure photography, the camera will pick up our shaking, which translates into blurry images. A good rule of thumb is that if the shutter speed used is slower than one over the focal length of the lens used, then it should not be handheld. So for a 20 mm lens, you should not hand hold the camera if you are attempting to use shutter speeds slower than 1/20th of a second.
Night images are usually between 10 and 30 seconds long. There is no way to hand hold images like that, and even just sitting the camera on a bench is dodgy. The only way to do it is with a high-quality, sturdy tripod. It should be heavy enough to support your camera and not be affected by a breeze.
Tripods are always a compromise. You need to balance your desire for something heavy and stable with something that is also portable. If you don't hike far and have room in your car, you can look for something like a big studio tripod. But most photographers need to carry it at least a little way, and regular folding tripods or even smaller travel tripods can be used.
Even the best quality tripod will only be as stable as the ground you put it on. Avoid moving or vibrating places like bridges and overpasses. If you can feel it move at all, it will likely show up in your photos.
Another great item to have a night shoot is a remote shutter release. These range from simple push buttons to computerized programmable consoles that can take any range of sequences or time delay shots you want.
Remote releases allow you to trigger your shutter without touching the camera. That's right; even the act of gently touching the shutter button on the camera will introduce shake into the picture. Keep that camera rock steady!
Many cameras now have smartphone apps that will control their shutters. There are also a lot of fancy wireless releases out there, but you probably want to stick with an inexpensive wired model. There's less fiddling with connections, and a long-exposure photograph can drain batteries.
The camera you choose for night time photography should have the widest dynamic range you can find. Dynamic range is the measurement of how much detail the camera can capture between the darkest blacks and the brightest whites.
HDR, or high dynamic range, photos are a way to capture more range than your camera is capable of. HDR photos use bracketed exposures out of the camera to grab as much detail and light as possible. The images are then stacked together in post-production. HDR is a handy technique, especially when dealing with night images.
You also want to look for a camera that has manual settings, including a bulb setting for the shutter speed. A bulb setting allows the shutter to remain open for however long the button is pressed. This is where that remote shutter release shines.
The ISO capability of the camera is worth consideration as well. At some point, you'll have to make a compromise. Higher ISO images will always have some grain in them. At some point, you might want to make the trade-off to get the shot you want.
The higher-end DSLR bodies can now take awe-inspiring photographs at much higher ISOs than they could just a few years ago. When you evaluate a camera for night shooting, take some sample images at all ISOs and see what you think.
Built-in noise reduction is another important factor in night cameras. As the shutter is open for longer and longer, it picks up more and more noise. This manifests itself in light artifacts or spots of color around the image frame. Too much noise can ruin a long exposure image. Today's DSLR and mirrorless systems have come a long way in fixing this problem, but it's still worth considering when shopping for cameras.
The last requirement for your camera is a good quality lens. Fast lenses with wide apertures are preferred at night. The faster the lens, the lower the ISO and quicker the shutter speed you can use, which are all good things. The best options are lenses with f-stops at least as small as f/2.8, if not lower. F/4.0 lenses can be used, but with every higher f-stop, you will need a slower shutter speed or to use higher ISOs.
You'll also want to carry a few extra batteries. Make sure they're all topped up before setting out. Long-exposure shots can eat up a battery, as can the hard work the camera's processor does to run noise reduction programs. Additionally, cold weather makes batteries drain faster than usual, and it's usually cooler at night!
Camera Settings and Techniques
Understanding night photography settings on your camera requires a clear understanding of the exposure triangle. The exposure triangle is the balance of three components that always go together to form perfectly exposed images. If one element is too much, then one or both of the others need to be reduced to maintain the balance.
The three elements of the triangle are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.
Photographers get pretty used to having their camera's metering tell them what to do. These systems accurately measure the light coming in the camera nearly all of the time. But for night pictures, we often want the final product to look a little different than reality. It tricks the camera's sensors, meaning that we need to forge our own path to finding the right balance of components in the exposure triangle.
With the auto metering off the table, we need to set some ground rules and some starting points. Hopefully, you have some idea of what acceptable levels of grain your camera makes at a baseline ISO setting. Set the ISO to 400 or 800 to start. Remember, the best images always come from the lowest possible ISO settings, so don't push it until you have to!
Second, set your aperture to approximately what you think the depth of field warrants. If there is a lot of depth in the scene, you may need a high f-stop, like f/8.0 or f/11. These might not seem high, but at night that's as far as you want to go. Even then, on very dark nights, not enough light is going to get in. Most of the time, f/4.0 or f/5.6 is the sweet spot for images with a lot of depth. For night sky and very dark scenes, open the aperture to the stop.
Although there is plenty of room to play with the ISO and aperture, limiting them a little provides some structure. You can now adjust your shutter speed as you see fit to get the exposure you're looking for. Start with five or ten-second exposures and see how it looks.
If it isn't apparent yet, night captures require a lot of trial and error. Even the slightest addition of light to the scene will completely change the setup. It's a bit of a hassle, but it's also part of the fun challenge.
You must be acquainted with basic photography terms. Here is an article on 35 Common Photography Terms, that one should know before stepping into the field.
Other Camera Settings
There are a few other things you can keep in mind to make night shots go smoother. Focus systems seldom work in the complete dark, so go ahead and switch to manual focusing. If doing sky photography or distant objects, set the lens barrel to infinity. Note that infinity is not actually the stop on the lens. Most lenses can focus beyond infinity.
You'll also want to avoid automatic white balance. If you're shooting in RAW, you can fix this later in post-production. But auto white balance seldom works quite right in low light, and images are nearly always warmer than you expect them to be.
Even though it might seem a bit counter-intuitive, there's no point in using optical image stabilization if the camera is mounted on a good tripod. The gyros in the lens might introduce extra unwanted shake and motion into the camera.
RAW photos are the best at night. You can correct for things you didn't even notice, fix problems with white balance, and boost the shadows more than with any other format. If you haven't learned to love RAW already, night images will make you a believer.
8 Tips for Night Photography
Tip 1—Don't Underestimate Trial and Error
As described above, night photos are all about trial and error. You have to take some test shots to see how the camera works and what ISOs you like using. You need to bracket images just to find anything close to the right shutter speed.
And then one final problem crops up where you least expect it. At night, your eyes will be sensitive and well adapted to their dark surroundings. Most camera LCDs are way too bright, and most of them make images look brighter than they are.
To avoid heading home with a bunch of dark, underexposed photos, always favor brighter images on the LCD. But as extra protection, don't change the composition or move on until you've taken bracketed pictures in several different scenarios. Move the f-stop up and notch and shoot a longer exposure. Then take an even longer exposure.
Resist the urge to delete photos before you get home and view them on the computer. You might wind up deleting a lot of them but look at them on a proper monitor before deciding.
Nighttime might be the perfect time to try your hand at HDR images. HDR images are made by taking multiple pictures, usually three but sometimes many more, and stacking them together with editing software. The idea is to get one final composition that has more dynamic range than your camera is capable of. It's especially useful when there are bright spots and dark spots in the image frame.
Most DSLRs have a bracketing setting, which will automatically take a set number of captures with a fixed exposure compensation separating them. The typical setup is to have a three-shot set, including a properly exposed image, a shot three stops underexposed, and a shot three stops overexposed.
Tip 3—Prepare for the Weather
Check the weather forecast online and plan accordingly. It often feels much cooler than you'd expect after dark—plan for yourself with multiple layers of clothing to keep warm. Be ready for bugs, too.
Don't forget to include your camera gear in your preparations. Do read our checklist on 16 Must-have Camera accessories for Travel Photographers. To avoid lens fogging problems, acclimatize your camera gear to the colder temperature as soon as possible. It's best to let it cool down as the sun sets, so if you can set up your gear on location early and stay outside, condensation on your equipment shouldn't be a problem. If the air starts getting damp and dew begins to form, just cover the camera with a towel.
Tip 4—Scout Good Locations in Daylight
It's never a bad idea to take a scouting trip and look for scenes that will be even better at night. Take note of things that will be well lit, like public buildings, monuments, bridges, city skylines, fountains, and landmarks.
Nighttime photography is still all about composition. Include foreground and background elements, especially in landscapes. You might want to read our article on 12 Photography Composition Tips and Techniques.
Tip 5—Look For Great Light Sources
Light is going to feature prominently in any after-dark composition. Look for beautiful light sources that will make an impact. The moon is one of the most consistent natural lights. Plan for it and use it as an element in your composition. If the moon isn't out, use the stars, the Milky Way, or the Aurora Borealis.
You can also add your own light elements. Many photographers enjoy experimenting with light painting. Using a flashlight, you can create patterns of light in the image. Lights attached to drones can be flown in programmed flight paths through the image, making amazing light trails. Do read our Beginners Guide on Photography Lighting.
Tip 6—Use Movement
Most photography occurs in the fastest fraction of a second. Movement is stopped and frozen in time. But with long-exposure night photos, long shutter times mean that motion is captured in a way that is hard to do during the day. Cars on highways leave light trails. Clouds streak across the sky. Oceans waves blur into an endless abyss. Use the movement in images to tell your story.
Tip 7—Night Sky Photography
Night sky photography falls into two basic categories, starfield shots and star trail shots that show the motion blur of the stars. Of course, it's not the stars that are moving, but the earth that is spinning under your feet.
To freeze the movement and prevent star trails, two things should be kept in mind. One is that any movement will be harder to perceive on a wide-angle shot. So the wider angle the lens, the better. The second is that any shutter speeds over about 30 seconds will show some trail. The more you zoom in, the faster the shutter speed will need to be.
Tip 8—Star Trails
If you want to go for star trails, you'll need to do a few things first. The photos that you see where the stars circle a central point are shot looking north, towards the North Star, Polaris. So, you're going to need to learn how to find the North Star. With a star map, it's pretty easy. Or you could use the compass on your smartphone.
There are two methods for taking star trail photos. You can try to take one exposure over a very long period, usually an hour or more. The problem with this is that most DSLR cameras are going to have too much sensor noise on such a long exposure. Even if your camera doesn't have a noise problem, will its battery last long enough to capture and save such an image?
To work around the problem, most photographers take many shorter exposures and stack them together in post-production. You can use Photoshop or look for specialty software explicitly designed for the purpose. Here is an article on 30+ best Lightroom Presets that you can instantly apply to your photos.
The images speak for themselves. Nighttime photography is stunning. It does what all photography should do, but what few images actually accomplish. It shares a new view of something familiar, a thing of beauty that many people miss.
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