There’s something about street photography that’s exciting. It’s the appeal of capturing that right moment. When you combine that with the mystery of night time photography, it’s no wonder night street photography is so popular.
The camera lens you use needs to be a fast lens. A fast lens is one that lets light quickly into the camera with a large aperture and large lens diameter. One of the best lenses here happens to be a night street photographer’s favourite, the nifty fifty.
Another reason the full frame camera body works best here is that crop factor also applies to aperture. It means f/2.8 on a crop sensor of two will in fact be f5.6, not ideal when you want a fast lens.
So what lens will work well? There are of course many lenses, but here we’ll look at three.
35mm – The lower the focal length the slower, the shutter speed can be for handheld photos. This is a great lens when you are struggling for a higher shutter speed. The largest aperture for this lens is typically f1.4.
50mm – The preferred choice of many night street photographers. There are several aperture choices with this lens with the largest being the most expensive. You can choose between f1.8, f1.4 and f1.2.
85mm – A great lens for portrait work, this can also be applied to street photography. It’s a fast lens. But you will still need to bump up the ISO. This is because of the longer focal length and the faster shutter speed that will require.
We have a great article on low light cameras you can check out here.
The use of a lens with a large aperture allows you to create shallow depth of field. In this photo there is plenty of mood provided by the back light.
14. City Street Night Photography Settings
Now that we’ve looked at the equipment, it’s time to think about the camera settings you’ll be using. At this point you should have a camera body capable of performing at high ISO, and a fast lens on your camera. Now it’s all about getting that shutter speed high enough.
Aperture – Your aperture is going to be large, but depending on the available light you might be able to adjust this. Using the largest aperture possible will give you a very shallow depth of field. Sharp focus will be more difficult. If there is enough light, try an aperture of f2.8.
Shutter speed – The aim is to freeze the action in most cases, and have a fast enough shutter speed to avoid camera shake. The focal length of your lens is proportional to the slowest shutter speed you can hold it at. So a 50mm lens could be held at 1/50th, whereas an 85mm lens will need 1/100th. Sometimes you might choose to slow the shutter speed down to allow for some motion blur.
ISO – There are those who like the grainy feel noise gives their night street photography. It’s best to avoid noise and add the grainy effect in post processing if you want it. Calibrate your aperture to a setting where the noise is manageable. You can remove it using a program like noise ninja. It will of course depend on your camera body but using an ISO of 3200 is usually enough.
Looking for elements like smoke or steam can really add atmosphere to your work.
13. What Light Sources Can You Use at Night
You’ll need to look for available light sources for your photos. This can mean night street lights, light from shop windows, or a night street vendor’s stall.
Unless you’re aiming for silhouettes you should have this light shine onto your main subject. The rules of portrait lighting apply here.
Will the light be at 45 degrees to your subject, side light, or rim light? Careful positioning of yourself in relation to the light sources, and your main subject will determine this.
In general try to avoid bright lights in the background; they can overpower your scene. This is the most important factor when making a good photo. Take care of this first before moving onto other factors.
Dark streets also work well, where there is only one source of light. This could be used for interesting silhouettes and outlines.
Here the street vendors stall is a good source of available light.
12. How to Capture Better Storytelling Images
A photo is a lot less potent without a story behind it. This means observing the scene and the interactions among people. And then getting that moment of capture.
It will also mean showing the wider scene around your subject, to add more context to your scene.
It’s difficult to say you have a city street night photo, if your photo shows a person’s face. Even if the person’s face dominates the photo, and the background is dark, you still need context.
Look for things like a customer picking up food, or an audience enjoying the music of a city street night busker. Empty streets are interesting, but fall short sue to the lack of the personal element.
A more modern take on street photography in Shanghai. It’s always good to look for a story in the photo.
11. Why You Should Aim for a Variety of Photos
As with all forms of photography, more variety will add interest to your work. Try to get some photos where you stand back and get more of the wider scene. Then take some photos that focus much more on one subject.
To achieve this, try changing the lens you use, for different focal lengths. Then also get closer, or farther away from your main scene.
Try some photos that only show a part of a person, perhaps just their hands over a frying pan. This is a good example of dark, street at night photography.
Then there are other techniques like shooting against the light to produce silhouettes.
10. How to Ensure the Background Is Not Distracting
It’s vital you control the background of your photo. Are there distracting bright lights in the background? Are other people’s limbs protruding out of your main subject’s face in the background?
A slight change in the angle you’re taking the photo from could improve the background. And make your photo better.
This photo utilizes the low key look, by under exposing the photo.
9. Which Photography Techniques Are Best for Night-Time Street Photos
The correct application of good photographic techniques is what photography is all about. When it comes to night street photography, a few of these will really help you.
Let’s look at some of the better ones for this genre.
Bokeh – This describes the out of focus portion of the photo in the background. This is achieved by using a large aperture, and have your subject fairly far in front of background objects. As you’ll likely be photographing at a high aperture anyway this will be easy to achieve.
Minimalism – Photography is the art of subtraction. So once you have the subject, a story for the subject, and context, the remainder of the frame should be simplified.
Leading lines – Look for those natural lines that run through photos. Is it the line of street vendors? Perhaps there are architectural structures you can use?
8. Do You Need a Tripod
In the majority of cases you’re not going to use a tripod for street at night photography. You generally want your camera to be handheld. Should you want to experiment with some motion blur, a tripod comes into play.
This motion blur will give your photo some dynamism, but it’s important not to expose for too long. If you expose too long people will move, and this will likely mean they don’t appear in the photo.
Instead look to expose for around half a second, so you get some movement of people, and some static in your frame. This will give your photo more story.
A tripod does let you capture the city night lights well, especially if it’s a long exposure. The city night scene can also be captured well by using a time-lapse series of images.
Getting out on days when it rains can give you dramatic photos.
7. When to Use Flash to Highlight Your Subject
Using a flash for street photography is contentious. Using it makes it very hard to be conspicuous, or your subject knows and the photo becomes staged. In the case the photo is staged, does it really count as street photography anymore?
Still, if you are well known in the community you’re photographing you might be able to use a strobe, without it unduly agitating people, and gain natural well-lit photos. Introducing a flash may get you a photo where available light can’t be found.
Generally speaking though, you should always look for the available night lights.
If you do decide to use flash this way consider using off-camera flash, so you can position your light source more to the side. This way it will at least look a little more natural.
6. What Are the Best Spots for Night-Time Street Photography
It should be common sense that you’ll need to visit a town centre with some life to get your nighttime cityscapes. Anywhere people congregate is a potential place you can go.
So think of places like food courts, high streets at night, but don’t neglect the back alleys. Even better still, does your town have a night market? Perhaps it’s only once a week, so find the schedule and make sure you’re there for it.
New York City, or any large city is a haven for photographers, but you still need to be wary. Be safe first and foremost.
Of course variety is good, so getting a wider scene from a vantage point is a good option.
5. How to Deal With Noise
Photographing in low light will invariably mean using a high ISO in order to get a good shutter speed for your photo. That high ISO comes at a price though, and that’s noisy images.
You have two solutions here, photograph at a lower ISO, or try to eliminate excessive noise in post-processing.
Lower the ISO – Photograph in an area with a little more available light, allowing for a lower ISO. Or perhaps go for a more low key photo, and lower the exposure value so you can also lower the ISO.
Post-processing – Even with a lower ISO you’ll likely need to use noise reduction software, and this is especially the case at higher ISO.
4. Why You Should Go for the Low Key Photo
Low key means the majority of your photo will be underexposed, possibly black. The aim here is to find an area where the available light shines onto your subject, but not the background. It helps a lot if this available light source is bright.
Now the aim is to expose for the available light, meaning the background of your photo will be underexposed, creating a low key look for your image.
The night city can really benefit from this underexposed look.
This photo used a longer focal length, the 135mm f2 lens. There is nice light on the girls face, which also brings out the smoke.
3. Why You Should Include Elements of the Weather
Inclement weather can really add drama to a scene, whether that’s heavy rain or snow. Now, of course, you’ll need to wear the correct clothes for such conditions, and equally you’ll need to protect your camera.
At the same time, be careful when you bring your camera inside when the temperature is cold. The warm conditions in your home can lead to condensation getting inside the camera body, not good for electronics.
When there is snow or rain you can use the available light to bring out the precipitation in the sky, attempt to backlight this for maximum effect. Neon signs and lights work well in adverse weather, like rain.
Going for some bokeh can be nice. The atmosphere Chinese lanterns give a scene is also a winner.
2. How Hip Photography Can Add a Twist to Your Composition
Hip photography describes a technique where you take a photo without using the viewfinder or LCD screen.
The advantage of this technique is that you’ll almost certainly get natural photos because the people you photograph won’t realise a photo was taken.
Hip photography means taking the photo with your camera at your hip, where the composition isn’t certain. With practice, you can get a feel for getting a composition you can work with though, and other settings you will need set uptup prior to the photo.
It’s recommended you use a wider angle lens for this technique, allowing you to crop in, and adjust the tilt in post-processing if needed. So to do this set up your focal distance before photographing, and have the camera on your hip.
When you see an interesting scene, face the camera towards it, and take the photo!
1. How to Keep Safe When Photography on the Street
Chances are you’re going to be photographing alone when you do city street night photography. At night this presents a risk, as you’ll also be carrying expensive equipment.
Always exercise caution when entering darkly lit areas that don’t have many people. Equally when in crowded areas be careful of pickpockets, as you’re especially vulnerable because you’re concentrating more on the photography.
Street photography is a fun genre to be involved with. Night street photography is even more fun, but can be more of a challenge. There are lots of strategies for getting good photos, do you have any other ideas that you use?
Are you a nighttime street photographer? If so how often do you go out to photograph, and do you have some photos you can share with us in the comments?
I hope after reading this article you’ll be inspired to take some city street night photos, armed with the knowledge needed to be successful.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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