There’s something about street photography that’s exciting, it’s the appeal of getting that moment of capture. When you combine that with the bit of mystery that night time photography provides, it’s no wonder night street photography is so popular.
But this is also one of the more challenging types of photography to get right. The reason for that is the lack of light, making photography more difficult.
This article is full of tips to make you succeed when you go out at night to take these photos. So read on if you want to get some great city street night photos.
Good street photography is about subject, context and moment of capture.
1. The Correct Equipment
Having good equipment can significantly improve your chances of success with night photography.
The majority of street photography will be handheld. You’re going to need a fast lens, and a camera body that performs well at high ISO.
The honest truth is your kit lens won’t get the best result for night street photography, so what will?
The best camera body for night photography is one that performs best at a high ISO, and doesn’t leave your photos full of digital noise. There are merits to each camera brand, and the lenses that go with them so brand is really personal preference.
Other camera body types are catching up fast but for the best results using a full frame dSLR is recommended, the more recent the model the better.
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 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 f2.8 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 just three.
- 35mm – The lower the focal length the slower the shutter speed can be for handheld photos, meaning 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 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, though you will likely still need to bump up the ISO owing to the longer focal length and the faster shutter speed that will require.
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.
2. Night Photography Settings
Now that we’ve looked at the equipment, it’s time to think about the 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. Remember using the largest aperture possible will give you a very shallow depth of field, making sharp focus more difficult. If there is enough light try an aperture of f2.8, though large apertures produce more appealing bokeh so it’s a balance.
- 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 street photography. However it’s best to avoid noise and add the grainy effect in post processing if you want it. So calibrate your aperture to a setting were the noise is manageable, and 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.
3. Look For Available Light
As it’s night it will be dark! This means you’ll need to look for available light sources for your photos. This can mean street lights, light from shop windows, or lights from a street vendors stall.
Unless you’re aiming for silhouettes you should have this light shine onto your main subject, and here the rules of portrait lighting apply.
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 easily overpower your scene. This is arguably the most important factor when making a good photo, so take care of this first before moving onto other factors.
Here the street vendors stall is a good source of available light.
4. Show the Story
A photo is a lot less potent without a story behind it. This means observing the scene, the interaction with people, and 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 street photo, if your photo merely 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 street busker.
A more modern take on street photography in Shanghai. It’s always good to look for a story in the photo.
5. Have 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, and then 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.
Then there are other techniques like shooting against the light to produce silhouettes.
6. Control the Background
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?
Just a slight change in the angle you’re taking the photo from could improve the background, and make your photo better. The use of leading lines, bokeh, and photographing for low key are all great ways to create a good background.
This photo utilizes the low key look, by under exposing the photo.
7. Apply Techniques
The correct application of good photographic techniques is what photography is all about. When it comes to street photography, a few of these will really help you. Let’s briefly 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. Use a Tripod
In the majority of cases you’re not going to use a tripod for street 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.
Getting out on days when it rains can give you dramatic photos.
9. When to Use Flash
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 available light.
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.
10. Go to Places That Have Energy
It should be common sense that you’ll need to visit a town centre with some life to get your night time cityscapes. Anywhere people congregate is a potential place you can go.
So think of places like food courts, high streets, 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.
Of course variety is good, so getting a wider scene from a vantage point is a good option.
11. Dealing 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.
12. Go For The Low Key Photo
Low key means the majority of your photo will be under exposed, possibly black. The aim here is to find an area where 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 under exposed, creating a low key look for your image.
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.
13. Personal Safety
Chances are you’re going to be photographing alone when you do street 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 pick pockets, as you’re especially vulnerable because you’re concentrating more on the photography.
Of course having adequate insurance is the best idea, should you happen to be unlucky.
14. Use 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 back light this for maximum effect.
Going for some bokeh can be nice. The atmosphere Chinese lanterns give a scene is also a winner.
15. Practice Hip Photography
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, 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 to setup 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!
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 night time 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 night photos, armed with the knowledge needed to be successful.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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