If you look at my portfolio, you’ll notice that I have a good amount of night photography in there—that’s because nighttime is one of my favourite times to shoot.
Shooting at night, for me, came about from not having too much free time in the day; I would go out to practice my photography with some friends at night.
It’s a slightly harder skill to master because the shots take longer to expose. I liken it to shooting on film; you think a lot more about your settings and composition before shooting which helps to hone your skills much quicker.
Step 1 – Times & Uses
Night photography takes place any time between dusk and dawn. During this time the range of colours can vary greatly.
When there’s just an inkling of light in the sky, take a long exposure and you can end up with a relatively blue, evening sky when, in reality, it’s much darker outside.
Take the photo below for example: it was shot well into the evening in the French town of Honfleur and the exposure was probably a little too long, causing the photo to effectively overexpose for the time of day.
Night photography is a great equaliser because, when it’s dark enough outside, you’re effectively working with a blank canvas where factors such as weather and people aren’t so much of a problem.
A factor that may once have affected the color in your photo may now effect the contrast; night photography draws on some of the same principles of black and white photography for good results.
Nighttime can produce unusual results and views that people aren’t used to seeing. This is especially true when it comes to the sky; with a long exposure, you’ll start to see stars you didn’t realise were there.
Step 2 – How To
You should first have a good understanding of how exposure works. If you lack this understanding, I suggest going back and reading our guide to exposure.
There are three factors that affecting an exposure; shutter speed, aperture and ISO, and we use all of these differently at night.
The first thing to do is take your camera out of auto mode and set it to manual, where you’ll have full control over all of these settings.
Low light conditions mean you’ll need to change your settings accordingly: widen your aperture, slow your shutter speed and/or raise your ISO.
When I first find a scene that I want to capture, I raise the shutter speed and take a photo of about 1 second to see roughly what it looks like with a little bit more light.
I then lower the ISO back down, as low as I can to make sure that I don’t end up with a grainy photo, and use the extended shutter speed to capture the photo, demonstrated in the image below shot at ISO 100, for 30 seconds at f/4.
The majority of your photos will have a wide aperture so that you can allow in as much light as possible. This will result in a shallow depth of field in some cases but I always find it much less noticeable at night as the lack of light takes away some of the definition.
A good example of this is in the photo below this one (the one used to demonstrate high ISO).
When shooting a scene in which your subject goes way into the distance – to a point of convergence – you’ll need a narrow aperture to produce a wider DoF.
The photo below was shot at my maximum aperture of f/22 for 30 seconds at ISO 100. I could get away with these settings because I was relying on a bright source of light to be my subject. When shooting a scene like this, always focus about a third of the depth into the photo to create the best depth of field.
In incredibly dark places, raise your ISO and shutter speed at the same time, while lowering your aperture.
The photo below was taken at night in the middle of the woods, with local light pollution being the only light source.
The graininess of the photo, the red of the sky and the slightly shallow DoF help greatly in producing this photo as the building is widely considered to be haunted. ISO will produce a grainy result in your photos which can be used creatively, if you know what you’re doing.
Think before you shoot. Decide exactly what you’re shooting and whether you want grain, a deep DoF, or light trails. You’ll easily be able to work out the settings for yourself from there.
One thing worth noting is to ignore your camera’s exposure meter: it’s irrelevant at night. The histogram is also going to appear completely differently to what you’re used to; go with the settings that work for you after a bit of experimentation.
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Step 3 – Tripod vs. Handheld
Clearly, the most popular choice for night photography is the use of a tripod as it allows for long exposures, coupled with the ability to play around with more cool effects. There are, however, a few points to bear in mind when using one.
- Make sure it’s weighted down and sheltered from strong winds; even slight movement will blur your photos.
- Use a shutter release cable to prevent jarring the camera by pressing the shutter.
- Turn off any image stabilisation as it will be counterintuitive, thinking that the camera is moving.
If you’re shooting handheld, you’re a lot more restricted: you need to be able to hold the camera still for long periods of time. To help shorten this time, raise your ISO as high as it will go.
The photo below was shot at ISO 3200, for 1/8 of a second at f/2.8.
My lens doesn’t have IS so I couldn’t use that but I focused on my subjects lips as a central, reflective point for creative effect.
Step 4 – Creative Ideas & Tips
This is where the photography really starts to get fun; there are some really cool, creative ideas and effects that simply can’t be achieved during the day.
Shooting on film is good fun. If you’re stuck for which settings to use, I recommend bringing your digital SLR along too the first few times you try it so that you can learn faster without wasting money on film.
Light trails are fun because, if you’re controlling them, you can do whatever you like with them.
For the photo below, I went into a local town in the middle of the night with some friends. I got one of them to drive through the scene while the rest of us captured their trials with our cameras.
It took a few tries but I eventually got this photo, shot at f/18 for 30 seconds at ISO 100.
Reflections are a lot harder to capture during the day as they’re dependant on the light in a scene—when you take away the natural light, you only have to worry about the man-made light.
Try to use as much colour as you can as these will merge in the reflections on the water, creating a contrast between smooth and sharp.
The photo below was shot at f/4.5 for 8 seconds at ISO 100.
The Moon is one of your only consistent light sources at night and can produce some very interesting effects.
Below, I used a car’s headlight to illuminate the foreground, while the moon created an almost triangular effect, it’s light heading down towards the bottom corners.
Movement is an obvious choice for photos with long exposures and the contrast between still vs moving objects can be easily achieved with a tripod mounted camera, demonstrated in the photo below, taken at Stonehenge for 15 seconds.
Sky photos at night offer a variety of effects; you can include movement in the clouds or more definition in the stars, like in the photo below, taken on a 30 second exposure.
Exposing any photo for long enough allows the small amount of light in the sky to multiply enough times to produce this cool blue/purple colour.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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