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4 Steps to Mastering Creative Night Photography

Night photography can be exceptionally frustrating. Especially when you don’t know what you’re doing.
I’m here to tell you night time is a great time to photograph. Read on for all the information you need to master it.
Stunning night photo of the silhouettes of a group of people taking photos of light on their smartphones

Why Night Photography

It’s a hard skill to master because night shots take longer to expose. I liken it to shooting on film.
You think a lot more about your camera settings and composition before shooting. And this helps hone your skills much quicker. Night photography takes place any time between dusk and dawn. During this time the range of colors can vary.
When there’s an inkling of light in the night sky, take a long exposure. You can end up with a 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. The exposure was a little too long. It caused the photo to overexpose for the time of day.
Long exposure night photography of a harbour scene in the French town of Honfleur

Step 1 –  Explore The Unknown

Night photography is a great equaliser. When it’s dark enough outside, you’re effectively working with a blank canvas. Factors such as weather and people aren’t so much of a problem.
A factor that may once have affected the colour in your photo may now affect the contrast. Night photography draws on some of the same principles of black and white photography.
Nighttime can produce unusual results and views that people aren’t used to seeing. This is especially true when it comes to the night sky. With a long exposure times, you’ll start to see stars you didn’t realise were there.
When it comes to trying to find the best locations, there are two possible ways. Either you stick to what you know and return at nighttime, or you choose a new location.
By exploring the unknown, you are starting afresh. You can no connotations or misconceptions about an area. I believe this is the best way to tackle night photography.
Of course, areas you are familiar with will look different at night rather than the day. Yet, you know the place and may become stuck photographing the same thing.
By breaking out of your usual area, you force yourself to see something new, with fresh eyes.
An infographic highlighting the 4 steps to mastering creative night photography

Step 2 – Night Photography Settings

You should first have a good understanding of how exposure works. If you lack this understanding, go back and read our guide to exposure.
There are three factors that affect an exposure. These are shutter speed, aperture and ISO, and we use these differently at night.
The first thing to do is take your camera out of auto mode and set it to manual mode. This way, you’ll have full control over all of these exposure settings.
Low light conditions mean you’ll need to change your settings to compensate to get the correct exposure. You may have to 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. I do this 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 I use the extended shutter speed to capture the photo. See the image below shot at ISO 400, for 30 seconds at f/5.
Dramatic shot of a house at night
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.
Sometimes you’ll be in 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 f/13 for 25 seconds at ISO 100. You can get away with these settings because you rely on a bright source of light to be the subject.
When shooting a scene like this, always focus about a third of the depth into the photo. This creates the best depth of field.
Streaming red and white light trails on a dark background - night photography tips
In very dark places, raise your ISO and shutter speed. At the same time, lower your aperture.
I took the photo below at night ion the outskirts of the woods. Local light pollution was the only light source, outside of the building.
The graininess of the photo, the blue of the sky and the shallow DoF help producing this photo.
ISO will produce a grainy result in your photos which you can use for creative results if you know what you’re doing.
A wooden cabin taken at night, an impressive star filled sky about - night photography tips
Think before you shoot. Decide exactly what you’re shooting and whether you want grain, a deep DoF, or light trails. You’ll be able to work out the settings for yourself from there.
One thing worth noting in low-light photography is to ignore your camera’s exposure meter: it’s irrelevant at night. The histogram is also going to appear completely different to what you’re used to.
Do some test shots and go with the settings that work for you after a bit of experimentation.

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Step 3 – Tripod vs. Handheld

The most popular choice for night photography is the use of a tripod. This allows for long exposures. And gives you 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 camera shake or jarring the camera by pressing the shutter.
  • Turn off any image stabilisation as it will be counterintuitive. It will think 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 1/6 of a second at f/5.
My lens didn’t have IS so I couldn’t use that. Instead, I focused on my subject’s lips as a central, reflective point for creative effect.
A night portrait of a female model on a street at night

Step 4 – Night Photography Tips & Ideas

This is where night photography gets fun. There are some really cool, creative ideas and effects that you simply can’t achieve during the day.
Shooting on film is good fun. If you’re stuck for which settings to use, I recommend bringing along your DSLR (whether it’s a Nikon, Canon, Sony, etc.).
That way, you can learn faster without wasting money on film.
Film photography of a seascape at night
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 light trails with our cameras.
This photo was shot at f/5.6 for 235 seconds at ISO 100.
Streaming red and white light trails on a highway - night photography tips
Reflections are a lot harder to capture during the day as they’re dependent on the light in a scene. When you take away the natural light, you only have to worry about manmade light.
Try to use as much colour as you can. These will merge in the reflections on the water. It’ll create a contrast between smooth and sharp.
The photo below was shot at f/8 for 30 seconds at ISO 100.
Impressive night photography cityscape
The Moon is one of your only consistent light sources at night. It can produce some very interesting effects for night time photography.
Below, the moonlight illuminates the foreground.
Beautiful and serene seascape under a full moon, night photography
Movement is an obvious choice for photos with longer exposures. You can easily achieve the contrast between still vs moving objects with a tripod mounted camera. You can see this in the photo below, taken at New York for 10 seconds.
A busy cityscape with bright lights at night
Sky photos at night offer a variety of effects. You can include movement in the clouds or more definition in the stars or star trails, like in the photo below, taken on a 20-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 night photo of a cemeteryAnd don’t forget to check out this video before you go.

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11 comments
  1. Do you still shoot film? I think that’s what I gathered from reading this. As much as I like the convenience of digital. I sill love taking out my Contax T3 for taking black and white photos.

  2. Hi, how about exposure evaluation in the night? I usually use Evaluative or Spot. Where i should point the camera to get a correct exposure?

    1. If you have a look at my metering modes post, it’ll tell you a little more about what you want to know, but as a rule of thumb, I always keep my camera on evaluative unless i’m not getting the results I want. It’s usually relatively even at night because there’s no bright sun to deal with, so evaluative works fine.

  3. I love this post. It has reminded me about the creativity that can be achieved at night. I’m curious about why you choose to shoot film and will check out you post here.
    I pressed this post into my new blog and wanted to thank you for your insight.

  4. Nice work Josh. I also like night photography but all i have now is a digital SLR. ( Nikon D-7000) I suspect that you always use a tri-pod or mono-pod? Have you shot any night scenes with a digital camera?

    1. The majority of these photos use a digital camera, I think only the one with dual scenes of the water at night was shot on film. Thanks, Josh

  5. Hi, I like the night photography and your samples. I’m a bit puzzled that you used ISO 100 at night when I would use a higher ISO like 4000.
    You stated on one of your images using a wider maximum aperture to f/22. Isn’t it the minimum and the maximum f/2.8

    1. Just to comment here – the closer you are to your camera’s base ISO – usually the closer you are to getting maximum dynamic range in your colours and your shadows, as you increase the ISO, you loose this sensitivity, as what you are effectively doing is applying a multiplier to the sensor data, and that has consequences. However with a lower ISO you need a longer shutter time, and that can lead to noise if it is too long as the sensor heats up for really long exposures, so there is a trade off – and sometimes it is better to increase ISO, but the optimum quality image will usually be had at the cameras base ISO.

  6. Josh I like what you had to say on nighttime photography. I tell photographers if you have a background in film photography then you would understand about shooting the moon more. Specially when shooting the moon with film there was a good chance that you would burn the film. What you’re doing is taking the camera and shooting a lit object. The mood is constant and you have to take that into consideration when shooting nighttime photography with the moon involved. I tell folks if you can remember ASA’s then you can use that to relate to ISO’s. Point of the matter… Good job Josh keep it up.

Comments are closed.
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