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10 Tips for Mastering Creative Night Photography

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

Night photography produces some of the most stunning images. But it can be exceptionally frustrating to capture if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Read on for all the information you need to master night photography.

A stunning night photography image with a man under a stone arch and starry sky
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10. Prepare Your Composition and Settings to Get the Best Shot

Shooting at night is a hard skill to master because shots take longer to expose. I liken it to shooting on film. You need to think a lot more about your camera settings and composition when thinking about how to take night photos.

Night photography takes place at any time between dusk and dawn. During this time, the range of colors can vary. Night photography draws on some of the same principles of black and white photography. For example, a factor that may once have affected the color in your photo may now change the contrast.

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.

Serene night photography of mountains and lake
Photo by James Wheeler from Pexels

9. Explore the Unknown

Night photography is a great equalizer. When it’s dark enough outside, you’re effectively working with a blank canvas.

When it comes to finding the best locations for shooting at night, there are two possible ways. Either you stick to what you know and return at night, or you choose a new location.

Photographing at night can reveal views that people aren’t used to seeing. With long exposure times, you’ll start to see stars you didn’t realize were there, so areas you are familiar with will look different at night, but you know the place and may become stuck photographing the same thing.

By exploring the unknown, you are starting afresh. I believe this is the best way to tackle night photography. Break out of your usual area and force yourself to see something new.

Neon 'cafe crepe' sign at night
Photo by RAYUL on Unsplash

8. Choose the Best Night Photography Settings

You should first have a good understanding of how exposure settings work. You may find it useful to read our guide to exposure.

Three factors affect exposure. These are shutter speed, aperture, and ISO, and we use these differently at night.

The first thing to do is to take your camera out of auto mode and set it to manual mode. In manual mode, you’ll have full control over all of these exposure settings.

Low light conditions mean you’ll need to change your exposure 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 shot with extended shutter speed at ISO 400, for 30 seconds at f/5
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 the 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 shot at f/13 for 25 seconds at ISO 100
In very dark places, raise your ISO and shutter speed. At the same time, lower your aperture.

I took the photo below at night on 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 make this photo stand out.

High ISO will produce a grainy result in your photos which you can use for creative results if you know what you’re doing.

Think before you shoot. Decide what you’re shooting and whether you want grain, a deep DoF, or light trails. You’ll be able to work out the exposure 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 from what you’re used to.

Do some test shots and go with the settings that work for you after a bit of experimentation.

A wooden cabin taken at night, an impressive star filled sky about

7. Try Using a Tripod for Easier Shooting

Using a tripod allows for long exposures and gives you the ability to play around with cool effects. If you are shooting handheld, you’re a lot more restricted. You need to be able to hold the camera still for long periods of time.

There are a few points to bear in mind when using a tripod.

  • 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 stabilization as it will be counterintuitive. It will think that the camera is moving.

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 shot at a high ISO 3200, for 1/6 of a second at f/5

6. Shoot on Film for Cool, Creative Effects

There are some really cool 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.

Test the setting on DSLR, and then take the shot with your analogue camera. That way, you can learn faster without wasting money on film.

Film photography of a seascape at night5. Create Fun Light Trails

Light trails are fun for night photographers because, if you’re in control, 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 shot at f/5.6 for 235 seconds at ISO 1004. Experiment With Reflections

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 color as you can. These will merge in the reflections on the water. It’ll create a contrast between smooth and sharp.

reflection of a city skyline at night
Photo by Robert Bock on Unsplash

3. Use the Moon to Create Beautiful Night Photography Images

The moon is one of your only consistent light sources at night. It can produce some interesting effects for night time photography.

You can use also use the moon as a key part of your image. In the picture below, the moon is a focal point.

moon above mountains
Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

2. Capture Movement in Your Night Scene

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 in New York with a 10 seconds exposure.

A busy cityscape with bright lights at night1. Capture the Night Sky With Long Exposure for Stunning Results

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 picture below, taken on a 20-second exposure.

Exposing any photo for long enough allows the small amount of light in the night sky to multiply enough times to produce this cool blue/purple color.

You can also capture incredible milky way photographs without fancy equipment, learn how with our milky way mastery course!
A night photo of a cemetery under a starry sky

Why not check out our posts on shooting stunning star photography or star trails next!

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?

  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.

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