Last update: 02/02/2023
If there is one area that is often neglected by many people (including me), it is night photography. In our defense, one would tend to think that there is not much to shoot at night because it is simply too dark. We are often too lazy to take our camera out when it’s dark on a trip, for example, preferring instead to hang out in night markets or simply take a break to prepare for the next day! Perhaps you are also looking for ways to improve your travel pictures?
However, nighttime is often the time when the effects of light come into play and there are great photographic opportunities. I am thinking especially of people living in the city, near tall buildings, lit up bridges or lakes/ponds/sea areas.
From a technical point of view, if you’re new to photography, you probably have the impression that it must be complicated to shoot at this time. Indeed, it’s not that simple, but it can be learned and mastered. Your main enemy here will be, as you guessed it, the lack of light. Let’s now see together how to capture a great night shot, by discussing the settings, the choice of equipment and a few bonus tips.
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As mentioned above, the main concern with night photography is therefore the lack of brightness. You’re going to tell me, duh, it’s night! Let’s see how we can compensate it by adjusting the three parameters that compose the exposure in a photo:
- You slow down the shutter speed as much as possible: you’ll be limited for shooting handheld rather quickly,
- You open your lens’ diaphragm: this is similar to setting your aperture to a small number “f/”. You are limited here by the maximum aperture of your lens,
- You increase the ISO sensitivity: by increasing the ISOs, you allow more light to enter your sensor so you can shoot faster. You are then limited by the maximum ISOs of your camera body. As a reminder, the more you increase the ISOs, the more noise you have on your picture (deteriorating quality).
Here are the 3 points to compensate for the lack of light. Each of these choices will impact your picture in a more or less important way, for example the appearance of noise (for the ISO), the reduction of the depth of field (for the aperture), or a blurred picture (for the shutter speed). But there is a magical tool that could help you avoid the limitations of the above choices: the tripod!
If I have been speaking gibberish and you do not yet understand all the technical terms related to the exposure in particular, please refer to the category on the basics of photography on this blog. Remember that the 3 elements that compose the exposure in photography are intimately connected and that changing one parameter then impacts another one.
Now let’s look at the settings for night photography and the impact they have on your picture. The items listed below apply primarily if you do not have a tripod. Of course, with a tripod, you can do whatever you want in terms of settings…
If the light is low, the first thing you’ll have to do is open the diaphragm of your lens (to make it as simple as possible to set the “f/” as small as possible). As a reminder, opening your lens from f/5.6 to f/4 brings twice more light into your sensor. This means you’ll be able to shoot twice as fast as before (the camera compensates for the extra light by simply capturing faster if you’re in semi-automatic mode for example). Do you see what I’m getting at? If you decrease it again from f/4 to f/2.8, you’ve doubled again the amount of light let into the sensor, etc.
Examples of classic night pictures: an illuminated bridge and an architectural picture
1 – You will be very quickly limited by the maximum aperture of your lens. If you are a beginner and you have a low-cost lens, this will probably be f/4 or f/5.6 or bigger,
2 – If you reduce the aperture, the depth of field will diminish. In concrete terms, your scene will be less sharp overall (depending on where you focus).
The problem with the shutter speed is motion blur. Indeed, you won’t be able to get a sharp handheld picture below a given speed (depends on your stability and your focal length). Using a lens with a stabilizer may allow you to gain a bit in shutter speed, but let’s say that above 1/10 or 1/15th, your pictures will be blurry anyway and you will have no choice but to use a tripod.
A short aside and to keep in mind the correlation between the focal length (in mm) and the shutter speed limit, it is recommended, at the very least, that there be an equivalent between the two. Let me explain. With a 300mm telephoto lens, it would be better to shoot at 1/300th for example. With a 11-18mm wide angle lens, it will be possible to take a sharp picture up to 1/20th for example. The longer the focal length, the more shutter speed you will require. For instance, you can imagine how difficult it would be to get a sharp picture of wildlife at night!
The last point of the exposure triangle, it is the parameter that can save our lives in some cases. All the parameters being connected, if you have opened your aperture to the maximum (“f/” at the lowest) and your DSLR still displays a too slow shutter speed, you will be able to compensate by increasing the ISO. Indeed, going from ISO 400 to IS0 800 will allow you to gain 1 stop of shutter speed, which means to be able to take the picture twice as fast.
The disadvantage of this technique is of course the appearance of digital noise in the black areas of the scene. Your photo will degrade in quality so be careful to find the right balance.
Let’s take a simple example: you’re in town at night, you’ve opened your aperture to the maximum that your lens allows, e.g. f/2.8, the camera shows you 1/4s, which is impossible to shoot handheld. You are already at IS0 1600, which is the maximum limit of your camera. What happens then in this case? Well, you’re stuck and all your pictures may easily be blurry.
Not to mention the fact that shooting at f/2.8 will probably make part of your scene become out of focus, which is not what you wanted in the first place. You now have no other option than to shoot using a tripod. Your only possibility would be to have more suitable equipment; we will talk about that below.
It can happen that in night photography, the white balance (in automatic on your camera by default) can play tricks on you. If you take pictures in RAW, this is not a problem, because you can adjust it in post-processing. Otherwise, do not hesitate to try several times to find the correct white balance value at the time.
If you don’t know the notions of focus and autofocus yet, I suggest you read again the dedicated article in the basics of photography. Depending on the quality of the AF point of your camera, it is possible that according to the situation, you may not be able to focus in automatic on your subject in the dark. In any case, remember to always manually select your AF point (and not let the camera do it).
I often advise to use the center AF point of your camera body, which is often the best, and the one that locks onto the subject the easiest. Start there. If you still can’t do it, don’t hesitate to switch to manual focus mode and focus yourself by rotating the focus ring.
Focusing at night can sometimes be tricky depending on the quality of your camera AF points – Night market in Luang Prabang, Laos
As explained above, photographic equipment is important for night photography. Regardless of whether you shoot handheld or with a tripod, the idea is the same. The only thing that changes is that if you shoot on a tripod, you don’t have to worry as much about your equipment. Why is that? Simply because, on a tripod, you can choose the settings you want and often the optimal settings: ISO at the lowest, the aperture chosen (f/11 for example so that the whole scene is in focus) and the shutter speed adapted to the other two parameters. Even if the camera shows you a 5-second picture, you can still take it on a tripod. All of this is impossible without it.
For handheld photography, there are two things to clarify:
- The camera body: the more you have a camera which can manage high ISO, the faster you will be able to take a picture (even if noise will increase as you go along). On my 6D, I can easily shoot IS0 6000 pictures and the quality is still good. At the time, with my 500D, I was stuck at ISO 1600 and I couldn’t take sharp pictures in the middle of the jungle in Sumatra… (sadly, my shutter speed wasn’t fast enough)
Ideally, choose a body with a high number of AF points and good qualities. This will be really useful when focusing on your subject in the dark where there often isn’t enough contrast in the scene.
Of course, needless to say that the more AF points and higher ISO your camera will have, usually the more expensive it will be.
Let’s take a detailed look at three examples of perfect night photography equipment: the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 (large maximum aperture), the Canon 5D Mark IV (manage high ISO) and the excellent Canon 85mm f/1.8 (fast lens).
- Your lenses: handheld, the ideal will be to have bright and stabilized lenses to increase your chances of success. Some of them are overpriced, but you can find small jems like the Canon 50mm f/1.8 or the 85mm f/1.8 at quite affordable prices!
The more your lenses will have a large maximum aperture (I repeat: a small “f/”), the more you will be able to let light into your camera and take the picture faster (limit the unwanted motion blur).
Among the essential photo accessories for night photography, I can mention the following:
- The tripod: the choice is not simple and it will be necessary to adapt your purchase to your practice and the weight of your current or future photo equipment. You can refer to my article on the subject in the basics. Here’s for example a great reference.
- A remote control: it comes with the tripod and remains ideal to limit the movements when you press the shutter release. In the worst case, you can use the self-timer on your camera. It will also be indispensable for long night exposures. I personally use this one.
- Extra batteries: if you are a fan of long exposures or if you shoot in the cold, having at least one spare battery is always recommended.
Finally, here are some recommendations and techniques to keep in the corner of your mind to improve your night photography shots.
It’s the time of the day just between day and night. Indeed it is the time of the day that is so loved by some photographers. A very special atmosphere often emerges from the pictures taken during this small period of time. You can refer to specialized photo sites to know when is the blue hour of the day depending on where you are.
In the countryside without lights, you won’t have much fun at night, but in the city, there’s plenty to do with all the lights around. Whether it is the lights of cars, buildings, storefronts, fountains, you have all the subjects or almost to have fun! Be original! Holiday periods are ideal for lights of course.
Often in the city, you also have quite a few small expanses of water. I’m thinking particularly of parks, green gardens, that sort of thing. You can very often have fun and play with the reflections in the water, for example at blue time or with lights that are reflected in the surroundings.
If you already learned how to do long exposure during daytime, why not try this technique at night. It’s a perfect time to let your imagination run wild. In the city, you have some great things to do with night carousels, passing cars or fountains. Tripod mandatory, there’s no choice here.
For fans of shallow depth of field (understanding how to highlight a subject by blurring the foreground or background), the night is a great playground. You’ll be able to bring details of the scenes in front of you and get, for example, beautiful bokehs with blurred lights in the background. It’s definitely a good opportunity to shoot some nice shadowy pictures with those famous colored circles in the background. In Christmas time, you will have a lot to enjoy. Technical advices: open wide (your smallest “f/”), be careful with your shutter speed if you shoot handheld (raise you ISO at worst) and take care of your compositions to highlight the subject.
Last technical advice. I often talk about it in my articles, but being able to shoot in RAW allows you to make up for your shooting mistakes a little better. For example, if you under-exposed your photo a bit too much, it will be much harder to recover it in JPEG (which is already a treatment in itself). I wrote an article about the difference between shooting in RAW and JPEG.
That’s it; I’m coming to the end of this article on night photography. I hope you’ve learned some things? There would be more to say with many more details in truth, but the idea is there. It’s a subject that I myself don’t fully master and I really need to go out more often in the dark. What about you, is it a time of the day that you like in photography?
See you soon,