Taking photos at night can be a challenge, especially if you don’t have the right equipment. This post covers what you need to know about nighttime photography, what equipment you need, and some best practices to get great photos at night!
Nighttime photography can be intimidating, especially for beginner and novice photographers. The primary reason for this is because unlike taking photos during the day, which can be generally accomplished by anyone without any special knowledge or equipment, people trying to take photos at night often end up with blurry or grainy photos if they don’t know what they’re doing or lack the right tools.
For travel photographers, there are essentially two “types” of nighttime photography: those photos take in well-lit or urban environments, and those taken in nature, where light is lacking. These two types of night photography call for radically different techniques, and generally have different goals. This post covers only the former type. The latter type is more specifically known as astrophotography, which is because most nature photographers are focused on capturing the stars.
This poses many challenges, such as manually focusing a lens in complete darkness, and the possibility of being eaten by bears. Here’s an example:
By contrast, regular nighttime photography typically focuses on artificial light and the beauty of man-made landscapes at night. This type of photography offers its own set of challenges, including dealing with uneven lighting, traffic, other people, and the possibility of being run over by cars. (Being eaten by a bear sounds like a more glorious way to go.) Below is a good example of the types of scenes you’ll encounter when approaching this type of nighttime photography.
Since these two types of nighttime photography are so different, we’ll take a crack at astrophotography in a future post. For now, let’s just cover nighttime cityscape shooting. We’ll first discuss what you’ll need, then move on to technique, and other tips.
Obviously, a camera is a given. To be frank, this post mostly caters to those with DSLR cameras or high-end point and shoot or mirrorless cameras. I currently use a Nikon D600. If you’re using your iPhone or a cheap point & shoot camera, this post probably won’t be of much value to you.
The first thing you will need for great night photos is a tripod. Okay, maybe “need” is a little strong. Technically, you can take night photos without a tripod. You can also cook without pots and pans. It’s just a lot more challenging and will typically produce lesser results.
If you ask 10 different photographers which tripod they recommend, you’ll get 10 different answers. As a travel photographer who is always on the move and often carrying my gear all day, I go for lightweight and compact. I currently own two tripods. I use the Luxi L III (unfortunately, if you go this route, the III is the one you want, and it’s only sold on eBay via a Hong Kong seller) when at the Disney theme parks because it’s super lightweight, and go for the MeFoto Roadtrip in other locations because it’s a tad heavier but offers better stability. There are other, better tripods out there, but they are considerably more expensive. $800 for a tripod? No thanks.
Although it’s not a strict necessity, you’ll also want a remote shutter release. The alternative to a remote shutter release is the camera’s self timer, and I’ve often used the self-timer in a pinch after losing or breaking my remote, but it’s better to just have the remote. Infrared remotes are cheap, so there’s really no reason not to get one. In fact, they’re so cheap and easy to lose, that I’d highly recommend getting two. Wired intervalometer remotes are more dependable, but take up more space in your bag and cost a bit more. Still, if you’re serious about photography, getting one of these instead of an IR remote is probably the way to go. The links above are to third party remotes, which are considerably cheaper than first party ones–there’s no reason to buy the first party ones, unless you like wasting money.
Most photographers prefer wide angle lenses for nighttime shooting, but that’s hardly necessity. I’ve seen amazing nighttime photos with 200mm lenses. It’s all a matter of how you get creative and use the lens. With that said, 75%+ of my nighttime photos are shot with the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 ultra wide angle lens.
If you’re using a point and shoot without manual mode, you’re at the mercy of whatever “night” preset it has. If you’re using a DSLR or other camera capable of manual settings, my recommendation would be to use manual mode or aperture priority mode. You’ll also want to make sure you’re shooting in your camera’s RAW format rather than JPEG mode, if your camera supports it. Large variances in lighting may require doing some editing to bring out the shadows, and this is substantially easier when shooting in a raw format.
You’ll also want to put your ISO on the lowest native setting possible. For most Canon and Nikon cameras, this will be ISO 100 or ISO 200. The benefit of using the lowest ISO possible is that your shots won’t have grain or noise. This will cause the exposure time to increase, but you’re using a tripod, so who cares? A longer exposure time will typically be to your advantage, anyway.
With either manual mode or aperture priority mode, you’re going to be setting the aperture. My recommendation here is typically shooting in the higher end of lens’ sweet spot apertures, which are the apertures where the lens is sharpest. These apertures are generally f/8 to f/13.
I recommend the higher end of this range (and even above it, if necessary), because most lenses will naturally produce starbursts out of points of light at these high-numbered apertures. If your lens doesn’t produce a starburst at f/13, trying kicking it up to f/16 or f/18. I typically do not recommend going any higher than f/18 as diffraction and loss of sharpness occur in the f/20 and above range. Check out the photo below for an example of a starburst.
Whether you determine the shutter speed depends upon whether you’re in manual mode. I recommend using manual mode, as it gives you total control over the scene, which means control over the shutter speed. If you’re in manual mode, set the shutter speed based on the exposure meter. For normal photos taken during the daytime, I underexpose by a tad because it’s easier to bring out shadows than recover highlights.
However, at night I typically like to overexpose by a tad, because basically the whole frame is one big “shadow.” Now, this does mean that lights and highlights have a propensity to blow out. You can either not worry about this, or take multiple exposures and merge them into an HDR photo.
I tend to not worry about it too much. I’m not saying critical elements of your photo should be a blown mess, but small lights and other bright objects would look blown to your eyes at night, anyway. I’d rather have the bulk of my photo not be a darkened area, which has a “blah” look, I think. In my opinion, one of the biggest mistakes photographers make with nighttime photos is taking photos that are too dark.
Yes, I realize nighttime is dark, but what’s the fun in an overly dark photo? To me, that’s sort of like a sunrise without any color. However, this is really one of those personal preference/salt to taste type things. As you gain more practice with night photography, you’ll develop your own preference and style.
As you gain more experience, consider shooting in bulb mode at night. This gives you even more control over shutter speed, as you determine when to open and close the shutter. The upside to this is complete control, and shutter speeds that aren’t in your camera’s default bank, like 1.9 seconds or 577 seconds. The downside is that you can’t meter for this on the camera, so you either have to be very knowledgeable about nighttime exposures, or a lucky guesser. I almost always shoot in bulb mode when taking night photos. I’m a lucky guesser.
Post-processing is also important when it comes to night photos. I’ve touched on it a bit here, but there is so much more that I think night photo post-processing is another subject best reserved for its own blog post. I tend to favor post processing for night photos that brightens the shadows. The end result (as you can probably tell from my photos here) is photos depicting nighttime that’s brighter than it is in reality. Before you purists grumble, I’m not a photojournalist, I view photography as a medium for artistic expression. (Okay, back to your grumbling!)
At this point, I don’t really have many other things that aren’t actually separate subjects deserving of their own posts. Things like fireworks, light trails/painting, and leading lines all could be covered here, but this post would go on forever. My big advice would be to not let the novelty of taking photos at night allow you to forget the basics. Photos of stars in the night sky or neon signs might be unchartered territory for you, but those things alone don’t make a good photo. You still need compelling composition, otherwise even the coolest of scenes will fall flat.
I’ve found that streaking traffic can enliven an otherwise ordinary scene of a building or static object, and give it a real sense of life (nevermind the fact that cars aren’t alive…this isn’t a Pixar-world, after all…but you know what I mean). Same goes for people streaking through a photo or streaking clouds. Don’t get me wrong, I love static nighttime architecture photos (and I certainly have a ton from the Disney theme parks), but giving your photos–including nighttime ones–a sense of motion or life can be a plus. It’s certainly not something you need to do for all of them, but when the situation calls for it, don’t be afraid of incorporating other elements into the shot.
On the other hand, a few random people (or even trash cans or other junk) loitering around your photo can make it seem sloppy and akin to a snapshot. If a scene has this ‘junk’ in it, either take a longer exposure (if the junk is moving) or reposition your camera so that the junk is eliminated from the scene or minimized. Regardless of what’s in the scene or even what kind of photo it is, the end result should appear thoughtful and well-done.
Above is a good example of a “cool” shot (at least I think so), but one that doesn’t quite work perfectly because of junk. The composition with the buildings isn’t ideal nor is the stray lamp post on the left, but more troubling is the back of the traffic sign. It’s just a little thing, but had I repositioned myself on this pedestrian bridge so that I faced the other direction, I could have captured a scene with moving traffic, buildings, AND a forward-facing sign.
Now, we’re starting to stray into composition, and areas that really have nothing to do with nighttime photography. We’ll stop here, with any necessary supplementing (and I’m sure there will be plenty…I’m not exactly the best teacher!) being done via the comments.
What other tips do you have for successful nighttime photography? Any questions you have that this post doesn’t cover? Please share any thoughts or questions you have in the comments–your feedback is appreciated!