Nighttime photography is an art form that when done correctly, can produce breathtaking and evocative images.
Whether you are interested in capturing a moonlit sky full of stars, or a bright and bustling nighttime cityscape, taking images at night isn’t as straightforward as daytime photography.
Light behaves differently at night then during the day, even more so when you take into account bright lights, patches of dark sky, grainy images and often unavoidable high contrast.
If you’re looking to master the techniques of expert night photography, brush up on the basics of this distinctive genre, or start from scratch, this article will cover everything you need.
This article will explore the following;
- The technical basics you need to understand
- Optimising the exposure variables for nighttime photography
- Understanding metering and light control
- Using the manual process to your advantage
- Exploring nighttime photography techniques
Technical basics to understand
To capture beautiful nighttime images, you will need to choose the right aperture, ISO and shutter speed, all of which can affect your exposure to give you the most stunning photography. Let us explore the essentials below;
In its simplest form, exposure refers to the brightness of your shot and is determined by the amount of light or darkness of an image.
- Correct exposure involves balancing ISO, shutter speed and aperture, also known as the Exposure Triangle.
- Each element of the exposure triangle not only controls how much light enters the camera (brightness) but also adds its unique creative signature to the image.
- ISO controls the grain, whereas Aperture is the depth and shutter speed controls how movement is captured.
Therefore, by manipulating these crucial technical elements, you are able to produce varying degrees of exposure for your nighttime photography.
Tip: Use a camera with a capable IQ at higher ISO values as it can give you the luxury of better optimising shutter speed, and aperture to control exposure. As shutter speed and aperture are the settings that encourage more artistic control over your images than ISO, it can help you influence the image quality within your photos.
STOPS are increments of light
Exposure (light) is always measured and expressed in “stops”. A “stop” in photography is a widely misunderstood concept. In theory, it sounds complicated, however, it is actually simple.
A stop is measured by doubling or halving the amount of light let in when you take a photograph.
In context, when you hear a photographer state that he’s going to increase his/her exposure by 1 stop, he/she intends to capture twice as much light compared to his previous shot. Examples are as follows:
- Shutter Speed – going from 1/30sec to 1/15sec is +1 stop
- Aperture – from f8 to f11 is -1 stop
- ISO – from 100 to 200 is + 1 stop
- NOTE – most cameras allow you to adjust exposure in 1⁄3 stop increments for finer control.
How to optimise Aperture, ISO & Shutter speed for nighttime photography
Your camera features a range of ISO values, with the lowest number identified (the base ISO) at 100, and the highest at 12,800. The lower your ISO value, the less sensitive your camera is to light, whilst a higher ISO means more sensitivity.
The ISO is responsible for the quality of your final shot, and the higher the ISO, the more noise (digital grain) it will have.
If you have one, we suggest using a tripod to keep your ISO as low as possible. This ensures more clarity of your image. In this instance, an ISO at 100 or 200 is the most ideal for nighttime photography.
It is important to consider that lowering your ISO will have a bearing on the other two settings of exposure, aperture and shutter speed. When you reduce the sensitivity to light, you may want to let it in light for a longer period, meaning that you slow the shutter speed for a longer exposure. Alternatively, you might need to let in more light by opening up your aperture which can change your Depth Of Field.
Shutter speed can control how long the light is allowed to enter the camera and affects the bearing on how movement is captured or represented in photography. Longer shutter speeds will provide the photographer enough time to allow plenty of light to enter the camera. If you find that your nighttime photography appears too dark, we suggest increasing the time and vice versa if your images are coming out too light.
We also recommend using shutter speeds slower than 1/30 seconds with the additional help of a tripod to prevent the camera from shaking. The longer the exposure, the more you can enhance the motion blur of moving subjects or light sources to create incredibly evocative imagery.
This setting is always expressed with an F as a prefix (f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16 & f22). Aperture is unique as it controls the size of the iris diaphragm within the lens (similar to the way a pupil can control the amount of light entering your eyes). This means that varying the aperture can control the depth of field or the ‘area of focus’ that you see in your images.
Different genres of photography will require different aperture settings to complement the subject matter. When it comes to night photography subjects, you will need to create a larger depth of field to keep a sharp focus on all parts of the image.
We recommend using an f8, f11 or f16 to achieve a longer depth of field and an image that is sharper from the foreground to the background. If the image is too light, use f16, and if it’s too dark, use f8.
Understanding metering and light control
Another element that can assist you in mastering nighttime photography is familiarising yourself with metering and light control. Most modern digital cameras will have camera metering modes, which are fundamental to obtaining the best exposure for any imagery at night.
Understanding how your digital camera meters light is essential for achieving accurate and consistent exposures.
In simple terms, “metering” affects how your digital camera determines shutter speed and aperture based on current lighting conditions and ISO speed.
Metering options include partial, evaluative zone or matrix, centre-weighted and spot metering. Each option will have subject lighting conditions for which they excel. Master these options, and you can quickly improve your photographic intuition.
If you’re keen on achieving stunning imagery, it’s advisable for you to have sound knowledge of your semi-automatic camera and its camera modes.
As mentioned previously, three of the most crucial settings for photography are aperture, shutter speed and ISO- which lie at the very heart of your camera modes.
With a fully manual camera, you need to adjust all three whereas semi-automatic cameras can give you control over some of these settings with the camera adjusting the others automatically.
Tips on using metering and light control for nighttime photography:
- Pressing the shutter button halfway activates the camera’s light measuring device (the light meter) which shows a visual indicator as to the brightness of the shot.
- Whether you choose the A, P or S mode, the camera will automatically set the exposure for you based on the measurement of reflected light within the frame. (auto or semi-auto modes).
- At night, your camera’s light meter is easily fooled into setting the wrong exposure.
- Therefore, to adjust brightness in auto or semi-auto modes, you will have to use the “Exposure Compensation”.
- Each increment is measured with 1 stop (-3, -2, -1, 0, +1, +2, +3)- for example; +1 will make your shot 1 stop brighter (double the brightness).
Using the manual process to your advantage
Manual mode is frequently used for nighttime photography, where the photographer controls the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. When shooting manual you have total control over your camera settings, including the exposure.
A good photographer makes as many decisions as possible in their head before touching any buttons or dials.
Below are a few suggestions to make your nighttime imagery decisions easier;
- Each element of the exposure triangle can be adjusted independently to make your shot brighter or darker. It can also manipulate your depth of field (aperture), movement (shutter speed) and quality of the file (ISO).
- You can also use the camera’s exposure scale inside the “viewfinder” or on your camera’s screen to get a feel of the expected brightness.
- We suggest that you continue to adjust your brightness until you retain detail in your most important highlights.
- Decide on your ISO before shooting at night. If shooting with a tripod, we suggest selecting either ISO 100 or 200.
- Set your aperture based on the depth of field that you are aiming to achieve- we suggest using f11 or f16 for landscape or travel-related nighttime photography.
- The next step is adjusting your shutter speed until your camera’s light meter is displaying ‘0’, or the scale is in the centre.
- Don’t forget to take a test shot to assess your brightness. Adjust your shutter speed to decrease or increase brightness depending on the mood that you want to evoke.
The big advantage of manual exposure over all others is that once you find your correct brightness the exposure will not change no matter how many shots you take unless you change the settings. With the other modes, the exposure will change each and every shot depending on your composition.
Exploring nighttime photography modes
Evaluative vs Spot Metering Mode
All semi-automatic and manual cameras allow you to select how you want your camera to measure light- in this case, we’re comparing the benefits and uses between evaluative and spot metering for nighttime photography.
Spot metering- Spot metering mode allows you to reduce the area of measurement to a single smaller circle in the centre of the frame. This allows you to be more precise in measuring the brightness of various elements within the frame. Spot metering can:
- Help you measure your subject from a specific location.
- Is most effective when used in tandem with manual focus point selection.
- Can save you significant time in post-production, and help you obtain the image that you want the first time around.
- In general, the best reason to use this mode is you have a specific subject in mind that is most important to you- ideal for portraiture work.
Evaluative metering- This mode utilises the camera’s whole frame, dividing it into individual segments to measure the reflected light and average out the brightness. This mode is a useful tool if you’re measuring light from scenes that have a relatively consistent level of contrast.
In a nutshell, evaluative metering seeks to consider the entire shot into account and, through complex computations, recommend the optimum exposure for your photography needs.
As a default mode, evaluative metering generally provides good exposure, even if the nighttime scene is complex. Additionally, this metering can help you;
- Expose for scenes where the frame (particularly landscape) matters.
- Make a nighttime image more even-toned eliminating dark spots.
We suggest not using this mode if you’re trying to evoke a strong contrast between light and dark areas, as evaluative metering can make your subject either too dark or too light.
Exploring nighttime photography tips
Whether you’re trying to master daytime or nighttime photography, it’s always the same- the exact point of focus in any shot is always the sharpest part of the image. This is shown as a distance in meters from the camera. When shooting images that wow your audience, always try to focus on the main subject in your composition to make it stand out.
So which lens focus should you use to make this happen? Auto Focus (AF) or Manual Focus (MF)?
Auto Focus (AF) lenses allow the camera to measure the distance to the subject automatically based on your selected active focus points.
While auto focus systems have their benefits and have seen significant improvements in today’s modern DSLR cameras, the downside of these lenses is that they do not have the hard stops at the infinity focus point.
An easy remedy for a confused auto focus is to switch to manual focus. Manual Focus (MR) requires the photographer to rotate the lens focus ring until the subject looks its sharpest through the frame.
On a DSLR, a manual focus will bring up an image clearly in the viewfinder in lowlight environments. If you are after a critically precise focus, you may have to implement other techniques. Compared to an auto focus, manual focus lenses are more pleasurable to focus on as they deliver a more tactile experience. Meanwhile, its precise focus ring movement assists you in obtaining a more accurate focus.
Another tricking your camera at a distant (infinity) object in the daytime using your auto focus. You can then switch your camera to manual focus using gaffer tape to keep the focus ring on the lens from moving. Whilst this technique could work for objects closer to the infinity distance, only the most hard-working photographers will focus on something close-up in daylight, then wait for darkness without touching their digital rig.
Read below for more night focus tips;
- For a camera to focus accurately it needs to see some form of contrast in the subject. For example, you can not often focus on a clean white wall unless it has a shadow or a crack on it.
- At night the contrast is generally lower therefore most cameras struggle to focus fast and accurately. If your camera is struggling to focus at night, find a contrasting subject approximately the same distance from you as the main subject, focus on that and then once the camera locks focus switch to MF. This can lock the distance to the subject so you can shoot freely.
Unlike during the day when you are generally photographing with a single light source (the sun), at night you are at liberty to play with multiple light sources for nighttime photography which can be used for stunning and evocative portrait lighting. For example, you can make use of backlit billboards, bus shelters, shop fronts, street lamps and festoon lighting, all of which can be utilised to illuminate your subject matter.
Here’s how you can do it;
- Stand your subject facing or side on to the light source.
- Configure your camera and input a high ISO if you are hand holding the device.
- Use your fastest lens. This is a lens that has the widest aperture (smallest number). We suggest using a nifty fifty (50mm f1.8) lens for the best shot.
- Use spot metering to measure the brightest part of your subject’s face.
Long Exposures, Light Trains & Light Painting
Long exposure photography that shows the movement of light is known as light trail photos. A form of light painting, it can be used creatively to blur movement and is achieved by keeping the camera shutter open for a long period of time to collect more light. The result, lights appear to ‘move’ or ‘dance’ across the frame. The longer the exposure the more blur there is of moving subjects, with static subjects appearing sharper.
- Your camera must be on a tripod and NOT moving for the best results.
- Shutter speed: The ideal shutter speed for light trail photography is 1”-30” seconds. This style of nighttime photography favours longer shutter speeds, so you can successfully capture the full motion of light across the camera frame.
- Aperture: Depending on the brightness of the subject, the best aperture for light trail photography can range from f5.6, f8 and f11.
- ISO: A good rule of thumb for light trail photography is keeping your ISO as low as possible, using the long shutter to help you capture more light to compensate. We recommend having an ISO no more than 100 or 200. Increase your ISO if the subject is really dim.
If you’re going for a more dynamic shot, you can move the camera so that the final subject of your nighttime photography looks as if it’s been painted with lights!
Light painting is a form of night photography that uses a moving light source—such as a flashlight, glow stick, light brush, or even a smartphone—to alter an image while taking a long exposure photo. Instead of shooting an image as-is, photographers can add another element by emphasising the subject or creating streaks, colours, or flashes within the frame.
We suggest using the following basic camera settings to achieve that long exposure for light painting;
Your camera doesn’t have to be stationary. When hand-moved freely, the blur will reflect the direction and arc of the movement.
- Use a shutter speed of 1/2-30″ seconds for the best results.
- Aperture should be f5.6 /f8/f11 depending on the brightness of the light source.
- ISO should be at its lowest, either at 100 or 200 but increase if the subject is dimly lit.
- Light painting isn’t just restricted to moving the camera. Use a torch to illuminate a dark subject and/or include the moving torch in the shot to paint with light. In this case, you will need to fix your camera to a tripod for the best results.
- If you’re manipulating the light yourself, we recommend using a shutter speed of 1” second or longer.
- Aperture f5.6 /f8/f11 depending on the brightness of the light source.
- ISO 100 or 200 but increase if the subject is really dim.
If you love a challenge, why not try nighttime photography in wet weather? Whether it’s a subtle drizzle or heavy, rain can be mysterious, moody, and dramatic. Shooting during or just after the rain while the ground is still wet can add a whole new dimension to your night photography. It can change landscapes, people and can instantly transform a dull subject into something amazing.
Here are our tips on how to do it;
- Look for interesting reflections in puddles as well as the wet pavement.
- Prepare a small wet weather kit to leave in your camera bag just in case -1 small bin liner + rubber band.
- When it starts to rain, make a hole in the sealed end of the bin liner just enough to poke the lens through, then attach the bag to the front of the lens or lens hood with the rubber band. Works great on a tripod or hand-held.
- We recommend using a higher ISO value to cope with the low light as it can help you maintain a faster shutter speed, and capture the raindrops
- Utilise a faster shutter speed if you want to focus on the splashing water.
- Consider using a larger aperture that allows more light into the camera. We suggest starting with f/8 and experiment until you find an ideal balance between depth of field and your shutter speed.
- Try using a source of light behind the rain such as street signs, traffic lights and other sources of light that can make puddles and rain glow.
If you made it this far, congratulations! You’re almost ready to become a master nighttime photographer. Don’t forget to consider these helpful tips before you point and shoot;
- For landscapes or streetscapes focus 1⁄3 of the way into your frame with an aperture of f11 or f16 to maximise the depth of field.
- For seascapes with no foreground interest you can manually set the focus ring to ∞.
- Without a tripod try shooting with a much higher ISO (800-6400).
- Shoot RAW for the best possible files.
- White Balance (WB) can be set to Daylight but also try Tungsten & Fluoro to add a bluer tinge. This can make any city skyline look more futuristic.
- Always turn off image stabilisation (IS) or vibration reduction (VR) when your camera is on a tripod.
- To prevent camera shake during a long exposure on a tripod, it is always best to use a remote to trigger the camera. If you don’t have a remote try the 2” Self Timer.
- With DSLR use Mirror Up mode to reduce mirror slap vibrations.
To conclude, nighttime photography is a genre that allows a healthy dose of expressive freedom and plenty of practice with the digital camera. Whether you’re just starting out or an avid photographer who’s ready to go professional, Sydney Photographic Workshops has the people, and the courses to allow your eye for detail to shine!
If you’re ready to become a better photographer, don’t hesitate to explore our range of comprehensive workshops including portraiture work, landscape, flash photography and so much more.