Night Photography

Night Photography Techniques: Essential Guide for Beginners

There is an ineffable, almost magical quality found in night photography that I've always loved.

Perhaps it's the chance to see the night landscape in a way that our eyes never can, or just the fact that I love the silence and peace of night shoots.

Whatever the reason, I've spent quite some time refining my night photography techniques.

It can be one of the most challenging types of photography to master, but it can also produce stunning and unusual images with the proper preparation and patience.

In this post, we'll take a look at nine of my favorite techniques you can start using immediately to dramatically enhance the quality of your night photographs.

Tripod vs. Handheld Shooting

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The most important piece of equipment you can have in your night photography kit is a reliable tripod.

As tempting as it might be for 'spur of the moment' opportunities, handholding your camera during night photography almost never creates an acceptable result.

The only possible exception to this rule is if you're shooting with a very fast lens at its widest aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4 and using a very high ISO setting, but even in this specific case, your images will usually still appear underexposed.

The best tripods offer a balance of sturdy construction and lightweight materials like carbon fiber, but these units are usually found in the highest price ranges.

When you're looking to purchase one, select the tripod with the best blend of these two elements that you can afford, but prioritize stability over weight unless you're planning to do a great deal of walking with your tripod.

That being said, even using a cheap, low-quality plastic tripod is still far better than attempting to shoot at night without one.

Manual Focus

Even the advanced autofocus systems found in modern cameras require a minimum amount of light to operate effectively.

In most night photography settings the available light will be insufficient, even with AF assist settings enabled.

This means the autofocus system will be unable to lock on a focal point, so it is best to switch your camera into manual focus mode.

If you're shooting in a relatively well-lit area such as an urban environment you may be able to take advantage of your AF system, but you should still practice using manual focus in night-time conditions for best results.

Pro Tip: Hyperfocal Distance

One of the most useful tricks for landscape photography (day or night) is taking advantage of the hyperfocal distance of your lens.

Hyperfocus is a complex condition of the optics of your lens, but in essence it describes the optimal distance where you should focus your camera to capture everything from the foreground to infinity with acceptable levels of sharpness.

Without getting down to mathematical formula, there is a simple method you can use to take advantage of hyperfocus in your landscapes.

It's not perfect, but it can be quite effective as a guide if you haven't calculated your exact hyperfocal distances in advance.​

1. Examine the foreground of your framed shot, and estimate the distance between your camera and the closest object you wish to be in focus.​

2. Select a point at double that distance and focus your camera as close to that point as possible.​

3. Depending on your particular lens, choose the narrowest aperture with sharp focus (known as the lens 'sweet spot') which is typically around f/8 or f/11 - then shoot!​

If you want to calculate the hyperfocal distance more accurately, numerous smartphone apps and online calculators exist to do the mathematics based on your particular combination of focal length, sensor size and aperture.​

Aperture Priority Mode vs. Manual Settings

Aperture priority mode is a type of semi-automatic mode found in most digital cameras that allows you to specify the aperture setting, and then to let the camera determine the shutter speed and ISO for an optimal exposure.

It is best used in completely static scenes where the automatically selected shutter speed won't impact the resulting image.

In most situations, using full manual settings is the best choice for maximum control over your photographs.

Controlling depth of field and any potential movement blur is essential for achieving the specific results you want in low-light environments and that requires the use of manual settings.

Additionally, you should familiarize yourself with your camera's high ISO options.

It may require some careful experimentation and evaluation of the noise patterns at each level to determine the maximum ISO that produces an acceptable image, but learning your camera's particularities will allow you to be more confident in the range of apertures you can use successfully.

Choosing a White Balance

The proper white balance can be a difficult thing to estimate during night photography, especially in urban environments.

Different light sources will emit a varied range of color temperatures that may make it difficult to determine the best overall setting for your particular scene.

Moonlight has a color temperature of roughly 4100K, whereas streetlights in most urban environments use sodium vapor bulbs which have color temperatures between 2500K and 3000K but can skip some light wavelengths in a condition known as a 'broken spectrum'.

Check out this video for more detail son how to use the Kelvin degrees to pick the correct White Balance

If you don't want to change the Kelvin number or the WB mode all the time, one of the quickest ways to overcome the white balance issue is to shoot in RAW mode, which will allow you to adjust the white balance setting during the post-processing phase of your shoot.

We are going more in the details of shooting in RAW later in this post.

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Choosing a Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is one of the most important settings for your nighttime photography because of the way it affects the representation of motion.

Virtually all night photography is a long exposure of at least one second and sometimes much longer exposure times are required.

Finding the 'perfect' shutter speed often requires a bit of experimentation, because the optimal setting is a self-referential calculation that depends on your scene and any motion within it, the amount of ambient light and the ISO and aperture options specific to your equipment.

Fortunately, thanks to the large review screens available on modern digital cameras, it's easy to tweak your settings based on your results while you're still in the middle of a shoot.

As a general rule of thumb, the fastest shutter speed you're likely to want to use during night photography is 1/60th of a second and only in scenes that include bright artificial lighting such as cityscapes.

Avoiding Camera Shake

During a long exposure, the smallest amount of camera shake can completely ruin the final image.

Even if you've followed our advice from tip #1 and chosen a solid tripod, there are a number of moving elements within the camera itself that can cause enough camera shake to blur the edges of your subjects, but there are ways you can overcome them.

Something as simple as the act of pressing the shutter button can shift the camera enough, so it's worth investing in an inexpensive wireless shutter trigger.

If you don't have access to one, you can overcome this issue by setting the camera's self-timer for a few seconds to allow any vibration to dissipate before the shutter opens.

The last hidden cause of camera shake is the mirror that enables the use of your camera's optical viewfinder.

It has to be moved out of the way at the last second in order for the light from the lens to reach the sensor and this motion causes enough vibration to impact a long exposure shot.

Most DSLR cameras will allow you to enable a setting called 'mirror lock-up' or MLU which locks the mirror out of the way, but this also means that the viewfinder will be temporarily unavailable, so be sure to compose and focus your shot before enabling it.

Adjusting Your In-Camera Settings

Using high ISO settings in your night photography increases the light sensitivity of your camera's sensor, but at the same time it creates large amounts of additional digital noise in the image.

Modern digital cameras employ a number of techniques to improve the quality of your images during the capture process, including specialized noise reduction algorithms.

Unfortunately, these algorithms are almost never configurable and don't allow you to make the final decision about the level of acceptable noise.

Additionally, the complex nature of the mathematics behind noise reduction can be extremely time consuming for the low-powered processor in your camera, and may dramatically impact your available battery charge over a night's worth of shooting.

It's far better to disable any of your in-camera processing settings and handle all post-processing with your image editing program of choice for best results.

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Photographer with a tripod in the evening

Shooting RAW

Most cameras are set to capture images in JPEG format by default in order to maximize the number of images that can be fit into the available memory, but this isn't the best way to take photographs.

Thanks to cheap high-capacity storage options, shooting in the uncompressed RAW format is the best strategy for capturing high-quality images that offer maximum flexibility during post-processing.

The RAW format is simply a direct 'raw' dump of your camera's sensor data, without any of the processing applied when converting an image to JPEG format.

This preserves a higher image bit depth, allows you to determine color space when converting to non-RAW formats, and lets you adjust settings such as white balance and exposure compensation non-destructively during the editing process.

Editing RAW images typically requires a professional image editing program such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Lightroom in order to make full use of the format, but your camera's manufacturer may also provide a proprietary program that will allow you to edit RAW files such as Nikon's CaptureNX.

Choosing Your Subjects

Due to the long exposure times required by night photography, a number of unique opportunities for subject matter present themselves.

Much like the popular technique of blurring moving water during a long-exposure daytime landscape, moving subjects will always appear blurred.

When contrasted with more static elements in the scene, unexpected patterns and shapes can be achieved. Here are a couple of my favorite night photography ideas!

Pro Tip: Starscapes

One of the most appealing and surprising elements to include in your night landscapes is the rotation of the earth.

While that may sound impossible, any exposure of roughly 15 minutes or more will show a discernable trail behind each star in the sky, which is created by the motion of the earth spinning beneath them.

If you're in the northern hemisphere and your scene includes a large enough section of the northern sky, you'll be able to easily pick out Polaris, the north star, as the star trails will seem to form concentric circles around it.

This will require an exposure of at least 45 minutes, and the longer the exposure lasts the more complete the star trails will appear.

The same effect can be achieved in the southern hemisphere by including a southern section of sky.​

In order to get exposures of this length, you'll need to change your camera's shutter speed to the 'bulb' setting, which keeps the shutter open until the button or release is pressed for a second time.

Be sure to turn your ISO and aperture to their lowest acceptable settings during these extra-long exposures, and depending on the rest of the scene you're shooting you may need to use a neutral density filter to block out additional light.

If that still overexposes some parts of the image, you may be forced to combine multiple exposures using Photoshop to complete the final image.​

Pro Tip: Light Painting

If you want to punch up the exposure of a particular element in the foreground of your shot, you can use a technique known as light painting.

You can use a simple high-powered pocket flashlight to add light to any specific area of the scene the beam can reach, and the longer you shine the light, the brighter that aspect of the scene will appear.

Be careful to choose a flashlight that has roughly the same color temperature as the rest of the scene, or you may wind up with some disparities that are very difficult to correct.

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Conclusions

Will these night photography techniques inspire you to explore the exciting photo opportunities that you can only find in darkness?

Do you have a favorite night photography tip that we didn't mention here? Be sure to let us know in the comments, and then pass on the rest of these tips and ideas to your photographer friends.

Remember - don't be afraid to share the results of your latest night shoots, we'd love to see them!

Night Photography

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About the Author Luca

Hi, I am Luca, founder and editor in chief at photographyambition.com. I am crazy about photography and I always have a camera with me. When I am not busy with my day job, enjoying my family or taking photos, I am on Photography Ambition to share what I have learnt so far.

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