Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Nighttime Photography

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Are you looking for ways to rock some awesome nighttime photos?  Here’s everything you ever wanted to know to get you started taking incredible photos after dark!

Photo of the Pittsburgh Skyline at Nighttime

Nighttime Photography is easy when you know the basics!

First (and most important in any photography situation) is learning how to master manual mode.  Once you have a basic handle on that, you can start to stretch into different lighting conditions and still get photos that rock!  You might find it even more fun to try tricky photography conditions on purpose to see just how much you can do!

If you haven’t mastered manual mode, take a minute to read YOUR ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SHOOTING IN MANUAL.

Now that we’ve got that mastered let’s talk about nighttime photos.  There are two areas to be concerned with when you venture into photography in the dark:  Equipment and Settings.  Let’s start with the equipment.

Nighttime Photo by Christmas tree lights
Is anything sweeter than a picture by the tree at the holidays?

STEP 1 - NIGHTTIME PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT

TIME TO TALK TRIPODS

Because you will likely be using a slow shutter speed with most darkly lit scenes, you will need to have a way to keep your camera still.  You can place your camera on a solid surface to keep it steady. Of course, that comes with the warning to make sure your camera is safe from falling off the flat surface.  But the most obvious way to keep your camera still and secure is by using a tripod.  Don’t worry – you’ll have lots of uses for it besides only nighttime photography.

Photo by glowstick light at nighttime
Even during an extended hospital stay, we found a reason for a photo in the dark. It pays to be prepared!

Once you’ve decided to add a tripod to your equipment, you need to determine what you can afford.  You can get a decent tripod for as little as $50, and you can spend up into the thousands.  If your budget is on the smaller end, consider buying used.  You can keep a lookout on the Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or your local garage sales or thrift shops.  I paid $6.99 for a gently used (still in the box) Sunpak unit at my local thrift shop and used it for two solid years before needing to upgrade.  This practice tripod allowed me to see how much I would use it and what features I would eventually find valuable.  

Once I knew I wanted to upgrade, I did my homework and ended up with this beast from Sirui:

If you want to skip over several inexpensive tripods and go right for a substantial investment that will last you for years, you cannot go wrong with Sirui.  The model I purchased is perfect for use in all weather conditions, which suits me well since I take plenty of nighttime photos in and around the sand and Lake Michigan.

TRIPODS - A FINAL WORD

Whether you go for the big guy or the bargain deal, be sure you choose a tripod that will support the weight of your camera with your biggest lens.  The obvious way to get a basic weight is to put it on your bathroom scale at home.  Another option (the best one) is to bring your camera with you to the camera shop and test out several models.  Be sure that the tripod feels solid with the camera under it and that the legs don’t collapse when bumped or jostled.  If you are ordering online or don’t have your camera with you, check for specs.  A good tripod will have a weight rating right on the box or in the description.

Finally, you can spend a lot of money on low-priced tripods that are just a waste of your time, so if you decide to go for a big guy with lots of features, do your research and get one that will last you!

Photo by iPad light at nighttime
It is so much fun to be able to capture everyday moments like this one with my son lit up by iPad light.

TIMER OR TRIGGER?

LET'S TALK TIMER...

Once you’ve decided how you’re going to stabilize your camera, you need to think about how to KEEP it stable while firing the shutter.  The last thing you want is to press down on the shutter button, only to get a blurry shot from a tiny bit of camera motion, which can happen even with a tripod.

The two ways to do this are to either use a remote trigger or the in-camera timer.  Most cameras, including point and shoots, have a built-in timer.  A 2-second or 10-second delayed timer is usually plenty of time to offset any lingering camera shake.  Remember to roll your finger across the button instead of pressing straight down.  If you’ve never used the timer, don’t be afraid to refer to your camera’s manual to figure out how to set it up.  Can’t find the manual?  No worries!

For Canon, click HERE

For Nikon, click HERE 

Chicago's Navy Pier at Nighttime

NOW LET'S TALK TRIGGER...

Not into the timer?  No problem!  Another option is to use a remote trigger.  I have both a digital trigger that connects wirelessly and a very low-priced, corded trigger that also works well.  I find that I use the inexpensive corded trigger more than the wireless.  It tends to be quicker to set up and no technology worries (batteries, connection, etc.).  A simple cord connects directly to your camera, and you can operate the camera from a couple of feet away and without touching the camera.  There are a time and a place for both for sure!  With a little experimentation, you will find what you like best!

Here’s the digital trigger (be sure you get the right kind for your camera)

 

Here’s the corded one (be sure you get the right kind for your camera)

STEP 2 - NIGHTTIME PHOTOGRAPHY SETTINGS

Now we can really get started!!!

Now that you are ready with your basic equipment, let’s talk about settings.  Since settings are going to be different in different situations, here are some tried-and-true tips for deciding where you want to start.  As I always say – practice is what really dials in what works for you, so be sure and get out and get clicking when you’re done reading!

Nighttime birthday photo by Candlelight
The best birthday photos are usually those taken by the light of birthday candles.
  • Start with your ISO set at 100. That is almost always your best bet to avoid grain and grain is especially noticeable in nighttime photos.  Since we have the benefit of digital these days, it’s never a bad idea to try out some higher ISO settings and see what happens.  You can always delete photos later that didn’t work out.  I promise you’ll learn when you do this.

Aperture

BONUS TIP – the smaller you set your aperture (bigger number), the better starbursts you will get in your photo around the direct light sources.  Go ahead, close it down and see what happens.  Read Epic Photography – Capturing A Perfect Starburst Is Easier than You Think for the whole scoop on how to get starbursts in your photos!  

Shutter Speed

      • For photos of light trails, begin with a very slow shutter speed. Experiment with different speeds to see what happens.  If you set up in an area where cars are passing by, you will see that if you set your shutter speed for a very long exposure, the car lights will leave red and white streaks, but the cars themselves will disappear.  Cool!
Nighttime Lighttrails of Chicago Skyline
All along this highway you can see the light trails. But no cars! Like magic, right?

Tools of the Trade

      • Your camera will have a difficult time picking up a focus when there is very low light, so keep a flashlight handy. You can always shine your flashlight quickly on your subject to get your focus.  A flashlight is one item that I ALWAYS CARRY IN MY CAMERA BAG.  Once you’ve locked in the focus, then look for the switch on the side of your lens that says “AF/MF” and slide it to the MF setting.  Now leave your camera right where it is – your focus will not change a bit or as many shots as you’d like to take.  If you want to re-focus or you move your camera and need to refocus, switch back to auto-focus, recompose, re-focus, and switch back to MF.
      • Now is also a great time to experiment with using “live view” on your camera. Many nighttime photographers swear this is the only way to go, but you should find what works for YOU!  Some say that you can get a better feel for composition and exposure by using the live view instead of trying to peer through the viewfinder in the dark.

Image Stabilization/Vibration Control

      • Before you shoot in the dark, plan to turn off your image stabilization/vibration control (IS/VC). It seems a little backward since you probably paid good money for a lens with that feature, but trust me – you don’t need it when you’re shooting at night and on a tripod.  Actually, not only do you not need it, but using it can be counter-productive. IS/VC may add just a bit of motion when it functions.  After all of the hard work you’ve done in setting everything up, you’d hate to have this little oopsie compromise a clear shot.  And, finally remember that if this feature weren’t meant to be turned off on occasion, your lens would not come with that option.

A Few Final Thoughts... AND

STEP 3
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT!

When you are setting up your exposure, remember that if it’s not perfect, you have lots of room for exposure corrections in editing. Given this, it is preferable to underexpose your image rather than over-expose, especially in nighttime photos.  It is challenging to bring back details from blown-out areas in an over-exposed photo.  Of course, all of this is dependent upon you shooting in RAW format, which we’ll talk about on another day.  😉

Learning takes a lot of patience and a LOT of practice. The more you try these techniques, the more comfortable they will become.  Before you know it, you’ll be out shooting at night and intuitively dialing those settings right in.

Now that you are ready to get out and start practicing, I’ve created a little cheat sheet for you as a jumping-off point for some basic settings when you’re shooting at night.  Go ahead and pin it, so you have it handy!

Pin Image for Everything About Nighttime Photography

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A graphic showing how the elements of exposure work together for the best exposure
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