Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Night Time Photography

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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Night Time Photography

Are you looking for ways to rock some awesome night 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

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Night Time Photography is easy when you know the basics!

Before we talk about night time photography, we need to talk about the first and most important skill in any photography.  Learning how to take photos in manual mode will make a night and day difference in your photos (see what I did there?).  Once you have a basic handle on manual mode, 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 conditions on purpose to see just how much you can do!

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?

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Night Photography Settings – 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 still.  Be cautious so your camera is safe from falling off the flat surface and secure if a hand bumps it.  

The most obvious way to keep your camera still and secure is by using a tripod.  I love this tripod from Peak Design.  Don’t worry – you’ll have lots of uses for it besides simply night time photography.

Photo by glowstick light using night photography settings
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 must decide on a budget and which tripod has the features you need, especially for night time photography.  You can get a decent tripod for as little as $50, and you can spend up to thousands of dollars.  If your budget is on the smaller end, consider buying used.  You can keep a lookout on Facebook MarketplaceCraigslist, 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.  Buying used allowed me to see how much I would use my tripod and what features I would eventually find important.  

After having been through several models in the last few years, I’ve settled on this excellent tripod from Peak Design.  It’s small, lightweight, and super easy to maneuver, and holds even my heaviest camera and lens setup.  The best part is how easy it is to adjust when dark outside, which is essential for night time photography.

RELATED: Shoot like a pro by using the Best Settings for Night Photography

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

Night Photography Settings – EQUIPMENT

TIMER or TRIGGER?

Once you’ve decided how to stabilize your camera, you need to think about how to KEEP it stable while releasing 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, and especially in night time photography.  The two ways to do this are to either use a remote trigger or the in-camera timer.

LET’S TALK TIMER

Most cameras, including point and shoots, have a built-in timer.  The in-camera timer is simple to use and allows a short delay from when you press the shutter until the photo is taken.  A 2-second or 10-second delay is usually plenty of time to offset any lingering camera shake.  Using the timer for night time photography means one less piece of equipment to pack and fumble with in the dark.  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 

Night Time Photography Showing a Carousel on Chicago's Navy Pier
Chicago’s Navy Pier using Night Photography Settings

NOW LET’S TALK TRIGGER…

Not into the timer for night time photography?  No problem!  Another option is to use a remote trigger.  I have a wireless  trigger 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 has no technology worries (batteries, wifi 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.

The wireless trigger is excellent because you won’t have to worry about tangling yourself in the cord and allows you to keep your hands in your pockets while using it if the temperature is cold.

There is a time and place for both kinds of remote triggers for sure!  With a bit of experimentation, you will find what you like best!

Night Photography Settings – CAMERA SETTINGS

Now that you are ready with your essential equipment let’s talk about night photography settings.  Since settings will be different in different situations, here are some tried-and-true tips for deciding where you want to begin.  Practice dials in what works for you, so be sure and get out and click after reading this!

Photo of a girl blowing out birthday candles using night photography settings
The best birthday photos are usually those taken by the light of birthday candles.

ISO

Start with your ISO set at 100. That is almost always your best bet to avoid grain.  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

You will want to set your APERTURE to mid-range for your lens. In other words, if the widest aperture is 1.8 and the smallest aperture is 16, then you’re going to get your best results with your aperture set around 7 or 8

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 all about Starbursts HERE.

SHUTTER SPEED

Finally, when talking about night photography settings, we must discuss shutter speed.  If you are looking to freeze action, then you’ll want to use a fast shutter speed.  However, most of the time, the result we want employs using a longer shutter speed in night time photography.

For light trails in your night time photography, begin by setting your shutter speed very slow.  You can let that shutter speed drag because you have a tripod and have reduced movement as discussed above.  Try experimenting with different speeds to see what happens.  If your photo location is in an area with many cars passing by, you will see that if you lower your shutter speed for a very long exposure, the cars’ lights will leave red and white streaks, but the vehicles themselves will disappear.  Cool!

Image of Chicago shoreline taken using night photography settings
All along this highway, you can see the light trails. But no cars! Like magic, right? I took this photo in Chicago from the top floor of the Hancock Building.

Night Photography Settings – BONUS TIPS

Night photography settings are super important, but many of these small tips will help you in your quest for the best photo after dark!

Pack a Flashlight

Your camera will have a difficult time picking up a focus when there is very low light.  Keep a small flashlight in your camera bag for night time photography. You can shine your flashlight quickly on your subject to get your focus.

Don’t Lose Focus

Once you’ve got 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 for as many shots as you’d like to take.  If you want to re-focus or move your camera and need to re-focus, switch back to auto-focus, recompose, re-focus, and switch back to MF.

Try Live View

Now is also a great time to experiment with using “live view” on your camera. Many night time 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 peering 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. 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 for night time photography, especially on a tripod.  In fact, using it can be counter-productive as it 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 your lens would not come with an on/off button if you weren’t meant to use it on occasion.

Night Photography Settings – A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS

Practice Makes Perfect!

When you’re on-site using your night photography settings, don’t worry if you don’t get the exposure perfect.  You have lots of room for exposure corrections in editing.  Given this, it is preferable to underexpose your image rather than over-expose it.  It isn’t easy to bring back details from blown-out areas in an over-exposed photo.

Learning takes a lot of patience and a LOT of practice. The more you try these techniques and fine-tune your night photography settings, the easier it all becomes.  Before you know it, you’ll be a night time photography expert 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 night photography settings.  Go ahead and pin it, so you have it handy!

Pin Image for Everything About Night Photography Settings
Tuck this little cheat sheet in your photo bag for the next time you’re shooting in the dark!

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