How To Take Great Photos At Night

Photographs taken at night can provide a view of place that look spectacular when the night lights are on. The lights from the streets and buildings provide a unique atmosphere and highlight the subject matter.

St Paul

20 seconds at F/11, ISO 100

To get the best from your low light shots, there are a few guidelines to follow that you may not typically follow during a daytime shot.

So how (and when) should you take a night time photo? I’ve put together some guidelines that I have learnt through trial and error.

In this post I talk about:

  • TRIPOD – ALWAYS use a tripod or some kind of support to get sharp images.
  • ISO – Keep your ISO at 100 (or the lowest setting on your camera) to reduce colour noise
  • APERTURE/SHARPNESS – Stop down the aperture to get everything in focus
  • TIME OF DAY – Never shoot at night! – When to take great looking low light images
  • SHUTTER SPEED – Getting the exposure right: How long the shutter should remain open
  • Examples of night photos – Transition of images as the sun sets
  • How to take portrait photos at night

1) TRIPOD – ALWAYS use a tripod or some kind of support to get sharp images.

As you will be taking photos that require a long exposure time, hand holding the camera to get a sharp image will be virtually impossible, unless you set the ISO to a very high value. So use a tripod if you have one.

If you must take that shot and you don’t have a fully extensible tripod in your back pocket then use some kind of support. Rest your camera on something: a bin, a wall, a railing. You can even prop it against something like a lamp post or a tree.

If all else fails and you don’t have a tripod, or any support near by and you must get the shot then bump up the ISO. You will have a very noisey image, but at least you will have an image.

2) ISO - Keep your ISO at 100 (or the lowest setting on your camera) to reduce colour noise.

When using a high ISO setting, due to the amount of low signal light (lots of dark areas) and the increase in sensitivity of the camera, the image will start to show a lot of colour noise – red, green and blue patchy/blotches of colour in the dark areas. As long shutter speeds are needed for low light photography, the colour noise will get worse over time. So the lower the setting, the less noise there will be in your shot.

Compact cameras will always show a lot of colour noise, for many technical reasons which I will not go into here. For you guys with compact camera’s, look at investing in a computer program to remove as much of the noise when you download to your computer. That is not to say that colour noise will not show up in DSLR’s, because it will.

3) APERTURE/SHARPNESS – Stop down the aperture to get everything in focus.

When shooting cityscapes or wide views…

You want decent sharpness and depth of field (DOF – how much is in focus), especially at night. So stop down the aperture slightly. I would suggest starting at F/5.6, with F/8 to F/11 being optimal.

I aim for a range between F/8 and F/11 for the best performance of the lens and decent DOF. At F/11 and smaller apertures you will get the star burst effect on bright lights too. If you have objects close to you in the scene, as well as far away then stop down to F/16.

If you need to take a hand held shot (see Tripod part earlier), then set the aperture to the widest your lens will go and focus on infinity.

If you have an image stabiliser on your lens/camera then turn it off if you place your camera on a tripod or solid surface. This is because the stabiliser is constantly oscillating to keep the image stable and it gets very confused when the camera is not moving/shaking, resulting in very shaky/blurry images.

4) TIME OF DAY – Never shoot at night!

When the sun just sinks below the horizon, there is about a 30 – 45 minute time line where the light in the sky is changing quite quickly (getting darker). You may be lucky and get some colour as the light rays from the sun bounces around in the atmosphere and hits warmed gases and dust particles that scatter the light and create that sunset colour. This is the Blue Hour.

The street lights will start to come on and they haven’t had enough time to warm up to their orange glow! That is it! That is the moment you are waiting for. Shoot like crazy because it won’t last for long.

The sky then starts to turn a very deep blue going to black. This is the transition to the Black Hour.

So in summary, wait for the Blue Hour, before the sky goes black. You can certainly shoot in to the night, called the Black Hour. The interesting shots typically come from within the Blue Hour.

Type Of Light: The Golden Hour The Blue Hour The Dark/Black Hour
When It Occurs: Just before sunset When sun has just set below the horizon 30-45 mins after sun has set
For How Long: Approx 1 hour Approx 45 mins On till morning


5) SHUTTER SPEED- Have a “starter” setting memorised.

The speed of the shutter, or how long the camera shutter stays open, should be what you use to get the exposure at night. The longer the shutter is open, the more light that the camera’s sensor will gather over time and therefore the brighter your image will be.

Recommending a starting shutter speed will depend on the time of day and the subject matter. What I mean by that is whether you are taking an image during the blue hour or at full night, and whether the scene you are capturing is well lit overall or has very bright areas and dark areas.

What I would suggest you do is either set the camera to the aperture priority mode, set the aperture to F/5.6 and try a few test shots. Use the exposure compensation until you have a shot that looks good to you. That is, your subject matter is well exposed, not too dark or too bright. Then take a note of the shutter speed. In the Blue Hour, at F/5.6, it may be a few seconds long. As the sky darkens you will need to take longer shutter speeds.

Also, set the camera to timer mode. Either 2 seconds or 10 seconds. That way you are not holding down the shutter for long periods, which reduces any shake and subsequent blur.

I shoot in full manual mode, so here is my workflow for night shots:

  • Camera dial will be on “M” mode
  • ISO to 100
  • Set Aperture to F/8
  • Set shutter speed to 1 second if at the beginning of the Blue Hour, 5 seconds if in the middle and 15 seconds if at the end of the Blue Hour. I will be constantly tweaking the shutter speed (slowing down or speeding up the time the shutter is open). These are my start points just to get the ball rolling
  • White Balance to AUTO (AWB), works well enough
  • Timer to 2 seconds (or use a remote release) – You don’t want to hold the shutter down for many seconds as it can introduce shake and subsequent blur

Then, just start shooting. I check the image on the back of the camera to see if it is bright enough and use a combination of the histogram and highlight alert to tell me how well the exposure is. I change the shutter speed every two minutes or so, typically going slightly longer each time.

You really do need to practice these shots because what you will find is that when you look at the images on your computer, they will look darker. This is because your LCD on the back of the camera is brighter than the image. So you have to take slightly brighter looking images.

Shooting at night.
There are times when you do want to, or need to, shoot at full night when the sky is black. When? Well, shooting stars, the moon, star trails. When people aren’t on the street. Although you could shoot very early in the morning when the sun is just about to come over the horizon.

Using a Metering Mode.
If you would like to try a metering mode then I would recommend the “Average Mode” or “Center-Weighted Average” mode. Set your camera to Aperture Priority and let the camera meter an average for the entire scene and then use Exposure Compensation on your camera to adjust the shutter speed. Remember that because most of the scene will be dark, the camera will over expose so dial down by 1 stop. That means reduce the shutter speed by half the amount the camera guesses. It will be trial and error to take a shot, check if the subject is bright enough, if not then change the exposure compensation and quickly take again.

This post is worthless without pictures, so…

Transition Set One – Tower Bridge and Dolphin Fountain

An easy one to start off with. The camera is tripod mounted and I change the shutter speed, aperture and ISO in this transition set to try and get the best exposures.

The sun has just hit the horizon to the right of the frame and is setting.

Tower Bridge at Night - Start of Blue Hour

1/20 second at F/13, ISO 400

A few minutes later, the lights on the bridge are turned on.

Tower Bridge at Night - Blue Hour

0.5 seconds at F/16, ISO 400

The sky is now turning darker and this I think is the best time and my favourite shot. See the moon in the background?

Tower Bridge at Night - Middle of Blue Hour

3 seconds at F/16, ISO 100

It is that dark blue to black I was talking about. I think this one is a little too late. See how much detail you can see in the previous image compared to this one.

Tower Bridge at Night - Dark Hour

8 seconds at F/16, ISO 100

Why F/16? I used F/16 in these exposures because the statue is quite close to me, about 1-2 meters away and so I need the depth of field to get the statue AND bridge sharp. If all of your subject is far off in the distance then F/8 to F/11 will suffice.

Transition Set Two – London City Panorama (multiple stitched shots)

A little more complex, doing a multi shot pano at the same time as low light. It is possible for the light to change slightly from the first to last shot, especially with moving clouds, so be very FAST!

London Skyline at Night

6 seconds at F/10, ISO 100

The sun has set and the sky is turning black in the photo below. There is still some interest left in the sky so you can still get away with taking the shot. A few minutes later, that shot was gone. Time to go home.

London Skyline at Night

13 seconds at F/13, ISO 100

A rule breaker as the sky is near black. Can kind of get away with it because there isn’t much sky in the composition.

Canary Wharf Skyline at night

8 seconds, F/16, ISO 100

Don’t forget to try some creativity and have fun. Timing can be everything.

Tower Bridge at night with traffic streaks

10 seconds at F/16, ISO 100

The most difficult exposure I have attempted so far. Over 3 minutes exposure time with lens zooming thrown in to make it a little more interesting. I also used a 2 stop neutral density filter to slow the shutter down.

London Eye lens zoom at night

207 seconds at F/22, ISO 100 – 2 stop ND filter

I let the exposure burn in for just over a minute to get the London Eye and buildings as sharp objects, then I started zooming the lens, very slowly and continued zooming till the end. By using F/22, a 2 stop ND filter and constant very slow zooming in and out, it meant that the zoom on the eye looks like a constant skirt of light instead of stuttered lines.

HOW TO TAKE PORTRAIT IMAGES AT NIGHT

The concept and steps are exactly the same as if you are taking a landscape or architectural photograph. The only difference is you have a person in the foreground of the scene which you also wish to expose well.

First set up the camera to capture the background scenery. What you should notice is that the shutter speed would need to stay open for a number of seconds to expose the background well. No one can stay perfectly still for even a second so they will appear slightly blurred as they try to stay still.

Here are a number of ways you can accomplish this, utilising what you have to hand:

1 – Use existing foreground light – Such as a street lamp to light the person
Try and compose the view so that the light from a nearby street lamp, or other source, is falling on your portrait subject. They should then be a little brighter than your background scene (due to the inverse square law).

Increase your ISO so that the shutter stays open for the least amount of time whilst still getting a decent exposure without too much colour noise and the person is relatively sharp. It will be a balance so try a number of ISO settings such as ISO800, ISO1600.

2 – Use your camera flash or external flash to light the person.
Instead of using nearby lights, use your camera flash. Still set the exposure for the background, but now you want the flash to go off at the end of the exposure time to finally light your portrait subject. This is called second curtain sync. The reason to have the flash go off at the end of the shutter duration, instead of at the beginning, is a little technical but easy to understand:

The opposite to second curtain sync is first curtain sync. Think of this as the flash going off at the beginning of the timed exposure (first curtain) or at the end (second curtain). When the flash goes off at the beginning of the timed exposure the camera will still be gathering picture information of the person after the flash fired. This will result in some additional image information of the person appearing on top of the person. If that makes sense – Kind of like some ghosting. When the flash goes off at the end of the timed exposure, any low light image information that the camera has gathered of the portrait subject will be overwritten (somewhat) by the brighter person that was illuminated by the flash at the end.

If your camera lets you set the curtain sync then set it to second curtain sync. On non-DSLR cameras the “night portrait” mode should do the same thing.

One thing to note about using your flash is colour temperature. The light from a flash is of a different colour temperature to incandescent or street light. Flash is typically daylight balanced. This can result in your portrait subject and background appearing blue or orange. My advice is always colour balance your subject correctly and let the background turn orange. An alternative is to use a colour balance gel for your flash so that the light from the flash is the same temperature as your background.

3 – Use your smart phone!
If you have a smart phone then you can use the light from it to illuminate your subject. Most smart phones will have an app that causes the screen to glow white and act as a torch. Why use a smart phone, because you can also use it to do “light painting at night”. Search for that term to learn more about it.

By using your camera as a torch, you can light your subject or even light other foreground objects.

Now that you are armed with some guidelines, give it a go and have fun!

steve woods - November 25, 2011 - 1:48 pm

Ram, love the London Eye shot at the end. What was the secret there. Looked like a zoom in or out during exposure. I’m going to head off tonight to try and get some shots on Embankment. Hopefully won’t get moved on by police as they are apt to do nowadays.

Regards
Steve

Ram - November 25, 2011 - 9:24 pm

Hi Steve,

It was a long exposure and then zooming the lens very s-l-o-w-l-y to get the light trails. A lens with IS helps keep the image sharp in case of any shake.

Good luck with your shoot at Embankment.

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