Night Photography

Anybody can get out their point and shoot cameras when the sun’s out and get reasonably decent images. If you’re looking to take your photography to the next level and get some pretty amazing images, here are a few tips on night photography to get you started.

Slow Shutter Speed
The slower your shutter speed, the longer the light has to come in, and the brighter your picture will be. How slow you set your shutter will depend on how dark it is. In a wedding reception, I frequently use shutter speeds of 1/50 or 1/60. If you’re outside on a dark night though, you’ll probably be looking at a minimum of a full second for your shutter speed. The longer your shutter stays open, the more important it is to keep your camera still during the exposure. You’ll definitely need a tripod for anything slower than 1/30th. You’ll also want to reduce movement from the camera when you press the shutter, so you can use a shutter release cable or use your camera’s timer function. As much as you may want to slow your shutter down really slow, you have to keep in mind what you’re photographing. If there’s any movement at all during the exposure, it’s going to be a blur in your picture. If there’s moving water, going really slow can make the water look like glass. Just experiment with different shutters until you find what’s appropriate for the environment.

High ISO
In most cases, adjusting the shutter speed alone won’t be enough to allow you to use low ISO settings. You’re probably looking at using at least a 1600 ISO. In many cases, you’ll want much higher than that. The problem with high ISO is that it starts to show noise in the picture. The noise will be especially noticable in the darker parts of the image. The solution to the noise problem is getting a camera that reduces noise. I’m a big fan of the Canon 5D Mark II at night for this exact reason. With the 5D, you can set the ISO ridiculously high and still have a usable image.

Wide Open Aperture
As long as you don’t need everything in the image in focus, you can set your aperture to 5.6 or lower. If you have a fast lens, you may even set your aperture in the 2′s or below. Again, it’s going to depend on how much you need to be in focus and how far away you’re focusing. If you’re focusing on something far away, there will be more in focus than if you focus on something close. With a shallow depth of field, it’s usually easiest to prefocus. You can prefocus by pushing the shutter half way down and focusing on what you want, then turning the lens to focus manually so it doesn’t try to refocus.

Supplementing With Flash
Even after pushing all your settings to their limits, there still may not be enough light or your main subject may need additional light so it stands out. Enter an additional light source. When using flash at night, I highly recommend using manual flash settings. TTL produces inconsistent or undesired results too often. You may want only a little fill, or you may really want to blow part of the image out with flash. The same principles of good flash placement apply as during the day.

Video Light
When you’re going out at night, make sure you bring a video light. It can be a great source of additional light. Since it will be dark out, even a small amount of light will have a much bigger effect. Even if you don’t use the video light as a light source, it will still be helpful for you to see your camera in the dark. It will also help you to focus on your subject easier. There’s nothing harder for a camera than to focus in the dark.

What additional night photography tips do you have? I know I’m just touching the surface of what you will learn with shooting at night, but hoepfully it will at least get you started.

10 Responses to “Night Photography Tips”

  1. John Rocha says:

    Hi

    It’s good to get some tips on night photography and of course there are other similar situations – I recently used my Canon 5D Mark 11 in a deep cave where I had used flash before. As you mentioned this particular camera I try to use the mirror lockup as well if it’s possible with the subject matter. A pocket torch can help as well. Good night time shooting

    John

    • TJ says:

      I haven’t really experimented much with mirror lockup. Is it pretty easy on the 5D Mark II? With the pocket torch, that would make sense. Just use whatever light you’ve got available. That would have a different color temperature than a video light, so as long as you had your white balance right, you’d be set. Thanks for stopping by John!

      • John Rocha says:

        Shows the problems of communicating succinctly! I meant the torch just to see what I was doing. Colour balance issue is another reason for using RAW. Well as for the mirror lockup – Review after review complain that Canon don’t make it easy as it’s hidden in the menus. I set the mirror lockup with self timer and manual exposure as one of my Custom Settings – much easier to find at night too.

        • TJ says:

          Ha – completely misunderstook how you were using the torch =) I haven’t really navigated through the menus to find the option for the mirror lockup. That’s a good idea with the custom settings.

  2. Jake says:

    I have a Nikon L100. It takes good photos, but with the night photos, the camera clicks twice and most of the photos come out blurred. The total shot takes maybe two seconds for the camera to ‘process’. Am I stuck with just using a tripod for night shots or is there something else I’m missing? About the only thing I can control is the exposure with this camera. Will I ever be able to take a photo like your site background image with this camera? This is a pretty new camera to me.

    • TJ says:

      Jake,
      I wasn’t familiar with that camera, so I took a look online, and it looks like your camera may be pretty limited to what it can do for night photos since it doesn’t allow you to set the shutter, ISO, and aperture manually. If you’re really wanting to get into more night photography, I’d recommend selling the L100 and replacing with a true SLR (Nikon has some good ones) a couple models back. Then get yourself an f1.8 lens, and you’ll be ready to rock some night photos.

      Thanks for stopping by! I’ll return the visit shortly.

  3. Christophe says:

    Snow and christmas photography are challenging too. We receive many pictures on our photoblog taken when the sun is down and the results are not always great

    • TJ says:

      Thanks for the visit to my blog Chrisophe! Snow definitely presents its own challenges. Getting the whie balance right and exposing for such a bright environment (during the daytime) can be a littly tricky at first. Hope to see you back again soon!

      • Shirley says:

        Where mirror lock up is in the menu? I can’t find it and do you have any tips on using this function. Thanx for your help your article is helpful.

        • TJ McDowell says:

          Shirley,
          I can’t remember ever using mirror lockup. I’m wondering if you’re looking for bulb mode? If so, that should be a setting on your dial.