Night Photography 101

I have a fascination with night photography.  This is probably attributed to the fact that I work during the day, so nights are the easiest time for me to shoot.  But truthfully I love shooting at night. Why?  Because the light is in your control!  The complete lack of light means everything is in your hands, and that's pretty powerful.  So in this post I will explain some of the basics to get you started, and maybe give you a little inspiration too.

First things first, equipment:

Tripod: A tripod is an essential tool for night photography.  You can get some shots (in well lit areas) without a tripod, but I promise you it will be your lifesaver as you start to get more ideas.  You'll be working with shutter speeds up to a few minutes (my shutter will stay open for up to thirty minutes) and the general rule is that you start to see camera shake at speeds as fast as 1/250 of a second.  For a steady hand, you can take photos slower than that, but why take the risk when it isn't necessary?

This shot wasn't set up with a tripod because I didn't have one. I improvised by placing both elbows on the railing and supporting my camera with both hands, it turned out pretty well, but I can see some flaws.

Again, no tripod, and I was really moving for this shot, notice the city lights.

Shutter Release:  I use the Nikon ML-L3 remote that syncs with my camera, it's a cheap piece of equipment that makes life so much easier.  There are all sorts of cable release systems on the market, do some research and choose what works best for you.  The release allows you to keep your hands away from the camera and avoid added camera shake.  If you are just starting out and don't want to purchase a release, you can set the self timer on your camera, which will give your hands time to get away.

Flashlight: Just a regular flashlight, simply for the ease of being able to see what you are doing.  I prefer to use a headlamp so that I can still use both of my hands.  Another reason to have a flashlight is because usually at night your subject will be under lit, and it's helpful to be able to shine a light and achieve sharp focus.

This is really all you need to start out, but depending on your theme you may need speedlights or studio lighting, as well as many other things, but this is a basic tutorial...


Now for the setup, deciding how to get your shot.  At night you need to realize that while it may be dark, you still have to focus on all the same concepts as day photography. Composition, aperture, shutter speed, ISO and white balance. 

Composition:  You have to think about the surroundings, if you're going for a pitch black background, it probably isn't a good idea to put your subject against a wall.  Anything that will bounce light has the potential to change the shot.  Keep that in mind.

Aperture: Most of my shots are a few minutes and involve bright lights, so I have to make sure to go for a small aperture in order to get the exposure correct.  And as always, use the aperture to control your depth-of-field.  Remember, large aperture=shallow depth.  I also need to mention that with a small aperture, (f/16 and smaller) you will see a starburst around the lights in the picture.

Shutter speed: This is where the night shoots get fun, do you want to show movement or freeze time?  I usually prefer motion, so I use longer shutter speeds.  The trick here is to figure out how long it needs to be open.  If you're photographing a snowboarder in motion, it doesn't need to be very long, and realistically shouldn't. ( the longer it's open the longer the subject has to perform)  but if you're wanting to show movement in the stars it needs be longer than ninety seconds. 

Thirty minute exposure pointed at the North Star.

Venus reflected on the water. This shot is already starting to show movement

Flaming steel wool, I based the shutter speed on how far I wanted to move. 25 seconds

ISO:  To get some night shots, figuring out the ISO is a must.  I once read that the ISO is like the worker bees in the camera.  If you only have 100 bees out gathering pollen, you aren't going to get much honey, but if you have 1600 bees out working, you're going to get jars full of honey.  I like that analogy because it also explains the risk of high ISO: The more bees, the more noizzzze.  The reason I change light sensitivity is because sometimes I like small crisp lines, and other times I want big, electric light shows.  Also, photographing stars often requires a higher ISO.

White Balance:  At first I didn't realize white balance played a role at night, I shot everything in auto white balance and I thought that would take care of it.  I soon realized that at night, AWB can't be trusted.  On one shot the picture had a red hue, and the next picture had a crisp black night sky.  That was when I learned about white balance.  The auto recalculated for each shot, and was choosing a different setting every time. There are settings to lock the white balance, but I'm more of a manual guy, so I now prefer to set the white balance myself.  Experiment and see what you like for each particular shot.

Sparkler, taken a few minutes after the last picture, notice the different color, this was caused by a different white balance


So that's it for the technical side.  Get out and learn as you go.  Here are some pictures to give you a better idea.

Ultimate frisbee, we taped glow sticks to the frisbee, I used flash (rear flash) to stop the action, but had a slow shutter to capture to movement of the frisbee.

Ultimate frisbee, we taped glow sticks to the frisbee, I used flash (rear flash) to stop the action, but had a slow shutter to capture to movement of the frisbee.

The most important thing is to try everything you can think of, some will work, some won't.  Just have fun!