Most humans spend the bulk of their time operating on the sunlit side of the earth’s daily revolution. For that reason, nighttime photography captures a world that is simultaneously exotic and familiar – and extremely captivating when done well.
Since we’re all about doing photography well here, what are the basics of night photography and how do they differ from photographing during the day?
Light and camera limitations
Photography is all about capturing light. Since there is obviously less light at night, some adjustments to your regular methods of photographing need to be made.
You also need to become familiar with the limitations of your camera. While most digital SLRs can handle night photography remarkably well, many point-and-shoot cameras lack the ability to capture compelling night scenes.
Of shutter speeds and exposure modes
Night photography requires long exposure times. A camera needs to be capable of shutter speeds of anywhere from 3 to 30 seconds. A camera with a Bulb setting (where the shutter stays open for as long as the shutter release button is pressed) is a bonus. Your camera must also allow you to disable its automatic flash function.
All of your camera’s shutter speeds may not be available in all exposure modes. Check your manual to be sure.
Use a camera support
A sturdy tripod or some other means of stabilizing your camera during the long exposure times is a must. In a pinch, I’ve pressed my camera against a post or some other immovable object to keep it steady when a tripod wasn’t available.
Some digital cameras feature a Night setting, which offers a good starting point for your nighttime exposures. But because nighttime shots usually contain large areas of darkness punctuated by relatively smaller areas of light, it’s easy for your camera’s light meter to be fooled into making the picture brighter than it needs to be. If you find this to be the case, set your camera’s exposure value to -1 or -2 to compensate.
It may also seem logical to crank your ISO to the max for night shots. In actuality, a lower ISO is better. A setting of ISO 100 or lower will result in sharper photos with more saturated colors and less digital noise (graininess).
IBM – it’s better manually
Your most successful night shots will probably be the ones where you wrest full control of the exposure away from your camera. This is where a little experimentation comes into play. Fortunately for the digital photographer, feedback is instantaneous and adjustments can be made quickly.
The Blue Hour
As a rule of thumb, I start all my night landscape shots with an exposure of five to ten seconds at f/5.6 at an ISO of 100. I’ll take a shot, evaluate it and then make adjustments to the shutter speed to lighten or darken the photo as needed.
The above exposure time works best during the “Blue Hour” – the time period when the sky turns a deep indigo before fading to black, about a half hour after sunset. Personally, I prefer night shots that show a hint of blue left in the sky as opposed to solid black.
Suggested exposure settings
Below are some common nighttime scenes and suggested exposure settings. Use them as a starting point and make adjustments as necessary. All settings are at ISO 100.
- Floodlit building: 2 seconds at f/5.6
- Subject by firelight: 2 seconds at f/5.6
- Typical street scene at night: 2 seconds at f/5.6
- Shop window: 1 second at f/5.6
- Street scene with holiday lights: ½ second at f/5.6
- Neon sign or theater marquee: ¼ second at f/5.6
Related reading: more Nighttime Photography Tips by James Jordan