Photography is all about light, and the general rule is the lower the light the harder the shot. But, it’s so worth the effort when the outcome can be spectacular images full of drama and emotion. Whether you’re shooting a beautiful sunset, the northern lights, or a vibrant city scene, you’ll need to understand the fundamental differences between day and night shoots.
It might take time to master night shots, but you’ll be so glad that you did. The following tips are the basic tools and skills you’ll need to have in your photographer’s arsenal before you head out and start shooting.
Planning is everything
If you’re heading out to do some low light shooting you need to do your prep work. Will there be moonlight or street lights? Will the lighting change during your shoot? Would your shot list work best at dusk, or late at night? By knowing what the conditions will be like, you can plan for them and ensure that you have the right kit and an idea of the best settings for your camera. Also think about what extra kit you’ll need for your shoot: packing a flashlight and waterproof casings or covers will keep you shooting if the conditions change unexpectedly.
Get off full auto mode
Night shoots are the ideal time to get off full auto, and that’s why many beginner photographers find the prospect of trying them quite intimidating. If you haven’t used shutter priority before, it will basically allow you to manually select the correct shutter speed for your shots without worrying about other settings.
We go into detail on shutter speed further down in this post, and as you get the hang of using this mode, we suggest you try and move over to full manual mode for your night shoots so you can manipulate aperture, too.
Buy a Tripod
…and take it to every single night shoot. A tripod will prevent camera shake, which means that you can use a much lower shutter speed (more on that later). Shooting landscapes can make lugging a tripod around a pain, so maybe scout out your location first then go back for your tripod when you’re happy with your chosen area. The type of tripod isn't as important as just the fact that you have it. So take something simple such as one of the Amazon Basics Tripods.
If you want to take stabilizing your camera one step further, consider a remote release or use your camera’s self-timer. Even pressing the shutter release can cause blur, so eliminate that issue completely by keeping your hands off your kit.
Get to know your ISO
The higher your ISO, the more sensitive your camera’s sensor is to the light flowing into it. If you’re hoping to shoot the northern lights, you’re going to need this to get the great shots you see from the professionals. Some cameras are great at handling high ISOs but others will struggle to avoid graininess when it’s really cranked up.
If you’re looking to buy a camera, check out reviews for its low light performance to make sure it’s going to handle darkness how you want it to. If you already have your camera, get to know how high you can push your ISO ahead of time, so you don’t miss out on the shot you’re hoping to get. Take some test shots at different settings and review them on your computer so you can really see where the noise or loss of detail is starting to creep in.
Choose noise over blur
If your camera struggles at higher ISOs, we recommend pushing it high anyway and settling for noise of a high ISO over the blur of a slower shutter speed (unless you’re going for motion blur, of course). Any hint of blur will lower the quality of your images, so sharpness reigns supreme over potential graininess every time. Noise can also be rectified to a certain extent in post-production, whereas sharpness cannot, so play around in Photoshop and get to know the limitations.
Open up that aperture
Any photographer will know that the larger the aperture, the more light can enter your lens. Even in night shoots, there’ll most likely be some light that your camera can utilize, so if you’re shooting in a city for example, make the most of car headlights and streetlamps.
Not all lenses have the ability to reach those low f-numbers, and the kit lenses that came with your DSLR are probably only capable of getting down to f/3.6 or thereabouts. So if you think you’re going to be shooting at night make sure you bear that in mind when you’re shopping for new glass and look for one that’s capable of f/1.8 or lower.
Reduce your shutter speed
As we briefly mentioned earlier, if you’ve got a tripod you can bring that shutter speed right down. More light will be captured the longer you leave the shutter open, and that’s the trick to creating that beautiful motion blur you see in city shots and moving water shots. It’s also the way to capturing shooting stars in all their glory, if that’s what you’re hoping to do.
Try starting with a shutter speed of 30 seconds to see how your images look, and make sure you play about with the speed before you head off on your night shoot. Remember that if you don’t have a tripod, you can’t really drop below a speed of 1/60 of a second, but you might find you can go a little beyond that if you have lenses with image stabilization. Alternatively, if you want to freeze the action of a shot, which would be handy for shooting a crowd of people at a concert or event, keep the speed above 1/200.
Learn to use your flash
Using a flash can be an intimidating thing for newer photographers, and if you don’t know how to handle it then it becomes all too easy to end up with images that have obviously been enhanced by flash. This isn’t always a bad thing (you might have seen wedding photography with gorgeous focal points created from a well-placed remote flash), but in most cases that’s not what you want. Using your flash properly will again depend on how handy you are in manual mode: to get the perfect amount of artificial light in your shot, it might be necessary to reduce to half power or even 1/16.
There’s no meter for using manual flash, so it’s simply a case of practice makes perfect. If you just have a pop up flash, avoid using it in night shots as it can really flatten your images. Play with your angles too if you have a hot shoe flash, as bouncing the light off walls or even trees can be extremely effective.
Learn about exposure compensation
Your camera’s exposure compensation settings are often an overlooked but incredibly useful setting for night shoots. Usually, your DSLR will go from -3 to +3 in increments of +/-5. Again, this is a feature best learned by simply playing with the settings and seeing what works for different types of night shots: the more you experiment, the better your shots will become.
Learn to use post production software
By getting to grips with programs like Photoshop and Lightroom, you can really manipulate your images and even composite several photos into one. For example, if you shoot your foreground and the landscape an hour before the sun sets, you’ll get a lovely crisp exposure with no noise or blur. Then, shoot the night sky when it’s dark and all the stars are out, and blend the two together. You might be interested in our favorite choices for photo editing.
Night shoots are often thought of as difficult and intimidating, especially by amateur photographers. But by following this guide, doing your prep work, and getting plenty of practice, you can achieve stunning shots that will really capture the eye of your audience.
Do you have any other tips for night shooting? Let us know in the comments.