Night photography is not as difficult as many casual photographers might imagine. So in this tutorial we will talk
about exposures, using night light, and the best type equipment for nighttime photography.
Exposure Settings for Night Photography: There is no one correct camera exposure setting for nighttime
photography. Just keep in mind the fact that the exposure times will be longer for night photography than the times
used for daylight photography. When taking night pictures, the camera shutter can be open for seconds instead
of fractions of a second.
As a point of reference, the camera exposure values that were used for the images in this tutorial are listed right
below each picture. Hopefully, that will give you a rough idea of the camera settings that might be used for certain
types of night scenes. The ISO settings for all the pictures was ISO 100 except for # 8 (ISO 800), and #14 (IISO
You can use the exposure settings shown for these images as starting point if you are shooting a similar type
scene. However, the camera exposure settings that you might use will be dependent upon the amount and
intensity of the light in the scene you are photographing. The exact exposure values can also vary depending on
the type of camera and lens that is being used.
Please check the tutorial, Camera Exposure Basics if you are not familiar with changing the camera lens aperture,
shutter speed, and ISO settings.
Best Type Cameras for Night Photography: Digital SLR cameras are the best choice for taking night shots.
That is because for night photography you will need to use longer exposure times to get an acceptable image.
With a Digital SLR camera you can manually control the length of time the camera shutter is open as well as
control the camera lens aperture to allow more or less light into the camera.
When using a Digital SLR camera you also have the option to use
the aperture priority and shutter priority modes for taking night
pictures. Those are semi-automatic shooting modes in which you
can control either the lens aperture setting or the shutter speed
The camera will then set the remaining exposure values for you.
Check the Camera Shooting Modes tutorial for a quick
explanation of the different types of camera shooting modes
If you don't own a Digital SLR camera and are considering
purchasing one, the Canon EOS Rebel T4i and the Nikon D3200
are both good and affordable Digital SLR cameras for night
If you are using a Digital Compact Camera for night photography, you can still get some good night shots in
certain situations. You might try using one of the pre-set shooting modes like night landscape for your night shots.
In that type of shooting mode the camera will set the aperture size, shutter speed and ISO for you.
However, the Canon Powershot A4000 IS digital compact camera has a long shutter feature that allows you to set
the shutter speed between 1 and 15 seconds.
Even better, the Canon Powershot S100 is a great digital compact camera for night photography. It is one of the
few digital compact cameras that allow you to manually adjust the shutter speed and aperture same as you would
with a Digital SLR camera.
Night Photography and Light: Just like in daytime photography, the quality of pictures taken at night will be
dependent upon the type and amount of light available.
Nighttime photography doesn't always have to be done at the darkest time of evening for a good image to be
obtained. In fact, pictures taken right after sundown or prior to sunrise are great because there is just a touch of
ambient light from the sun in the atmosphere. At that time, more detail might be shown in the shadow areas.
Moonlit night shot #4 and the skyline night shot #5 below are good examples of night pictures taken with a little
ambient daylight in the night sky.
On the other hand, pictures taken later in the evening can sometimes result in a sky that will be much darker.
The sky might even record as black. (depending on the camera exposure setting used) Picture #3 previously
shown above is a good example. The extremely dark sky works well for this picture because the contrasting light
and dark areas emphasize the subject of the picture which is the lighted building.
After sunset or before sunrise, artificial light sources such as street lights, bright signs, window lights, and
reflected light among others will be your main light source.
When taking pictures at night, strong artificial lighting might cast an overall tint in the image. The color cast might
be yellowish, greenish or reddish depending on the type of lighting. Using your cameras' automatic white balance
feature might work well in many situations to avoid unnatural tints. Still, at times, you might have to manually
change your camera's white balance setting to tungsten, cloudy, sunset/sunrise, or whatever setting will give the
most natural color
to the image.
The buildings in night shot #6 are illuminated by strong tungsten
type street lights causing a yellowish tint. The light reflections in
the water also have the same yellowish tint.
Quite often though, as in this case, the artificial lighting tints can
make the picture more interesting. You might even want to
purposely allow a different color cast in your night shot if you are
Check the White Balance tutorial for more details on how the
white balance feature works in your camera.
The battle between light and dark: One of the biggest
challenges when taking pictures at night is trying to balance
extremes of light and dark in the same scene.
Our eyes are great at properly seeing light and dark areas in a scene. However, digital camera light meters can
be fooled at times. Very bright light, or not enough light in a scene might cause the light meter to suggest a
camera exposure setting that will cause the whole scene to be underexposed or overexposed.
In night pictures #7 and #8, street lamps, window lights, and reflected light are the light sources. The street lamps
in both images appear somewhat brighter than if you were at the scene viewing them with your eyes. Also, the
taller buildings in the background of night shot #8 are pretty much underexposed.
However,choosing a camera exposure setting that would make the background buildings lighter would have
greatly overexposed the street lamps and other areas of the scene near them. On the other hand, choosing an
exposure setting that would show the bright street lights dimmer would have caused the entire scene to be
Since you can't change the lighting when taking pictures at night, sometimes a little a compromise might be in
order. By that we mean, certain areas of the image might have to be a little brighter or darker than you might
want them to be.
Use a Tripod: You will need to use a tripod when you are taking pictures at night. That applies whether you are
using a Digital SLR camera or a Digital Compact camera. A tripod is needed because you will be using somewhat
long exposure times when taking night shots.
When the camera shutter will be open for longer than 1/30th of a second even the slightest bit of camera
movement will result in a blurred picture.
It is a good idea to invest in a basic tripod if you don't already own one They are not expensive and the results
you get from using a tripod when taking night shots will be more than worth the price you pay for it. The Sunpak
620-020 is a great basic tripod to start with. If you don't want to carry a regular tripod, a mini tripod like the
Pedco Ultrapod 2 might work well for you in some situations.
In addition to using a tripod, use the camera's self timer or use a remote shutter release when doing long
exposures. Some photographers don't realize that even when the camera is on a tripod, there is a chance that
some camera shake may occur when your finger presses the shutter release button. Using the camera's self
timer or a remote release will eliminate the possibility of that happening.
If you must take a night picture and don't have a tripod with you, try stabilizing the camera by placing it on a
steady surface when taking the picture. That will reduce the possibility of camera shake.
Now go ahead, take a shot! The best way to get started
taking pictures at night is to take a test shot of the night
scene. You can set your Digital Compact or Digital SLR
camera to the automatic mode, or try any aperture/shutter
combination on your Digital SLR that you think might work.
After taking the shot, check the image on your camera's
LCD screen and adjust the exposure settings accordingly.
For example, the camera settings that were used for
picture #9 created an image in which the light areas were
somewhat over exposed. An adjustment to the length of
time the camera shutter was open was made and the result
was a darker image. (picture #10)
Bracket your exposures: So, which image is better? Maybe an in between exposure would have been best. It is
a matter of personal taste. That is why it might be a good idea to bracket your exposures when taking night shots.
That means taking a picture or two lighter and a picture or two darker than the camera;s suggested exposure.
That way you will have a wider range of images to choose from when deciding which is the best shot.
Light and movement in night photography: When using long exposures for night photography, moving
objects such as cars will barely be seen in the image if at all. However, the light trails from the headlights and tail
lights of the cars will be visible. See picture # 13.
The key to getting solid light trail lines in the picture is to make sure the shutter is open when the cars enter the
frame and remains open until they leave the frame. If you don't do that, you will still get light trails, but some of
them will be broken like picture #14.
In pictures #13 and #14, the camera shutter speed was 8 seconds. However, the shutter speed you may need to
use may be longer depending on how long it takes for the cars to pass through the frame. In some situations, a
shutter speed of up to 30 seconds or longer might be needed to get a good image. Also, it is a good idea to use
a smaller aperture settings to keep the lights from being overexposed when the camera shutter is open that long.
This same light trail effect can be obtained by using long shutter speeds when taking pictures of any moving
objects that are brightly lit. One of the most common uses for this effect is for taking pictures of moving rides at
night in amusement parks. The rides shown in picture #15 were actually slowing down before coming to a stop,
yet you still get a nice sense of movement from the image.
Choosing an ISO Setting: Ideally, it is best to take night pictures
using ISO settings between 100 or 400. Using ISO settings higher
than 400 in some cameras may produce digital camera noise (tiny
spots and speckles) in the image. The noise will be more visible in
the darker areas of the image.
However, In some situations, it might be necessary to increase
your cameras' ISO setting. Increasing your cameras' ISO setting
from lets say ISO 100 to ISO 800 will make the cameras' sensor
more sensitive to light. That feature can be pretty useful when
there doesn't appear to be enough light available to produce an
acceptable image. Check the tutorial What is ISO? for a few more
details on how to use it.
So go ahead and use ISO 800 or higher if necessary. A little noise will rarely ruin a great shot.
Should you use flash? Turn off your flash when taking night pictures. The light produced by the flash won't be
strong enough to light a wide outside area. An exception would be if your subject is a person or object in the near
foreground that needs stronger lighting than the rest of night scene you are photographing.
Learning how to take pictures at night will require some practice and might be a little hit and miss at times. On the
other hand it will all be worth it when you get those night shots that you can be proud of.