SLR Photography – Taking Pictures at Night

Night Photography

The following are some basic how-to tips for how to take a still photography at night (this is mainly for a cityscape or a landscape).

1. Time of day. The time of day to take a night photograph is twilight, after sunset when the sky is still a dark blue color but not black. The photograph will have a definite appearance of nighttime but buildings and trees will show up nicely against the sky instead of fading into inky blackness. This is the time when professional night time photography is taken. You might notice if you look at some postcards sometime.

2. Sky: A clear or mostly clear sky is best if you can possibly get it.

2. Light: As in all photography, you will need a source of light. Your on-camera flash won’t help you here, it only lights up an area a few feet or meters ahead of you – not an entire landscape.

City lights are good. Outside of the city, a full moon is best but a crescent moon might also do, to shed enough light on your scene so that the camera can pick it up.

3. Tripod: You will definitely need to mount your camera on a tripod. Your lens aperture will have to be open for a long enough time to allow sufficient light into the camera and if you hold the camera by hand for that long, your camera shake will create a messy blur.

4. Low ISO (ASA) On most digital cameras, setting a high ISO (which is the indicator of how sensitive the camera is to light) will create a lot of digital noise. (Noise is the annoying ugly dots all over your photo that is so hard to get rid of). Digital noise especially shows up in dark areas of photographs, such as the night sky.

I suggest using an ISO of 100 or 200. If 100 lets in enough light, go for it. Otherwise try with 200. I usually use 200.

5. F-Stop F-Stop is an indicator of how big your camera aperture is. The lower the F-Stop number, the wider the aperture. A wide aperture lets in more light but it also decreases your focal length.

Focal length is the range the photograph that will be in acceptable focus. An example of a narrow focal length would be when everything that is between 10 feet away and 16 feet away from you is in acceptable focus but the rest is blurry.

In some cases you want a short focal length so that you can draw attention to the object you are photographing or drown out a messy, distracting background. But if you are photographing a scene, vista, house, or landscape, you probably want a long focal length.

For a long focal length, try a small aperture such as 16. Remember that different lenses create better images at one F-stop than another. This is a matter of getting to know your lens but if you are a beginner with your camera you don’t need to worry about that a lot right now.

6. Shutter Speed: Your shutter will need to be open long enough to get enough light into your photograph. With a digital camera, I always experiment and then check the image in the LCD screen. For some night time photographs I have kept the shutter open for up to 30 seconds. For others, such a long exposure wasn’t necessary. Remember not to touch or hold your camera during this time, as this will cause camera-shake and blur the photo. Check the photo and then adjust as necessary.

7. White Balance: In film cameras, we had different types of films for different lighting situations such as tungton lights, sunlight, fluorescent lighting, shade, cloudy day, etc. In digital photography, we have white balance. This tells the camera how to treat the colors and shades in the photo so that they turn out correctly (that’s my best way of explaining without going into lots of technical details).

For night time photography I usually use “auto white-balance” but you can experiment with different settings and see what result you like best.

8. Tighten your tripod: There is a little connector that attaches your camera to the tripod . It might seem tight but if the camera is able to weigh it down and move it slightly during the exposure, your photo will be a mess.

8. Summary: For a nighttime vista an example of settings you can start with would be ISO 200, Aperture 16, Shutter Speed 15 seconds. Then adjust as needed to get the exposure you want. You might try F 8 at around 10 seconds. Etc. Check the result in your LCD screen.

When you get what you think is a good exposure, take more than one shot at that exposure so that you can be sure to get a good one. You might try a few at a slightly higher or lower exposure, just in case (this is a long-time practice in professional photography, known as “bracketing.”)

Be patient and take lots of reshoots. When you get home and blow up your photo on a big screen you might notice that one shot was almost perfect but something blurred or there was an unseen tourist walking through the scene at just the wrong moment. Take lots of shots to make sure you get a good one. If the photo is important to you, the time is worth it.

Feel free to browse the photos on this blog for examples of nighttime Digital SLR photography. Please leave comments if there are any questions or if anything in this post was not fully clear to you.

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18 Responses to “SLR Photography – Taking Pictures at Night”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thank you – this was so helpful. It’s one of the best, easy to read, articles I’ve seen about night time photography.

    Now I want it to get dark, um twilight, so I can play around!

    Jeannie

  2. Anna says:

    I’m really glad to hear this helped you! I will try to get more time for this blog …

  3. lunaticg says:

    Thank you for this tip. I am looking for a tips on how to do this with a compact digital camera. Some of your tips maybe will help a bit.

  4. Brian says:

    Interesting stuff. I just picked up a Canon T1i and I am about to take a trip to Spain next month so I am trying to figure out night shots. I think this helps a lot and I can tell I need a lot of pratice to get photos how I want them for night landscape shots.

  5. Brian says:

    Also to add. My goal is try to use the cheap standard 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens to get night lanscape shots. My biggest issue seems is the lighting where it just doesn’t come out natural. I would have though just using the lowest apature would be the best but it looks like I am wrong. I was even thinking about getting a lens that has f/1.4 or f/1.8 but I don’t think that will solve my problem.

  6. Anna says:

    Hi Brian, you should definitely experiment and practice before you go. When you are in Spain, you won’t want to waste shots as learning experiences. I suggest you find some night time shots you can do at home which will be similar to what you will want to do in Spain, and practice now. When you come back from a shoot, you will see how you could have done this or that differently. And it will be no big deal if some shots are not done well the first time. But, you don’t want to come home from Spain thinking “that shot would have been perfect if I had only used F16 …” It is not so easy to go back later.

    On getting a faster and wider lens, it is not generally necessary, as you suspected. Some professional photographers use those types of lenses when they will be doing certain types of shots on a regular basis, but as I recall, my instructors recommended that students resist the temptation to go out and get fast lens as it would not be the cure-all that might have been anticipated.

    The key to night time shots is getting enough light without getting a lot of noise. Or losing too much depth of field (unless you want to).

    For cityscapes at night, with city lights shining, (such as in http://annavera.com/photos/city-architecture/walking-street-strogade-copenhagen-denmark/ ) I usually use ISO 200, F16, and up to 30 second exposure on a tripod. If you will be doing night time shots in the city, write that down and carry it in your pocket. You can play with these settings to see what works best for each situation but that is a good place to start from.

    The 18-55 mm lens should be fine for that, it is what I have used for these types of shots.

    Don’t even bother without a tripod.

  7. Anna says:

    Hi Brian, you should definitely experiment and practice before you go. When you are in Spain, you won’t want to waste shots as learning experiences. I suggest you find some night time shots you can do at home which will be similar to what you will want to do in Spain, and practice now. When you come back from a shoot, you will see how you could have done this or that differently. And it will be no big deal if some shots are not done well the first time. But, you don’t want to come home from Spain thinking “that shot would have been perfect if I had only used F16 …” It is not so easy to go back later.

    On getting a faster and wider lens, it is not generally necessary, as you suspected. Some professional photographers use those types of lenses when they will be doing certain types of shots on a regular basis, but as I recall, my instructors recommended that students resist the temptation to go out and get fast lens as it would not be the cure-all that might have been anticipated.

    The key to night time shots is getting enough light without getting a lot of noise. Or losing too much depth of field (unless you want to).

    For cityscapes at night, with city lights shining, (such as in http://annavera.com/photos/city-architecture/walking-street-strogade-copenhagen-denmark/ ) I usually use ISO 200, F16, and up to 30 second exposure on a tripod. If you will be doing night time shots in the city, write that down and carry it in your pocket. You can play with these settings to see what works best for each situation but that is a good place to start from.

  8. Brian says:

    Thanks for the reply back. I thin that shot looks pretty amazing that is the example you gave. I know I was messing around at night a bit and my issue is trying to get it where the night sky isn’t so bright. I hope this weekend I will be able to really test it out and see how the diffrent settings come out. It is good to see examples of what people used and how their photos turned out. I have been learning that going with low aperture isn’t always the best thing to do unless you need a fast shutter speed. I still want to get some nicer lenses but it will have to wait. The wife is already not so happy about how much the camera was. lol

  9. Connor says:

    Hi, Im definitly new to digital slr photography, i have just bought an olympus E-450, and have had a lot of fun experimenting with all the different settings and options an slr provides. I know this is a really stupid thing to say but i really cannot figure it out, i try to take pictures during night time, say of a person or whatever, and the camera will not focus, therefor it won’t let me take the picture. It just keeps doing a burst flash over and over as it trys to focus, but it won’t. Help?

  10. Anna says:

    @Connor – Night pictures can be frustrating for that reason. Let me explain a bit –

    Your camera needs to focus on something which has light falling on it. Try to find an element of your subject which has some light on it, and which is the same distance from your camera as the point you want to focus on. Try to focus on that. Sometimes you have to keep trying, but the trick is to find some point with enough light on it, so that it will let you focus.

    For example, if you were taking the picture here: http://annavera.com/photos/city-architecture/nyhavn-in-copenhagen-denmark/ you could focus on the area of bright light in the boat which is in the water, or even one of the street lights on the side of the canal.

    Once you have focused, you can keep the button half-pressed (to retain your focus) and then move your camera to get the composition you want (in case the item you focused on is not in the exact center of your picture, which it usually isn’t). Then take the picture.

    If you are going to take a series of pictures of the same thing, you might want to turn off auto focus now, and set it on manual. Then it will keep the focus you have already set, so that you can take more pictures without redoing the above. Just remember you will need to change your focus in case you zoom in or out, or change your distance from the subject.

    I hope this helps.

  11. Connor says:

    Anna,

    Thanks for your reply! It has helped thankyou, understand it more now! I wasn’t focusing in sufficient light before hand which was probably the problem! I am going to go out tonight and give it a shot:) Just wondering, what if i was in pitch black and wanted to take a picture of something while using the flash as my light source? For example a person? I guess i would just have to turn of auto focus or something?

    Thanks again!

  12. Anna says:

    Hi Connor –

    Yes, if you are photographing a person within range of the flash (not far away), you would use the automatic focusing feature of the camera, which flashes light onto the subject during the focusing process.

    This doesn’t work so well for candids or during parties, as the flashes are distracting. But if your subject is posing, this is the way to do it.

    Your camera might also have custom settings for this, which you could experiment with.

  13. Joel P says:

    One thing you can do, when taking star photography for example, zoom in and focus on a star then once focused change to manual focus on your lense (if able) then you can take the phot without it having to focus again.

  14. Brennah L says:

    I know this is going to sound dumb, but What is the “f” setting and how do you change it.. I just got a sony Alpha 380 for christmas and i love photography but havent done any real shoots but im going to europe and i would love to get some great night shots like that while im over there. any advice for me, i put it in M mode and i know how to change the iso but how do i change the other settings you were talking about. thanks, any advice will help. Brennah

    p.s. do you think i should take a tripod.. we are backpacking for 37 days … all around europe.

  15. Brennah L says:

    sorry, I figured out the “F” setting . but any other advice would be very apprecited.

    Brennah

  16. Mason Biery says:

    I have a 1977 or 76 Yashica FX-2 SLR film camera and I live in the foothills of california and just down the road from me there are diffrent roads that have a great view of all most the entire valley floor from north to south. On a good night just about the entire valley floor is lit up with all the twinkleing lights from all the towns and houses and what not. Its the best veiw ever and I get to see it every night cause I am a newspaper carrier. My question is that I need help taking a night shot of it with my yashica. I tried some shots with it and havent developed the roll yet. I still have some shots to go. But its just pretty hard for me. Can you help me lol?

  17. angel says:

    When you shoot sky sometimes it comes deep blue why it happensz


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