Night photography requires extra attention to light and motion — you may want a tripod, a special lens, a camera capable of increasing ISO without degrading image quality. There's a lot to consider. But there's also a lot to play with. Sometimes the right constraints give you the freedom to discover the most interesting images. Read on for night photography tips that can help you make the most of shooting in the dark. Stepping out into the darkness offers photographers a great chance to capture the city's beauty and nature at some of its most striking moments. But once the sun goes down, even the most experienced photographers find it a challenge to capture all the stunning details.
Sort Out Your Night Photography Settings.
Shooting at night means low light. So whether you're capturing the stars or the city's lights, you'll need to make sure there's enough light on the subject for your camera to register that something's there. Nighttime photography settings are a good place to begin: opening up your aperture, slowing down your shutter speed, or (controversially) fiddling with your ISO (the sensitivity of your digital camera — comparable to film speed in a film camera). But you can also look for ways to adjust the light on your subject. That could mean adding a flash or a fill light or just asking your subject to step forward into the glow of a streetlamp.
Each of these has its own set of constraints, requiring either good planning or a little luck (if you want that tree branch to move out of your light, you'll need a length of rope or a very steady wind). You'll never get the control afforded by daytime photography settings, so when you're aiming to take great night shots, be sure to give yourself time to experiment.
Find Your Light.
A photographer and art director say that night photography is the best environment to work in because, unlike daytime shoots, the light's not changing; it's very much the same throughout the night. And so you have a lot of room to experiment; you can keep trying things until you feel like you got it right without worrying about the light changing. During the day, when you're outside, the sun is constantly changing. So you can keep trying things until you feel like you got it right without worrying about the light changing. That consistency gives you time to play — even though you'll need slow shutter speeds and a wide aperture — you have an evenly lit backdrop for experimenting in.
Photographers recommend a few different ways to explore light in nighttime street photography. They say that you often want to use light to define the shape of things or the scale of things. So if you've got light on one part of the building, and it just bleeds off, you can't tell where the building ends and the night sky begins, that doesn't look so great.
You may also want to bring a light source and play with light painting — many options are small and easy to pack. Put on a five-second exposure and shine a flashlight over something. You could use your phones and be like, 'When I count to three, we're going to paint this little corner of the building.'" If you're shooting digitally, you can immediately check your results. If it doesn't work, you can try it again; it can be really fun.
Keep It Sharp.
A sharp focus on your subject can be tricky with longer exposure and a wider aperture. To avoid blur, You might have to be a little bit more steady if you're opening up on your aperture or slowing your shutter speed. Shooting at night is a little bit slower of a game. Many people miss focus at night; their subjects aren't sharp. When they open up to a really wide depth of field, there's not a lot of forgiveness on sharpness. If your subject moves an inch or two away from the camera, they all of a sudden go out of the range of focus. Setting your shot up carefully and asking your human subjects to be still can help ensure that your image is clear. A landscape photographer has tips on night sky photography — sometimes called astrophotography— which requires very long exposure and careful attention to focus—using a cable to control the shutter remotely, so you do not have to touch the camera. Having a tripod is important, as well. Because, again, you need to limit movement. If it's a windy night, or you're trying to capture star trails, Others suggest using what you have on hand to minimize camera shake: You can set up your tripod and then hang your backpack so that the tripod won't move in the wind, acting like a sandbag of sorts.
Long exposure night photography is the best way to capture the magic that happens every day when the sun goes down. Landscape photography is my favourite genre, and night photography is undoubtedly one of the most exciting things to shoot.
Taking photos at nighttime might seem daunting. Shooting in the dark might even be scary for a lot of people, but trust me: once you try long exposure photography at nighttime, you'll discover a whole new world. With this long exposure night photography guide, you'll lose any fear of stepping over to the "dark side". You'll find inspiration from some night photography ideas, as well as all the answers that you are looking for.
The definition of long exposure night photography is taking photos at night time using a slow shutter speed. As we explained in our guide to long exposure photography, the shutter speed is the cornerstone of long exposure photography. When you're shooting at nighttime, long exposure photography helps you compensate for the lack of light by opening the camera shutter for a determined length of time and capturing scenes that your eyes can't see.
Taking long exposure photographs at night, you'll be able to capture starry skies, fireworks, car trails, or mesmerizing landscapes lit by the moonlight. Regardless of your goal, the basic principle is taking a long exposure in low-light conditions. I highly recommend reading our guide to take photos of the milky way and our Northern Lights photography guide if you want to dive deeper into those specific photography genres.
Long exposure photography at night is not as simple as it seems. Shooting in the middle of the night, surrounded by nothing but darkness, is not conducive to taking easy pictures. On top of that, dealing with your camera and settings is always challenging when you can't see.
But don't worry; having an idea of how long exposure night photography in advance makes everything easier. Below, I'm breaking down the ten basic steps to do long exposure night photography:
Plan Your Long Exposure Photography At Night In Advance
Walking around in the dark without knowing where to go is not the best scenario, so scout and plan your location and the images you want to take. The absolute key to long exposure photography at nighttime is planning, and in most situations, great planning pays off. Pack your bag carefully, and don't forget extra batteries, memory cards, warm clothes, and a headlamp!
Choose Your Long Exposure Night Sky Composition
Use your headlamp or a flashlight to find the elements you want in your composition. For example, if you want to take a long exposure to the stars, using an app like Photopills will help you find and predict the movement of the Milky Way.
Set Your Camera On A Tripod To Take Long Exposures At Night
Set up your tripod by making sure that it's stable in a safe place, and mount your camera onto your tripod. This is essential for avoiding any side effects, such as vibrations, if you want to take sharper images.
Adjust The Basic Long Exposure Night Photography Settings
Turn down the brightness of your LCD screen to avoid underexposing your images, make sure you are shooting in Raw and Manual mode, turn off the image stabilization of your lens, and attach the shutter release or turn on the delay mode in your camera.
Set Your Iso And Aperture
As we explain in-depth below, these settings will vary according to the conditions. Nevertheless, they play a key role in long exposure night photography.
Focus On Your Long Expo Night Shot
This is possibly the most challenging step while doing long exposure photography nighttime. Even though the technique will vary depending on your subject (focusing on photograph car trails is not the same as focusing on the milky way), nailing your focus is particularly important. Don't forget to turn off the Auto Focus after focusing.
Calculate The Shutter Speed
The shutter speed is the most important setting in long exposure photography at night, and it'll depend on the subject, light conditions, and your goals. Below we'll dive into the best shutter speed for nighttime long exposure photography according to the scene.
Take A Test Shot Of Your Night Sky Image
Use a shutter release or your camera's built-in delay mode to avoid shaking. Also, if you're shooting with a DSLR, I recommend turning on the mirror lockup to minimize the vibrations.
Check The Test Shot To Make Sure That The Settings Are Correct
Don't forget to check the focus, histogram, and composition once you have taken your first photo. If you're shooting the stars, zoom in to verify that they're sharp, especially in the corners.
Take Your Final Long Exposure Night Photo
Readjust your settings if necessary, shoot, and enjoy the magic of taking long exposures at night. These are the basic steps to do long exposure at nighttime, but you might need to change or skip some steps depending on your circumstances, gear, and conditions. Again, the best way to find your workflow is through practice and patience.
Keep in mind that there are huge differences between doing long exposure night street photography, like taking photos of light trails at nighttime and photos of the stars in a completely dark environment. Therefore, the basic settings (ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed) will change depending on the long exposure night photography that you're doing.
FAQs About Night Photography
Beginner's Guide to Night Photography
Born and raised in Sydney, photographer Hayden Warner first picked up a camera when he was thirteen. Hayden is now most well known for his stunning night photography by experimenting with shooting film, polaroid and digital over the years. He has been travelling the East Coast of Australia in his home-fitted camper van since December 2016, chasing his dream to travel and work for himself. Hayden shares his tips and tricks for night photography with us so we can all capture our adventures.
- Any camera that has manual setting DSLR suggested (anything that has the BULB or M option ) – (Canon, Nikon, Sony)
- Tripod (TIP: A shoe or rock also makes a good tripod, or even use your wallet)
- Wide-angle lens (TIP: between 10mm – 50mm )
- Remote (TIP: these are optional, branded or third party)
Prep For Field
- Check the weather (TIP: Apps/news reports/ local paper)
- Follow the moon phase rise and set time (TIP: google this)
- Star Walk app (TIP: This app helps with understanding the sky, $2.99)
- Clean your gear (TIP: lens and LCD glass for best results)
- Prep/set camera settings before heading out (i.e: house/tent/van/car)
- Dim your screen brightness to the minimum (TIP: For the best LCD preview)
- Set your camera to RAW quality (important)
- Face South (Best results) (TIP: Find the Southern cross)
- Use a bag or something heaving to weigh down your tripod (TIP: Some Tripods have hooks on the middle pole)
- Be confident your tripod is sturdy (TIP: a shorter tripod is stronger than a tall one)
- Take trail images (TIP: don't commit to the first image you see, keep shooting, making small adjustments)
- Minimize the use of white lights (TIP: A night light or red light / covering a torch with RED cellophane
- Be patient (TIP: play music from your phone, bring a friend to chat to or feast your eyes on the sky)
- Keep in mind other photographers may be out shooting as well, and it may be hard to see them, be mindful of their shots and not to affect them (shining lights/getting in frame)
- Make sure your camera is set to the RAW quality
Best Camera Settings ( Night Sky)
- RAW image quality
- Manual focus (TIP: 10x zoom on the brightest star in the LCD "Live" preview mode or Pull focus to Infinite, then pull "a hair "back)
- 2-sec timer – 10-sec timer (TIP: This will stop the camera shake during your exposure)
- Shutter Speed 20 sec – 30 sec (20" – 30")
- ISO 2000 – 3200 (TIP: Adjust the iOS before anything other settings, the gain is sometimes welcomed)
- Aperture or F/stop down to either 2.8 / 3.5 (TIP: lower number = better)
- Ensure the "live view" mode is ON (TIP: live view set the mirror to the UP position minimizing the "shake" when the timer goes off)
- Most nighttime photography comes to life in post-editing
- Lightroom – Photoshop suggested apps
- Adjust the colour temp / exposure / highlights / shadows / whites / blacks (TIP: small adjustments always look better)
Including a subject or foreground into night photography sometimes requires bringing multiple images together in photoshop (REASONS: Milky Way isn't in the correct position, foreground requires less light (exposure time, Shutter speed). Be sure to capture multiple images, e.g. foreground/subject, then point your camera towards the Milky Way (SOUTH).
Try light painting your subject, actively light your subject with a torch or flash during the exposure time (TIP: if you wear black clothes, you can run around in the image light paint, and you will not be seen in the shot, try and not shine your torch towards the camera, even standing In between the camera and torch will protect your image.
Long Exposure Night Photography Tips
We've covered all the basics for doing night sky long exposure photography, but to help you take your night images to the next level, I'd like to add a few more tips for long exposure photography at nighttime:
- Invest in a good tripod
- You'll likely get back home with blurry photos if you don't use a sturdy tripod. You can check the best tripod for long exposure photography here at night.
- Use a good camera
- Having a better camera doesn't make you a better photographer. Still, if there is a type of photography where gear makes a difference, it's nighttime photography, especially when photographing the Milky Way. I covered the best models in this guide to the best cameras and lenses for night photography.
- Add still elements to your composition
- If you take long exposure night photographs to capture light movements, add static elements to the composition, like buildings, rocks, or mountains, to make your compositions more interesting.
- Shoot in Raw
- To capture files with the best quality and enough data to play with in post-production.
- Set a custom White Balance
- While taking long exposure night photographs, set the white balance manually to see consistency in all your photos, especially when taking panoramas. Something between 2850-3900K is a good starting point.
- Use a long exposure calculator
- You can find many helpful apps to calculate the shutter speed for long exposure photography at nighttime. You can check how to use them with a couple of examples in our long exposure photography guide.
- Use the moonlight in your favour
- When you're shooting the Milky Way or doing long exposure night photography for the stars, you need to avoid shooting when the moon is too bright. Still, the moon can sometimes illuminate your long exposure landscapes and create a nicer atmosphere.
- Reduce the noise in post-processing
- Don't delete your images if they are noisy. Instead, you can use any of the best noise reduction software to reduce the noise while editing your long exposure night photos.
- Don't forget to take warm clothes and a headlamp
- Even the hottest days can be pretty cold at night, and there is nothing worse than feeling constantly cold while taking photos at nighttime. A headlamp is key, not only for safety but also to help you focus and highlight elements in the scene if necessary.
- Use an intervalometer
- An intervalometer is a handy accessory while doing long exposure night photography, especially if you plan to shoot time-lapses or star trails. It is like a shutter release with more extras and allows you to adjust settings and program shootings. You can find many cheap models online.
Shooting long exposure night photographs is not an easy task. There are lots of variables that might seem overwhelming. Still, following the simple steps and tips for long exposure night photography mentioned in this guide, you'll have a paved way to dip your toes into this wonderful photography genre. I hope this guide helped you understand the process of how to do long exposure night photography and that you succeed in taking all the long expo images at night that you want.