This post is a bit different from what I normally post, however, it’s something that I have been wanting to cover for a while.
I am writing this post because lots of people comment on my night photography and ask how I can take such photos so (seemingly) easily and regularly. However, for me, this is really weird to hear… I think that taking photos at night time is easier than in the day!
Ever since I learnt how to take photos in the dark, it’s become my favourite time to photograph. There’s something about night that just makes me want to get outside and take some photos.
While I am by no means a master of night photography, there are a lot of things that I have learnt over time. Today, I want to share some of what I have learnt in this post!
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Taking Night Photos is Easy!
During the day time, it can be hard to feel inspired at times. Especially if we are in the area that we live in, or somewhere that we are familiar with. Many people travel the world taking photos, but there’s one place that is often missed. Their hometown.
Why is this? I think that it’s because we tend to not find the area that we live in exciting. After all, we see it and live in it every day. For this reason, it can often be hard to feel inspired to get out and take some photos.
I mention this because after the sun goes down, a whole new world awakens. Where we may not feel inspired at daytime, nighttime is often different. It’s a totally different view of the world.
Inspiration is one of the biggest factors that drives good photos. It’s hard for anyone to take good photos when they don’t feel motivation or inspiration.
However, that’s not all. Taking night photos becomes very easy once you understand the basics. Once you get the hang of it, it can become second nature. The process to take night photos is very different from those under the sun, but that isn’t to say it’s more complicated.
Why do Night Photos Seem Difficult?
I think that lots of people are scared away from taking night photos due to bad experiences with snapshots (a snapshot being where you take out your phone or camera for a quick photo, without thinking of the settings). This leads to the use of auto mode. Auto mode on cameras and phones is designed to provide a balance of shutter speed and ISO (light).
This isn’t what you want with night photography, in fact, usually, it is the complete opposite.
When auto mode adjusts your camera for night shots it will balance your shutter speed (so there is no blur in the images), and the ISO (the sensitivity of the sensor – how much light is in the image). The issue with this is that raising the shutter speed will also increase your ISO, making your images very noisy. This isn’t what you want.
When taking night photos, you want to use a slow shutter speed. Slower shutter speeds may mean that the image is blurry if your camera isn’t stable, but it will allow for far higher quality. In short, the faster the shutter speed the higher the ISO. The higher the ISO, the worse the image quality will be.
Therefore, when shooting night photography it is important to balance the camera settings manually. This is another aspect which many beginners can find overwhelming at first. Luckily, it isn’t as difficult as it initially might seem!
Night Photography Guide
This guide will cover everything that you need to know about taking photos in the dark. Beginning at which cameras are best, to how to capture the photo and how to edit it.
I will not, however, cover how to use a camera. That’s a far larger guide and one for another day! If you are looking for a comprehensive guide on how to use any digital camera, I recommend Stunning Digital Photography. This book is absolutely fantastic and is how I self-taught myself the basics of photography.
The book is an incredible bargain. Not only is it relatively cheap, but it is regularly updated for new gear that is released. Further, it comes with a lot of private video guides!
Purchase Stunning Digital Photography
Choosing a Camera
I am sure most people who are reading this either already have a phone/camera with no intention of buying a different camera or already have a DSLR. However, if you are someone who is interested in buying a camera for night photography then this section is for you.
Any DSLR or mirrorless camera with a timer/remote and 30 seconds/bulb shutter time is usable for this. However, some cameras are superior for night photography. This is my quick checklist for picking the best camera:
- Check the ISO performance on DXOmark.
- What is the camera’s lowest ISO? Many modern cameras go down to 50 or 64 with their extended ISO range. The lower the better.
- Is the camera full-frame? Full frame makes a big difference for night photos. If you are contemplating between an expensive APS-C camera or a cheap full-frame, I would recommend the latter. Since the sensor is bigger, more light will be captured.
- Make sure the camera has a manual mode. Manual mode (the mode where you can pick all the settings) is very important for night photography.
- Can the camera be remote controlled? Either by an app or by a separate controller.
- Check to see if the camera has a stabilised sensor. This is by no means essential, but after using mirrorless cameras I can’t go back. If the wind shakes the camera, the stabilisation will prevent shake from being shown in the image.
In the end, any camera can take great night images. It is usually just a matter of patience. Taking a beautiful night shot will usually take 10+ seconds per image, and so many things can totally ruin your image. Don’t get discouraged if you get 10 bad shots! Practice always makes perfect.
My Personal Recommendation
I was originally a Canon shooter who then moved to Nikon, who then moved to Sony. My reasoning for changing systems isn’t important though, as all brands have cameras that are capable of taking amazing night photos.
This is my personal recommendation though, and I highly recommend Sony cameras. I have used the A6000, A6300, A7M3, and my daily camera is the A7R2. After picking up the A7R2, I would never go to any other line of camera. Despite being somewhat of a slow camera, it is amazing at taking night photos and a is a great travel camera.
The best low-light cameras as rated by DXO Mark.
The A7 series has many great cameras that fit many different price ranges. While the older models are slower and lack some of the speed capabilities of newer models and DSLRs, they are still fantastic at taking night photos.
Out of the A7 series, I personally recommend the A7R models. They are the highest resolution and can produce stunning images from their long exposures.
For a full list of the gear that I use, including some of my favourite lenses and other gear, check out this post on my gear. In it, I also discuss the tripods and backpack that I use, and more!
Night Photography Tips
There is a lot of information to take in here so I decided to break it down into bullet points. It’s easy to seem overwhelmed at first, but if you try to practice the tips one by one, it will quickly become second nature. Like most things, practice makes perfect!
- Use the lowest ISO possible in most cases, but don’t be afraid to try some higher ISOs to see the effect.
- Usually, you want to use the lowest ISO and a high F-number (F/8, F/11, etc) for a wider focus area. This means you will be using a slow shutter speed. As such, a tripod or flat surface is usually required.
- Don’t use an aperture that is too high. Every lens is different, but usually, they are sharper around the middle F numbers (F5.6-F11). This varies from lens to lens, but almost every lens will lose sharpness if the aperture is too high.
- Play with different shutter speeds – every speed will give you a different effect, and sometimes you will get totally unexpected results.
- Long exposure shots take a lot of patience. One car driving erratically can ruin your light trails. The wrong red light can make the cars stop and ruin the flow. Patience is key, usually, it takes 10 long exposures of the same location to get the perfect one.
- Focus on dark areas of your image to help remove some of the highlights.
- Under-exposing is much preferred to over-exposing. Most modern cameras are easily capable of lifting shadows, and as such, it is preferable to underexpose. However, often an over-exposed image can never be fully recovered.
- Make sure your tripod is heavy. Just because you have a tripod, does not mean your images won’t be blurry or soft. Most tripods have a hook on the bottom which allows you to attach a weight (maybe your camera bag, or anything heavy you have on you). This will make the tripod heavier and prevent it from moving in the wind.
- Use bracketing to capture highlights and low light areas of the image. Bracketing will take multiple images at different exposures and combine them together to show a greater dynamic range in your images. In short, it will make them look better.
- Manual focus isn’t required, but it is often superior. Since you aren’t relying on speed, manual focus is great for night shots and will allow you to capture a far sharper image. Further, it will let you customise where you focus, which allows you to pick different subjects or focus on low light areas of the image.
- Use some remote method or timer for your camera shutter. You do not want to move your camera at all while shooting long exposures, and that means no pressing the shutter button. Most cameras have a phone app that can be used, and if not, a radio kit can normally be purchased. This will allow you to use the camera without physically touching it (making it shake and therefore making your image blurry).
- If shooting through glass, use a large F-number. This will help remove the grime on the window, as well as scratches and other imperfections. Further, place your camera as close to the window as possible and if possible, use a lens hood. Placing fabric over your camera will also remove reflections. Anything from a scarf to a blanket will work.
I wanted to make this category separate as it is VERY important. There is a constant debate surrounding which file format is best – Jpeg or RAW. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, there is only really one choice for night photography.
Make sure that you have your camera set to shoot in a RAW file format. This means that you will have far more choice over the final edits that you make to the image. Since it’s likely that you will be recovering shadows, this is especially important.
Once you have some practice and are confident in your ability to capture fantastic images without the need for editing, then it’s okay to return to Jpeg images. However, RAW is definitely the way to go while you are learning or if you plan to do editing.
Night Photography Gear
All of this gear is recommended and will help you take fantastic night photos, but as with any photography, all that is truly required is a camera of some sort. Your results will improve with the right gear, and better gear, but a brilliant photo can be taken on any camera with the right technique.
- Tripod – The most obvious and best piece of gear to invest in if you plan to shoot long exposures. The tripod that I use and recommend is the Manfrotto Befree. It’s a great compact tripod that is a fantastic piece of gear for travel photography.
- Remote control for the shutter – This can be anything from your phone to a specialised remote. If you don’t have one, using self-timer on your camera will also work.
- Wide angled lens – This really depends on what style you want, but a wide-angle lens will help you capture the most detail in your image.
- Lens hood – This will remove any lights on the sides of your images from ruining the exposure.
- Torch or light of some kind – Often you will find locations (such as hills or mountains), that have no lights on them. To scout the location and change camera settings a torch is a big help! However, these days everyone has a smartphone which comes with the same function built in!
Location is something that I can’t really be specific about. The location determines the whole style of the image, and that is up to the photographer (you!), however, there are some spots that are more popular than others. High locations are obviously very popular for long exposures of skylines and cities, and while they may be cliched, they often give some amazing results.
Busy roads and highways are also great locations for beautiful long-exposure light trials. Since cars on highways constantly have to move fast, you don’t have to worry about traffic lights ruining your images.
On the street is one of the most obvious, yet often overlooked places. Streets often seem boring… We walk along them every day after all! But something to remember is that night is capable of changing everything we see. A photo at night is vastly different from one taken at day, and places are never the same at night.
Further, long exposures show a whole different world to what we can see with our amazing, yet sadly limited, eyes. This means that while streets may seem too boring to photograph, why not try at night? The results may be totally different from what you expect.
Other than that, it’s hard to say anything else about locations. Wherever in the world you live, there will be amazing locations to photograph at night. Whether in the city or country, rain or shine, every one of these elements changes the style of your photographs, and amazing results are always possible.
Editing Night Photos
Editing is one of the most important parts of long exposure photography as you have already been patiently waiting for the perfect shot, now you want to make it stand out from every other shot out there.
I won’t go into how to do everything here, there are enough guides for that out there! I will link some down below. However, I will try my best to cover the most important aspects that will give your images the ‘WOW!’ Factor.
- Recover shadows and dim the highlights. The first step is to recover shadows (remember that under-exposing is better than over-exposing) and dim the highlights.
- Increase saturation, vibrancy, clarity and contrast to taste. This is where you pick if you want your image to be colourful and bright, or dark and moody.
- Crop to make sure your horizon is flat. In my opinion, this is the most important step. Always, always, always remember to make your image flat. Nothing is more off-putting to me than seeing an image which is not aligned correctly. Simply pick a focus area for the image (maybe a building in the centre) and make sure it is straight vertically. This will make sure that the rest of your image is aligned correctly.
- Pick a focus area. What do you want to focus on? Light trails? Or a building? Depending on what you want the focus of the image to be, you can enhance those particular colours or that area. Often making the focus area a little brighter will draw attention to it. Experiment and see what you like best.
- Graduated filters are your friend! Many people (me included) tend to use the brush tool in Lightroom to make parts of the image brighter. However, the brush tool can be inconsistent. For this reason, using graduated filters are a fantastic idea!
- Use the HSL tool rather than overall saturation. The HSL tool (hue, saturation, luminescence) allows you to edit every colour in the image individually. This is better in most cases than editing the overall saturation of the image as it’s easy to make the image look unnatural this way.
While most editing is up to personal taste, these are my standard edits. Of course, some images require much more editing than others!
Before and After
This is an example of an image that I recently took in Seoul, Korea. While the original image is one that I found quite disappointing, the edit came out much better than I expected.
While there are still some changes that need to be made in the ‘after’ image (such as darkening the sky and removing a few blown-out highlights), the edit is a big improvement from the original.
I have found that for 90% of photos, no further editing is required past that which can be done in Lightroom. Photoshop is a great editing tool, but it is very time-consuming to use. Therefore, I only use it on my absolute favourite images!
While the above image is an okay start, it is by no means eye-catching enough. It’s underexposed and the colours are rather bland. Luckily, through the power of editing, this is something that is easily fixable!
The (almost) finished product! For this particular image, there are a few edits that I want to do in Photoshop. However, for the vast majority of images, I will just use lightroom.
Although it is important to try and take the best photo that you can with your camera, sometimes the desired result just isn’t possible. It is in these situations when editing can turn an otherwise mediocre image into one that is stunning!
Just remember, there are a few things that you can’t fix with editing. While you can crop smaller, you can’t add something to the image that wasn’t there originally! Make sure that you have everything in your image when you initially take it.
Further, while you can generally recover shadows, it is very hard to recover highlights that are too over-exposed. Editing is amazing, but it does have limits.
The End Result
Throughout this post, I have shown some of my night images from Seoul, South Korea. While I am by no means a master, I have improved a lot from where I began by using the tips that I have shared here.
The end result should be something that you are proud of and something that you can appreciate when you view it. While this isn’t always possible (I’ve been out a lot of times and haven’t come back with a single image that I like!), it’s important to learn and always try to improve.
Constant improvement and self-critique are in my opinion, the best way to improve your photography. At times, you may not feel like you are improving, but after a few weeks or months, you will wonder how you ever considered your older photos good!
If you are looking to learn more about taking night photos and photography in general, then these are some fantastic resources to check out. However, I first recommend reading this post on how I became a better photographer.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, I recommend Stunning Digital Photography to anyone wanting to improve their photography. The amount of information in it is truly amazing. Further, it comes with videos and access to a private Facebook group among other things. If you want to learn how to edit, then check out Tony Northrup’s Adobe Lightroom Guide.
If you have any questions feel free to ask down below and I will respond as soon as I have time. If you would like to ask specific questions about a photo, you can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.