The Magic of Night Photography

Have you ever looked at your surroundings at night and thought to yourself that it is very beautiful? The city lights look like stars, the car lights on the road zoom by like ribbons of red and white and shop signs are all lit up in neon colors. The night scene exudes moods that vanish with the light of day. It can be magical, mystical, vibrant, or ominous, among many other things and you want to capture it forever in a photograph. You are certainly capable of taking great night shots, especially after learning some quick techniques. But check your digital camera first and find out if its settings can adequately capturing night scenes.


Since night shots don’t have much available light to show the scene, it is so easy for the image to be underexposed. Your camera must be able to capture as much light as possible through the use of shutter speed and aperture. The more shutter speed options, the better. Preferably it can stay open for at least 3 seconds or up to 30 seconds long. Some cameras have a B setting which allows the shutter to remain open for as long as the shutter release button is pressed. This is perfect for capturing a starry night or very dark scenes with remote light sources. Try to keep your aperture to f/4 or f/5.6 to maximize depth of field while still allowing ample light to reach the lens.

Another setting that will affect the quality of your shot is your ISO. A lower ISO, such as 100, will provide finer grains in a shot while a higher number like 400 or 800 can make the image appear grainy. Of course, you can make the shot grainy on purpose to achieve a certain artistic effect. Just be aware that all the settings you choose contribute to the final result.

A tripod is essential when doing night photography. Since the shutter is open for some time, camera shake is inevitable without a tripod or a steady surface. Another way to avoid blurred images is by using a self-timer or a remote controller. When your finger presses the shutter release button, it can move the camera even if you are being very careful. Using a timer removes this possibility from the equation. Most cameras have self-timers but not all are equipped to use a remote controller.

By having a long exposure when taking night pictures, you can experiment with motion blur. Have you seen those night photos of cars looking like red and white streaks on the road while the rest of the scene is sharp and clear? A long exposure was used to capture the light trails and a tripod was used to keep the stationary elements in focus. Motion blur is great for night scenes that usually show a lot of action. Carnivals, festivals, and concerts are ideal places to practice this technique. You can shoot fireworks, spinning Ferris wheels and fiesta dances.

Another fun technique you can do at night is light painting. With the aid of a simple flashlight, for example, you can draw in the darkness or ‘paint’ a subject with the light. Light painting gives off a glow effect and your subject can look like it is shining in the dark. Set your shutter speed to around 5 seconds, or approximate the time it will take you to light your subject. Experiment with the different speeds to achieve the intended effect.

If you are planning to stay in a certain spot for awhile for some night shooting, try to familiarize yourself with the area first before you set up your gear. If you are outdoors in the countryside, know the lay of the land and check the weather conditions. If you are out in the city, be wary of muggers and pickpockets. Do not leave your gear unattended while you are staring through the lens up at the pretty city lights. Pick a spot where you can see the subject with no distractions such as people passing by and obstructing your view.

Just as the sun is an important factor when taking day shots, the moon is equally significant in night photography. The placement of the moon in the sky can cause different shadows depending on where it is. A moon hanging low near the horizon will create long shadows while one that is directly overhead can cause harsh shadows. Its intensity can also impact the shot. For instance, a bright full moon can help light up the scene.

This entry was posted on Friday, August 27th, 2010 at 9:00 am and is filed under Articles, Nature Photography, Photography Basics, Photography Techniques, Photography Tips. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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