Night photography: how it works and how to succeed

If there is one area that is often neglected by many people (myself included), it is night photography. In his defense, one would tend to think that there is not much to photograph at night because it is simply too dark. We often don’t even want to take our camera out when it’s dark on a trip, for example, preferring to hang out in night markets or simply rest to prepare for the next day! Perhaps you are looking for ways to improve your travel photos?

However, at night is often the time when the play of lights comes on and there are great photographic opportunities. I am thinking in particular of people living in cities, near tall buildings, lighted bridges or even lakes/ponds/sea bodies of water.

From a technical point of view, if you’re new to photography, you probably have the impression that it must be complicated to shoot during this time. Indeed, it’s not that simple, but it can be learned and mastered. Your main enemy here will therefore be, you guessed it, the lack of light. Let’s now see together how to make a success of your night shots, by evoking the adjustments, the choice of the material and some advices as a bonus.

The constraints of the lack of light

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The constraints of the lack of light

As mentioned above, the main concern of night photography is therefore the lack of brightness. You’re going to tell me, normal, it’s night! Let’s see how we can compensate it by playing on the three parameters that make up the photo exposure.

    You slow down the shutter speed as much as possible: you will be limited by hand rather quickly,

    You open the diaphragm of your lens: this is equivalent to placing your aperture towards a small number “f/”. You are limited here by the maximum aperture of your lens,

    You increase the ISO sensitivity: by increasing the ISOs, you let more light into your sensor and you can take faster. You are limited by the maximum ISOs of your camera body. As a reminder, the more you increase the ISOs, the more noise you have on your photo (quality that deteriorates).

Here are the 3 points to compensate for the lack of light. Each of these choices will impact your photo in a more or less strong way, for example the appearance of noise (for the ISO), the decrease of the depth of field (for the aperture), or a blurred photo (for the speed). But there is a magical tool that could help you make one of the above choices: the tripod!

If I speak to you in Chinese and you don’t yet master all the technical terms related to the exhibition in particular, I refer you to the theme on the basics of photography. Remember that the 3 elements that make up the photo exhibition are intimately linked and that moving one parameter inevitably impacts another one next to it.

The ideal settings for night photography (and their impacts)

Now let’s look at the settings for the night shot and the impact they have on your picture. The items listed below apply primarily if you don’t have a tripod. Of course, with a tripod, you can do whatever you want in terms of settings…

The opening

If you’re running out of light, the first thing you’ll have to do is open your lens diaphragm (simply put the smallest “f/” possible). As a reminder, opening from f/5.6 to f/4 brings twice as much light to your sensor. Concretely, you’ll be able to shoot twice as fast as before (the camera compensates for the excess of light by simply shooting faster if you’re in semi-automatic mode for example). Do you see where I’m going with this? If you go down to f/2.8 again, you’ve doubled again, etc.

Two limits:

1 – You will be very quickly limited by the maximum aperture of your lens. If you are a beginner and you have a low range lens, it will be f/4 or f/5.6 for example,

2 – Decreasing the aperture will cause a decrease in the depth of field. Concretely, your scene will be less sharp everywhere (depending on where you focus).

The speed

The problem with shooting speed is blurred movement. Indeed, you won’t be able to get a sharp freehand picture below a certain speed (depends on your stability and your focal length). Using a lens with a stabilizer may allow you to gain a bit in speed but let’s say that above 1/10 or 1/15th, your pictures will be blurry anyway and you will have no choice but to use a tripod.

As a small aside and to keep in mind the relationship between the focal length (in mm) and the maximum shooting speed, we recommend, at the very least, the equivalent between the two. Let me explain. With a 300mm telephoto lens, it would be advisable to shoot at 1/300th for example. With a 11-18mm wide-angle lens, it will be possible to take a sharp picture up to 1/20th for example. The longer you have a long focal length, the more speed you will need. I let you imagine that you photograph animals at night or almost at night with a 600mm for example…


The last point of the exposure triangle, it is the parameter that can save our lives in some cases. All the parameters being linked, if you have opened your aperture to the maximum (“f/” at the lowest) and your DSLR still displays a too slow speed, you will be able to compensate by increasing the ISO. Going from ISO 400 to IS0 800 will allow you to gain 1 notch of speed, that is to say to take twice as fast.

The disadvantage of this technique is of course the appearance of digital noise in the dark/black areas of the scene. Your photo will degrade enormously so be careful to find the right balance.

The ideal settings for night photography (and their impacts)

How do I do it then?

Let’s take a simple example: you’re in town at night, you’ve opened your aperture to the maximum of your lens, say f/2.8, the camera displays 1/4s, which is impossible. You are already at IS0 1600 which is the maximum limit of your camera body. What happens then in this case? Well, you’re stuck and all your pictures may simply be blurred.

Not to mention the fact that shooting at f/2.8 will probably make part of your scene blurry, which is not what you wanted in the first place. You have no choice but to shoot using a tripod. Your only option would be to have more suitable equipment, more about that below.

White balance

It can happen that in night photography, the white balance (from basic to automatic on your camera) can play tricks on you. If you take the pictures in RAW, this is not a problem, because you will be able to adjust it in post-processing. Otherwise, do not hesitate to make several tries to find the correct value of the moment.

Focusing the picture

If you don’t master the notions of focus and autofocus yet, I let you read again the dedicated article in the basics of photography. Depending on the quality of the collimators of your camera body, it is possible that depending on the situation, you may not be able to focus in automatic on your subject in the dark. In any case, remember to always manually select your collimator (and not let the camera do it).

I often advise to use the center focuser of your camera body which is often the best and the one that catches the subject the best. Start there. If you still can’t do it, don’t hesitate to switch to manual focus mode and focus yourself by turning the dedicated ring.

What equipment should I choose for night photography?

As explained above, photographic equipment is important for night photography. Whether you take your photo freehand or with a tripod, the idea is the same. The only thing that changes is that if you shoot on a tripod, you have less to worry about your equipment. Why is that? Simply because, on a tripod, you can make the settings you want and often the optimal settings: ISO at the lowest setting, chosen aperture (f/11 for example so that the whole scene is in focus) and speed adapted to the other two parameters. Even if the camera shows you a 5-second picture, you can still take it on a tripod. All this is impossible without it.

For freehand photography, I can see two things to clarify:

    The camera body: the more you have a camera body that goes up in ISO, the more you will be able to take a picture quickly (even if noise will appear as you go along). On my 6D, I can easily shoot IS0 6000 pictures, the quality remains correct. At the time, with my 500D, I was stuck at ISO 1600 and I couldn’t take sharp pictures in the middle of the jungle in Sumatra…

Ideally, choose a housing with a high number of collimators and good qualities. This will be really useful when you want to hang a subject in the dark where the contrast of the scene is not often there.

Of course, needless to say that the more collimators you have and the more you choose a camera that goes up in ISO, the more expensive it will be.

I propose you to take a detailed look at three examples of perfect night photography equipment: the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 (large maximum aperture), the Canon 5D Mark IV camera body (top ISO) and the excellent Canon 85mm f/1.8 (perfect for quick shooting).

    Your lenses: freehand, the ideal will be to have bright and stabilized lenses to put all the chances on your side. Some of them are overpriced, but you can find little gems like the Canon 50mm F/1.8 or the 85mm f/1.8 at very affordable prices!

The larger your lenses will have a maximum aperture (I repeat: a small “f/”), the more you will be able to let light into your camera and take the picture faster (limit the motion blur).

Among the essential photo accessories for night photography, we can mention :

    The photo tripod: the choice is not simple and it will be necessary to adapt your purchase to your practice and to the weight of your current or future photo equipment. You can refer to my article on the subject in the basics. Here are a few good references to get you started.

    A remote control: it comes with the tripod and remains ideal to limit the movements when you press the shutter release. In the worst case, you can use the self-timer on your camera. It will also be essential for long night exposures. I personally use this one.

    Extra batteries: if you are a fan of long exposures or if you photograph in the cold, having at least one spare battery is always recommended.

A few more tips to make your night photos a success

In bulk to finish, here are some recommendations and techniques to keep in a corner of his head to improve your night photos.

Enjoy the blue hour

It’s that moment of the day just between day and night, that time of the day so loved by some photographers. A very special atmosphere often emerges from the photos taken during this short period of time. You can refer to specialized photo sites to know when is the blue hour of the day depending on where you are.

Playing with the lights in the city

In the countryside without lights, you won’t have fun at night, but in the city, there’s really something to do with all the lights present. Whether it is the lights of cars, buildings, storefronts, fountains, you have all the subjects or almost all to please you! Make by originality! Holiday periods are ideal for lights of course.

What equipment should I choose for night photography?

Think of the reflections in the water.

Often in the city, you also have quite a few small bodies of water. I’m thinking of parks, green gardens, that sort of thing. You can very often have fun and play with the reflections in the water, for example at blue time or with lights that are reflected in the surroundings.

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Make long poses

If you master the long daytime pose, why not try this technique at night. It’s a perfect time to let your imagination run wild. In the city, you have some great things to do with night rides, passing cars or fountains. Tripod mandatory, no choice here.

Mastering the bokeh with a big opening

For fans of shallow depth of field (understanding how to highlight a subject by blurring the front or background), night is a great playground. You’ll be able to put details of the scenes in front of you and get, for example, beautiful bokehs with blurred lights in the background. It’s really the occasion to make beautiful dark pictures with these famous colored circles in the background. In Christmas time, you have something to enjoy. Technical advices : open at full speed (your smallest “f/”), be careful with your speed if you are freehand (even if you have to raise the ISO) and take care of your compositions to emphasize the subject.

Shooting raw for post-processing

Last technical advice. I often talk about it in my articles, but being able to shoot in RAW allows you to make up for your shooting mistakes a little better. For example, if you under-exposed your photo too much, it will be much harder to recover it in JPEG (which is already a treatment in itself). I wrote a complete article on the difference between RAW and JPEG, it’s a gift!

Here I am, I’m coming to the end of this article on night photography. I hope you’ve learned some things? There would be more to say in reality or more detailed, but the idea is there I think. It’s a subject that I myself don’t master perfectly and I really need to go out more often in the dark. And is it a time of day that you like to take pictures?