On Night Photography

Many of the comments on last night’s post asked about the techniques required for night photography.  Let me start by saying that I’m far from an expert on the topic but I’m happy to share my own experiences in that realm.  Since I’m apparently connected narrative impaired today, I’ll devolve to bullet-points.

  1. Tripods:  Get one. One tall enough that you don’t have to stoop to use it.  And don’t leave it in the car.
  2. ISO:  While it’s tempting to set your ISO at 6400 and go to town, remember that higher ISO’s are more sensitive to light but they’re also more subject to graininess.  I tend to stay at 400 all the time, night or day and if I’m REALLY desperate for light I might go up to 1000.  Also remember that different cameras react very differently to higher ISOs.  My old Canon 20D looks like hell at 400 ISO but my newer camera is sharp as a tack.  However, if you’re into grain then you’re in luck.  Jack it up as high as it’ll go!
  3. Aperture:  You know, I don’t really have a great answer to this one.  In most cases, the things one shoots at night are far away so depth of field might not be that important.  So it’s tempting to blow the aperture wide open and have at it.  However, I’ve had some spotty results in the past so part of me wonders if this isn’t a lot more important than it seems since low-light conditions do tend to play havoc with one’s auto-focus.  So unless someone has a more definitive answer, I say simply, experiment.
  4. Shutter Speed: Since you can’t just crank up the ISO and the aperture only opens so far, shutter speed is about all you’re left with.  Thus the reason you went out and got a good tripod.  Just make sure you’re aware of the wind.  Even the tiniest little vibration can turn a good exposure into a huge disappointment.
  5. Light Metering: Point light sources play havoc with your light meter so take whatever it tells you with a grain of salt.  In this digital age we can preview the exposure so put yourself on manual mode and find a sweet spot and stick to it.
  6. Movement: Generally, movement + dark = death.  However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Use the movement to your advantage and do something artful.  Play with bulb mode a bit.  But don’t expect any crisp action shots of that night flag football game you got invited to.

Anyway, those are my top six.  I’d welcome the input of the photographers out there who have been doing this for a LOT longer than I have.  I’m sure other readers would appreciate your input and frankly, so would I!

From 2012-01-08
From 2012-01-05
From 2011-11-24 – Sandhill Cranes, Lafayette Misc *
From Misc 09-22-10
From Las Vegas, Nevada
From 2011-06-18


  1. Thanks for all the tips. I still don’t have a tripod, which is pretty ridiculous. I have it in my budget to spend some money on camera equipment over the next couple of months so I will definitely be getting one. Yay!

  2. Good tips, Rob. Search under Alister Benn and you should find a wealth of quality info on night photography. He’s a mate of mine and a very fine photographer.

  3. Thanks so much for posting this! I actually really wanted to try night photography after seeing A lot like love the movie. Theres a part where this girl takes a long exposure of herself and her boyfriend naked with the stars behind them and it was a pretty amazing shot. I have been so afraid of night photography because its so beautiful id hate to fail. (my current fear). I am going to take your advice and try it out…soon 🙂 thanks again!

  4. On #4, actually you can just crank up the ISO, easily on many DSLR’s to 6400 and expandable to 12800. If you get too much noise, well, that’s where Lightroom, Photoshop, Paintshop Pro, Photo-Paint, Gimp, Picassa, Picnik, and others come into play. There’s really no reason in today’s world to miss out on a picture.

    • Fair enough; I’m young enough to be aware of such possibilities but old enough to be old fashioned and resistant to taking that route. 🙂 But yes, there are plenty of noise reduction techniques in post processing that I’m totally ignoring.

  5. Rob,
    Good points, the tripod is no1, without a tripod, go home, unless you are looking for movement, photos of funfairs can be done with a flash, I never use a tripod for funfairs.
    To be honest, almost all my non funfair night pictures are done with a tripod, a good quality compact and set on program mode. If there is enough light it works if the isn’t it won’t.

  6. And another thing, I generally set my iso to 100 or so, if it is on a stable tripod you should not get movement. One last point, set it on self timer, set a minimum of 5 seconds, so you are not touching the camera when the shutter fires or use a cable release.

  7. Great images. The “don’t leave the tripod in the car” comment made me giggle.

    I took a night photography class at once point and you covered most the things they talked about. The other thing was paying attention to the lights around you as light can bleed in. Is why they sometimes suggest a cloth or a hood to put around your camera.

  8. Thanks for the tips. I’m working on night photography. I didn’t do nearly as well as I wanted to at my SB46 night time attempt. I took a monopod (because I’m a wimp and didn’t want to take my tripod due to weight). But I lost a lot of good shots. Your tips are helpful and I’m going to try more night photography, but not at the Super Bowl.

  9. As far as aperture goes, it’s really just dependent on your subject and what style/effect you’re goIng for. It’s really no different from day time shooting.

    Shooting stars, moon, landscapes are likely going to be smaller apertures (f8 or smaller) but require longer exposures (I’d stay near 100 or 200 ISO on a tripod).

    Portrait photography, sports (if you have fast enough glass) are going to be shot likely more wide open for more bokeh.

    Shooting with large apertures can do great things with lights in the background of your subject.

    • Thanks! The moon is rather tricky. I’ve screwed it up dozens of times. I generally tend to forget that it is REALLY bright so forget what your light meter says and try a few test exposures. Usually 3+ stops below what your meter wants you to shoot at!

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