Success in a low lighting situation is simply a matter of preparedness, the ability to balance the exposure triangle at longer shutter speeds and some smart post-processing. In this guide, you’ll learn about managing your equipment during a night shoot, balancing your exposure settings to achieve the desired effect, and techniques to use both in-camera and during post-processing to get the stunning night photos you’ve been working towards.
Night photography equipment
You don’t necessarily need specialised equipment to move from day to night, but there are some items you can add to your kit that will make your life easier. Nature photographer Axel Azni recommends keeping three things in your camera bag at all times: a tripod, remote control and a polarizing filter.
If you aren’t already using a lens hood, consider investing in one. Because night photography is a minefield of contrast—street lamps juxtaposed against a dark sky, car lights streaming across tarmac—you’ll be especially susceptible to lens flares. While flare is great for artistic reasons, you want the option of foregoing it as well.
Depending on location and time of year, night can mean cold temperatures, which is detrimental to your battery. Preparedness goes a long way here: bring extra batteries and store them under your outer layers, near your body heat (similar to what you would do for a winter shoot—read our tips for shooting in cold conditions here). Since you’ll be working with longer exposures, your batteries will already be depleted more quickly. Turn off Live View when you’re not actively using it and set your camera to automatically turn off if there’s no action. You don’t want to waste precious battery life while you’re trekking from one location to the next.
“Plan ahead by keeping tabs on the weather as it can really enrich the atmosphere of your project. If something catches your eye during the day, come back at night to see what light you have to work with and how this light alters the scene,” photographer Calvin Freeman suggests.
The weather can also have an impact on your equipment, and not only your batteries. If you shoot around the time of a temperature shift (like in the early hours of the morning, around dewpoint), your lens may fog up. This does not only create clarity issues: you don’t want to risk getting moisture inside your equipment. Look for a clear, protective lens filter at your camera shop of choice.
For stargazing, use an app such as PhotoPills to help with precision regarding timing and location. Plan not only for the weather, but also for the position of the moon and the stars. PhotoPills also includes a compass feature that helps orient you for the right shot, but a classic compass will work just as well.
Bring a quality flashlight to help set up, check camera settings, assess a scene in the dark, and get a focus point. Bringing a flashlight is also a valuable safety measure.
Do some research on your location during the day to find the right vantage points when you come back later after dark. Don’t be afraid to return to the same spot multiple times. “Location is everything,” photographer Ebby Amir tells us. “Vibrant cities with neon lights are a sure-fire way to capture unique images. Dark alleys also make for some eye-catching visuals. Even if you’re in a location that has been shot a million times over, interesting conditions like rain or fog can transform it into something totally unique.”
Settings for low-light shooting
Don’t let the longer shutter speeds fool you; balancing the exposure triangle at night isn’t all that different from the daytime. Leave yourself plenty of time to not only evaluate the scenes in muted lighting, but to also make the longer exposures.
The first decision you’ll need to make is whether or not to freeze the motion in your shot. If you’re shooting a starscape, for example, a surprisingly short amount of extra time can result in unintended star trails (check out James’ Spotlight article: Shooting series #1: Polaris star trails for further tips). For a cityscape, look out for car headlights and pedestrians. Once you’ve evaluated how you want to show moving objects in your photo, you can start balancing your exposure.
Keep an eye on the ISO too. “As a film photographer, I wish I had paid attention to the ISO of my film stock when I first started taking night shots,” Christopher Button tells us. “It sounds a bit obvious but using a night-specific film of 800 ISO or more is key. I use a tungsten film for my work—CineStill 800t. I find this captures the colours of neon lights really well and is perfect for my Hong Kong street shots.”
Night photography is supposed to have a healthy dose of darkness, so let your blacks be black and spot meter your highlights. It’s easy to let things like street lamps and neon signage get blown out when you’re trying to get detail in the darker areas, but as long as you’re shooting in RAW you should be able to compensate in post-processing. Consider increasing your exposure compensation by +1 or +2 if you have bright elements in your night image.
If you aren’t concerned about motion blur or movement in your photo, your highest priority is finding the aperture and ISO that work for your vision. Next, leave the shutter open for however long it takes to achieve a quality exposure. Here’s how to make that happen:
High ISO testing
Balancing an exposure that lasts several minutes can be time-consuming, which is problematic if you’re trying to catch a specific time of day. You can speed up the balancing process with High ISO Testing. This involves temporarily increasing your ISO to find the right exposure balance, saving time over the ‘guessing game’ approach when you’re working with exposures that each go for several minutes.
Your camera may not allow you to take an exposure long enough for your needs. In that case, switch over to bulb mode. This allows you to leave your shutter open as long as the shutter button is engaged. Use a timer to keep track of your bulb exposure length and keep notes of your exposure times to avoid having to test settings multiple times.
Although motion isn’t a concern in this example, you still want to avoid camera shake in your image, so use a tripod and a remote shutter release to get a solid shot. Wind can also affect longer exposures, as well as vibrations from people walking past, air conditioning units and passing trains. Choose your vantage point wisely; if necessary, place weights at the bottom of your tripod for stability.
It can be tempting to bump up your ISO and be done with it when trying to balance a low-light exposure with a fast shutter speed. However, night photography can be particularly vulnerable to digital noise, both of the colour and luminance varieties. Your camera model will determine the exact ISO where noise starts to become apparent, but as a general rule start zooming in on anything above 1600 to check for tell-tale speckles.
Stacking multiple exposures will help you keep details in both the darker and lighter areas of a photo. A stable setup is especially important here, since the slightest movement can ruin an entire HDR. Using Affinity Photo (HDR Merge) makes it easy to get great results.
Broad swaths of light painting can add definition to darker areas of your image. You may need either a wireless remote shutter release or an assistant/friend to get quality results. A hefty flashlight is a suitable alternative to bringing studio lights outside. Simply shine the flashlight on the element you want to see more of for a portion of your exposure. You may need to test different lengths of time or shake the flashlight around to get a natural-looking result. Vehicle headlights are also a great tool for adding light to larger areas. Again, you’ll need to evaluate how long you want to keep them on in order to avoid a spotlight effect.
“At night, I like to go out and shoot in places with no light at all,” photographer and light painter Ignas Maldus tells us. “The only thing with natural light is the sky itself, and all the rest is my painting. I paint with hundreds of colour flashes for a single shot, and anything I don’t want in my picture I leave in the dark.”
Setting the mood
Night-time is perfect for moody, cinematic shots. In addition to technical considerations, remember to get the atmosphere right. “Mindfulness is a huge key to being a good and observant photographer,” photographer Jack Garland tells us. “Sometimes, going out with music can help you really lock in a feeling. I tend to have music playing while I walk and let that help me as I search for scenes.”
Night photography tends to need specific types of editing. For example, blown-out highlights, muddy shadows, and warm colour casts will usually rear their ugly heads. If you find that the type of night photography you shoot results in predictable issues, create your own presets to counteract them. You can also create custom macros with personalised keyboard shortcuts to speed up your workflow. Here are some common problems you might encounter:
Blown-Out highlights—decrease highlights in post-processing using Shadows/Highlights adjustment layer. You may regain some colour information and you’re more likely to see detail return. Adjusting the Levels of the whites in the image using HSL>luminosity shift, for example, will compensate by greying out hotspots, which is a dead giveaway that you had issues with the editing process.
Muddy shadows—against what your intuition may tell you, lighten your shadows setting. Any detail that’s still hidden in there will emerge. Then bring back some contrast by adjusting your black levels with a Levels Adjustment.
Excessive digital noise—luminance noise may be best left untouched, since it’s mostly textural; even the best noise reduction tools will cause a marked decrease in sharpness. Focus on fixing colour noise, which will stand out in dark areas like a night sky. Zoom in and out as you manage colour noise to find the right balance between colour noise reduction and colour preservation throughout other portions of your image.
Overly warm colour casts—you can always try to manage this in-camera, but chances are you’ll still end up doing some type of colour management in post. A Colour Balance or HSL Adjustment layer will allow you to make colour shifts without permanently altering your image. Changing sliders toward the blue side until the colour spectrum looks more natural.
With all of these elements to consider, don’t forget to have fun. As photographer David Egan says, “find your niche or interests within night photography. This could mean photographing star trails, making multi-hour long exposures, flash photography, painting with light, photographing neon, whatever it may be. Ultimately, though, you should be making photographs that you enjoy making.”
About the contributor
Feature Shoot showcases the work of international emerging and established photographers who are transforming the medium through compelling, cutting-edge projects, with contributing writers from all over the world.