A Comprehensive Guide to Night Photography

Night photography can be one of the more advanced forms of photography, but by nailing the basics, you’ll be able to capture the best night photographs quickly, which are of the highest quality.

There is a lot of technical skill and patience needed to capture the perfect night shot, so we are going to take you through the most essential tips to help you begin to master night time photography.

Whether this is your first time picking up a camera, or whether you’ve been shooting for a while and struggle to get that perfect night shot, this guide will help you figure out every aspect needed for night photography.

Getting started with night photography

Before you pack up your camera gear and head out to capture your shot, there are a few basics you need to know. Possessing the right equipment is integral in helping you grasp the art of night photography, as is a sound knowledge of the creative processes which go into taking a picture.

Essential night photography equipment

There are a few pieces of equipment that we highly recommend, which will help you take the clearest and highest quality shots.

● Tripod - As you’ll be using very slow shutter speeds, you need to make sure you can keep your camera perfectly still. This is where a tripod comes in useful. Simply press the shutter button and let the camera do the work, safe in the knowledge that it’s being held as still as possible.

● Wide Angle Lens (Landscapes) - If you are shooting night sky or skyscrapers, you need a wide-angle lens. Choosing a varied focal length lens will give you more options and the recommended focal length is 10-20mm or 18-35mm.

● A 50mm Prime Lens (Portraits) - If you are looking for a great lens for portrait night photography, a standard 50mm prime lens is perfect.

● A 200mm Zoom Lens (Extreme Close Ups) - You may be looking to capture some detailed shots of the moon or the stars, in which case a zoom lens like the 200mm is essential for helping you get close to the subject.

● A Shutter Release or Remote Control – To ensure there’s no camera shake from pressing the shutter button, use a shutter release or remote to take the picture. These are always handy to have, just in case.

Choosing the right shutter speed

night photography

One of the technical skills you need to master is how to use shutter speed to your advantage. As you’ll be shooting at night, getting the right amount of light can be tricky. This can also prove difficult if you are trying to expose the photo for both the night sky and the bright lights of the stars or a city.

When taking photos in the day, you will capture your subject in a fraction of a second, whereas when taking photos at night you will be aiming for around four to 30 seconds of exposure, because the camera needs exposure to more light.

How long you choose to set your shutter speed depends on your subject. If you have any bright or shining lights in the photo, you may aim for a shutter speed of around four to eight seconds.

If you are trying to capture the hidden beauty of a pitch black night sky, then a much longer shutter speed of 30 seconds may be necessary.

Choosing the right ISO

ISO is another function that is crucial to getting the best exposure for your night photography. You may have been told to keep the ISO as low as possible when shooting in daylight in order to retain the sharpness of the image. However, a higher exposure is needed for night photography.

That said, a high ISO can cause problems when it comes to getting the perfect exposure and a nice crisp image. A trick is to set your shutter speed to what you think you will need and then adjust the ISO accordingly, in order to perfectly expose the image.

The quality of the image also depends on the camera body you are using, as more advanced cameras can handle a high ISO, giving you a clear image with minimal grain. However, cheaper cameras may struggle past an ISO of 1600.

Choosing the right aperture

Aperture is the last component of exposure and dictates the amount of depth in your images. A lower aperture will produce greater depth of field in your photos, but a high aperture will allow more of the frame to be in focus.

A low aperture is best when it comes to night photography, as it will help you get the right amount of light into the camera.

We recommend getting your aperture and shutter speed set to your optimal settings first, then adjust your ISO to bring the overall exposure to where it should be. Your ISO should never lead the exposure settings, as it slowly brings down the quality of the photo the higher it gets.

What is the best way to shoot your subject at night?

Landscapes, cityscapes and portraits are the three most popular subjects when it comes to night photography. Each subject requires slightly different settings and skills, so we are going to take you through each one. 

Taking photographs of the night sky

Getting pictures of the night sky can be tricky, depending on what your focus is. If you are looking to capture the full depth of the sky with stars and galaxies, you should look to use the longest shutter speed possible.

However, if you are taking an extreme close up image of the moon with your zoom lens, your shutter speed may be higher, as there will be more light from the moon to work with.

Getting your focus right is one of the biggest obstacles when trying to take photographs of the night sky. Switching to manual focus is best, as it can be hard for the camera to find AF points in low light. You can also overexpose the image you see in camera, in order to get your focus right, then bring those settings back down in order to get the perfectly exposed shot.

Capturing a night time cityscape

Cityscapes can be tricky to capture, as you will be trying to expose for both the low light, but also the lights of the city.

When shooting cityscapes, many photographers prefer to lead with aperture and will switch to aperture mode on their cameras. This helps control ISO and shutter speed better and allows you to get the sharpest images possible.

The same goes for the rule of thirds (mentally dividing up your images using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines and positioning the important elements in the scene along the lines or where the points meet) – don’t be afraid to throw the rulebook out!

Remember your background

Make sure nothing in the background messes with your subject’s appearance, you don’t want to get home at the end of a long photoshoot only to discover that a tree in the background is awkwardly placed directly above your subject’s head, making for an odd-looking hairdo.

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