Photographs taken at night look great. The good ones, that is. The bad ones can really look bad. Taking pictures in low light is…well…it’s not easy to get right. Definitely not as easy as it seems – and if you’ve ever shot with a compact camera at night, you’d know what I mean. The blurry, shaken, disastrous look of a poor night photograph is always worse than a poorly taken daylight shot – it’s true. Maybe that’s why taking a good night shot is so satisfying
Taking shots in low-light conditions takes practice…some level of skill…knowledge on how to set your camera to adapt to these conditions…and to a certain extent, some specific gear. Like when shooting anything else, I guess
In this post, I’ll try to list out some stuff that has helped me improve my night shots over the years. You’ve probably read some of these tips already – maybe some of them will be new – but hopefully reading through them again will help you get it better (?!)
Ok, the only real way to get great night shots is to use a long exposure. Any other way is just going to be a compromise for lack of gear or an unhelpful situation. That’s right. If you want the perfect night shot, a long exposure is a must
Why? Well, as you might know, a long exposure is basically a photograph taken with a very slow shutter speed…often upward of a full second…which, put quite simply, allows more light to enter your camera. To expose any shot, a certain level of light is necessary…right? Yeah, so if your conditions are dim, you need to expose your photo for longer to get sufficient amount of light to fall onto your image sensor (or film) and get your shot looking right. That’s pretty much what a long exposure does. This could be an exposure of anything from around a full second to 30 seconds, sometimes even more
A long exposure setting will also allow you to use a lower ISO setting, and get a finer quality result. High ISO settings will allow you to shoot at a faster shutter speed, but will degrade your image quality with digital noise on your photo. When you’ve set yourself up for a long exposure, you can lower your ISO and get a really high-quality look to your shot – unlike the grainy, blurry mobile-phone-look!
Long exposures also enhance your shot in many ways. A long exposure night shot will improve reflections in your scene, make little lights twinkle, create visible signs of movement such as beautiful light trails etc., and simply make your shot look better. These are the little things that come together and create the kind of special night shot that looks impressive. For example, if you’re shooting a waterfront, or some area with water below lit-up buildings, a long exposure will really make those reflections off the water surface stand out clearly. The building lights will twinkle and shine. And if there’s a street working its way through the frame, the cars whizzing past will be captured as lovely, long light trails that will ‘paint’ the shape of the street. Beautiful
Yes, that’s why a good night photograph needs to be exposed long. Most of the night shots you’ve seen (including the shots above) have been taken using a long exposure…and I’m talking very long…measured in full seconds, sometimes upward of 30 seconds. The (only) downside here is that it is impossible to hold the camera by hand during such an exposure. Don’t even try it. During an exposure of, say, 10 seconds…every little movement made to your camera is registered, and will show up in your image, resulting in a blurry, shaken image. To get a steady, sharp night shot:
- Use a tripod – This is a must! My single biggest bit of advice in this entire post is to get yourself a tripod. Get a cheap one if you feel you won’t be using it often – but get something! Without a tripod, night shots are very, very hard to take. A cheap one is better than none
- Turn off image stabilization (IS) if your camera/lens has it – IS can sometimes create slight vibrations which are felt as motion when your camera is fixed to a tripod. When it’s already steady, you don’t need this, and it might worse your shot instead. Just turn it off
- Use a self timer or a shutter release cable or wireless remote – Your finger depressing the shutter can cause a bit of movement in the camera, and during such a long exposure, that movement can be exaggerated and ruin your shot. A shutter release cable will allow you to release the shutter without touching the camera…as will a wireless remote. If you don’t have either of these, you can always use your camera’s self timer (2 sec) mode…which will release the shutter two seconds after you pressed it, meaning there will be no movement because of it during the exposure
- If you’re using a DSLR, turn on the mirror lockup mode – DSLRs have a mirror in front of the lens that allows you to see through the viewfinder. When you press the shutter, the mirror lifts, allowing the light to hit your sensor. This mirror movement can disturb the camera too, and in a long exposure, this can show on the photo as a bit of camera shake. To avoid this, turn on your mirror lockup mode (depending on your DSLR, it’ll be somewhere in the menu), which basically makes you press the shutter button twice. You compose your shot, then press the shutter button once, which lifts up the mirror but doesn’t release the shutter. You then press the shutter button again for the shutter to release…and as the shutter is released after the mirror’s locked, there’s no movement captured. Obviously, you should use a cable release for this. The 2 sec self timer will work too
If you do all that, your shots should be very sharp indeed – but sometimes it’s just not possible or practical to do all this. Read on…
Shortening your exposure
Yes, there’s always the time when you can’t carry a tripod around…or forgot to…or simply didn’t have one when you found the perfect shot you wanted to capture. If that’s the case, simply try to shorten your exposure enough to give you a steady shot while handholding your camera – that is, keep your shutter to a manageable speed, one that you can safely hold by hand. The general rule of thumb is that you can steadily handhold the camera at a shutter speed of 1/(your focal length) so if you shoot at 50mm, you should be able to hold it safely at 1/50 sec – and as modern image stabilization systems allow you to go a couple of stops slower, you might be able to go as slow as 1/15 sec at 50mm and get a sharp, steady shot
However, remember that when you use a short exposure, you say goodbye to the beautiful light trails and reflections and the other stuff that makes long exposures special…you say goodbye to a lot of the magic that we love about a top night shot…but at least, you’d get a pretty sharp, steady shot of the particular moment you wanted to capture. And that’s a good thing
Ok, in these cases when you’re trying to make do without a tripod, you could try a few things. Firstly, look for a tripod replacement. This could be anything. A stack of books that could hold your camera steady…a table…a chair…even the floor. Give it a try. If this is the case, all the above long exposure tips will apply
If not, shorten your exposure:
- Open your aperture wide – Like the slow shutter speed, a wide aperture allows more light in. Therefore, a wide aperture (f2.8, f3.5 etc) will allow you to increase your shutter speed by quite a lot while still allowing enough light to enter the camera. If you’re shooting a single subject against a background, this will help you get a shallower depth of field. If you want everything in focus i.e. for a landscape, fear not: simply focus your lens to infinity, which ensures maximum depth of field, even at this wide aperture, and should be very useable even for a landscape or cityscape at night
- Increase ISO – This will definitely degrade your image quality, as digital noise will be present in your shot, depending on how high you go…but I keep saying, a grainy/noisy but sharp image is always better than a fine quality image that is blurry…so remember to keep the ISO under control but don’t be afraid to bump it up when really necessary i.e. bump it up to get to that handhold-able shutter speed!
- Hold the camera steady – If you don’t have a tripod, try to be the tripod yourself. It’s impossible for long exposures, but for slow-ish shutter speeds, your camera-holding technique can play a huge part in how steady your shots are. A couple of techniques:
- Hold your camera with both hands, tuck your elbows tightly into your ribs, hold your breath
- Lean against a solid object, such as a door frame, a table/chair, something that will keep you steady, and again, hold your breath
- Sit on the floor, and raise your knees while keeping your feet flat on the ground…and place the camera on your knees…using your legs as a tripod
- There are many other techniques, and there are complete articles written purely on using various techniques to hold your camera steady – here’s a good one - just do a quick Google if you want to know more, as there are plenty of other articles too
- If you’re using a DSLR, again…try the mirror lockup feature
- Oh, and keep your image stabilization feature ON this time
Hopefully taking a night shot following the above steps should give you a fairly usable result without a tripod. It depends on a lot of factors, but try to follow the stuff I just mentioned, in general…and adapt it to your situation, and you should get some pretty good shots. As you can see, the shots I’ve taken above without a tripod are not bad at all…pretty usable I’d say. And I don’t have the steadiest hands in the world…I’m sure you could do a lot better!
A couple of further tips to use in some scenarios
For short exposures, and some long exposures…in certain situations…use a flash. This applies to very specific circumstances, and well…flash photography is a whole other study, which is impossible to discuss further here…but if you’re looking to take night portraits, or any other situation where you’ll be shooting a particular subject that you want exposed perfectly, in low light, read up on using a flash. This could be handheld…with a tripod…yeah, there’s a whole lot you can do with a flash. Read up on it. Your built-in flash is rarely going to be enough, and will rarely give you good results even if it is enough…so you might want to look into an external flash…third party ones do a decent job and can be got for cheap
Another tip that is specific to a certain situation…in this case, shooting landscapes or cityscapes…pick the right time! There’s a short period of around 20 minutes after sunset but before it gets completely dark, when the sky has a rich blue color, and is not a complete, flat black. This looks great in a photograph, and is also a bit easier to shoot, maybe even handheld. It adds a lot of contrast to your shot, a burst of color, and makes a great backdrop to your cityscape. People call it the ‘Blue Hour’ – after sunset, before complete darkness – you should definitely try shooting during this little period. Of course, it depends on your luck too – if it’s a very cloudy day, you might see it go from sunset to a dull grey before complete blackness…if so, try another day. But give it a shot. It can really be beautiful. Here’s an example of the blue sky I mean. Another example is the Tower Bridge shot I posted in the beginning of this post
Oh, and…unless you need it for a specific effect you’re going for, avoid using filters when shooting at night. Even UV/protective filters. Any bit of additional glass on front is a possible cause for lens flare, vignetting, and stuff…so why bother? I’m sure you can be careful not to bump your lens for the couple of minutes it takes to get the shot!
To conclude…if you’re serious about photography, not just in shooting night shots, but photography in general…get a tripod. They’re not too pricey – you can get a decent one for around $150-200 – and even a cheap $50 tripod is better than no tripod. Even a monopod will help. With a tripod, you can do so much with your night shots…long exposures can really have interesting results, even in daylight…and you can get very creative with them. Just get a tripod. You’ll thank me later. Oh, and get a cable release too. This setup can be useful in many situations, not simply when shooting in low light
If you’re doing this as a hobby, or just for fun…a cheap tripod or monopod is still quite affordable…but if you really want to keep your costs down, or can’t carry your tripod around often, try the tips for shortening your exposures at night…this should help you get a reasonably steady shot that looks good
The gear that I was talking about…the stuff that helps you shoot better at night: tripod, cable release, flash, etc…are available at Amazon. Buying through these links help me keep this blog going!
It doesn’t matter what camera you’re using – DSLR or point-and-shoot – just experiment using all the above tips, and above all, use a tripod and go for a long exposure. That’s the general point I want you to take away from this post. Alright, I’m done now. I hope this has helped. Go try it all out, no matter what or where you’re shooting – I’ve mentioned tips for all sorts of scenarios I think – and let me know how it went! Leave a comment if you have any comments or questions – and if you tried it out and it didn’t quite work out for you, send me a message! I’m always glad to help. Until next time
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By Heshan Jayakody All content is my own, except where noted
- Shutter speed, Aperture, ISO: Understanding Basic Exposure (pixelogist.me)
- What Makes a Photograph #3 (pixelogist.me)
- Taking Pictures at Dusk and at Night (nikonusa.com)