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General Stuff, Theory n Technique

Night Photography: How to Take Great Shots at Night


Night Photography: How to Take Great Shots at Night

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 (?!)

Long exposures

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

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore by linkahwai – see how beautifully the buildings are reflected on the water

Singapore Helix Bridge 2010 by l_ynch – notice how the lights all over the bridge seem to twinkle?

Tower Bridge Light Trails @ Blue Hour by Ash Lourey – beautiful light trails passing through a beautiful bridge. Great shot

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

Here’s a handheld sample I took. Not bad at all, I think – ISO 800, f3.5, 1/5 sec

Here’s another one…shot much slower.. f5.6 and 1/2 sec! Even at ISO 1600. It’s not nearly perfectly sharp. But acceptable? Maybe.

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

This is the blue sky I’m talking about

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!

Manfrotto 190XPROB Tripod

Manfrotto 496RC2 Ball Head with Quick Release (You need this as well as the tripod)

Canon RS60 E3 Shutter Release Cable

Nikon MC-DC2 Shutter Release Cable

Canon RC-6 Wireless Remote

Nikon ML-L3 Wireless Remote

Nissin Third Party Flash

YongNuo Third Party Flash

Canon Speedlite

Nikon Speedlight


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

Did you know that I’m currently working on this site full-time? Please consider making a small donation if you can – thank you!

By Heshan Jayakody
All content is my own, except where noted
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Discussion

37 Responses to “Night Photography: How to Take Great Shots at Night”

  1. I just got a Nikon D3100 recently and still trying to get used to all these functions! Thanks for the tips :)

    Posted by coconutsforcookery | April 29, 2012, 08:28
  2. Thanks for this article. Tripod is currently “next” for me…I think. There are several low-light things I want to try and not having one is keeping me from practicing some new things. I may get to borrow one from a friend who has “several”.

    Again, love the information. Thanks.

    Posted by JA Shanks | April 29, 2012, 10:24
    • ur welcome, thanks for ur kind words! :) yes, a tripod is a must.. and yeah, thats a great idea – borrow from ur friends n give it a shot. especially if u soon realize night photography isnt really ur thing – u wont dump a couple of hundred bucks on a tripod! :)

      Posted by pixelogist | April 29, 2012, 10:36
    • yard sales and thrift stores have very cheap ones

      Posted by markjamesdesignmark | January 20, 2013, 14:05
      • make sure it’s a decent one though. a cheap tripod is better than no tripod, sure – but i really recommend getting a decent one if you’re even slightly serious about photography in general!

        Posted by pixelogist | January 20, 2013, 17:53
  3. awesome article! I just upgraded from the d3100 to the d7000 and am loving it. Night photography is so challenging and rewarding! I am still trying to figure out how to get a good shot of the moon…

    Posted by reinvintage | April 29, 2012, 19:25
    • thanks! :) the d7000 is a beauty. great performance, i loved using it (though i dont own it) – shots of the moon, hmm.. i never got myself a long enough tele lens so i never really gave it a shot.. i dont find myself using longer focal lengths that much. but im sure u’d get a good one after a few attempts. good luck with it!

      Posted by pixelogist | April 29, 2012, 21:17
  4. Hey, nice article. Some of the tips I figured out from my experimenting but I did learn a good deal of new things from your post :) Keep up the good work! So your niche would be long exposure?

    Posted by Stefan S. | April 29, 2012, 21:15
    • thanks! :) glad to have helped at all. hmm, my niche, not at all actually.. i like long exposure, and i learned a lot about it during a phase a few years back.. my passion lies in street photography.. one of the hardest forms of the art (in my opinion) – and im still learning that every day! haha. thanks for stopping by

      Posted by pixelogist | April 29, 2012, 21:18
  5. Thanks for this – I don’t know if I ever knew – or just ignored the mirror lockup step. I always did the other three but got mixed results. Thinking the mirror lockup will help with consistency of sharpness.

    Posted by 12thsonoflama | May 8, 2012, 10:34
    • to be honest, i sometimes skip the mirror lockup thing too.. especially when im shooting something at night thats fast.. and sometimes i forget! haha. but it definitely does help. one of the links i posted shows the amount of vibration that the mirror causes, on a graph.. quite surprising..

      Posted by pixelogist | May 8, 2012, 11:26
  6. Great tips and excellent photos! Must try them out soon!

    Posted by amythlf | May 8, 2012, 17:36
  7. What if I just set fire to the thing I want to take a picture of? Get it burning bright enough to make it like daytime. Very informative post. You are very well written and I enjoyed and learned how to take a night shot. Now I will have to test it out your way. Oh, no my house!!

    Posted by jmagee76 | October 24, 2012, 08:09
  8. what do you think of the Canon EOS 1100D ?

    Posted by HSnow | December 26, 2012, 19:46
    • Hi :) sorry, but is this related to this particular post? and i’m not sure how to answer your question, could you be a bit more specific? the 1100D is a pretty capable camera, but it really depends on what you want from it!

      Posted by pixelogist | December 26, 2012, 19:59
  9. terrific post, heshan! you’ve covered pretty much every useful thing needed to know about night photography. i know coz i’ve researched the topic a lot, and i learned a lot (the most) from this short post. thanks!

    Posted by Gallan | February 18, 2013, 07:07
  10. Nice informative stuff, especially the profound explanation of exposures, thanks :)

    Posted by JohnJ | March 31, 2013, 23:22
  11. Thank you so much for your tips. I went out last night and tried some. I took some photos of a water tower across the street and it came out so sharp and clean! I wish I could show you some how. I am going to go out tonight again. Once again thank you for your tips.

    Posted by Mark burgess | June 25, 2013, 06:07
    • You’re most welcome, Mark! It’s wonderful to hear your shots turned out well – you can always email me a few shots or a link where you’ve uploaded ‘em! Cheers

      Posted by pixelogist | June 25, 2013, 06:39
  12. I’ve been getting pretty comfortable with my Nikon D3100, my first camera. What do you recommend I go to next?

    Posted by Angela | July 28, 2013, 03:14
    • It depends on what you need from your camera – and what you need that your D3100 can’t do right now. No use upgrading for the sake of upgrading :) If you can’t really put your finger on why you need another camera, you don’t need one

      Posted by pixelogist | July 28, 2013, 07:54
  13. Where do you find the mirror lock up mode on a Nikon D 7100 ???

    Posted by Sandra | December 12, 2013, 23:29
  14. what the best set in iso shutter speed and aperture for taking night.,?the lens its need to set as manual or auto.,?

    Posted by arsie | November 10, 2014, 08:45

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