Basic Night Photography

Well, I finally ran out of clever blog titles. Probably for the best!

Today was a bit crazy, and so I found myself with midnight approaching and no topic to post. A quick survey of some folks online produced the question of ‘How does one do night photography?’ So, now I have a topic. Huzzah! It’s sort of basic, but as this was a requested question, I’ll work with it.

Night photography is, of course, tricky due to the low light. So there are two basic types of night photography to concern yourself with.


Handheld is often the trickier type of photography. It’s hard to use longer exposures, and high ISO causes a lot of noise. As a result, you’ll do best with a lens with a wide aperture to let in more light. A lighter lens will also help; a heavier lens is harder to handhold for longer shots. A flash can also help a great deal, if you have an external flash which can be turned down a bit or bounced off of something else in the area to diffuse it, but in general the key is to pick your shots carefully. Wider angles or being further back from your shot will help a great deal; the closer in you are to your subject, the more any obvious any shaking of the camera or lens will be.

This shot, for instance, was made with a 100mm lens at f/3.6, a relatively wide aperture, and at ISO 6400 for 1/60 of a second. I also fired a flash on the camera, bounced off of a window behind me, to highlight the snow. Even so, the result came out fairly grainy, which I dealt with by making the final shot black-and-white. As a general rule, noise in a black and white image ends up more aesthetically pleasing than in color.

Sad Lenin in Snow

Long Exposure on Tripod

The easier and more dramatic is to shoot on a tripod. I’ve used this particular shot in a blog post before, but as it’s one of the more striking it seems worth noting. Shooting on a tripod is simply a matter of finding your composition and figuring out an exposure; since you’re not worrying about having to hand-hold while you shoot, you get a much better exposure overall.

You can shoot at fairly narrow apertures to get things into much sharper relief; this image was at f/11 and ISO 400, but exposed for a full 30 seconds. This creates the rather abstract ‘smear’ of clouds in the sky, as well as the illusion of smooth water. (It’s worth remembering to shoot with a proper white balance, as well, for long night exposures. But that’s a topic for another time. Maybe tomorrow’s blog post.)

Bridge by Night

In either case, the important thing is to learn how to judge the light in a situation and meter for it. Most digital SLRs have exposure indicators, and so you have some idea of whether or not you’ll be over or under-exposing an image, but that’s a bit harder to do when you’re using a flash. Being able to judge how much light you’ll need and how much you can get away with for a given shot is an important skill for any photographer, at night or in the day, or even in a studio.


~ by Rachel on March 2, 2009.

One Response to “Basic Night Photography”

  1. I love your example photos. I’ve found that noise can enhance a black and white image, by giving it a grainier, dirtier feel which is really suitable for certain subjects. Cool post!

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