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Introduction To Night Photography

Learn to take advantage of dark nights and produce great photos with ePHOTOzine.

| Landscape and Travel

It's that time of year when you leave for work in the dark and return home in the evening in the dark, so it's understandable that your camera may only surface at the weekend. But it doesn't have to be this way. Many cameras, whether compact or DSLR, have a shutter speed range that will allow low-light pictures to be taken so you can venture out in the evening. The only requirement is a little knowledge of metering and some form of support to ensure that you don't get blurred pictures as a result of camera shake.

Introduction To Night Photography: Fairground

The Set-Up

The first thing to do is stop your camera automatically firing its built-in flash. Then once it's off, find a way to keep your perfectly still, which is usually impossible if you are hand holding it. There are many supports available to ensure the camera stays still. These range from compact to large tripods, plus clamps and grips. You can also use a bag full of beans or tiny polystyrene balls. These mould to the shape of the camera and provide a surprisingly solid support, but you do need the added assistance of a wall or tree to support the bag.

If you are working hand-held and find shakes spoiling your shot as the shutter speed is too long for you to stay still for you can try adjusting your ISO so you get a shorter shutter speed. However, this can result in noise creeping into your shots so do preview what you've taken before walking away.  Having said that, some new cameras have greater ISO sensitivity. This means that even in low-light, you’ll get rich tonal gradations and true colours. You’ll also capture clear, crisp images of fast-moving objects.
Introduction To Night Photography: Samsung NX1000Long Shutter Speeds
With the camera held firmly in place you can fire the shutter and make the most of the long speed. But don't think it's always that easy. Often night photography has huge areas of the scene in darkness with occasional illuminated areas, such as spotlit buildings, moonlit trees, fireworks, fairground illuminations, neon signs etc. The camera's exposure meter isn't used to such scenes and may need some manual help. You should take a shot, preview it and if it looks too dark, or the illuminated area is too washed out you simply manually adjust the camera's exposure using the compensation setting and try again and repeat until you have the right balance. If the camera has a spot meter you can take a reading from the illuminated area and expose for that to avoid a really dark picture.

There is a range of illuminated scenes that are similar wherever they are photographed so we can give exposure values that you can use as a guide in the table below. We'll base the settings on ISO100 and you can compensate for different ISOs.

Subject Shutter Speed Aperture
Fireworks 1sec f/2.8
Floodlit Building 1/2sec f/2.8
Subject lit by firelight 1/2sec f/2.8
Typical street scene with normal illumination 1/2sec f/2.8
Shop window 1/8sec f/2.8
Brightly lit street scene (maybe with Christmas lights) 1/15sec f/2.8
Neon sign and brightly lit theatre districts 1/30sec f/2

White Balance

One final thing to be aware of is colour casts as scenes with different types of lighting in them can end up having coloured tints to them if your white balance isn't set correctly. Cameras set the white balance to auto by default and most of the time it does an excellent job at balancing out the temperature of light in a scene. However, switching to one of the other white balance presets in some situations will create better results. For example, shop windows and underground lighting is usually fluorescent, while floodlit buildings, street lamps and interiors of stately homes will often be tungsten.


Shoot Suggestions

Use a slow shutter speed at a fairground instead of flash and your pictures will be a wash of vivid colours. Static bulbs can be complimented with a whirling collision of colour from  revolving rides. Low angles and creative viewpoints will help add interest and remember to try to aim for a speed that blurs just enough so you can still see detail.

Neon lights, whether Las Vegas or the local amusement arcade, provide excellent colourful subjects. Take care not to meter off one of the bright lights or the rest of the scene will be too dark. Also avoid metering from a dark area or the lights will be over exposed. Try to fill the frame with an interesting crop. A telephoto lens helps if the lights are at the top of a building or structure.

Blackpool is famous for its illuminations and fortunately it has a pier so you can get far enough back to shoot the illuminated tower and the sea front. Rest on the railings and step the shutter down one stop to allow for the large area of darkness that may fool the meter.

Try shooting cars from a pedestrian bridge that crosses over a motorway bridge. Use a long shutter speed (ideally B where the shutter can be locked open) and you'll produce graphic lines as the cars pass below you. If there's a break in traffic hold the lens cap over the lens until another car appears and remove the cap just before the car enters the frame.


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Thank U For the Good tips on night shooting. Will use them the next time out. Liked the white help. dont get it quite yet . need help.
Thanks Joe Good
gr8 tips......especially abt spot meterin & color casts
Thanks for that. easy to follow and clear. As i have just started out this has helped me and given me more to think about. I will inform my friend of this who has been taking photos for a long time now but admittedly struggles in this area.

Thanks Joe
Neon lights- where do you meter. I use to meter the lights and dark area and take an average. Is this wrong- if so what is best way?

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