10 top tips for creating atmospheric night time photos

First published:
March 29, 2023
January 31, 2024

10 top tips for creating atmospheric night time photos

First published:
March 29, 2023
January 31, 2024

Heron Night Fishing by Julia's Images

Shoot stunning images after dark with these essential camera skills

Whether you want to shoot moody street scenes, stunning astrophotography or ethereal landscapes, the evening is a fantastic time to head out with your camera. Here are ten tips and techniques to help you capture the world after dark…

1 Get your settings right

A tripod and long exposure allows you to create beautifully detailed night time photos, and blur the movement of clouds, water or any other objects in motion. Photo by Martijn Kort

When it comes to setting your exposure for night scenes there is no magic formula, but there are a few stock settings that can get you started. If you’re using a tripod and you’re not concerned about capturing moving objects then try manual mode, set ISO 100, aperture f/8 and shutter speed 5 seconds. Take a test shot then adjust the shutter speed or aperture to make the scene lighter or darker. If on the other hand you need to freeze motion, say when shooting portraits, then try Manual Mode, ISO Auto, Aperture f/2.8 (or whatever is your widest aperture) and shutter speed 1/125 sec. Keep in mind that when using semi-automatic modes like Auto ISO, Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, your camera’s metering may struggle in the dark so use exposure compensation to dial in more or less light.

2 Capture star-bursts

A narrow aperture like f/16 or f/22 transforms bright points of light into star-like shapes. Photo by Raquel Pires - f/10 | ISO 1600 | 10s

The star burst effect occurs when shooting towards small bright lights. Often it’s used to transform the sun into a burst, but equally we can use it at night to turn any small bright specular highlight into an attractive burst. The effect is caused by diffraction, and the key is to use a narrow aperture like f/11, f/16 or f/22. When you use a small aperture like this, light passes through the tiny opening in your lens and is spread out along the aperture blades, creating the striking lines around bright points. Lenses with straight aperture blades tend to produce sharper tars than those with curved blades.

3 Focusing tricks in the dark

If your autofocus is struggling at night, try switching to Live View and use focus peaking with manual focus to make sure your subject is sharp. Photo by Bill Barclay - f/11 | ISO 100 | 30s

When it’s dark your autofocus can often struggle to lock on to the part of the scene you want in-focus. Sometimes it can help if you shine a torch on the area to give your autofocus more light to work with. If you’re using a tripod and you do manage to lock on, switch to manual focus to lock it in place. If the autofocus fails, try switching to manual focus then use Live View to zoom in to the area and adjust the focus ring until it’s sharp. Live View can often pick up details in the dark that the eye cannot.

4 Get set up to capture the stars

A combination of wide aperture, high ISO and 15-30 sec shutter speed lets you capture the dim light of distant stars. Photo by Heer Photography - f/1.4 | ISO 2000 | 15s

If your aim is to capture the stars then you need to set your camera up to gather as much light as possible. So use the widest possible aperture (ideally f/2.8 or wider) and set a fairly high ISO like 6400. As for shutter speed, the limiting factor is the rotation of the earth. After about 30 seconds the slow journey the stars make across the night sky will cause them to trail in the photo, just like the headlights of a moving car (this is less apparent with wider lenses and more obvious with longer lenses). So use a shutter speed between 15-30 seconds.

5 Capture nocturnal wildlife

Photograph wildlife at night with a flash. Photo by Julia's Images

Wildlife photography can be a challenge at any time, but even more so at night. However it gives you an opportunity to create unusual aesthetics that can’t be done during the day, and a chance to shoot little-seen animals. You’ll need to use a flash to freeze the motion of the animals. Your camera’s pop-up flash will almost always destroy the atmosphere of the scene, so don’t use it. Far better to use a burst of off-camera flash. Because there’s no ambient light, you can sculpt the flash to create any look you like.

6 Capture light trails

The torch from a bike light creates a trail of light along a mountain path over the course of a long exposure. Photo by Denys-Bilytskyi - f/5.6 | ISO64 | 60s

A night time long exposure lets you create eye-catching trails of light through the scene. The passage of the light through the frame lifts the surroundings and creates bold, abstract streaks. From vibrant traffic trails to creative light paintings with a torch, you can have all kinds of fun with this technique.

7 Shoot night-time portraits with LEDs

For atmospheric night-time portraits try lighting your subjects with LEDs like the Rotolight Neo used here.

The what-you-see-is-what-you-get nature of LED lighting makes them ideal for night-time portraits. One of the criticisms often aimed at LED lighting is that it can’t compete with the output of a flash. But at night they come into their own, as you don’t necessarily need a powerful light source. You can use the low output to balance the LED with streetlights, neon signs and headlights.n What’s more, they often come with colour temperature controls, so you can balance the LEDs with the surroundings.

8 Include reflections

A long exposure allows you to smooth out ripples and flurries in moving water in order to create vibrant night-time reflections, like this view of the parliament buildings in Budapest. Photo by George Papapostolou - f/22 | ISO 50 | 20s

The reflective quality of water can be even more eye-catching after dark. Bright lights will shimmer off the otherwise deeply dark water, allowing you to create stunning mirror images of illuminated buildings. A long shutter speed can enhance the reflection and smooth out any ripples in the water.

9 Backlight the subject

Position yourself so that the subject is lit from behind for beautiful backlighting. Photo by Clavilier Laurent - f/5 | ISO 1000 | 1/20s

Backlighting is one of the most atmospheric lighting tricks you can learn, and it’s fairly easy to do at night because it’s not hard to find strong spotlights in otherwise dark surroundings. Position the light source behind the subject and it’ll create stylish edge lighting that separates them from their surroundings.

10 Shoot by the light of the moon

This atmospheric scene was captured after dark by the light of the full moon. Photo by Daniel Zbroja

A full or near-full moon gives off a surprising amount of light, enough even to shoot landscapes. The moonlight gives scenes an otherworldly quality that can’t be achieved during the day. For the good quality images you’ll usually need to use your camera in bulb exposure mode, then lock the shutter open for a few minutes using a wireless release.

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