An introduction to taking photos of people and places after dark
The glow of an urban landscape at night is difficult to resist, but creating truly head-turning street photography after dark isn’t easy. There are numerous technical restrictions and endless rules-of-thumb to learn. What lens should you use? How do you avoid blurry photos? Is it safe? Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Use a fast, lightweight prime lens
Sure, street photography at night is about composition. It's also about the lens you use. To shoot sharp images it’s got to be fast. That’s photography-speak for a lens that is able to open-up to f/1.8 or f/2.8, thus allowing enough light to hit your camera’s sensor for short shutter speeds and a reasonably low ISO to avoid noise. If you don’t have a fast lens then you’ll constantly be battling with blurry photos because your shutter speeds will be too long. Switch to a high ISO instead and your images may be noisy (depending on your camera). Either way, the best all-round fast choice for street photography at night are 50mm prime lenses, which go down to about f/1.2 and are lightweight, so will keep you mobile.
When you're first starting out in street photography it's very tempting to use a long zoom lens and probe the scene from afar. This rarely works for two reasons; the images lack immersive appeal and they’re much more likely to blur. If you use a 50mm prime lens (or similar) it’s going to be sharper because the wider-angle your lens, the sharper the image when handheld. It also means you have to get closer to your subject so you’re more likely to produce images that have a more immersive feel for the viewer.
2 Using high ISO
The main difference between street photography by day and by night is obviously the latter’s lack of natural light. As well as being less lit, streets at night are illuminated by artificial light, which is traditionally not handled well by cameras using high ISO. But that’s changing, and modern full-frame cameras can go to incredibly high ISO without producing noisy images. While you may not want to take a full-frame DSLR out at night, a similarly specified mirrorless camera is generally a lot smaller and lighter. Experiment with ISO 3200 - 6400 and use Aperture priority mode, which lets you manually set the aperture while the camera automatically selects a shutter speed.
When photographing at night always shoot in RAW. A file format that captures all image data recorded by the sensor, you can enable it in your camera’s settings. It will really help in post-processing night photography, particularly when adjusting the exposure.
3 Handling slow shutter speeds
Although you’ll be using high ISO and a fast lens it’s likely that your shutter speeds will be a lot slower than you’re comfortable with. When using a 50mm lens handheld don’t stray below 1/50s shutter speed if you want a sharp picture. You almost certainly don’t want to be using a tripod or a flash – both will blow your cover and you’ll soon be much more than an observer of a street scene – but you could consider using a monopod, which can add a lot more stabilisation and stillness than you might expect. Either way, take your time when composing a shot and stay as still as possible while you take it.
Although you generally want to keep your images as sharp as possible, it may be that some photos benefit from a slight blur, such as a moving crowd of people, though don’t go below about 1/30s shutter speed when using a 50mm prime lens handheld.
4 Follow the light
As a photographer you’re always on the lookout for light. In a city at night that can come from a multitude of places:
- Headlights, taillights and street lights
- Neon signs outside bars and restaurants
- Street food stalls
- Illuminated public monuments (many now switch-off at midnight)
- Open doorways
- Office buildings
- Reflections on lights on glass and in puddles (and on anything wet!)
Think about where the lights are and how they illuminate your subject. Consider side-lighting, look for reflections, and be on high alert after rain when wet surfaces tend to sparkle in brightly-lit urban settings.
Pay close attention to focusing your camera at night. Use autofocus to focus on something important in your image then switch the lens to manual focus so your camera doesn’t go hunting for something else to focus on.
5 Be confident and stay safe
You don’t need to ask for permission if you're taking photographs in a public place at night. You’re welcome to crouch behind a vehicle and photograph someone candidly without their knowledge. That avoids posed shots and, besides, who wants to stick a camera in the faces of a bunch of strangers? However, getting up close and personal by introducing yourself to your subjects can sometimes be the best approach. As well as avoiding any potential aggression or abuse – which is obviously a bigger danger at night, especially on quiet city streets – you’ll get better photos. You’re going to invade people’s privacy, so do so willingly, honestly and with confidence.
Try interacting with people as you take their photo. That could mean talking to them while you snap away – perhaps cracking some jokes while you do so – or it could mean giving them your business card. However, try to stay safe when doing night photography, particularly in cities, by going out with another person, sticking to crowded streets, not trespassing and carrying as little expensive camera gear as possible.
6 Light painting with traffic
There are some classic techniques of street photography at night that can’t be replicated in daylight. The most obvious is to capture the headlights and taillights of traffic, producing a ghostly photograph that includes evidence of motion but misses out the subject. This is long exposure photography and it does require a tripod. Since your shot is going to include significant light you need to keep the ISO low and the aperture between f/8 and f/10.
Be really careful when considering any kind of shot that involves you getting close to traffic, particularly at night. Wear reflective clothing and don’t take any risks. Since it’s a long exposure shot, consider setting the camera, using shutter delay, then stepping back a safe distance while the camera takes the shot. Better your camera gets damaged than you!