A beginner's guide to night photography

First published:
May 21, 2021
February 12, 2024

A beginner's guide to night photography

First published:
May 21, 2021
February 12, 2024

Cover image by Nigel Eve

Fabulous images can be taken when the Sun goes down. It’s one of the most popular next steps for beginners to take and night photography is relatively simple if you know how

From incredible colours to a new perspective on a familiar subject, the cover of night – and, crucially, the lack of light – allows for some creative compositions and special effects. However, working in a new way with less light does demand that you use specific equipment and practice particular techniques. Here are some of our top tips to help you embrace the night…

1 Take control

Photography is the art of capturing light. At night there's less of it so a photographer must slow a camera’s shutter speed to allow more light to hit its sensor… but not too much. Long exposure photography scares a lot of beginners, but it shouldn’t; taking manual control of exposure is what a lot of creative photography is about. In the first instance that means that you need to use a camera that allows you to manually adjust shutter speed, but also ISO, aperture and focus. So you’ll need a DSLR or mirrorless camera with full manual controls. 

Looking down at the manual settings of a digital camera
A DSLR or mirrorless camera with full manual controls will give you the best results for night photography. Image by 360PHOTOGRAPHY
Author tip:

You’ll also need a sturdy tripod to keep your camera absolutely still since you’re going to be using long exposures during which the camera cannot move. A shutter release cable or an intervalometer will also be useful so you can control the shutter speed without touching your camera and/or from afar.

Slow your shutter speed

A camera’s shutter speed is the amount of time that the camera's shutter is open for and consequently how long your camera's sensor is exposed to light. Cameras measure it in seconds and fractions of a second with most cameras going from 1/4000 (one four-thousandth of a second) to 30 seconds - and you'll need to be using much slow shutter speeds to get the most out of your night shots.

There’s also usually a ‘bulb’ mode that leaves the shutter open as long as you want, which could be up to several minutes if you’re exposing for a foreground in the middle of the night.

"Long exposure photography scares a lot of beginners, but it shouldn’t; taking manual control of exposure is what a lot of creative photography is about."

By shooting at night using a slow shutter speed your camera can reveal things that you can’t see. Whatever light sources there are in your shot will be magnified and exaggerated, so even a dim and distant source of light can take a starring role in your photos. Since the shutter is open for a long time you can also more easily capture motion, typically as a blur. 

Long exposure of a light trail on the front wheel of a bike
Be imaginative an experiment with movement and light in night photography - here photographer Ayo Odumade attached a light to the front wheel of his bike - f9 | 00:30s

3 Get to know your camera

If you’re going to be manipulating your camera at night then you need to become well acquainted with its controls. Can you change the shutter speed without even looking at your camera? If you can’t, learn how to because constantly using a torch to find specific buttons and controls at night quickly becomes tedious.

A good trick is to sit in a dark room (or just close your eyes) and give yourself tasks. For example, increase the shutter speed, change the ISO and then check the photo, zooming in to check the focus. If it’s too complex then investigate how to customise the controls on your camera to make things simpler. 

A photographer looks at the back of his camera against a night time cityscape
Trying to find specific buttons and controls on your camera at night quickly becomes tedious. For best results, get well acquainted with the controls of your camera in advance. Image by Andrejs - f1.4 | 1/8s
Author tip:

Always shoot it in the RAW format, in addition to the compressed JPEG format, because RAW retains all the data captured by your camera’s sensor. That will help enormously when post-processing.

4 Focusing in the dark

How can you focus on something you can’t see? It’s really tempting to set a lens to close to its infinity focus point (look for the ∞ symbol), but whether that’s accurate will depend on the lens. The best option is to auto-focus on a brightly-lit building (or illuminate something with a torch – preferably your subject), then zoom in on ‘live view’ on your LCD screen to check your focus. When you’re happy, switch back to manual focus on your lens to lock your focus and don’t touch the lens! 

The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral London illuminated at night
Focusing on a brightly-lit building in an otherwise dark scene will help you find the best focus for the overall scene. Image by Henry Jackson - f3.5 | 1/6s
Author tip:

Turn down the brightness on your LCD screen when you’re shooting at night to reduce glare, which if bright will kill your night vision. That’s important because you should be using the LCD screen a lot to regularly inspect your photos for focus and brightness.

Light painting

Painting with light is the art of using a light source to illuminate a scene during a long exposure photograph. That might mean using a high-powered spotlight to illuminate a building some way in the distance for an entire shot or it may mean quickly lighting-up something closer. If you’re lighting a subject, keep it subtle and side-lit; try lighting-up a tree or the side of a building with just a brief flash of a torch, upping the time you leave it on if the effect is too slight.

Light painting (see below) can also mean more creative compositions, such as capturing the trail lights of a car, or spinning a torch around your head to create a circle of light. Another interesting technique is to put a flashlight into red-light mode in, or under, a car, then take a long exposure; the entire car will glow red.

Light orb painting night photography at Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland, England
A 'light orb' created by spinning a source of light during a long exposure. Image by Nigel Eve captured near Hadrian's Wall, Northumberland - f2.8 | 09:12s
Author’s tip:

Although a torch is invaluable at night for actually getting yourself to your intended location, setting-up your gear and achieving a sharp focus, for light-painting you may want a mix of products. A wide beam is good for illuminating a wide area while a narrow beam is useful for picking-out specific objects. Try to find an old halogen torch; its softer, warmer light will give you a different effect.

Shoot the stars

Photographing the stars needn’t be difficult. With a wide-angle lens set on infinity focus, calculate your maximum exposure time according to the 500 rule (500÷focal length) to prevent Earth’s rotation from blurring the stars in your image. For a 14mm lens that’s 35 seconds, for a 20mm lens it’s 25 seconds and for a 50mm lens it’s just 10 seconds.

With that fixed, you can experiment with ISO and aperture, but as a rule of thumb dial-in ISO 800 or ISO 1600 and, in a dark sky, open the aperture as wide as possible (say, f2.8 or f4.5, depending on your lens). When you’ve taken a shot, zoom-in to check your focus, then tweak your ISO and aperture.

Looking for more astrophotography guides and tutorials?
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Astrophotography under the Milky Way at Monte Hermoso, Argentina
Under the Milky Way at Monte Hermoso, Argentina. Image by Sebastian
Author tip:

When it’s waxing to a full Moon our satellite is the biggest light-polluter of all. It makes the Milky Way invisible and renders night sky photography a bit of a washout. However, you can use strong moonlight to your advantage because it will illuminate your foreground.
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