Night Photography Primer: The World At Night :: Digital Photo Secrets

Night Photography Primer: The World At Night

by David Peterson 2 comments

I know a lot of photographers who only really take pictures during the day. As someone who likes to have everything work right away without much extra effort, I can understand why. The night, after all, is kind of challenging to photograph. There’s a lot more setup time and a lot more room for error. You need to find the good spots, and it can take a little work. This is the first in a series of articles to help you get the best night photographs.

I wish my friends could know what I know about night time photography. If they did, I think they’d see why I’m so attracted to it. Yes, it’s much more work when you don’t have the sun shining down to give you those nice and fast shutter speeds. And yeah, you do need to lug a tripod around town with you (not all the time, but most of the time). Still, when everything does come together, night time photography is one of the more rewarding things you’ll do as a photographer.

What’s so great about night photography?

Night photography will always be interesting because it’s extremely colorful. At no other time is there such a presence of contrasting colors everywhere. You’ve got the bright reds and whites of cars passing by as well as the neon glow of signs on the boulevard. If you’re taking pictures at twilight, you can get some of the purples from the long gone sunset.

There’s so much room for creating pictures bursting at the seams with color contrast. That’s what appeals the most to me as a photographer. During the day, you usually have to wait for the right moment with the light. That’s not so when you’re shooting at night. As long as something is giving off light, it doesn’t matter when you photograph it. The light doesn’t change that much at all.

The Essential: A Tripod

You’re probably wondering where to get started with night photography. I’ll tell you right now. You will definitely need a tripod. Without one, you’re pretty much lost when it comes to getting most night time shots.

Why is that? Well, in order to get a bright enough picture at night, you have to leave your camera’s shutter open a lot longer than you would during the day. Here’s a comparison. During the day, your camera opens and closes its shutter in less than two hundredths of a second. At night, you’ll often keep your camera’s shutter open for longer than five seconds.

Bring on the neon lights!
These are some of the most colorful pictures you’ll ever take.

Not much can happen in two hundredths of a second, but a lot can happen in five seconds. Imagine what would happen if someone were to violently shake the canvas as you’re panting, and you can start to get an idea of what camera shake does to your pictures. Using a tripod at night prevents all of this. It keeps the “canvas,” which is your digital camera’s image sensor, from moving while the light from outside does the painting.

Do you need a fancy digital SLR to get started with night photography? Not at all. While it certainly does help to have all of those settings, the most important thing of all is what I just mentioned, stabilizing your camera. It doesn’t matter if your camera is a digital SLR or a point and shoot. If it isn’t stable, it won’t get the shot.

If you’re using a point-and-shoot, try to look for some way to control the shutter speed. By controlling the shutter speed, you can tell your camera to take in more light, which is exactly what you need for night photography. If you can’t control the shutter speed directly, use your camera’s night mode. It won’t give you the same fine degree sort of control, but you will get enough to do what you want with the shot.

What are the best subjects to photograph at night?

That’s a good question because there are just so many options. Like daytime photography, it really depends on what you personally prefer to photograph (plus what’s around you). Some people like vibrant cities while the nature lovers go for starlit landscapes.

The most important thing to consider is your light source and what’s being illuminated. That’s the key to getting good photos at night. Sometimes a lone streetlamp works if it’s illuminating an interesting subject. Oftentimes it doesn’t work precisely because it’s all alone and there isn’t much of anything else to bring your viewer into the photo.

Here’s what I think works:

  • Moonlit scenes with everything scarcely lit;
  • Cityscapes with cars buzzing through the most visually interesting parts of the frame and;
  • Avenues so bright from neon signs that you can see everything in crisp detail.

Those are just a few examples, but my point remains. It’s all about the light and what it’s illuminating.


The night is also a great time to capture silhouettes. Most silhouettes have the same old lighting that we’re used to. We’ve seen dozens and dozens of images with the sun behind the subject, but how many do you see with bright lights behind your subject? It isn’t done all that often, and that’s what makes it interesting.

What a gorgeous night time silhouette using the moon as a light source.

I could go on and on. As a matter of fact, I will. Just not now. In the rest of the series, we’re going to attempt to take each one of these types of pictures. We’ll look at some very specific lighting techniques and other technical bits that you’ll find, for lack of a different word, illuminating.

Before we do that, I have a homework assignment for you. If you don’t have a tripod, get one. If you do have a tripod, go out tonight and pay attention to the two most important things. What is the light, and what is it illuminating? Write down two examples of something interesting being illuminated by interesting light. Please share them in the comments, and most importantly, have fun!

[Also see Part 2 and Part 3]

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  1. martinsulate says:

    the moon is easily over exposed in regard to the surroundings but some times when you're lucky there are other elements helping you like enlighted buildings - have to look aroumd for it
    by the way - a nice subject for night photography is - the streets when it rains at night in the neon lights of the shops and the dwelling cars with the bright and the red lights....

  2. Rickard Olsson says:

    I went out a night a few weeks ago and this is the result:

    It involved a fair amount of trial-and-error before I got the settings reasonably correct. The moon, in spite of actually being a dark gray in color, is a very bright object compared to the vast blackness of space so metering becomes difficult. Apart from HDR techniques, is there a way to both get moon detail and a correctly exposed moonlit landscape? I find I have to choose one or the other.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.