Photographing Bright Lights :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photographing Bright Lights

by David Peterson 2 comments

Bright lights at night are breathtaking. They bring a certain magic to urban life that’s unlike anything else. The only issue with bright lights is that they’re a lot like the sun. They can bring unwanted contrast into a scene, often forcing you to rethink the way you expose the entire image. If you’ve ever struggled with producing beautiful images of holiday lights and urban landscapes, try out these tips.

Don’t use flash

When you’re photographing bright lights, you really want them to stand out from everything in the background. By using flash, you end up adding more light to the scene. The extra light effectively diminishes the brightness of the lights, making them appear dull and washed out. To keep your lights as bright as possible, just allow their natural light to show through.

If you still can’t seem to illuminate the scene by simply using a flash, you may want to consider using some external fill lights for the areas that need a little more emphasis. It’s a much more gentle way to go about getting the lighting you want. It competes with your main subject a lot less.

Use bright lights to guide the eye through the photo

Bright lights aren’t typically found in isolation. Most of them are placed in groupings and strings, all pointing in one direction or another. As a photographer, you can use this to your advantage. Take those lines and use them to guide your viewer’s eye through the photo. Compose the shot in such a way that the lights go through one of the areas where one third intersects another.

A nice arrangement of christmas lights makes for an interesting scene.

It’s all about the shapes. This arrangement of Christmas lights is an excellent example. Your eye follows them in from the left of the frame and then up through the wheel. Keep thinking about these sorts of geometric figures while you’re out looking for bright lights to shoot.

Do you also notice how the wheel is barely lit? The photographer is allowing the lights to do the lighting. If you were to use a flash, you wouldn’t get nearly the same beautiful colors.

Play with the white balance

There is no right way to take pictures of lights at night. Some lights look awesome when they’re orange. Others look really good with a whiter or blue cast. When you’re taking pictures of bright lights, it pays to play with your white balance.

Your camera comes packed with a ton of different white balance settings. You can set your white balance to “day” mode to get warmer colors, or you can go with the “tungsten” setting to cancel out the orange color that most street lights give off. Don’t worry about trying to be “accurate” here. I won’t tell anyone that the lights you photographed were actually blue, even though they look orange. This is about creating art!

A great example of when your whites should be white.
An awesome snowy scene in Amsterdam.

Sometimes a certain scene warrants a certain kind of white balance. In the above photo, there was plenty of snow around, so it was a good idea to make everything as white as possible. What you get is a wonderful snowy scene in Amsterdam.

Be careful with ISO Speed settings.

It’s pretty common to want a little more light at night. If you don’t have any fill lights or a nice overcast sky like the image above, you might resort to bumping up your camera’s ISO speed to fill in the gaps. I want to warn you not to do this. Bright lights can make your camera more susceptible to noise/graininess where the light is brightest.

To get the best possible result, keep your ISO speed as low as possible, use a tripod, and go for an extended exposure. You want to keep your shutter open longer to take in more light so a quality image can develop -not something that’s noisy. For most nighttime shots, your shutter speed could be anywhere between 3 seconds to as much as 30 seconds. It really depends on the overall light available in the scene.

As the holidays near, there’s sure to be plenty more bright lights for you to photograph. Keep sending me your photos. I’d love to see what you’ve been up to!

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  1. Roy Chvez says:

    Hi David, the only trouble I have, is: other pros, are talking about using high ISO, to compensate the lack of light. What's true? Normally I use low ISO and I'm happy, my concern is about the histogram. Do you have a histogram of a picture at nite? Every pro talks about, but none shows one, may be, because the pics where fixed in Photoshop and is not the one that comes out of the camera. Can you show us an example of a nite pic and it's histogram before Photoshop. Thanks, Rc

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Roy,

      If you have a paint program, you can check the histogram of any image you are interested in (even if you didn't photograph it). Open the image in your paint program and look at the histogram of that image.

      Regarding ISO, use the highest ISO you need to show a bright-enough image. But don't make the ISO too high that you'll get lots of noise.

      I hope that helps.


  2. Rebecca says:

    Can't wait to give your suggestions a try.

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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+.