Taking Your First Night Photos :: Digital Photo Secrets

Taking Your First Night Photos

by David Peterson 1 comment

We all lead busy lives. The world is likely dark when you get up and has already settled back into darkness by the time you get home. Not exactly great for getting your camera out and taking some shots. Have you ever considered getting out at night to take photos? Night photography can be intimidating but don't be afraid of the dark! Read on to learn how to take your first night photographs. Night, night baby!


In addition to your camera and lens there are a few additional things you need. As far as the lens goes, a wide angle lens is great for night photography. If you happen to have a killer 10-22 mm lens you are in business. If you don't, just use what you have! If you have a lens hood, it can be helpful for reducing overpowering light sources like street lights. You really must have a tripod though. You will definitely get what you pay for, but even an inexpensive tripod will get you started. You will be working with shutter speeds between 1 and 30 seconds and that is simply too slow to handhold. If you have a cable release then use it, but if not just employ the self-timer on your camera. Most timers give you about a 10 second delay before the shutter is triggered which is enough to avoid the shake triggered by you pushing the button.

The only other equipment I suggest is a light source like a flashlight. When you are trying to adjust your camera settings or juggle your equipment you will thank me. You can even take it up a notch up by wearing a head lamp, like a coal miner, only cooler! I assure you what it lacks in style it makes up in function. You may also use your light while composing your picture. If there is something in the scene that is just too dark to photograph, you can use your trusty light to illuminate it.

Camera Settings

Each night time situation is different, but I can provide you with some basic guidelines to get you started. First of all, turn off the flash! The last thing you want is your on-camera flash popping up and ruining your exposure. At night you really need to have control over your exposure settings, so it is time to go manual. Once in manual you can choose an aperture (read on for suggestions about that) and then dial in your shutter speed until the exposure level mark is in the middle. I highly recommend trying this at home in the light of day first so you know where your dials are and what to look for in your viewfinder. As you shoot, review your images on your LCD screen and adjust the exposure if necessary with your exposure compensation button. So for example, if the images are just not dark enough for your night scene, underexpose it by 1 or 2 stops and shoot again.

As far as aperture goes, there is no magic number. If you really want to focus on something but still have a blurred background then you will want to open that aperture up (low f-stop number). If you are not as concerned about a shallow depth of field, then I suggest narrowing your aperture to try and take advantage of your lens' sweet spot. Every lens has an aperture at which it is the sharpest and most of them are in the f/8-f/16 range. You will have to experiment. Stopping down the aperture to say f/16 will give you a scene that is sharp throughout.

You will likely be shooting with a shutter speed between 5 and 15 seconds. You can start with auto white balance, but if the color temperature looks off you may need to change the setting. For night photos try a low ISO, like 100, to have very little noise.

In the photo above, the shutter speed has been slowed way down to blur out the people in the picture. This is one of the beauties of night photography. If you want to focus on the architecture and overall scene, you can blur out any distractions. Just slow down your shutter speed to between 10 and 30 seconds, and you will have ghostly figures floating around for a mesmerizing effect!

Subjects and Composition

Landscapes or architectural scenes with strong lines make some of the best subjects for beginning night photographers. You can also focus in on details like neon signs for cool, colorful effects. One nighttime photo effect that is easy to achieve is the starburst light look. Check out the photo below for an example. To try this find a street light or something similar, stop down your aperture to around f/16, adjust your exposure, and shoot. At that narrow aperture, you get the cool firework light effect.

Night photography is fun! This will get your creative juices flowing and may create the nocturnal habits of a vampire. If you start heading to work with dark circles under your eyes and in need of an extra cup of coffee, you are hooked. If you are short on daylight hours or just in need of a new photography challenge, then utilize those night time hours to hone your craft. Things look different when the sun goes down, so with your tripod and imagination in hand set out into the dark. It is not that scary after all!

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  1. Bhuwan kumar Rai says:

    Excellent lesson for amateur photographer like me!! I have a Nikon d3300 with Nikkor 35mm 1.8G DX lens. Why cannot I adjust the exposure compensation while shooting in aperture priority mode? In manual mode it is there in the view finder but not in aperture and shutter priority mode. Am I missing something? Thanks and warm regards!!

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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+.