A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)

Photography is a hobby you can either take lightly or seriously. For the more adventurous photographer, making images at night is most exciting part about the hobby. You can never see what you’re shooting, or truly envision what you’ll get until you press the shutter. There are tips and tricks to improve your night photography all over the internet. Here’s my take at hobbyist.

Night photography is discovery.

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I captured all the images shown on this page. They are scenes from my travels for work or vacation. Getting out at night nowadays is harder because of family obligations, but when I do venture out, I’m more confident from my experience.

Read on for 10 tips and tricks I’ve learned for photographing things at night.


What is night photography?

Night photography is any photography performed at night. It could also be any photography that is performed at nighttime, when the sun has set. Usually, night photography entails capturing photographs outdoors between dusk and dawn.

The techniques involved in night photography are incredibly useful for all types of photography. If you can photograph images at night, then you will have a good set of skills that can be applied to any genre of photography.

Night photography is often the most difficult of the photographic pursuits because it requires mastery over your camera equipment. You’ll need a solid understanding of how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO interact.

Is night photography safe?

Night photography involves control over your environment.

Where you setup your camera is a key part of night photography. Are you, the photographer, in a safe place to setup your equipment?

In some urban night photographic spots, it is possible to become isolated, standing in a single place for a long time alone. This raises all kinds of safety issues.

If possible, I like to travel to new places that may be off the beaten path. This also means I’m likely putting myself in a vulnerable position.

With my face in the camera eye piece, back to my environment, who knows what’s coming up behind me.

As such, I would recommend, if possible, that if you’re not comfortable with your location for shooting nighttime photography, you go with a friend. Partner up.

In fact, night photography is best done with a friend or small group. You’re often waiting for your camera to do its work (slow shutter, etc), and the social company is welcome.

What camera do I need for night photography?

An axiom for the ages: The best camera is the one you have with you.

The statement holds true for any photography. Whatever camera system you have with is going to be the best because you’re going to use it!

But, if you’re looking for the absolute best camera for night photography that would likely be a full-frame sensor camera.

In general, for camera gear, you do generally get what you pay for. So, I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide how much cash you’re willing to spend.

As for myself, I stayed within a reasonable budget and started with a sub-one thousand dollar full-frame camera body.

(Yes, expect to pay around 1000 for a semi-professional full-frame camera)

BEST LIGHT BOXES FOR PHOTOGRAPHING MINIATURES


Top 11 best tips and tricks for night photography

1. Use a Tripod (or Other Stable Platform)

For any night photography, you enemy is the lack of light. All cameras need light.

Every image your eyes see requires light.

The tripod I used for almost every photo on this page is an affordable aluminum tripod that folds up nicely for travel.

Light is right.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
I took this photo from the Dumbo, Brooklyn side of the Manhattan NYC skyline. It required placing my camera on a tripod, because the shutter was left open for more than 4 seconds. No human being can hold a small camera still for 4 seconds without help.

A tripod allows you to slow the shutter on a camera.

The slower your shutter speed, the more light enters your camera. At night, more light is better!

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
My tripod. It’s all I need for what I shoot.

Of course, when you slow down your shutter, your camera is likely to also capture any shaking or vibration.

Placing your camera on a tripod or other stable surface, allows you do keep the shutter slow and prevents motion blur.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
Grand Central Station. Not exactly at night, but this photo was taken in the veritable dark. If you’ve ever been to this landmark, you’ll notice how dim everything is in this cavernous room. The lights are barely a candle stick to the dimness of this station room. The long exposure not only lit up the interior, but also gave the hall some tension with the people moving through it. Motion blur is a powerful tool for creating amazing photographic imagery.

In some cases, I’ll often find a flat surface and just put my camera down with a hand over it to prevent it from tipping over.

I know some photographers who use a small bean bag or pillow.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
Bean bag for holding your camera still. A lot more portable, but has some obvious limitations.

Stabilizing your camera is the most important tip and trick for taking photos at night or in dark places.

Light needs to enter your camera in sufficient quantity for the sensor to capture good information.

Get a good tripod or other device to stabilize your camera. You won’t regret it.

2. Open Your Aperture

I don’t go into great detail about how to operate a camera manually here. There are TONS of websites, including YouTube that do a great job for this.

Here’s my favorite video about using manual mode on cameras (about 7 minutes).

When it comes to night photography, it is often useful to open the aperture to let in more light.

On a camera, this involves lowering your f-stop value.

A smaller f-stop means a larger aperture (yes, it’s opposite).

Most budget lenses have f-stops between f4-f22. More expensive lenses may allow you to go to a smaller f-stop, such as f2.8 or f1.8.

Some of the most expensive lenses, such as the Leica Noctilux-M 50mm, have an f-stop of 0.95!

Of course, that lens is really, really expensive!

All this means is that the more money you spend on lenses, the more light that lens will allow you to capture.

Money is light.

Maybe.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)

What aperture should I use at night?

If you’re shooting at a slower shutter speed, you can keep your aperture closed-down (larger f-stop like f4 to f11). At faster shutter speeds, you’ll need to open your aperture up (smaller f-stop numbers, like f2.8 or smaller). Night photography is often difficult if you have equipment that prevents you from opening up your lens aperture.  

Open your aperture as far as it will go (smallest f-stop on your setup) to allow more light into your camera.

This also has the side-effect of creating some interesting artistic effects, too. A larger aperture will give you a more shallow depth-of-field (DOF). In other words, you’ll blur a lot more of your background with a larger aperture.

In night photography, you can use this to your advantage. You can make some really creative looking images with shallow DOF.

3. Take A Lot of Test Shots: Experiment!

The beauty of photography is discovering new ways to create images.

Experimenting with how you take a photograph is not only fun, but a key part of learning how to make unique images.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
Dumbo, Brooklyn at night. Stopping down my aperture creates some dramatic sunstars with the points of light. Not every lens has this effect. You have to experiment with your equipment to see what it can do. This shot was taken with a Voigtlander 40mm lens, which has a characteristic of making these 10-point stars when you stop down the aperture.

When I first began my photography journey, I’d take photos of everything. Silly things, like a napkin at dinner, or a flower under a bridge (the stone kind that let’s you cross streams of water).

In night photography, to learn how to make compelling images in the dark, you have to figure out what works.

There is no secret formula!

If I had a secret formula for great photos, even at a night or when the light sucks (usually indoors), I’d be… well, who knows?!

It’s all fun.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
This image was created with a stabilized camera on a tripod, standing on a pier in Dumbo, Brooklyn. The long-exposure gives the water a bit of a hazy look. The warm lights in the foreground contrast with the cool lights of the bridge and night sky. I love this image.

For example, for a while, I wanted to learn how to “see” better composition. I wanted to learn how to compose better photographs.

For a while, I thought taking more black and white photographs would help me. You can see some of my efforts here.

STRUCTURE IN PHOTOGRAPHY

Objects exist in 3D space, but in a photograph, they need work together in a 2D frame. The art is in “seeing” how different elements in an image work together.

For night photography, experimenting by taking a lot of photos is a great way to discover the best settings on your camera. In manual mode, the best settings will depend on what you want to do.

Do you want to have streaks of light of objects moving, e.g., cars, people? Or do you want to have that shallow artistic depth-of-field, where you background is blurred out?

Those a some pretty bokeh balls.

Ultimately, you’ll never run out of film.

Best tip for learning night photography: Keeping taking shots until you’re happy with what you are capturing.

In fact, take those images home and inspect them more closely, you might find with a few tweaks, that photo you took is a true gem.

4. Check Your Composition

Composition in photography is probably the most important aspect of the art.

Composition governs how your subject of interest is placed within the frame and how it “interacts” with other elements in the image.

For a viewer, good composition draws the attention through the image space, into the frame, and around it.

In night photography, composition is just as important as any other kind of photography. Darkness shrouds everything, so the challenge for you is to “see” where things are in that space in front of you with less light.

In learning photography, it took me a long time to figure how what I was really capturing. For example, leaf on the ground is not simply a leaf laying on the sidewalk.

A dead leaf casts a shadow, and the shadow touches a crack in the concrete, which draws the viewer’s attention to the side of the frame.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
A leaf on the sidewalk. Notice how the shadows fall and create new shapes. Composition in photography is all about understanding how to place these elements together to make an interesting image.

By shifting your lens to the side and angling the view, you can make subtle changes to how the subject fits within the frame and with other elements.

As I mentioned above, challenge yourself and experiment.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
Look for “leading lines” or paths for the viewer to travel. This one is obvious. Follow the road toward the cityscape horizon. Yes, it is at night, but with any photography, the principle is the same.

How do you see composition in night photography?

  1. Define your subject – Look for big shapes, then small shapes. These could be shadows or bits of light. Where does one shape end, and another start?
  2. Identify structure – See how the parts within the visual space of your image come together. Even if it is dark, there’s a reason you’re taking this photo. What does this bit of structure do in the context of the other parts? Look for leading lines that tell the viewer to “look along here” or “go there”.
  3. Shadow play – Keep an eye on where light and shadows fall. Even if they may not be your main subject, they play a huge part in how the overall image comes together. Importantly, in night photography, light tends to do things in unpredictable ways, especially with long exposures.
A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
I took this image at the edge of the water. My feet were only a few inches from the edge of the pier I was standing on. One of the feet of my tripod was actually in the water. I was looking for a view that kept the vanishing point of the pilings on the outer third of the frame (right side). As you notice, the pilings converge near the horizon, which leads the viewer’s eye into the frame. I would not have seen this without my camera, of course, because this area of the water bank was so dark. Only after I captured this image did I see how these elements came together.

“Practice, practice, practice.” This is the best tip for learning how to shoot better night photography. Repetition. Get out there in the dark with your tripod and camera and find interesting scenes lit by the night sky or ambient lights of buildings.

5. Look for Reflections in Water

My favorite images at night include some body of water.

Water during the day is kind of neat. Under certain bright conditions, water reflects its surroundings with a characterful style.

But, at night, water is magic.

Water is never still. Always moving, the waves and ripples in water often distort reflections. Unless you’re using a neutral density filter, those glaring reflections aren’t pretty unless you’re careful.

At night, with your camera on a stable tripod or surface, you can extend the shutter opening allowing light to leak onto your camera sensor.

Amazing things happen with water and long exposures.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
Notice how the purple, blue, and orange hues blend on the surface of the water. With a shorter exposure, I might have captured more reflective detail. However, with a long exposure, the colorful sources of light blend into a painterly-like surface. This is the kind of attractive quality that makes night photography so much fun to make and view. Of course, with night photography, you can’t really see what you’re capturing until you’re finished. In reality, I was standing in the blackness viewing the city with a small points of sparkling light. Only after allowing the camera to do its job did I see this image. Photo taken with a Sony A7R with a 70mm lens at F8 and a 5 second shutter speed.
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The surrounding light and colors mix and blend in unexpected and surprising ways.

Beautiful! Color blending into the reflective surface of water, smooths out with time.

This mixing of the ambient light on the surface of reflective water, smoothed out by a long-exposure is sublime.

You’ve taken a photograph of your first “water color painting”.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
Notice how the points of orange light reflect off the blue water. The blue hues in the water are a reflection of the sky. “Candles floating on the water”. When I photographed this image, I didn’t see any of this. I just saw dark, black water and points of orange light. The long exposure of the camera allowed this image to happen.

This is a beauty of night photography: being able to see and share what isn’t really there without adding a bit of time (i.e., the long exposure).

6. Look for Bright Movement

In night photography, a trick I learned from a professional photographer is to find “movement”.

Look for movement of objects that emit light.

It took a while for me to understand this. But, after a while I think I get the meaning.

The long exposure required for night photography creates an opportunity for adding “dynamism” to an image.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
Slowing my shutter a bit more than I would need to gives this bonfire dynamism; a sense of action to an otherwise simple photograph. Placing the bonfire to the right side of the frame gives some room for the blue-night sky. Together, the warmth of the fire and the coolness of the night is balanced. This tensions between elements of cool, dark, bright, and warm is what makes this image interesting to me. I took this photo kneeling on the ground to give the bonfire that larger feeling. In fact, those flames only flew about half my standing height.

Dynamism is an aspect of photography that many people ignore. The sense that things are happening. There is a progression of events through the image frame.

Adding dynamism is a night photography trick that you achieve by searching for ways to capture movement.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
The light trail of a passing train through this city scape is a perfect example of capturing movement at night. I took this photo standing in a parking garage with my camera on a tabletop tripod set on a ledge.

As mentioned in the tips and tricks above, you’ll want to stabilize your camera and learn to find the best composition. The best night photograph images combine movement with good composition.

I would also go so far as to say that color is not at crucial in such images.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
The ferris wheel at the Navy Pier in Chicago is a great example of how something moving creates a unique image. Slowing the shutter down allows the spokes of the ferris wheel to merge into large wedges of color. Although this photo could have been slowed even further, the brightness of the lamp in the foreground would have begun to washout the rest of the photo.
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The pro tip here is to maintain contrast in your night photography. Is the moving object bright against a dark background? Can you tell where your subject edges or line of movement begins and ends? You should.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
A small light trail snakes its way through my frame. This light trail is the movement of person holding a smartphone while the flashlight was on. This was a happy accident.
Photo taken at the “Cloud Gate” sculpture in Millenium Park in Chicago.

The exciting thing with night photography is that you never truly know what you’ll capture until you’ve done it. Night photography is always a hidden surprise.

The tips I provide here are merely a way for you to get started for yourself to find what works and what doesn’t.

Finding how moving subjects work with long exposure in a bright setting is challenging enough. You get motion blur. We’ve seen that; and often humorous enough, we see it when we shake our cameras or don’t hold things steady.

In daylight, movement blur is an accident. At night, movement blur is a happy accident.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
This spinning carousel is a classic example of motion blur captured at night. Movement is clearly captured because of the longer exposure.

Keep your eyes peeled for bright moving subjects.

Anticipate what light might look like if drew a path through your frame. Compose for time travel.

7. Don’t Use a Tripod

Wait, what?

Yes, I know I contradicted tip #1.

But, sometimes the best trick to employ in night photography is to “just go for it!”

Use your instincts.

Don’t get stuck to a single spot. A tripod is a cumbersome apparatus compared to your hands and body moving about a space.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
The slants of light provide structure to this otherwise dark image. The dark silhouettes of people in the frame add viewing interest. Additionally, the individuals add some scale contrast making the building structure look large. This photo was taken outside the Oculus Terminal in New York City. I photographed this during a light snowfall.

Unhook your camera and move about the darkened night scene. Look for lighting that may add some drama to your images.

Sure, some objects like people may be darkened shapes without detail. But, that’s okay. Let things go into shadow.

Play with shadow and light.

Embrace the dark.

What is the best ISO for night photography?

Without a tripod, you’ll probably want to increase your ISO (or sensitivity of the camera’s sensor). The best iso for night photography is any iso that gives you a “clean” image without too much noise or grain. The best iso for night photos is therefore the lowest iso setting you feel comfortable using without getting the “too many pixels” effect. For a typical setup, you should try and keep your ISO under 1600 (crop sensor) or 3200 (full frame camera).

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)

In some cases, you may be able to use some of that grain or noise to your advantage. In my example above, the snowfall is part of my photo.

Although I used a high ISO setting, which added a lot of grainy noise, it is hidden inside the the snow.

When you photograph at night or in dim light without a tripod, increasing your ISO is a must. Without stabilization, you need to speed up your shutter to prevent camera shake.

The higher ISO adds versatility for night photography. If you compose your subjects within the frame, play with contrast (light and shadow), you can still get stunning images despite the added grain noise.

8. Remove People from Your Night Scene

This is a HUGE advantage of capturing images at night.

When the light goes down, you can stabilize your tripod and slow your shutter speed.

In fact, if you slow your shutter speed enough, you can often blur out completely anything that is moving.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
This very busy Montreal (Canada) side street had tourists walking all over the place. By setting up my camera on a tripod and slowing down my shutter (8 second shutter speed), I was able to “blur out” anyone who was moving. The only things visible in this photograph are stationary objects. Indeed, if people stop during my capturing session, they will appear in the image. In this case, everyone moved sufficiently to vanish from my photo.
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This includes people walking around a busy street. People mingling about a location will completely vanish from your image if you slow your shutter down enough.

It does take some patience to perform this night photography trick. Slowing your shutter requires waiting around. Sometimes, I’ve let my shutter stay open for almost a full minute or two!

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
“Cloud Gate” at night is often still surrounded by tourists and admirers. They mingle about the sculpture, often stopping to take selfies. It’s a complete nightmare during the day if you don’t have the right equipment (i.e., neutral density filters). However, at night, you have the conditions ripe for making people disappear.

The results, however, if you work at it are awesome.

Taking photos of landmarks at night, even at busy tourist spots becomes more interesting. You have a new tool in your toolbox that happens to work best a night!

If you want to perform the same effect during the day, you’ll need to use a neutral density filter. A neutral density filter (or ND filter) are like sunglasses for your camera lens.

An ND filter reduces the light entering your lens enough to let you slow your shutter down sufficiently to add things like motion blur.

For removing people from day light scenes, I highly recommend an 11-13 stop ND filters. Make sure to get the right size for your camera lens (they are usually threaded onto the front of the lens).

The great thing about night photography is that you can get away without neutral density filters.

Stabilize your camera and open that shutter for a long time. The longer the better!

Often, you get some ghosting of people who aren’t moving much, but with some patience you can essentially keep your scene clear of distracting tourists or other passerby.

9. Capture with RAW files

Most dedicated camera systems allow you to capture RAW image files.

RAW files are different from the common JPEG files that any computer can display. RAW files are essentially the film negatives from the analog era.

RAW image files contain all the image information that your sensor captured. Whereas JPEG files are processed using onboard computing inside your camera (or smartphone), RAW files are simply “image data” in its purest form.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)

The reason I suggest you shoot in RAW image format is because RAW files give you room to adjust your photos later.

Sure, you can make edits to JPEG images. In fact, most casual photo editing software can only make edits on JPEGs.

But, if you’re serious about getting the most out of the light you captured, you should know that RAW image files provide you with so much more…power.

Of course, shooting in RAW image format requires more post-processing work. But, there are huge number of ways to edit your RAW files and convert them into JPEGs (which you can then share).

I use Adobe Lightroom to edit my RAW files. There are alternative photo editing packages, but Lightroom has been around a long time and there are a ton of tutorials online.

In either case, if you do a simple online search for “why you should shoot RAW instead of JPEG”, you’ll get great information.

In night photography, RAW image files allow me to push color and contrast beyond what a JPEG would allow me to do.

10. Use High-Dynamic Range (HDR) Photo Capture Technique

In some cameras, you can automatically capture a set of images with different brightness values. These separate images are then combined into a single image with a greater range of color and brightness value.

This combined image is a high-dynamic range (HDR) photo.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
This is one of my favorite night photos taken with HDR in mind. Everything looks fake, but I love how the colors and details come together. This would never appear in real life. Only a camera setup to take this photograph this way would be able to create this image.

You can use this process night photography to produce unique images that appear surreal, almost fantastical in look.

You can, of course, over-do HDR to the point of the images looking “fake”.

Honestly, I admit some of my night photography looks fake.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
A tad too much HDR gives this city scape a fake look. I kind of enjoy images like these once in while. The original looks a bit flat and dark. Ever watch the movie “Tron“?
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And, it doesn’t bother me. I enjoy a pretty image, even if it doesn’t represent reality.

HDR is fun, especially with night time photos.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
Downtown Chicago at Night. What a beautiful city!

You can either perform the process in your camera (most smartphone cameras use HDR automatically in low light situations), or take your series of images into a digital darkroom (e.g., Lightroom software) to create the final HDR image.

11. Have Fun in the Dark

Photography is fun, because you are discovering new ways to see your world.

Night photography is even more exciting, because you are seeing your world that you couldn’t otherwise without technological help.

Have fun.

Making images without good natural ambient light is pretty hard. It takes work and trial and error.

I remember the first photo I took using night photography skills I learned. The image was horrible! But, I was smitten.

The process of figuring out what I needed to fix; the camera, the tripod, the scene’s composition, became an enjoyable and addictive experience.

I know I could spend HOURS outside taking photos of a night time scene.

I’ve done it many times.

I’ve watched a sunset gleefully knowing that the world around me would soon come alive in the darkness.

Practice, practice, and practice.

Ultimately, the best tip and trick for night photography is to enjoy the process.

A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)
Lighthouse in York, Maine.

Final Thoughts

Photography is a hobby for everyone. It takes time and practice. The great thing about photography is its easy access. Nearly everyone carries a camera now.

For photography, the best camera is the one you have with you.

I’m still learning a lot about how to make better images. For me, photography gives me an excuse to get outside, literally. It also compels me to explore new places even within my local home town.

There’s always a new way of looking at the same old things.

And, when the lights go out, you have to use your imagination a tad bit more…


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3 thoughts on “A Dark Hobby: Awesome Night Photography (11 Tips and Tricks)”

  1. Wow! As usual, you have worked hard on a post that is full of great info. I tried night photography once and it was a complete bust. Your article has spurred me on to give it another try. Thanks!

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