Tips for Nighttime Photography

Make your nighttime photos glow with special night-shooting tips for your DSLR

A dramatic nighttime photo of a ramp leading to a bridge

Martin Puddy / Getty Images

Taking dramatic nighttime photographs with your DSLR camera requires a different mindset and special techniques compared to daytime shooting.

Turn off the Flash for Night Photography

If you leave your camera in Auto mode, it will try to fire the pop-up flash to compensate for the low light. All this will achieve is an "over-lit" foreground, with a background that's been plunged into darkness. Using any of the other camera modes will negate this problem.

Use a Tripod

You will need to use long exposures to get great nighttime shots, and that means that you will need a tripod.

If your tripod is a bit flimsy, hang a heavy bag from the center section to keep it from blowing around in the wind. Even the slightest amount of wind can shake the tripod while exposing, and you may not be able to see a soft blur on the LCD screen. Err on the side of caution.

Use the Self-Timer

Just pressing the shutter button can cause camera shake, even with a tripod. Use your camera's self-timer function, in conjunction with the mirror lock-up function (if you have this on your DSLR), to prevent blurry photos.

A shutter release or remote trigger is another option and a good investment for any photographer who takes long exposures regularly. Purchase one that is dedicated to your model of camera.

Use a Long Exposure

To create great nighttime shots, you need to allow the dim ambient light to sufficiently reach the image sensor — so you'll be shooting longer exposures.

A minimum of 30 seconds is a good place to begin, and the exposure can be extended from there if necessary. At 30 seconds, any moving lit objects in your shot, such as cars, will be transformed into stylish trails of light.

If the exposure is very long, then it may be out of your camera's range of shutter speeds. Many DSLRs can go as long as 30 seconds, but that may be it. If you need a longer exposure, use the bulb setting to keep the shutter open as long as the shutter button is pressed. A shutter release is essential for this step; they typically include a lock, so you do not have to actually hold the button the entire time.

Be patient!

The camera will take longer to render and process these long exposures. Be patient and let it process one image before trying to take the next one. Night photography is a slow process and, besides, you want to see the capture on the LCD screen so you can adjust the next exposure to perfect the shot.

Switch to Manual Focus

Even the best cameras and lenses have a difficult time with autofocus in low light, and it is probably going to be best to switch your lens to manual focus.

If you even have a hard time finding something to focus on in the dark, use the distance scale on the lens. Estimate how far away a subject is in feet or meters, then use a flashlight to see and set that measurement on the lens.

If the only subject is very far away, set the lens to infinity and stop down as far as the lens will go (a minimum of f/16) and everything should fall into focus. You can always check on your LCD screen and adjust the next shot accordingly.

Increase the Depth of Field

A large depth of field is best for nighttime shots, particularly when you're photographing buildings and lit structures. A minimum of f/11 should be used though f/16 and up are even better — although less light enters the lens, so adjust your shutter speed accordingly.

For every f/stop move you make, your exposure will double. If you shot at f/11 for 30 seconds, then you will need to expose for a full minute when shooting at f/16. If you want to go to f/22, then your exposure would be 2 minutes. Use the timer on your phone if your camera does not reach these times.

Watch Your ISO

If you have adjusted your shutter speed and aperture, and still do not have enough light in your photograph, you could consider upping your ISO setting to help you to shoot in lower light conditions.

Remember, though, that a higher ISO will also add noise to your image. Noise makes its biggest appearance in the shadows, and night photography is filled with shadows. Use the lowest ISO you can get away with.

Have Spare Batteries on Hand

Long exposures drain camera batteries. Carry spare batteries if you plan to conduct a lot of nighttime shots.

Experiment With Shutter and Aperture Priority Modes

If you want to help yourself learn as you go along, consider experimenting with these two modes. AV (or A — aperture priority mode) allows you to choose the aperture, and TV (or S — shutter priority mode) lets you choose the shutter speed. The camera will sort out the rest.

Priority-mode shooting is a great way to learn how the camera exposes images, and it will help you to achieve the correct exposure.