Night Photography Tips and Settings

Creating night photography

The most incredible thing happens when the sun goes down: Those subjects that were ‘nice’ or okay during the day, are transformed into something magical at night. There is no denying photos taken at night have a certain element of excitement. Why? Because they take a little more work to pull off.

There is something about shooting at night that moves your images beyond ordinary into something altogether amazing.

Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 3200

Cameras and equipment for night photography

All DSLR, Compact System Cameras and many point and shoot are going to have settings for longer exposures. But sometimes that is not going to be enough. Pushing your camera to the limit is what is going to set them apart from ones made to handle more challenging conditions. The challenge of long exposures or extreme ISO settings are going to test what your camera is capable of capturing.

What, however, is going to set them apart is a large dynamic range, high ISO range and a large sensor. I shoot with a Nikon D750 which ticks all those boxes. My small Nikon Coolpix 7000 may be great for during the day, but at night, with ISO over 1000, things are starting to look very ugly and noisy.

A wider dynamic range is going to allow you to draw more information from those shadows. Otherwise it is just going to be sensor noise. And there is nothing worse than noise. It is certainly not as romantic as film grain.

Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 1000
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 1000
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 8000

Camera settings for night photography

There are two approaches I take. One is to shoot on a tripod and aim for long exposure images. The other is to shoot at extreme ISO settings and shoot handheld. Both are interesting in their effect and feeling.

Most of the images here are shot at 8,000 ISO. Pretty extreme. I never thought I would need that high an ISO, but then, I had never shot hand-held at night either! Start with 800 ISO if it is twilight and move your ISO up from there as you go. A dark laneway at night is going to need 3200-8,000. Crazy numbers!

Something changes as you push your camera to the limit, and it is something I love- this incredible softness. The images become almost painterly.

The other approach is to set up your camera on a tripod and shoot long exposures. Most good cameras can meter to 30 seconds. Beyond that, you will have to use the ‘bulb’ settings and hold the shutter open as long as you want or need to.

Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 10,000 (!)
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 10,000 (!)
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 8000

Night photography tips

  • Use a tripod. Or not. Two approaches. Personally, I like moving around at night. Tripods are essential with long exposures. Spend as much as you can on a tripod. A good one is worth its weight in gold. Light, stability and compactness are the key features to look out for.
  • Shoot in Manual or Aperture-Priority. Gain more control of your camera. Auto modes just won’t work because your camera won’t know what you are trying to do. You do.
  • Shoot wide open. Get that light in there so shoot way open. An aperture of f/1.8- f/ 2.8 is what you should be aiming for. That big zoom you love so much, may not cut it at night. A nifty fifty (50mm) will do the trick perfectly. I use my Nikon 50mm f/1.8 or my Tamron macro 90mm f/2.8 all the time.
  • Be patient. Shooting at night is tricky. Take your time and experiment with camera settings.
  • If you use a tripod, then grab a shutter release cable or use the timer on your camera. (One less piece of kit to carry!) There is nothing worse than an unintentional camera movement. With long exposures, you don’t want any movement- and that includes touching the camera.
  • Shoot in RAW format. I know, everyone tells you to shoot RAW, but this is one time when it is really important. Digital noise can be greatly reduced in RAW software.
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 3200
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 3200
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 3200
Streets of Alexandria, Sydney 2018. Nikon D750 ISO 3200

I hope that has been helpful!

Best wishes until next time.

Don

17 thoughts on “Night Photography Tips and Settings

      1. This is what is so exciting to me at least regarding this art. It’s infinite what I can create and I am always learning to apply what I already know. The kid in me anxiously awaits until the adult says “enough … let’s go play”, and so that kid plays. LOL

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Don, your post has left a deep impression on me. I just took my first handheld “night” images at 6am this morning with an ISO of 6400. No they are not as good as yours (IMO), but it’s a start. I have YOU to thank for this! I will also be linking this post to the one I will be publishing either tomorrow or Sunday. Is that all right with you? I have always been SO hesitant to shoot high ISO due to noise …. and now that I will purchasing my “dream” camera soon (Canon 5DMk4), I will be doing a lot of experimenting at night. This is just so exciting! THANK YOU!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The pictures that you will be seeing were taken with a Canon 6D …. I’m in the process of buying my “dream” camera. Can’t wait!! I’m still editing …. hopefully tomorrow, if not Sunday! (smile)

        Liked by 1 person

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