November 29, 2023 ·

Josh Reichmann

Unlocking the secret to mastering the art of night photography can be a daunting challenge, but it offers spectacular opportunities for photographers. With practice and knowledge, you can expand your artistic horizons by adding some night photos to your portfolio.

What Is Night Photography?

Night photography is different from other photography genres. You must stand back from the fundamentals you have learned and approach this photography from a new angle. Whether you want to capture the bright lights of cityscapes at night or find the perfect image of the starry skies, our guide covers what you need to know about the art of night photography.

You are not alone if you have previously taken photos at night and ended up with pure black images. Because you lack light when shooting in the dark, your preparation must change in three key areas: required camera settings, ideal camera equipment, and post-processing workflow.

What is Long Exposure Night Photography?

Long-exposure night photography must have a slow shutter speed. A long time exposure makes up for the lack of light by opening the camera shutter for an extended time. This process allows you to capture scenes that your eyes cannot see in dark conditions.

Long-exposure night photography helps photographers take stunning pictures of moonlit landscapes, starry night skies, and fireworks. While it is challenging, it is not difficult as long as you properly prepare for shooting in dark conditions. Remember that the basic concept is to take a long exposure in a low-light environment.

The Exposure Triangle: ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture

To get the best long-exposure photos, you must adjust certain camera aspects, such as the ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. Naturally, you should adjust these settings depending on the exposure and light conditions. Let’s look at the three photo basics and how to use them for night photography.

International Organization of Standardization (ISO)

The International Organization of Standardization (ISO) initially created standards to account for varying sensitivity levels on cameras correctly and thus named these standards after their organization. Today’s digital cameras follow different standards. ISO increases the artificial brightness of an image in low-light conditions, resulting in a brighter image.

To determine the correct ISO, consider the following factors:

  • Ambient light: For photographing stars, use a higher ISO range, like 3200- 4600. Light pollution is extreme if you shoot in a place with many external lights, like a large city. Avoid blowing out the highlights of the image by using a mid-range ISO between 400 – 800. If exposing your image to moonlight, adjust your ISO settings accordingly.
  • Camera type: Know your camera’s limits to avoid digital noise in your pictures. A professional-level camera can work with digital noise levels up to 6400 or higher. Don’t set the ISO above 4600 for lower-level cameras.

Don’t be afraid to use higher ISO levels while staying within your camera’s ISO limits. Try noise reduction software to eliminate as much noise as possible.

Shutter Speed for Night Photography

Your camera’s shutter speed is critical to capturing stunning nighttime images. Use the varying shutter speeds for the following popular night subjects:

  • Fireworks: Keep your shutter speed between 2 – 10 seconds. That time frame helps capture the fireworks’ long light trails.
  • Star Trails: There are two shutter options for capturing star trails. You can stack multiple exposures in 20 – 30-second shots of the stars or take an extra-long exposure over several hours to capture the stars’ movements in one picture.
  • Light Trails: To capture beautiful light trails, use an exposure of 30 seconds or more. Be careful not to blow out the highlights.

Start your night photography adventures with these three popular subjects, and when you feel comfortable, try photographing the more challenging Milky Way, Northern Lights, the Moon, and lunar eclipses.

Aperture in Night Photography

The third part of the exposure triangle is the aperture — a space in a photo camera through which light enters. In night photography, a large aperture is necessary to shoot long-exposure night photos. You will need a faster aperture with your camera’s sensor to get more light.

Choose the widest aperture of your camera lens. If you shoot pictures of city skylines at night, use your aperture at f1.8 or f2.8. For capturing the stars, close your aperture at f5.6 or f8. Sometimes, you can close it at f11 when the external lights are exceptionally bright.                                                                

Determining the Correct Exposure at Night

Many amateur photographers make the mistake of trusting their camera’s liquid crystal display (LCD) to give an accurate reading of the exposure’s brightness. For example, if you are taking pictures of the night sky, your eyes will adjust to the darkness when you look up at it. Then, when your eyes have adjusted to night vision, the LCD will seem bright when you prepare for the shot.

Check your histogram regularly to see how your exposures are developing regardless of your camera’s level of LCD brightness. Then, you will have an accurate idea of what LCD settings you should set on your camera.

Necessary Equipment for Night Photography

Now that you have the basics let’s look at the gear you need for fantastic night photos. Light photography enables you to grab shots anywhere, anytime. However, night photography is a bit trickier and involves more equipment. Have the following tools with you when shooting in the dark:

DSLR or Mirrorless Camera

While some smartphone models have grown leaps and bounds with camera technology and specific night modes, a DSLR or mirrorless camera is a much better investment. These cameras offer a more extensive range of lens choices, advanced controls, and a larger sensor.

The Tripod

A tripod is necessary because a slow shutter speed is too slow for a handheld camera. Purchase a quality tripod sturdy enough to hold your camera in place while avoiding vibrations or shaking. Combine your tripod with a remote shutter release cable or app to shoot long-exposure photos.

Wide-Angle Lens

You want to use the widest, fastest lens possible. Ensure it has a large aperture and a wide-angle view to capture the entire scene.

Shooting in RAW

For night photography, you must shoot in RAW format. Ideally, the RAW files in your camera should have at least 14 bits, allowing for smoother transitions between colors and a higher range of colors in the photo. The range of available colors in a dark environment is low, but your RAW files will compensate for that lack. Avoid using a JPEG file, as it offers limited color options, and photos will likely show banding.  

How to Capture a Night Photo

Follow the step-by-step directions below to take your first-night photo:

  1. Place the camera securely on the tripod.
  2. Set the ISO level to the lowest setting, typically ISO 100 or ISO 200.
  3. Allow the camera’s exposure meter to adjust to the correct environmental exposure.
  4. Set the camera’s self-timer to being the exposure.
  5. Wait for the camera to complete the exposure.

You can create unique effects with a long exposure. Your photos may feature clouds blurring into softer lines or bright streaks of light from moving traffic.

Stay Safe

Often, night photography requires trekking in remote areas. Even if you’re preoccupied with getting the right shot, it’s also essential to prioritize your safety if you’re hiking out without a cell signal. Ensure you always tell a friend or a loved one where you’re going beforehand. Charge your phone ahead of the shoot. Prepare the day before by packing the following items:

  • A flashlight or headlamp;
  • Fingerless gloves;
  • Spare batteries;
  • Spare memory cards;
  • Warm clothing;
  • Camping chair.

Of course, don’t forget your camera!

Editing Night Photos

Editing night photography is similar to editing traditional photos. The typical principles and sliders apply except for the noise reduction setting and color temperature (white balance) setting.

Noise reduction settings are often a matter of personal taste. If you feel that color noise is more disruptive than luminance noise, focus on reducing the color noise. Identifying color noise means finding visible specs where the color seems wrong or is missing. For example, color noise would be red specs in your photo of the night sky. Bump the noise slider until your image is correct at 100% to solve this issue.

White balance or color temperature editing is the grainy texture in high aperture ISO shots. To reduce this graininess, apply a spight blur to the photo. Don’t use too much of the luminescence slider, as your picture will look too fuzzy and soft.

While you’re probably enthusiastic about trying and editing night photography, don’t neglect your eye health, especially if you’re editing photos at night as well. Uncomfortable, painful eyes will put a definite damper on your experience. One of photographers’ most common eye strain symptoms is excessive dry eyes. ​​Photographers can experience dry, painful eyes like people with computer vision syndrome. Use preservative-free rewetting eyedrops to prevent excessively dry eyes in moderation.

Immerse Yourself in Night Photography

Venturing into night photography opens up new creative possibilities. With practice, skills will improve, and you, too, can capture the breathtaking beauty of nighttime. Carefully select the right camera and gear, master your camera settings, and immerse yourself in the full potential of night photography. Enjoy the experience of photography in the dark while letting your artistic abilities shine through the night.

Amanda Winstead

November 2023

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Photography has been a primary medium for my creative expression since early childhood. The Luminous Landscape is a family business, passion, and community which I am thrilled to carry forward and build upon.

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