Night Photography Tutorial

old city1.0 Night Photography Tutorial

You made it to this Night Photography Tutorial. This tutorial is always free. During my workshops I teach this stuff over and over again. The most important thing in Night Photography is getting the correct exposure for your night shots. Sometimes you will find yourself in a very dark place where the basic modes of your camera won’t give you a well exposed photo. In this Night Photography Tutorial, I will explain you how to calculate the correct exposure time.

Now let’s get on with it. Grab yourself a good cup of coffee and enjoy reading this tutorial.

When we photograph people in low light, it’s a known fact that we should crank up the ISO to a level where the shutter speed is fast enough to avoid movement of our subject. When there are no moving subjects in our shot, we can set the ISO to 100. This will result in longer exposure times and we’ll be able to capture more light then the naked eye can see.

Modern digital camera’s are an amazing piece of equipment. They let me capture views of a city during blue hour or night, in a way I can never see it with my own eyes. By using the available city light, it’s always a challenge to get the best composition. In this Night Photography Tutorial, I’ll try to explain all the basics knowledge you need to capture better night shots.

1.1 Basic Needs

You will need a camera that is capable of taking photos in a manual mode. This means that you can set the aperture, ISO and shutter speed yourself. For getting the best results, you need some extra equipment besides the camera. You don’t want to shoot handheld with exposure times of 30 seconds and more. That brings me to one of the most important pieces of equipment, the tripod. This is really necessary for great night photos. More about this further on.

Second you need a remote trigger. This can be a cheap one with a cable or a little more expensive wireless one. Any of them will do just fine. The key feature of a remote is, that you don’t have to touch your camera for pressing the shutter button and avoid camera shake when taking the shot.

1.2 Camera Setup

To get the best shots, you’ll need to setup your camera for long exposures. In this paragraph I’ll take you through the most important settings. These can be set in almost every modern digital camera. For reference you can check your cameras manual.

Manual Focus

When shooting in low light with autofocus, you might have noticed that the camera will struggle getting a correct focus. Due to the lack of contrast-points, it’s very hard for the camera to find a good focus point. This is why we focus manual.

To get pin sharp images, set your lens or camera o manual focus. By using the live view on the camera, we can focus very precise on the subject we want to have in focus. This will be further explained in chapter 1.4 LIVE VIEW FOCUSING

Vibration Reduction

Since we are using a tripod, we don’t need the lens vibration reduction or image stabilisation. In fact, this feature can work against us when using a tripod and result in unsharp images.

Use a Lenshood

Normally a lot of people only use a lens hood during the day to prevent lens flare from the sun. At night they just remove it, because there’s no sun. This is a good logic, but what if I tell you that when you shoot at night, there are thousands more light sources that can produce lens flare. especially when you are capturing cityscapes. I’m talking about all the street lights, traffic passing by, lights in trees or on bridges. All those tiny light sources can produce lens flare.

Remove filters

When you use UV or polarising filters during night photography, they will most likely produce some kind of lens flare. Many photographers have a polarising filter screwed on their lens. This works great during daytime when the main light source is coming from a certain direction. At night in a city, these light sources are coming from all different directions. Also, this filter reduces 2 or 3 stops of light and your exposure time will be even longer. For example an exposure of 30 seconds without a polarising filter will become 2 minutes with this filter screwed on.

1.3 In-Camera Settings

Now that we have the camera setup, let’s look at some in-camera settings that will give us the best results for night photography.
Since we are shooting with the use of a tripod and a remote, we can keep the ISO setting as low as possible. The best setting is ISO100. If your camera’s lowest Iso setting is 200, stick with that setting. The reason for low ISO is that we can capture much more details and keep the noise as low as possible. Make sure that auto-ISO is et to OFF.

Keep in mind that photos shot in low light, do need some care in post processing. That’s why I prefer to shoot in RAW. It will give you the best results when post processing your shots in photo editing software. I prefer doing noise reduction during post processing and turn the LE Noise Reduction off in the camera menu. By choosing noise reduction in camera, you can loose some fine details in the shot. When you do this during post, you can selectively choose where you want the noise reduction to take place and retain some fine details where it’s needed.

1.3.1 What about White Balance

Shooting in RAW, means you can change the white balance to your needs during post-processing. Nevertheless, when I’m previewing my shots, the picture on the camera display is a jpeg image with the white balance that’s set in the camera. This gives me the opportunity to see if the colors are right. I’m always looking for contrasting colors, like warm and cool tones. Looking at the preview image, I can visualise what to do with it during post.


For night shots, the most light will come from artificial light sources. Therefore a tungsten white balance will give you the best results. When you shoot during blue hour, a white balance for daylight or cloudy will do the trick. When blue hour is over, you can switch to tungsten white balance or dial in your preferred temperature in Kelvin.

1.4 Live View Focusing

Now that we are setup, it’s time to take some shots. With the tripod firmly setup and the remote connected to the camera we can make our composition. Choose the best aperture for your lens, which will give you the sharpest image. Normally I start at f/8. This is the sweet spot for most lenses and will give the best quality.With the lens or camera on manual focus, we can now use the live view to focus precisely on the subject we want to have in focus.

Switch on Live View and set the aperture and shutter speed and check the light meter to read zero. This will give you an average exposure.Now zoom in on the live view by using the magnifying buttons next to your display. Do not zoom in using the lens. Now find your subject on the display and use the focus ring on your lens get a pin sharp image. If your subject is to dark to focus on, try to lighten it with a flashlight and focus again.

1.5 Metering and Shutter Speed

For night shots, you will get the best results when you use matrix metering. The camera will meter the light of all the small light sources. This will normally result in an underexposed image, because those light sources are to small. To make sure we get a good exposure, we will need to overexpose the shot to capture the shadow details too. We achieve this by over exposing for about 2/3rds of a stop. Depending of the model and year of your camera this might be different. Modern cameras have a higher dynamic range then older cameras. When in doubt, make some exposure brackets to find what works best for you.

When your shutter speed exceeds 30secs you have two options. You can raise your ISO to get the correct exposure reading or switch to bulb mode and calculate the desired shutter speed.Let’s say a shutter speed of 25 secs will give a 1/3rd under exposed photo. We will need to increase the exposure by 1 stop, to get a 2/3 over exposed photo. For every stop brighter, you will have to multiply your shutter speed by two. In this example, the shutter speed will become: 2 x 25 secs = 50 secs

1.6 Take The Shot

With all above steps completed, we are almost ready to take the shot. There are some more things to keep in mind before you press the shutter button. For example, you may want to close the viewfinder when there’s light coming from behind you. This will prevent leak light during the long exposure.

When shooting in a city, wait for the traffic to be out of view or in view when you want to capture the light trails. Cars driving by can produce some vibrations which will result in an unsharp image.If you have a camera strap attached, secure it to the tripod. you don’t want the wind to catch it, this will also produce vibrations on the camera with the same result as stated above.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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Photographer at Behind The Lenscap

Michiel Buijse is a land- and cityscape photographer based in The Netherlands. He is a Nikon ambassador. Michiel also gives photography and post processing workshops.


Michiel Buijse is a land- and cityscape photographer based in The Netherlands. He is a Nikon ambassador. Michiel also gives photography and post processing workshops.

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