Shooting at Night: The Basics That Always Apply

Written by Bethany Cleg Photography

When you're a budding photographer, you find yourself fervent with passion and eager to plunge into a variety of different situations with your camera in hand. Photography has so many subcategories to choose from; landscape, portrait, underwater, candid, and of course, night. Whether you dwell in the countryside with sprawling acres of land you wish to capture beneath a dark, starlit sky or in a city that comes alive with the lights of neon signs and streams of traffic, night photography is an exciting aspect of picture taking to explore. It does, however, require a bit more preparation and thought than other shots. Read on for an overview of the basics of night photography that always apply, as well as specific tips for different locations, be it an empty field in Vermont or the streets of New York City.


The Most Important Aspect: Lighting

Photography is always about the same thing regardless of the time of day or location: capturing light. The challenge with night photography arises due to the fact that there obviously isn't much light to work with. The great thing about taking pictures after hours is that you can learn a great deal about the true extent to which proper lighting and camera settings will alter your shots.

Bethany Cleg Photography

Bethany Cleg Photography

 Camera Considerations

Whether you have a point-and-shoot or SLR, there are four main points you should always consider before you head out to start your nighttime shoot.

Flash: Does your camera have an on-board flash and is there the possibility to add on another?
Shutter and Aperture Control: What settings does your camera have in regards to the adjustment of shutter speeds and aperture settings? If there aren't any, check if there is at least a "nighttime" preset that will adjust the settings accordingly.
Film speed: Can you adjust the film speed (ISO) manually or are there pre-configured settings?
Shutter release: If you're taking self-portraits or need to adjust things in the shot quickly, it's important to know whether your camera has a self-timer option or can even be controlled by a remote.


Nighttime Portraits

Night shoots for model photographers are dramatic, captivating and often times more edgier than anything they can envision in the day. However, photographing people is hard enough when you're in a fully lit studio, so going outdoors into a city where there may be an excess of distracting artificial light or in nature where there's barely a sliver can be challenging for a newcomer.

If you're planning a serious shoot outdoors, the first thing you'll want to consider is lighting rental. It can be done for an affordable price if you contact smaller stores or even other photographers you know, and you'll also be able to receive some advice on exactly what type of lighting would be ideal for the shoot you have in mind.

What you should do beforehand is visit the site and take some test shots; get to know your location, see exactly how much light is available, how your flash and settings effect your images and figure out exactly what you need to get to make the image in your head a reality.

Preparation is key. When I shot the night shots for Brilliant’s custom Mercedes sprinter limo I had them drive me around to 10 different locations testing out light and backgrounds before we finally picked one then we finally did the final shot for. This was because lighting the inside of the van to be clear made the outside too dark and visa versa. It took allot of planning and tweaking to get both the inside of the van right and the skyline to look good as well.

Bethany Cleg Photography

Bethany Cleg Photography

Necessary Adjustments

Film speed: Using a slower film speed helps you gain sharpness and visibility in your images. If you're capturing moving targets like cars or nighttime sports, then you'll want to keep the ISO at a fairly normal or even higher than usual level.

Aperture: This controls how much depth will be in focus, so the settings will change based on what you're shooting. The larger the aperture, the lower the F-Stop number. You should test different settings on your own to get a feel for how the variations alter the image.

Shutter speed: As with ISO, unless you're needing to freeze motion, then you should go with a slower shutter speed. Set your shutter speed for a proper exposure on your camera's meter if it has one, and remember to adjust the settings in the darkest parts of your setting to get the most accurate reading.

Flash: Some novice photographers become a little too flash happy and think that it can be used on every single shot. Flash should be used to add additional light to a situation, not compensate for a total lack thereof. If you are in a black room and hope that a flash will illuminate both a model and the background behind them, you'll be sorely disappointed to find that everything is masked heavily in shadow. What you should do is use the flash at a relatively close distance (4 to 9 feet at most) and consider using it only when you really need to highlight a person or object.

Bethany Cleg Photography

Bethany Cleg Photography


Other Tips for Other Nighttime Shots

Night sky photography or time-lapse photography will require a tripod, patience and some research beforehand. This article goes into depth about the logistics of capturing stair trails and time lapses. What you should remember is that since you'll want a space with as little noise - visual, not audible - as possible and to increase the exposure as the subject - in this case, the actual black sky - isn't able to be any further illuminated by artificial means.

Nighttime architecture has its advantages in the city as there is often a lot of light from cars and buildings. The most important thing to remember here is your focal point and exposure. You want to use shadows to your advantage as a means to draw attention to the most interesting parts of the subject. Instead of trying to capture a whole building from 20 feet away, get close and center on the parts of it that truly capture your eye and work on capturing those angles specifically.

If you are going to start trying out nighttime photography or any photography remember that you will make mistakes and that is ok. In fact that is the only way you can really learn. I often refer back to this article about common mistakes to remind myself to remember and retain the lessons I have learned. Either way, night time photography simply looks cooler than daytime to me and it is al lot of fun.

Happy shooting!