9 night photography techniques to capture detailed scenes with limited lighting

Chad Verzosa

Taking pictures at night can be quite challenging for beginners. It requires you to manipulate ISO, aperture, and shutter speed among many other things. Follow these eight useful techniques to help you shoot in the dark. Once you learn the basics, you’ll find out that night photography is really fun. Don’t be afraid to experiment and you’ll be rewarded with stunning images you’ll be proud of.

01. A sturdy tripod is a must

Photo by Diego Hernandez

Before delving into night photography, you need a sturdy tripod. Taking photographs in dim conditions requires long exposures, which means your camera has to be steady at all times. Get one that can handle a heavy camera, preferably made of aluminum (or carbon fiber if you have more money) since it’s both light and durable.

Use your tripod's bubble spirit level to determine whether your tripod is straight or not. Alternatively, you can turn on your camera's virtual horizon (typically found in the camera menu) to make sure your equipment is leveled.

Also, consider buying a mini tripod for tricky angles. Sometimes, the best vantage points for your night shots may be in places where regular tripods can’t fit. With a mini tripod, you can shoot beautiful night shots from the ground or even a table top.

02. Use manual focus

Autofocus in modern cameras may be highly reliable, but it’s still not foolproof. Its weakness is especially evident when taking pictures at night, where your camera struggles to adjust because it’s dark. Using manual focus ensures your camera doesn’t randomly focus on any part of the scene you’re photographing.

Turn your manual focus to infinity (∞ symbol on your lens). To ensure that the scene you’re photographing is crisp, turn on the Live View Mode and press the Zoom-in button (the one with the magnifying lens icon). Magnify the subject you want to be in focus, then adjust until it’s pin sharp.

Don’t switch on the autofocus function any time during the photo shoot. Otherwise, it will override anything you did manually. This technique may take a while to get used to, but it’s more reliable than your autofocus in poor lighting.

03. Use low ISO if possible

Photo by James Bold

Using high ISO seems to make sense when shooting at night, but doing so also increases the noise in your images. The newest high-end cameras these days are so advanced, they allow you to take noiseless pictures at ridiculously high ISO settings (up to ISO 3200 or more). However, for most consumer cameras with limited light sensitivity range, sticking to a lower ISO is the most practical approach.

Learn the limits of your camera’s ISO levels. To do this, take some low light test shots with different ISO settings. Examine the photos and find out at which ISO level it becomes too noisy. If it looks unusable at ISO 1600, then stick to settings lower than that.

Just because your camera can shoot up to ISO 25,000 doesn’t mean you should use it. Since you’re using a tripod, It’s safe to keep your ISO low. Instead of bumping up the ISO, use slower shutter speeds and wider apertures, instead. ISO 100 may be impractical for night photography, but ISO 400, 800, or even ISO 1600 should be enough in most situations.

04. Shoot RAW

Photo by Chad Verzosa

JPEG is the perfect file format for most casual photographers since they don't take up too much space on your memory card. JPEG files can also be uploaded without being converted into another file. However, this file format also compresses your image files drastically, making it problematic when you’re shooting scenes with high dynamic range.

When shooting at night, switch your image files to RAW in your camera's menu. RAW files take up a lot of space on your memory card, and your images need to be edited afterward, but at least the quality of each image is preserved.

Photo by Carlos Andres Reyes

RAW is the best option to avoid grainy pictures due to low light and post-processing. Unlike JPEG, RAW files maintain their quality even after post-processing. After editing your image file, you can always convert a RAW file to any format you want, including JPEG or PNG.

05. Take test shots

Unlike taking photos in the daytime, night photography requires you to be more methodical. You can’t simply press the shutter when you’re shooting in low light situations. You need to know the exact settings to use for your camera, and to do that, you need to take some test shots.

Taking test shots lets you to experiment with different creative shots. If you’re wondering if it’s possible to photograph light streaks, then tinker with the settings to figure out how you can achieve the shot you want. You can also try various perspectives to make your image more interesting.

It also allows you to fine tune your camera settings. If your initial settings produced a dark picture, then adjust it again until you find the correct exposure. Play around with different ISO levels, apertures, and shutter speeds. First, take a regular photograph in either Aperture or Speed Priority. Take note of the aperture and shutter speed settings, then adjust incrementally until you find the ideal exposure. If you want a quicker, more refined method, you can try also try bracketing your shots.

06. Do bracket exposures

Photo by Dominic Alves

It can be challenging to nail the perfect exposure when taking pictures at night. Minimize guesstimating your settings by bracketing your shots. This technique involves taking a series of photographs at different exposure settings. Each picture you take incrementally gets brighter or darker. Ideally, one of those photos will give you the exposure that you want.

Photo by Chad Verzosa

You can bracket your exposure either manually or automatically. For manual bracketing, set your camera to either Aperture Priority or Speed Priority. Take one regular photo, then use the Exposure Compensation button (the button with +/- symbol) in the subsequent images to adjust the exposure. Automatic Bracketing function is found in your camera’s Shooting Menu.

Photo by Luigi Mengato

Note: An example of an HDR image.

Apart from giving you a selection of exposures in-camera, you can also use the bracketed pictures to create High Dynamic Range (HDR) images. By combining several images in an editing software, this technique recreates the exposure range and the details that a regular camera is unable to capture.

07. Shoot in Aperture Priority Mode for static subjects

Photo by Benjamin Hung

If you don’t yet fully understand how Manual Mode works, then feel free to use Aperture Priority. Shooting in this mode lets you choose the aperture you want and automatically selects the shutter speed.

Aperture Priority is the quickest way to take pictures at night. Once you set your camera to this mode and choose a wide aperture, you're ready to shoot. As long as you don't have moving subjects, this mode is the safest way to take nighttime photos.

It’s also perfect for shooting static scenes like buildings and landscapes. However, since it doesn't let you change the shutter speed manually, it's hard to know whether moving subjects (such as people or cars) in your photo will be blurry or sharp. If you want more control in photographing moving objects, then you need to switch to Manual Mode or Speed Priority Mode.

08. Play with different shutter speeds

Photo by Sanjeevan Satheeskumar

If you want to capture moving objects like the cars in the image above, then switch to Shutter Priority. Just select the shutter speed, and the camera automatically selects the aperture.

This mode helps you produce impressive light streaks and dreamy landscapes at night. Once again, test shots are necessary to achieve the effect that you want to create. To shoot colorful trails, you can set your camera to low shutter speeds (from 1/30 down to 30 seconds). Just keep in mind that the slower the shutter speed, the longer the light trails.

Using the widest aperture setting for long exposures isn't necessary. Sometimes, the combination of really slow shutter speeds and wide aperture can overexpose an image. You’d be surprised how much light your camera gathers even in dimly lit environments. When you're in Shutter Priority Mode, just look at your camera's selected aperture, and you'll see that it can be as small as f/22 for an exposure of a few seconds long.

Shutter Priority is also perfect for photographing the night sky. Typical exposure times for photographing stars is between 10 seconds to 30 seconds. Remember that the stars move across the sky, so if you expose your shot long enough, you’ll see start seeing star trails.

Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini

Note: Star trails can be achieved by using Bulb Mode as well.

09. Experiment with Bulb Mode

Photo by Federico Beccari

The longest shutter speed for most cameras is about 30 seconds. However, sometimes you’ll find yourself in situations where 30 seconds isn’t enough to make a proper exposure. That’s when Bulb Mode comes in. This function allows you to open the shutter as long as you press the camera button.

In most cameras, Bulb is typically found after 30” in Manual Mode. Using Bulb Mode effectively overrides any automatic functions set by the camera, so you have to be comfortable using Manual Mode to use it.

Since you’ll be opening the shutter for more than 30 seconds, select a larger f-stop like f/8, f/11, or even f/22 for exposures that last a few minutes. Using a smaller aperture lessens the chances of overexposing your shot. For extremely long exposure times, you can use the lowest ISO possible for your camera. Like all the other modes discussed in this article, take some test shots and adjust accordingly until you get the shot that you want.

Bulb Mode requires more confidence to use, but it also allows you to experiment freely. Because it lets you expose an image without any time constraints, it’s perfect for “light painting” where you can “scribble” or “draw” in the air using light sources such as a flashlight.