10 Items You Need for Your Night Photography Kit

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10 Items You Need for Your Night Photography Kit

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Night Photographers Toolbox - Buckingham Fountain in Chicago

Buckingham Fountain, Chicago (Shutter Speed: 10 seconds; Aperture f/18; ISO 100; focal length 21 mm)

Louis Pasteur famously said that “chance favors the prepared mind.” This statement definitely applies to photography, as there is always an element of chance, with the odds of success growing with preparation. The quote seems particularly applicable to night photography, which has unique requirements for exposure and stability. Preparation is everything.

Your odds of getting a great night photograph are greatly improved if you have taken the time make sure you have the tools needed to get the job done. In this article, you’ll learn the tools of the trade for the night photographer. You many not need all of these, but you will find most of them helpful – and some essential – for getting great pictures at night.

Night Photographer's Toolkit - Galveston fishing pier photo

Fishing Pier, Galveston, Texas (Shutter Speed: 3 image bracketed HDR of 5, 13, and 30 seconds; Aperture f/16; ISO 200; focal length 24 mm)

1. The Right Camera

It is perfectly obvious that you will need a camera for your night photography. But not just any camera will do. The adage that “the best camera is the one you have with you” does not apply to night photography. The first part of making sure you have the right camera is ensuring that it gives you the right amount of control. You will need one that:

  • Is capable of Raw capture, so that you can get the best image quality possible and keep digital noise to a minimum
  • Has manual controls, including manual exposure settings and manual focus, as sometimes it will be too dark for your camera’s auto-focus to work
  • Has Bulb mode for taking super-long exposures.

Beyond that, you will need a camera with good low-light performance. How do you tell that? It isn’t really that simple, and there is no particular specification you can check. Even if your camera is capable of shooting at high ISOs, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your pictures will look good at those levels. In other words, it doesn’t matter if your camera is capable of shooting at ISO 25,600 if pictures shot at ISO 1600 are full of digital noise.

Fortunately, there has been some testing done of cameras and their low light performance. Check out the testing done by DxO mark and DP review (check the review on their site for your particular model) to make sure your camera measures up.

Night Photographers Toolkit - Champs Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe

Champs Elysees from atop the Arc de Triomphe, Paris (Shutter Speed: 3 image bracketed HDR of 1/4, 1/15, and 1 seconds; Aperture f/5.6; ISO 200; focal length 17 mm – note that these settings were used only because tripods are not allowed here)

2. A Small Flashlight

The next thing you’ll need is a flashlight. This will serve many purposes, one of which is helping you see your camera’s controls. That said, you should become extremely familiar with your camera before heading out, such that you can use the controls without even looking. You might even test yourself in a dark room before going.

In any case, having a flashlight with you will help with a variety of things, whether it be finding something in your bag, setting up your tripod, dealing with straps and other attachments, etc. There is no end of uses for a small flashlight, and flashlights are cheap, so you should definitely stash one (or perhaps a few) in your bag.

Night Photographer's Toolkit - fireworks picture

Fireworks in Southlake, Texas (Shutter Speed: 8 seconds; Aperture f/14; ISO 100; focal length 135 mm)

3. Spare Batteries

The long exposures that are inherent in night photography drain your camera battery at an alarming rate. In addition, when photographing at night, quite often you will be shooting using Live View, which will cause batteries to drain even faster. If you are dealing with cold temperatures, the battery power will be further limited. Therefore, night photography always calls for spare batteries.

Even if you have a battery grip with two fully-charged batteries, bring a couple of spares. Don’t take any chances. There is no getting around dead batteries – it means your night is over.

Night Photographer's Toolkit - Buckingham Palace picture

Buckingham Palace, London (Shutter Speed: 3 image bracketed HDR of 1.3, 5, and 20 seconds; Aperture f/8; ISO 400; focal length 35 mm)

4. Tripod

It is probably already obvious that you will need a tripod for your night photography, in order to keep the camera steady during the long exposures necessary due to the low light conditions. But what kind of tripod?

Most will recommend that you buy a very expensive, large, carbon-fiber tripod to keep your camera as steady as possible. To be sure, those sorts of tripods work great. In fact, if you aren’t going to do much walking – and you can afford it – you should definitely invest in a tripod like that.

Oftentimes, however, night photography involves a lot of walking around. Lugging around a big tripod when you are walking for miles is difficult, and limits your mobility as well. Why not start out with a lightweight, smaller, cheaper tripod? Check out something like a Me-Foto travel tripod or a Manfrotto BeFree. Unless you are using big, heavy lenses, they will hold your rig steady and are supremely portable. They don’t cost that much either. If you later decide you need a bigger, more substantial tripod (and you might) one of these smaller models will still make a great travel tripod.

Night Photographer's Toolkit - Times Square picture

Times Square, New York (Shutter Speed: 1/100 seconds; Aperture f/4; ISO 800; focal length 17 mm – note that I used these settings only because I was forced to hand hold during this picture)

5. Remote Shutter Release (or intervalometer)

The idea behind a remote shutter release is that you are able to trigger the shutter without touching the camera, thereby avoiding shaking the camera during the exposure. They are a necessity for many photographers – especially night photographers.

The good news is that these are relatively cheap (really cheap if you don’t buy the Canon or Nikon models). What’s more, while they used to be nothing more than a way to click the shutter, there are models available now with many additional features, such as:

  • Timers and Exposure Length: These are useful when shooting in Bulb mode, which does not have a timer for shutter speed.
  • Intervals: Most models provide for shooting at intervals, which will also allow you to do time-lapse and star trails photography.
  • Delay: They will allow you to set delays (besides the 2 and 10 second delays built into most cameras).

6. Lens Hood

Night photography often involves harsh lights coming from different directions. Light hitting the front lens element from the side can lead to unwanted lens flare. A lens hood is designed to avoid this problem.

Many lenses came with a hood, but some do not. If your lens did not come with one, you can order one from the manufacturer or pick one up at a camera store. They are not too inconvenient to carry because you can store them on the lens by attaching it in a reverse position when you are not using it. When it comes time to shoot, turn the lens hood around to its proper position.

In addition, remember that a lens hood may do more to protect your lens than a UV filter. They protect the lens in the event that it is dropped or you bump into something.

7. Neutral Density Filters

It may come as a surprise that you will sometimes need neutral density filters at night. The low-light environment of night photography might make you think that you can always use as slow of a shutter speed as you want. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes you want an even longer exposure than available light (or darkness) allows, such as when you are trying to catch streaking tail lights, blur moving water, or to remove people walking through your picture.

For this reason, a collection of neutral density filters is a handy thing to have for night photography. You will want different strengths for different conditions and effects. I carry a 3-stop and a 10-stop neutral density filter (although lately I have been considering adding a 6-stop filter as well). Don’t forget that a polarizing filter will reduce the amount of light coming into your camera by 2-stops as well, so you can use that in a pinch.

Night Photographer's Toolkit - Trafalgar Square picture

Trafalgar Square, London (Shutter Speed: 15 seconds; Aperture f/10; ISO 200; focal length 21 mm)

8. Fill Lighting

Night photography inherently involves extreme contrasts, with bright lights and very dark portions of the image. Sometimes you can add light and increase the tone of the dark portions of the image through HDR or other post-processing. Other times, it pays to get it right in the field. For this, you will want some sort of fill light. You could carry a flash unit for this purpose, but they have very limited ranges.

For fill light, a small flashlight (as mentioned in the last section) might work. However, a small flashlight designed to help you see your way around might not provide enough strength for fill lighting. Therefore, you might also want a larger light source. A larger flashlight or spotlight will work for this. If you will have your vehicle close by, you can use a model that plugs into a 12 volt outlet.

Just shine the light at the areas you want to brighten up during the exposure. You don’t have to shine the light the entire time, and you can vary the amount of light you use. Use a little trial and error to get it right. This will save you a lot of post-processing time later. It will also save you from trying to lighten very dark portions of your image, which always leads to noise and other problems.

9. Colored Lighting

You might also want to add some colored lighting to the scene. There are two ways to do so:

  • Coloring an area: If you want to add colored lighting to an area of your picture, get some colored gels that attach to the front of your flashlight or fill lighting. These are just colored transparencies that fit over the the front of your light. You may not use these very often, but they take up very little space or weight in your bag.
  • Discrete lines/shapes/words: If you want to paint discrete lines, shapes, or even words in your picture, get some colored glow sticks and move them around in the frame during the exposure. This is not the sort of thing you are likely to use every day (or night), but they are small and lightweight so they will not be any trouble to keep in your bag.
Night Photographers Toolkit - Chicago from the Hancock Observatory at Night

Chicago from the Hancock Observatory (Shutter Speed: 6 seconds; Aperture f/9; ISO 200; focal length 17 mm)

10. Smartphone

Here’s another item to bring with you – your phone. While it might be obvious to you, I want to stress it because it is such a useful item. Some people might not bring it with them on the premise that their time photographing is their time to get away from everything. Do not leave your smartphone at home when doing night photography. The phone serves a variety of functions for the night photographer, such as:

  • Timer: You will often be using Bulb mode in your camera, in which you set the exposure time. If your remote shutter release does not already have a timer built-in, the Smartphone will do it for you.
  • Map: Getting lost or turned around at night is easy to do. You don’t want to end up in the wrong place at night.
  • Safety: Obviously, you want to be able to call for help if necessary.

Checklist

In conclusion, here is a quick checklist of the items listed above:

Mandatory

  • Camera
  • Tripod
  • Remote Shutter Release (or Intervalometer)
  • Smartphone

Highly Recommended

  • Spare Batteries
  • Flashlight
  • Lens Hoods
  • Neutral Density Filters

Optional

  • Fill Lighting
  • Colored Lighting (Gels or Glow Sticks)

Do you have your own tools for night photography that aren’t on this list? If so, let’s hear them in the comments below!


Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Jim Hamel shows aspiring photographers simple, practical steps for improving their photos. Check out his free photography guides and photography tutorials at Outdoor Photo Academy. The free tips, explanations, and video tutorials he provides are sure to take your photography to the next level. In addition, beginning photographers should be sure to check out his new book Getting Started in Photography, now available in the Kindle store!

  • John Campbell

    I used all these tips/tools for my first nighttime picture. Used my mini flashlight to light up the car. 30sec. f2.8 iso 2000

  • Alberto H.

    Good reminder. I went out yesterday. Nice full moon out there

  • Karunagaran

    Tq. I never thought neutral density filters could work at night. It softens the lights.

  • Really cool concept. I might tone down the grass in the foreground. I really like the sky and car.

  • Thanks! Glad it was helpful.

  • I have never tested it, but I have never noticed an ND softening lights. I suppose it depends on the actual filter though.

  • Geri Harmony

    What settings did you use for photographing a full moon?

  • Dan Burke

    Memory cards, Photo buddy (safety) and flask of coffee/snacks (for cold nights) I’d add to the list and of course have fun!!

  • I haven’t had the chance to play around with too much fill lighting, but I do always bring my headlamp with me. When you travel far from the city to try to capture a good picture of the stars, having a headlamp comes in handy so you can have both hands free!

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  • All you need for night photography is a camera with a decent low-light sensor, spare batteries, and spare cards. The rest of it is unnecessary clutter and takes from the process.

  • Ah, a minimalist. That’s good. But no tripod either? Or remote shutter release? I’d never go out without those at least.

  • I don’t have one, but I can see that being very handy.

  • Blake Lewis

    I shoot live music for a living. When you’re trying to snag a shot of the bass player hiding in the shadows lit by a single red diode and a corner lamp, you work out quickly that the light available in most of those shots is a luxurious overabundance.

  • Bill

    Having shot live performances, primarily dance and figure skating, in “art” light, I think you are spot on, but in a different context. And that’s when monopods come in very handy.

  • Barbara Reed

    Bring Gaffer tape to tape the lens in the infinitely setting for star photography – keeps it from shifting when exposing or if it gets tapped (usually by us as we work in the dark)

  • Nice one. Thanks!

  • Jenn Chan

    great checklist!

  • Thanks. Glad you like it!

  • Good stuff. I rarely go anywhere without a cup of coffee in my hand, so I should have added that one!

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  • Cameron Cather

    I alway have a pack of hand warmers to tape to my lens to keep the moisture off it during long night shots.

  • Good one. Someone else suggested that as a way to keep your lens from fogging over in areas of high humidity. It appears these hand warmers have quite a few uses. I’m definitely adding some to my bag.

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  • Du

    Please increase the size of your postings so they can be read without a magnifying glass. They have been getting very small when posted here in Facebook.

  • Peter Harjunpää

    Maybe it’s your browser settings. Hit ctrl + and see what happens. If you are a Mac user, then cmd +.

  • Manthan Vora

    does remote shutter release and intervalometer works same.? Kindly help. I am a bit confuse which to buy. ovio there are diff but at the end do they serve the basic purpose to keep the shutter open for long time.

  • Manthan Vora

    how to get these clear and distinct sars is it related to lens he chosed or something else?

  • Patty Keeley Mills

    An intervalometer will allow you more options. With this, you can do time lapse photography by setting up shot frequency, number of shots you want to take, and amount of time you want to shoot, all without you actually having to press the release button more than once. It’s not necessary to have, but I personally feel that for the price difference it’s better to have an not need than to need and not have.

  • Myer

    Gaffer Tape, anti fog, hand warmers

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