Choosing the right equipment for night photography can be tough. You can’t just waltz around with a camera and snap away; instead, the lack of light forces you to work with lengthy shutter speeds, (often) bracketed exposures, and more – which, in turn, require specialist equipment.
So if you want to capture stunning night shots, what gear do you need?
In this article, we give you a rundown of key night photography equipment. We discuss all essential gear, from the basics (cameras and tripods) all the way to more advanced items for night shooting (colored lights and ND filters, to name a couple).
By the time you’re done, you’ll know exactly what to put in your gear bag before a night photoshoot. And you’ll be ready to capture photos like those featured throughout this article!
Let’s get started.
1. The right camera
It should come as no surprise that you must have a camera for your night photography…
…but not just any camera will work. Night photography is tricky and requires advanced features, so you’ll need a camera that:
- is capable of RAW capture, so 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 (in certain cases, it’ll be too dark for your camera’s autofocus to work!)
- has Bulb mode for capturing ultra-long exposures.
You’ll also need a camera with good low-light performance. In other words, your camera should be able to capture images with low noise levels at ISO 1600 or so (and the higher your camera can go while producing low-noise images, the better!).
If you’re struggling to choose a new camera or you’re not sure if your camera measures up, then check out testing done by DxOMark and DPReview. On DPReview, for instance, you can view images taken at various ISO levels (I recommend checking ISO 800, ISO 1600, ISO 3200, and ISO 6400, if possible).
Also check out our popular digital cameras list to see what other dPS readers are buying right now.
2. A small flashlight
A flashlight might seem simple, but it is a fundamental piece of night photography equipment.
For one, it’ll help you see your camera’s controls (which is always important!). It’ll also help you select the right equipment from your bag, set up your tripod, deal with straps, etc. And if your camera’s autofocus is struggling, you can even use a flashlight to illuminate a part of your scene, which should improve focusing accuracy and speed.
That said, before you head out for a night photoshoot, I do recommend you become extremely familiar with your camera. If you can set the aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and shooting mode without looking, you’ll have a much easier time, whether or not you have a flashlight on hand.
Looking for a great torch – check out the OLIGHT 1150 Lumens S2R II which several of our team use. It’s not the cheapest on the market but it’s a high quality light. If you want something more affordable we recommend the OLIGHT I5R EOS 350.
3. Spare batteries
Night photography requires long exposures.
And long exposures will drain your camera batteries at an alarming rate. (Seriously. It’s ridiculous how few 20-second exposures you can take on a single battery.)
Of course, the specific number of shots will depend on your camera, as well as your technique (I often use Live View at night, which causes the batteries to drain faster) and the weather (in cold temperatures, the battery power will be limited even further). But at the end of the day, no matter how impressive your camera’s normal battery life, you’ll want to have some spare batteries on hand.
How many batteries is enough? Even if you have a grip with two fully charged batteries, I’d recommend you bring a couple of spares. And if it’s cold and you plan to be out for a long time, add another two spares on top of that. Don’t take any chances.
After all, there is no way of getting around dead batteries; it means your night is over.
4. A tripod
If you’ve ever seen night photographers at work, then you’ll know that a tripod is a key piece of equipment. And it should make logical sense: low-light conditions require long shutter speeds, and unless you have a tripod, your long-exposure photos will be full of blur.
(The exception is street night photography, where you’ll generally crank your ISO way up, use a shutter speed of around 1/100s, and add artificial light sources to keep parts of the photo well exposed.)
What kind of tripod do you need?
Most photographers recommend that you buy a very large, expensive carbon fiber tripod to keep your camera as steady as possible. To be sure, such tripods do work great. In fact, if you aren’t going to do much walking – and if you can afford it – you should definitely invest in a tripod like that, because it’ll give you the best chance at sharp shots, even in wind and moving water.
However, most night photography involves a lot of walking around. Lugging a big tripod while walking for miles is difficult, and it limits your mobility, too. So why not start out with a lightweight, smaller, cheaper tripod? Check out something like a MeFoto RoadTrip or a Manfrotto Befree. Unless you are using big, heavy lenses or shooting in difficult conditions, they will hold your rig steady and are supremely portable. They don’t cost that much, either.
And if you later decide you need a bigger, more substantial tripod, your smaller model will still make a great travel tripod!
5. A remote shutter release
A remote shutter release lets you trigger the shutter without touching the camera – and this prevents the initial vibrations that occur when you press the shutter button. Unless you’re shooting at shutter speeds above 1/80s or so, you’ll need a remote shutter release, which means that pretty much every night photographer should have one in their gear bag.
Fortunately, these are pretty cheap, especially if you go for a basic model sold by a third-party company. Plus, while remote releases used to be nothing more than a way to click the shutter from afar, there are now models with many additional features, such as:
- Timers: This is useful when shooting in Bulb mode, which does not have a shutter speed timer.
- Intervals: Most advanced shutter releases allow you to shoot at intervals, which is perfect for time-lapse and star trail photography.
- Custom delay: This allows you to set delays (besides the 2- and 10-second delays built into most cameras).
Speaking of shutter delays: If you want to get started with night photography but you don’t own a shutter release, another way to prevent shutter-button vibrations is via your camera’s self-timer feature. Simply set up your camera with a 2-second delay, tap the shutter button, and wait for the exposure to start.
(I don’t recommend this as a long-term solution, however, because it’s often inconvenient to wait two seconds before every exposure, especially if you’re capturing moving subjects, such as a seascape scene with foreground waves.)
Amazon have shutter releases for most camera models.
6. Your lens hood
A lens hood might seem unnecessary, especially if you’re not shooting in rain or snow, but trust me: when it comes to night photography, a hood is essential.
You see, night photography often involves harsh lights coming from different directions, which leads to unwanted lens flare. And lens hoods are specifically designed to avoid this problem (by blocking stray light from hitting your camera sensor).
If your lens came with a hood, make sure you always grab it before heading out. And if your lens didn’t come with a hood, you can order one from the manufacturer or even purchase a third-party model.
Personally, I don’t find lens hoods especially inconvenient to carry; you can always store one on its lens by attaching it in the reverse position. Then, when it comes time to shoot, just flip the lens hood around!
By the way, it’s worth remembering that a lens hood may do more to protect your lens than a UV filter. If you drop the lens on its front element, a UV filter may not prevent a catastrophe – but a lens hood might.
If your lens didn’t come with a lens hood or you’ve lost one you can find generic ones for almost any size lens at Amazon.
7. Neutral density filters
This may come as a surprise, but neutral density filters are a great piece of night photography gear to have in your bag.
If your goal is to do long-exposure night photography, you may wish to use a longer shutter speed than the conditions allow, even after dark (this is a common problem when shooting light trails at twilight, or when trying to blur people moving through a well-lit outdoor area).
Therefore, a small collection of neutral density filters can be a night photography lifesaver. You’ll want different strengths for different conditions and effects (I carry a 3-stop and a 10-stop neutral density filter, and you might also grab a 6-stop filter, too). Don’t forget that a polarizing filter will reduce the amount of light coming into your camera by 2 stops as well, so in a pinch, you can use that.
8. Fill lighting
Night photography generally involves extreme contrasts, with a combination of bright lights and very dark areas. Sometimes, you can boost the exposure with HDR or other post-processing techniques – but other times, it pays to get it right in camera.
If you do decide to nail your night exposures in camera, you’ll need a fill light. Flash units can work, but the range is very limited; I’d recommend a flashlight instead. Feel free to experiment with larger and smaller flashlights, depending on your distance from the subject and the overall lighting conditions.
Then after starting the exposure, simply shine the light at the areas you want to brighten up. You don’t have to keep the flashlight on the entire time, and you can vary the amount of light you use.
Ultimately, careful use of fill light will save you a lot of post-processing time. It will also prevent you from needing to lighten very dark portions of your image, which always leads to noise and other problems.
9. Colored lighting
Once you’ve really committed to night photography, you may want to add some colored lighting to the scene for creative effect. There are two techniques you can try:
- Using flash gels to color an area. If you want to add colored lighting to a part of your picture, get some colored gels that attach to the front of your fill light. You may not use them very often, but gels take up very little space in your bag. When you see an opportunity, “paint” over the targeted areas with your colored light.
- Using glow sticks to add discrete lines/shapes/words. If you want to add “painted” lines, shapes, or even words to 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 you can carry them everywhere without too much trouble.
10. A smartphone
It may sound obvious, but you should always bring your phone to a night photoshoot. Even if you see photography as your time to get away from everything, don’t leave your smartphone at home.
You see, a phone serves a variety of key night photography functions, including:
- Timer: You will often use Bulb mode when shooting at night, which (as mentioned above) doesn’t include a timer. Unless your remote shutter release has a built-in timer, then you’ll need to rely on your smartphone to track exposure lengths.
- Map: Getting lost or turned around at night is easy to do. You don’t want to end up in the wrong place!
- Safety: Obviously, you want to be able to call for help if necessary.
- Applications: There are a variety of apps, such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris, which contain useful information on the movement of celestial bodies. I highly recommend you download one of these apps and keep it on hand at all times!
Night photography equipment: final words
Well, there you have it:
All the gear you need to capture stunning photos at night. Below, I’ve categorized the gear in order of importance – so read through the list, figure out what’s missing, then add it to your bag. Good luck!
- Remote shutter release
Highly recommended gear:
- Spare batteries
- Lens hood
- Neutral density filters
- Fill lighting
- Colored lighting (gel and/or glow sticks)