Night photography is an incredible genre, one that offers a near-constant supply of outstanding photo opportunities. However, if you’re a night photography beginner or you’re looking to expand your night photoshoot horizons, then you might benefit from some inspiration.
That’s where this article comes in handy. I share 13 of my favorite night photography ideas, and I also offer plenty of tips, tricks, and examples along the way. (Of course, don’t limit yourself to the subjects I suggest; instead, use them as a jumping-off point for non-stop nighttime fun.)
By the time you’re finished reading, you’ll be feeling inspired – and you’ll have plenty of night photoshoot ideas for gorgeous images!
Let’s dive right in.
If you’re looking for an easy night photography idea – one that you can use in practically every city, big or small – then keep an eye out for reflections.
After all, most cities have plenty of modern office buildings made of glass and steel, and while these aren’t often photogenic subjects on their own, the glass and steel provide great opportunities for capturing reflections of nearby features.
Plus, at night, glass can appear particularly reflective.
The bright lights of the city will show up clearly in the facades of buildings, and the resulting photos can look cinematic and even surreal.
Of course, water presents a great opportunity for capturing reflections, as well. Ponds, lakes, and even fountains can work great for this, but I do recommend you use a slow shutter speed to remove water ripples; that way, the reflection will show up more clearly.
2. Streaking lights
Streaking headlights and taillights look amazing, they add a sense of movement to the scene, and they’re a great way to do with the problem of traffic in your photos.
Here’s how you can capture stunning light-trail shots:
Start by dialing in a slow shutter speed. (You will typically need to shoot at 15 seconds or longer to allow enough time for the vehicles to move through your frame.) Then set a midrange aperture (around f/8) and a low ISO (100) to prevent overexposure, then adjust depending on conditions.
Once you have your camera set up, mount it on a tripod, then wait until traffic is about to enter your frame. Trip the shutter!
If you follow these instructions, the shutter will stay open while the traffic moves through the frame, and only the headlights and taillights of the passing vehicles will show up in your picture.
Where should you go to find good places for streaking lights? That depends. If you just want the streaking lights to accentuate the scene, then you can go practically anywhere: city centers, suburbs, parking lots, even rural roads.
If you want the streaking lights to be the centerpiece of your photo, however, you will need to find a vantage point overlooking a highway or a major street. Bridges and overpasses work great for this. Parking garages that are next to a highway can work great, as well.
Skylines nearly always look great at night. The buildings will be lit, and they’ll contrast against the black sky.
Plus, you won’t have to worry about a lot of things that cause problems during the day; there will be no glare from front-lit buildings, nor will there be shadows from backlit buildings. For the most part, cloud conditions don’t matter, either.
The key is to find a good vantage point. If your city has a river or bay you can shoot across, scout out potential locations in advance, then head over when the sun sets. Another good choice is an elevated point overlooking the skyline (look for bridges and overpasses). When searching for overlooks, Google Maps Street View is your friend!
The best part about photographing monuments at night is that they’re usually well lit – and the inky background plus the artificial lamps create an effect that viewers aren’t used to seeing.
The worst part about monuments is that, even at night, they can attract a lot of people. Fortunately, long exposures can help you out; by dialing in a lengthy shutter speed (over 30 seconds, so you will need to use Bulb mode), people that happen to walk through your scene will not show up in the final picture. Of course, if the people happen to stop walking and stand around in your frame, they will show up, and you’ll need to use the Clone Stamp tool in Photoshop to get rid of them down the line.
One tip: Monument lights aren’t kept on all night. In my experience, they go out around midnight, so make sure you arrive at least an hour or two in advance to get your shot.
Fireworks are a classic night photoshoot idea, and for good reason:
They look amazing, and cameras are uniquely capable of capturing their splendor.
Note that you don’t need to wait until the 4th of July to find a fireworks display; many cities and towns now have fireworks on a regular basis as a means to draw people to local businesses. For example, the picture above – of fireworks over St. Louis – was taken on a random weekend. And I live near a lake in Texas that has fireworks every weekend during the summer. So head on over to Google and see if you can find a fireworks display near you.
The key to capturing fireworks is to use the right shutter speed and to time the explosions. In my experience, a 10-15 second shutter speed works well – it provides enough time for the fireworks to fully explode, but it isn’t so long that the fireworks have time to fade.
Trigger the shutter when you see the dot of the firework going up. That way, your picture will capture the explosion from beginning to end.
6. Individual buildings
I know, it sounds boring, but don’t overlook shots of individual buildings.
Yes, if you photograph an individual building during the day, you’ll often end up with a bland image. But you’d be surprised by how certain buildings look at night! So go on a city walk, take your camera, and look for architecture with interesting lights!
Don’t look just for brightly lit buildings, though. Industrial buildings and scenes feature great shapes and textures; they often look better than modern facades. While you might not want to be wandering around an abandoned factory (especially at night!), there are plenty of historical public structures and working factories you can photograph from the street.
This night photoshoot idea is quick, easy, and tons of fun.
Wherever you go, keep an eye out for streetlights. And do your best to capture them!
One streetlight is nice, especially when you can combine it with lots of negative space for a minimalist effect. Rows of streetlights are even better!
Since you’ll be photographing lights, you’ll need to be careful not to create spots of overexposure (unless that’s the effect you’re going for, of course!). If you’re after a cool effect, narrow your aperture to f/16 or so; that way, the lights will turn into a twinkling starburst!
Carnivals are all about bright lights, vibrant colors, and movement – which means they’re great places for the (well-prepared) night photographer.
Of course, carnivals don’t happen every day, so you’ll need to plan ahead. Most metropolitan areas have publications listing all upcoming events, and if you can’t find one of those, you can check a guidebook for your city.
Once you’re at the carnival, set your exposure so your shutter speed is in the 8-15 second range. That way, you can capture the movement of rollercoasters, Ferris wheels, and other spinning rides in your shot. You can usually set a low ISO to keep noise under control, and you can select a moderate aperture for sufficient depth of field.
Museums are designed to be shown off. As a result, most museums present dramatic facades, are accessible to the public, and are beautifully lit at night.
In other words, they’re a great night photoshoot subject.
Plus, you don’t have to search hard for museums. Pretty much every museum will be listed in guidebooks, on tourism websites, and on Google Maps. (There are often several museums to choose from!) Just find the most attractive one – try searching Google Images – and check it out.
Once you find a good museum, the key to success is composition. Start with the obvious frontal shot, but then work the scene from there, trying out different angles and perspectives. See if you can find interesting foreground subjects to add depth, and don’t forget to shoot the little details.
10. Neon signs
This isn’t a night photography idea you can use in every location, but many cities – especially the big ones, like New York and London, are full of beautiful neon signs.
Signs are easy to overlook, but once you know to keep an eye out, you’ll likely see them popping up all over the place.
Note that you don’t need to fill the frame with the neon sign. You can use the sign edges to frame another subject, or you can use the sign to provide foreground interest…the opportunities go on and on. This next image required a wide-angle lens to encompass all (or most) of the neon signs in a New York City square:
Make sure to expose carefully, though. Neon signs, like streetlights (discussed above) are bright, and it’s easy to end up with clipped highlights. Check your LCD often, and if you’re not getting the results you like, try using an HDR technique to keep detail in the highlights and the shadows.
11. Overlooks and views
A good view can make for amazing pictures at any time of the day, and nighttime is a special time when cities come alive with lights.
Finding a great view can be difficult, however. Parks and towers are often closed at night, while parking garages offer spotty access. My favorite way to find views is to search city guidebooks; sometimes, there might even be a section on the best views. If that doesn’t work, check out tourist blogs and websites, many of which offer lists of lookout spots.
One warning: A great view does not necessarily make a great picture. The key to success often lies in the foreground. Make sure to include a close element of interest that draws or leads the viewer to the stunning background.
Struggling to find a night photo subject? Find a bridge!
Your city may not have the Brooklyn Bridge or the Golden Gate Bridge, but I can almost guarantee you that it will have a bridge of some type and that it will be well lit at night. Almost every major city is built on a river or a bay, meaning there will be bridges. And the bridges are always lit.
For the most compelling photos, you’ll want to find a good vantage point. Google Maps Street View is helpful; you can find the main bridges in your city, then just (virtually) walk around. Be sure you find a place to park, as this can often be tricky around bridges.
When out shooting, take special notice of the water under the bridge. For one, fast-moving water looks great when shot with a long exposure; the long exposure time will smooth out the water, creating a beautiful effect. Additionally, the lights from the bridge will often create reflections in the water – so if you can position your camera so the water constitutes your foreground, the results will be amazing.
One more thing: When photographing a bridge, don’t overlook the passing traffic. You might be able to incorporate streaking lights from the cars into your shots. As with any light-trail photography, make sure you fire the shutter right as traffic is about to enter the frame.
Many central plazas and squares surround a fountain, and these are (usually) brightly lit at night. What’s more, photographing at night works to your advantage: the slow shutter speeds required by the lack of light allow the water to flow while your shutter is open, making the water appear beautiful and smooth.
Start with a low to midrange ISO (100-400) and a moderate aperture (around f/8). Then adjust your shutter speed to get the correct exposure; this will generally result in a sufficiently slow shutter speed to create smooth, flowing water.
Night photography ideas: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you should have plenty of night photoshoot ideas – and you’re hopefully ready to head out and take some beautiful long exposures.
So pick a few of these night ideas, do a bit of research, then grab your camera and have fun!
Now over to you:
Which night photography ideas do you plan to use on your next photoshoot? What are your favorite nighttime subjects? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- 13 Great Subjects for Urban Night Photography
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES