6 Tips For Better Night Photos With A Point And Shoot Camera

6 Tips For Better Night Photos With A Point And Shoot Camera


Sansome Like a lot of photographers, I carry a camera around just about everywhere I go.  But it’s not always my preferred DSLR as the bulk and weight often preclude easy travel, especially if I’m just heading to the store. 

A Point & Shoot (P&S) camera, however, easily slips into my pocket or resides peacefully in the glove box of my truck.  With years of service, it has become invaluable in capturing special memories and spur of the moment shots. 

On a recent business trip to San Francisco, with my trusty P&S in my pocket and the DLSRs moping around back at home, wondering why I had forsaken them, I was bitten with by the photography bug.  I’m guessing most of you know this feeling.  Some of you are bitten every day.  But for some of us that don’t have a specific project or trip in mind, the photography bug doesn’t pay a daily visit.  Inspiration in us all comes and goes, like the tides.  When the bug does bite, though, a camera must be acquired, STAT!

For me the bite happened at night as I walked the streets of the Financial District.  With only my P&S along for the ride, I’d like to share some trips I have found handy in pushing a small camera to an often large task; night photos without a tripod.  In this case, I’ll limit it to a city landscape.

1. Use A Longer Shutter Speed

Without getting into specifics concerning one brand of a camera or another, most P&S cameras have some ability to adjust the shutter speed.  If you’re lucky, yours will actually have a shutter speed setting, but my Canon Digital Elph does not.  However, it does have a “Night Scenes” mode setting with an expanded feature.  This feature does allows for shutter speeds beyond its standard two second maximum in Program mode.  In fact, it can be dialed all the way up to 30 seconds if I desire.  And to be honest, it took me two years of using this camera to finally notice this setting!  I’d highly suggest checking your owner’s manual to see if your camera has such capabilities.  If not, then you might want to skip tip #2…

2. Try Different Shutter Speeds

We all know longer shutter speeds will bring in more light.  But chances are if you’re shooting at night in a city, there’s not too much light.  Meaning, your camera will have the latitude it needs in the aperture settings to keep the exposure well developed.  I found my camera was able to handle shots all the way up to about 20 seconds before things started to get too blown out.  Otherwise, different shutter speeds allowed me to capture headlight streaks with a varying degree of streekiness.  Longer shutter speeds and their corresponding smaller aperture also brought distant buildings into focus.

3. Find Something Sturdy

Not So Steady I can hear some of the comments now, “20 second shutter speeds without a tripod?  Are you crazy?”  While I mentioned the lack of a tripod, I didn’t mean you have to completely handhold each shot.  Find as many sturdy surfaces as you can.  Newspaper boxes, lamp posts, statues.  Just about anything will work.  Sometimes it will mean the surface will be in the shot (such as with a railing or ledge) so you’ll need to take that into account.  Some people can make decent handheld shots down to one second long.  Me, I need stability in the form of large objects.  Even then, technique matters (see example at right as a prime example of what not to do), which means you will want to…

4. Breath Easy And Squeeze

Keep your finger on the shutter release as you’re taking the photo.  Don’t attempt to remove it as it’ll likely cause minor shakes.  Breathe normal and steady, don’t hold your breath.  I read some place that sharp shooters are trained to squeeze the trigger while exhaling as the body tends to relax during that portion of the breathing cycle.  I’ve found this to be mostly true and it does help with longer shutter speeds.

5. Fiddle With ISO

Depth ISO can be your friend or enemy in city night photos.  P&S cameras don’t often have the same noise reduction capabilities of their larger brethren (although they are constantly evolving) and this makes for some fairly grainy shots past ISO400.  Some people like this, some don’t.  If you’re not a fan of all that grain, take manual control (if you can) of the ISO setting.  This will, of course, mean longer shutter speeds, but that’s half the fun of learning photography; getting used to the interplay of the controls to manage how much light passes through to the sensor.  Also, if there is just a touch too much light in the scene, lowering the ISO may help darken those areas until they are acceptable.  Also, lowering the ISO may help you grab some light trails that didn’t exist before with a faster shutter speed.

6. Use Noise Reduction If You Have It

As previously mentioned, not all P&S cameras are equipped with decent noise reduction for higher ISOs.  However, a fair number of cameras DO have noise reduction for long shutter speeds.  My camera is such a unit and it has positives and negative aspects.  On the positive side is the fact that the feature is intended to be used with night shots.  It knows black should be mostly black and can handle night skies well.  One the negative side, the feature takes about as long to process an image as it took to shoot the image.  I’ve cursed this aspect as the scene I really wanted went zooming past while my camera took 20 seconds to process my 20 second photo.  It’s something to be aware of.

I’m limiting this post to just these six tips which I hope are the most helpful, otherwise a blabber mouth like me could go on and on and on.  I do have one more tip that is outside of the parameters I set at the beginning of this post.  Grab a GorillaPod and leave it in your vehicle.  Or carry it around with you, but that’s not always practical.  These little devices are very easy to use and perfect for night photos around a city.  They can also give you more latitude in composition as you’re not confined to straight forward shots on newspaper boxes.

Lastly, don’t forget to check out Natalie’s previous post How To Avoid Camera Shake.  While directed at the large DLSR lens crowd, it contains a number of tips that also apply to using a P&S at night.

Now then, let us hear from you!  Add your favorite night-photography-with-a-P&S-in-a-big-city tip in the comments section below.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Lisa December 23, 2011 10:34 pm

    Love taking pictures, but haven't been able to access my manual yet. I bought a canon sx40powershot, need help with settings, help! Happy holidays!

  • albert joseph November 19, 2011 01:20 am

    I love nite photography, I am using Canon A2200 Point & Shoot camera, can you give me idea on how to maximize my camera. will be going to Malaysia and i want to take a shot at Petronas Tower during nite. What will be the tips or set up i gonna used during a nite shot?

  • albert joseph November 19, 2011 01:20 am

    I love nite photography, I am using Canon A2200 Point & Shoot camera, can you give me idea on how to maximize my camera. will be going to Malaysia and i want to take a shot at Petronas Tower during nite. What will be the tips or set up i gonna used during a nite shot?

  • albert joseph November 19, 2011 01:20 am

    I love nite photography, I am using Canon A2200 Point & Shoot camera, can you give me idea on how to maximize my camera. will be going to Malaysia and i want to take a shot at Petronas Tower during nite. What will be the tips or set up i gonna used during a nite shot?

  • Vince September 20, 2010 10:56 am

    Wow nice tips for learning night photos. That's annoying me for a long time. All those tips are helpful and I can't wait for the night to try it on my own.

  • isaacm August 14, 2010 04:02 am

    thanks 4 the advise very helpful...

  • B-gEM June 5, 2010 04:08 am

    hi...i'm just wondering if somebody can help me out on how to shot a B&W?...i'm a newbie was that edited or something sir..???i coudnt figure it out on my DSLR...I'm using old typr of it..

  • lara October 9, 2009 03:54 am

    Thanks Vilmis | Travel Pictures. I don't see using burst as a problem, in fact it's preferable to timer as you amy still be holding the camera when the timer goes off. Burst gives more options, and more interesting effects.

  • Arlene October 5, 2009 08:51 pm

    thanks for the tips! i have a no ISP P&S camera and haven't realized your tips. will try to make it work. Just last week i took a night scene using night mode and shook the camera to have a wavy curves of the captured lights. I find it attractive. I will really try what you mentioned in here. I carry my camera too anywhere i go. :)

  • kuhlphoto October 4, 2009 03:20 am

    Anyone suggest turning off the VR/IS when placing the camera on a solid, stable surface and using the timer function...heard it said that the Image Stabilization will add movement to a shot if it is enabled and the camera is perfectly still.

  • Melissa October 2, 2009 09:57 pm

    I found while taking pics with P& S is set it on a hard surface n turn on the self timer once you get ur positioning straight so when u do let go from the capture button it wont be moving as it takes the picture.

  • Yuri October 2, 2009 03:08 am

    When you do 15 sec + exposure, make a similar shot with lens cap on to subtract hot pixels later from a dark frame. CHDK software for Canon Powershots has dark frame subtraction function. BTW, the same CHDK software allows to override shutter speed, making 100 sec exposure possible.

  • Steve October 1, 2009 02:39 pm

    I love night photography! One of my favorite digital photo tips is to find a body of water with a cityscape in the background. You can really pick up some amazing reflection colors. More than you can see with your naked eye.

    Learn Digital Photography

  • Ed V. September 30, 2009 11:27 pm

    Great tips, not just for cityscapes, but for vacations also. We went to Disney World this past summer and didn't want to lug the DSLR along. Using some of the techiques mentioned above with a 10 second shutter time and a narrow railing, my el-cheapo Panasonic LZ-10 captured some awesome lightning strikes.

  • Mazen Fakih September 30, 2009 04:16 pm

    If you're going to use something as a makeshift tripod, that is a sturdy surface, I recommend that you use the self timer option. Clicking the shutter release will cause vibrations and this mode will help a lot.

  • louie September 30, 2009 04:14 pm

    Great article!
    I was in singapore 4 wks ago and brought my canon 450d to take pictures, i had my gorillapod with me, and it was a great help in my landscape night shots on my first night there, and then unfortunately, my DSLR broke down on me the next day, because of humidity, and i dont have time or budget to get my camera fixed immediately. It was then that i turned to shooting with a P&S i borrowed from my brother's girlfriend, an old Canon Powershot model, and used all i learned, tweaking a lot of the settings of that P&S, like lowering ISO and delaying shutter speed. they were now saying that it is not just that camera, it's now the photog.
    and i was even teaching some of the tourists to fiddle with their P&S and they were surprised that it could do that.

  • Churropean September 30, 2009 04:06 pm

    High end PnS like the lx3 are darn fun.

    2 of my photos were almost the same as DSLR quality for long exposures.


    I even managed to get creamy smooth waters by using a ND8 filter, 60s even though the max aperture's F8.0.


    Light trails are fun.

    The best thing about point and shoot is that I get away by just resting my camera on thin ledges & etc. I don't think I can rest my DSLR on a thin rail, can I?

  • Vilmis | Travel Pictures September 30, 2009 12:03 pm

    Regarding #4 - use timer(most p&s has this function) and your problem will be solved.

  • ddole September 30, 2009 11:38 am

    I'll second the 2-second timer trick; I use that all the time.

    If I'm shooting freehand, I tuck my elbows into my torso and smush the camera against my face. For some reason, my head seems to help stabilize my hands, and I think it gains me about a stop. It's a little hard to compose, because you can't really see through the viewfinder with your elbows tucked in, but once you practice a bit, you get pretty good at guessing. That's how I took this shot, and it came out satisfyingly crisp for 1/8.

  • Aaron Kafton September 30, 2009 11:03 am

    I actually used to compete in rifle competitions in highschool and was trained that breathing technique and found myself using it without thinking when it came to photography. considering most of my photography was concert photography i found the similarities eerie (finding patterns in the subjects movement and anticipating my shot) and useful

  • max September 30, 2009 10:39 am

    Or grab a monsterpod which is handier in some ways and less bulky than a gorilla pod.

  • Ilan September 30, 2009 04:54 am

    With the introduction of iPhone and the rapid progress in P&S cameras, shooting in the dark is getting way more easier with each day.
    Few years back I took this photo - http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/06/together-and-alone.html - by using my girlfriends Sony-Ericsson K800i. I was shocked to see the great result I got then.
    After that photo, I've decided that it's time to leave my bulky DSLR on my daily routine and buy me a (high end?) P&S camera. (GX200 or LX3)
    Great article, awesome tips!

  • Lara September 30, 2009 04:00 am

    I also use my camera in burst/continuous mode...at least one of the pics is clear enough!

  • TvG September 30, 2009 03:31 am

    My trick is to bring an eraser or something similar that I can use to prop the P&S into position on a nice sturdy object and then use the timer. Works beautifully!

  • hppycmpr September 30, 2009 03:26 am

    To avoid having to keep the shutter release depressed, I usually use the timer function. One or two seconds gives me time to press and release the button and then make sure the P&S stays still.

  • TC September 30, 2009 03:10 am

    Strange - I don't normally shoot stuff like this, but I actually shot one with my Panasonic LX3 just last night, because the sky had a wonderful light.

    Also shot it with my Pentax K20D SLR just for comparison.

    The LX3 does quite well.