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How to Create and Shoot Night Portraits

how to create and shoot night portraits

If you limit your portrait photography to daylight, you’re missing out on a chance to get some really cool night portraits.

So whether you just want to do a better job capturing portraits at night, or whether you want to know how to light a night scene from start to finish, there’s something in this article for you.

Read on to get some tips to help you create and shoot stunning night portraits!

Get off Automatic mode

If you’re using your camera in Automatic mode, you’ll find one of two things will happen:

With the flash off, you’ll get a really blurry photo – because the camera needs a longer exposure time at night.

Or with the flash turned on, the camera will restrict the shutter speed. And while your subject will be well-lit by the flash, the background will go black.

In other words:

Shooting in Auto is a lose-lose situation, especially if you want a photo of your subject with a cool background.

How to Create and Shoot Night Portraits automatic mode
With Auto mode plus the on-camera flash, the background gets rendered quite dark and potentially even pitch-black.

Night Scene mode

Fortunately, most cameras have a set of helpful scene modes.

On the mode dial (pictured below), there are options such as “M” for Manual mode and “P” for Program mode (or “Professional mode,” as some of my buddies like to joke).

But you’ll also find a series of picture icons, like a mountain or a sprinter. The one you want for night portraits is the Night Scene mode (you may have to go into your menu to find it). It’s usually represented by the moon or a star with a person.

Night Scene mode allows for a longer exposure, but your flash fires as well.

(Note that the mode will occasionally be called “slow sync flash” instead of “Night Scene Mode.”)

night portraits night scene mode on a camera
A camera with Night Scene mode selected.

So here’s what you do:

First, set the mode. Remember that, because you’ll have a longer exposure, you’ll need to hold the camera steady. Your flash will freeze the subject, yes – but they still need to stay motionless for the entire shot to avoid going transparent around the edges.

slow synchro or night scene mode
The slow sync flash/Night Scene mode exposes for both the flash and the background. But be careful; it can result in image blur from camera shake.

Moving to Manual mode

When I shoot nightclub portraits, I’m doing what the Night Scene mode would suggest…

…but I set the camera to Manual.

With Manual mode, you can select an aperture and shutter speed so the background scene looks good or slightly underexposed. Then you can use an automatic on-camera flash to capture your night portrait.

night portrait of two women in a club
A nightclub shot taken with the camera set to Manual mode, where I exposed for the background. A mix of a high ISO and a large aperture allowed for a fast shutter speed and helped prevent camera shake. The flash was in TTL mode, and the flash exposure was set automatically.

In general, I recommend that photography beginners stick to their Night Scene mode. But as soon as you’re comfortable taking things a step further, switch over to Manual mode and gain control over your exposures!

Next, let’s look at how you can take even more control over your images. As you can probably tell from how Night Scene mode works, you’re effectively taking two shots in one picture. The first is of your subject, and the second is of the background.

Lighting the night portrait subject

For complete control over the lighting on your subject, you need to use a light that’s off-camera.

This doesn’t have to be a flash. In fact, it can even be a streetlight, something I’ll touch on later in the article. It can also be a continuous light that you’ve brought with you, such as an LED or a video light.

However, an off-camera flash will give you the most flexibility, which is why I wholeheartedly recommend investing in one.

To get your flash off-camera, you need a trigger to fire it. Some flashes have built-in receivers, so you can work with a simple remote trigger.

You’ll also need a light stand or someone to hold the flash and aim it for you.

To get an idea of where you can point the flash to achieve great results, check out this article on lighting positions.

And if you want to control the look of the light, make sure you read up on modifiers and their benefits.

The background

The background won’t be heavily affected by the flash, so it requires a longer exposure to look nice and bright (hence the need for Night Scene mode).

So if you want to avoid blurring your background, use a tripod. You might also opt to use a higher ISO, which will allow you to shorten the shutter speed and keep the background (and your subject) sharp.

night portrait of a woman on a bridge
This shot was captured in Manual mode, and the exposure was set for the background. The off-camera flash was set manually, and was dialed up or down as needed based on the background.

Getting the shot

When it comes to capturing a night portrait, the first step is to determine how much of the shot you want in focus. A wide aperture like f/2.8 means the background will go out of focus, but the wide aperture also means you can use a shorter shutter speed and still get a well-exposed background. When using flash, the shutter speed isn’t important for the subject’s exposure, so you should aim to get the subject’s flash exposure right first (before considering the background).

Set your aperture and your ISO first; ISO 400 to ISO 800 should be fine. The shutter speed can be anything below 1/200s (or whatever your camera’s sync speed is, which will be in your camera manual).

Tip: If you can’t focus properly, use your phone flashlight to illuminate your subject’s face enough to focus, then switch off the autofocus to keep that focus point locked in.

Aim your flash at the subject and set it to low power (such as 1/32 or 1/16). Take a shot and check it.

If the subject is too bright, turn the flash power down. And if the subject is too dark, turn the flash up.

Finally, if the subject is still too bright, even at the lowest flash setting, try moving the flash away from the subject.

night photo with flash
This image was shot at 1/250s, which is the sync speed of my camera.

With the flash working, you probably have a black background, as in the image above. But have no fear; you’re only halfway there!

Next, decrease your shutter speed. If you’ve got a live preview on your camera, use it. Make sure it’s set to Exposure Simulation, so you can see exposure adjustments in realtime. As you lower the shutter speed, you’ll see more and more of the background. When you’re happy with how the background looks, you’re ready to shoot!

lighter flash shot at night
The lighter version of this composition (pictured here) was shot at 1/30s. Notice that the flash exposure on the subject is the same in both pictures. Both shots are using ISO 1600 and f/4. (Also, the subject was completely dark, so to focus I had him light his face with his phone. I used autofocus to lock focus, then switched to manual focus and asked him to stay still.)

If your shutter speed is really slow, such as 1/15s or below, encourage your subject to stay still so they aren’t blurred in the image.

Background ideas

Your background can be an interesting building, a bridge, or even just a street. For a really cool look, find somewhere with lots of lights. If you use a wide aperture, these lights will look fantastic.

Gorgeous night background
Here, I used a wide aperture to achieve a nice, bokeh-filled background.

Using continuous light

If you bring something to light your subject other than a flash, there’s a different juggling act that has to happen.

First, you’ll probably need a higher ISO. For continuous lighting shots, set your background exposure first and then introduce the light on the subject.

For the image below, I brought in an LED video panel. The panel has both brightness and white balance controls, from Tungsten to Daylight. It gives a nice, soft quality of light and looks natural.

Also, with continuous lighting, what you see in your camera’s viewfinder is what you get when you shoot. It is not like shooting flash, where you’re always guessing.

LED panel for lighting a night portrait of a young woman
Using an LED panel instead of a flash can be a great option. You can see the composition in the viewfinder, plus you can focus easily.

If your light doesn’t have a brightness control, you can move it closer or farther from your subject to change the brightness. This applies to using a streetlight, as well. If your subject is bright compared to the background, simply move them farther away from the light.

night portrait of a woman lit by street lamps
Street lights can also be used for night portraits.

For the shot above, I used a streetlight across the road as my main light. I moved my subject until I could see a triangle of light on the side of the face opposite the light. A slight tilt of the head helped, as well.

I chose this spot so that I had the railway bridge and cars behind my main subject, giving the background a little interest without overdoing it.

Shooting with style

To get the best night portraits, you might consider getting someone to do hair and makeup. You can even purchase stylish clothes to make the shot look even better.

Even if you just use friends as models and clothes taken from their wardrobe, it makes sense to look properly professional.

woman in a red dress at night

Here’s a selection of night portraits that I’ve done, along with some details about how they were made.

four young adults at sunset

The photo above displays the band, Drown, photographed for Thin Air Magazine. Here, I used the Godox speedlight with a 47-inch octabox off on camera-right. This post-sunset scene was exposed to capture good detail in the clouds, then the flash was set to expose for the subjects. Without flash, the band would have been silhouetted.

man in a car

The photo above doesn’t contain a sweeping background, but I wanted to create the feel of a busy road. I used two bare-bulb speedlights to give the effect of passing cars lighting the subject from the front and back. In reality, we were on an empty road with no traffic. The backlight was positioned as both a rim light and to add flare.

woman in a red skirt at night

I’ve been doing a series of portraits with a red tulle skirt, so it’s appropriate that I include a few shots here! The image above was captured using a speedlight and my 47-inch octabox. The light was positioned off to the left in order to create a loop lighting pattern.

Ultimately, I balanced the flash and ambient light to get this exposure. There is a mistake in it, though. I really should have used an orange gel to warm up the color of the flash a little – because the flash can look quite blue when shot against tungsten lighting.

Now get out there and try some night portraits!

Hopefully, you now feel like you could take a whole handful of beautiful night photos with minimal effort.

But nothing here will make any difference if you don’t get out there and shoot. If you don’t have any lighting gear, try starting with a battery-powered LED work light.

Also, get your camera off automatic and give yourself more control!

Now over to you:

Have you ever taken portraits at night? What was the trickiest part of the job? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Sean McCormack
Sean McCormack

is an official Fuji X Photographer and Adobe Community Professional based in Galway in Ireland. He’s been shooting for almost 20 years and loves portraits, landscapes, and travel when he gets a chance. He’s written a few books on Lightroom.

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