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An Essential Guide to Night Portrait Photography

A guide to stunning night portrait photos

Night portraits offer a mystical blend of shadow and artificial light. When done well, the results can be enchanting – even breathtaking.

That said, night portrait photography doesn’t come without challenges. Focusing in the darkness can be a struggle, and achieving sharp, well-exposed images can feel impossible. As a result, many portraitists give up before they really get started.

Fortunately, capturing gorgeous portraits in the darkness is possible. And as long as you’re equipped with the right techniques, it can be surprisingly simple. I love shooting portraits at night, and in this article, I share my best advice, including:

  • The best settings for beautiful results
  • How to use artificial light and natural light for outstanding effects
  • Any easy way to capture gorgeous nighttime backgrounds
  • Much more!

Ready to become a night portrait master? Then let’s dive right in!

Night portrait photography settings

Night photography portraits

When tackling night portraiture, you’ll need to tweak your camera settings to balance the limited lighting with a need for beautiful image quality. Here’s the approach I recommend:

The best camera mode for night portraits

Auto mode is easy to use – you can simply set it and forget it – but it’s terrible for night portrait photography.

If you use your camera in Auto mode, you’ll generally end up with one of two results:

  1. You’ll get a blurry, unusable image
  2. Your subject will be heavily flashed and the background will turn black
night portrait photography
This is the type of result you’ll get if you combine Auto mode with your camera’s flash. The subject is brightly lit, but the background is unpleasantly dark.

In my experience, neither of the above outcomes is ideal, which is why it’s essential to move away from Auto mode as soon as you can.

What mode should you use instead?

One option is your camera’s Night Scene mode, which will fire your flash while also selecting a longer shutter speed. This can net you some nice shots, but it won’t give you control over your settings.

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

Therefore, a better option is either Manual mode or Aperture Priority mode. Both Manual and Aperture Priority let you change your camera settings at will. In Aperture Priority, you select the aperture and the ISO, while your camera selects a shutter speed for a balanced exposure. In Manual mode, you select the aperture, the ISO, and the shutter speed, while your camera selects nothing (in other words, you have total control!).

If you’ve never tried Aperture Priority, then I’d suggest starting there. You can use it to familiarize yourself with the different exposure settings. Then, as you gain confidence, you can switch over to Manual and see what you think.

The best aperture, shutter speed, and ISO for night portraits

Night photography portraits

Once you’ve chosen the perfect camera mode, it’s time to pick your main exposure settings: the aperture, the shutter speed, and the ISO.

Note that these three settings together produce the exposure – i.e., overall brightness – of the photo. One goal to keep in mind when picking your settings, therefore, is to create an image with plenty of detail in the shadows, highlights, and midtones.

However, the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO also affect other aspects of each image. The aperture adjusts the depth of field of the scene, the shutter speed determines scene sharpness, and the ISO influences the overall image quality.

Therefore, you need to choose each setting carefully. Here are my recommendations:

  • Pick your aperture first based on your depth of field requirements. If you want an artistic shallow depth of field effect, then choose a wide aperture, such as f/2.8. If you want a sharper background, go for a narrower aperture, such as f/8.
  • Next, choose the slowest shutter speed that’ll get you consistently sharp shots. If your subject is stationary, you might choose 1/160s. If your subject is moving, you might go for 1/500s or higher.
  • Finally, dial in your camera’s native ISO value (generally ISO 100) for the highest-quality photos.

Once you’ve chosen your ideal settings, frame your subject and check the exposure meter. If your image is underexposed, then you’ll need to either increase your ISO or widen your aperture further. Personally, I’m a fan of shallow depth of field portraits, so I don’t mind widening the aperture as far as it’ll go – but if you’re set on a sharp background, then go ahead and boost the ISO until you have a good exposure.

If your image is overexposed, then simply boost the shutter speed until the exposure meter is balanced.

Night portrait photography lighting

Night photography portraits

Without some form of artificial lighting, you’ll struggle to capture detailed images of your portrait subjects. The shots will turn out either wildly underexposed or very blurry, neither of which is ideal.

Note that your artificial lighting need not be a flash. It can be a streetlight, a neon sign, a phone flashlight – anything that lights up your subject and provides a bit of illumination for your camera to use. Of course, the light needs to be accessible; if you plan to use streetlights for your next photoshoot, for instance, make sure there are some nearby and on public land!

That said, I do recommend carrying an off-camera flash for nighttime portraits. This will give you the most flexibility – you can adjust the brightness and the direction – and you can use it to produce beautiful effects.

I’d also recommend buying a light stand, which you can use to mount your flash. (Alternatively, you can bring an assistant, who can hold the flash and aim it as needed.) You might even consider purchasing a modifier, which will soften the light for a more flattering effect.

Tips for breathtaking night portrait photography

If you’re looking to get pro-level night portraits – the kind that are moody and powerful and oh-so-compelling all at the same time – then you’ll want to rely on a few handy tricks of the trade. In this section, I offer plenty of techniques to get you started.

1. Use a camera or lens with image stabilization

Night photography portraits

Shooting in low light often means dealing with slower shutter speeds – and when the shutter is slow, even a slight shake of the hand can result in a blurry shot. This is where image stabilization comes to the rescue. It’s designed to counteract small movements caused by camera shake as well as the vibrations from pressing the shutter button.

The benefit of image stabilization in night portraiture can’t be overstated. It can truly be the difference between a sharp shot and a blurry one, especially if your subject is stationary. Many lenses come with this feature, and manufacturers give it a variety of names, so keep an eye out for terms like “VR,” “IS,” “OIS,” or “OS” when choosing a lens.

Also, if you’re considering a new camera, some mirrorless models do offer built-in image stabilization. However, these cameras tend to be quite expensive, so it’s always good to keep lens image stabilization in mind.

2. Don’t be afraid to use a tripod and flash

If you photograph portraits with a flash, the subject will turn out nice and bright – but the background will be unaffected (and will therefore remain dark).

So you have three options:

  1. You can embrace the black-background effect.
  2. You can boost your ISO until the background looks decently bright.
  3. You can mount your camera on a tripod, then capture a long exposure with a burst from your flash.

A black background can look nice, especially if you’re after a moodier image (see the example below). And a high ISO will get you a good exposure (at the cost of reduced image quality).

night portrait photography
Using a flash and a fast shutter speed will keep the subject well exposed but will darken the background.

But the long-exposure technique can produce great images, too, so I recommend you learn how it works.

First, make sure you have a sturdy tripod. I’d also encourage you to grab a remote release, which will let you trigger your camera without pressing the shutter button.

Set up your image, then choose your exposure settings based on the background, not the subject. To prevent your subject from turning too bright, dial in a shutter speed that’ll keep the background subtly underexposed. Note that your shutter speed should be reasonably long (generally 1/30s or below) in order to bring out detail in the background areas.

Finally, fire the shutter and the flash. The idea is that the flash will freeze your subject, while the lengthy shutter speed will give the camera enough time to record light from the background. You’ll get a beautiful result, one with a detailed (if slightly underexposed) background:

night portrait photography
This image looks just like the one displayed above – except that I used a longer exposure (1/30s) to bring out detail in the background.

If your first shots don’t turn out great, that’s okay! Nailing flash brightness can take some tweaking. If your subject is too bright but you like the background exposure, then try dropping the flash brightness or taking a few steps back from your subject. Alternatively, if your subject is too dark, increase the flash brightness or get closer to the subject.

night portrait of a woman on a bridge

3. Pay attention to the background

When doing night portrait photography, it’s easy to forget about the background. After all, it’s often too dark to see, plus your subject is what’s really important, right?

Not quite.

First of all, even in situations where you let the background fade to black, the final image will likely include some background elements, such as car lights, street lights, or lit-up signs.

And if you use the technique I shared in the previous tip, then the background will be clearly visible in the final photo, even if it’s tough to see through your camera viewfinder.

In truth, the background is an essential part of every portrait photo, whether you shoot at night or in bright daylight. A good background emphasizes and complements the main subject, while a bad background distracts the viewer and prevents them from fully appreciating the subject.

night portrait of a woman lit by street lamps

So if you want great shots, you’ve got to get the background right.

When preparing for a photoshoot, I’d recommend scouting around for potential backdrops. Search for lots of streetlights – which look stunning when combined with a wide aperture, as I discuss below – as well as simple walls that’ll help your subject stand out.

And then, when you’re out shooting, always pay careful attention to the area behind your subject. Make sure that it doesn’t distract the viewer. And don’t be afraid to test out different backgrounds by changing your camera angle!

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

4. Seek out spots of light for exceptional backgrounds

My previous night portraits tip was all about enhancing the background. This tip continues in the same vein – but with a focus on one of the most effective ways to create stunning backdrops that complement your subject.

You see, the night is filled with pockets of light that can bring magic to your portraits. Neon signs glowing in a distant alley, streetlights shimmering on a rain-soaked pavement, or festive decorations twinkling in a park – all these sources of artificial light can look amazing, especially when used to produce gorgeous bokeh.

Night photography portraits

Here’s what you do: Position your subject so that pinpricks of light are visible in the background, and use a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field effect. Focus on your subject, then watch as those distant points of light turn into beautiful, soft orbs.

(Pro tip: Focusing can be more challenging at night, so don’t hesitate to use manual focus or a single-point AF mode to nail the shot.)

Work with angles and distances to find that perfect composition. Moving closer to your subject will generally increase the presence of the bokeh, while moving away from your subject will minimize it. Give yourself some room to experiment, too. The most obvious shot isn’t always the best!

5. Start out with continuous lighting

I know I’ve talked a lot about using flash for beautiful night photos, but while flash is very versatile, portable, and powerful, it can be a difficult light source for beginners to handle. You can’t see the effect of the flash until after an image is taken, which means that you’ll spend a lot of time guessing, checking, and adjusting your lights. Plus, getting the exposure right when using flash can be a struggle; you’ll often need to spend long minutes shifting the flash brightness up and down until you get a result you like.

Fortunately, there is another option: Continuous lights. These will constantly light your subject and therefore allow you to monitor their effects in real-time.

You can grab portable continuous lights for a reasonable price, and while they aren’t as powerful as flash, they work great for nighttime portraits. Plus, continuous lights often offer color temperature adjustments, which let you match the light color to surrounding light sources for a more natural effect.

Now, for the best results, you’ll probably need to boost your ISO and/or widen your aperture. I’d suggest setting your exposure based on the background, then ask your subject to step into the frame and make adjustments as required.

For the image below, I used an LED panel. It produced warm, soft light that looked amazing:

night portrait photography

Pro tip: If your continuous lights don’t feature a brightness control, simply move the lights closer or farther from your subject!

6. Try shooting in black and white

The colors of the night can indeed look stunning, but have you considered the emotive power of black and white? Stripping away color brings out the textures, contrasts, and shadows in a way that can create a moodier and even grittier effect.

Night photography portraits

High ISO settings – which are sometimes necessary for night portrait photography – often lead to noisy images. While this can be a drawback when shooting in color, noise tends to look much better in monochrome. It can add an appealing grain and texture, reminiscent of traditional film photography.

Bottom line: Exploring contrasts and shadows with a black-and-white palette can lead to dramatic and visually engaging results.

Also, I highly recommend working in RAW. That way, you’ll have the flexibility to convert your image to black and white during post-processing, and you’ll have plenty of latitude when testing out various monochrome effects so you can find the look that best suits your creative vision.

7. Consider styling your subject

When you’re just starting out as a night portrait photographer, you’ll likely photograph your subjects as they are.

However, as you become more experienced, you may want to get someone to do their hair and makeup. You might even purchase stylish clothes for your subjects to make the shots look even better.

four young adults at sunset

Even if you just use friends as models, it’s a good idea to ensure they look professional – so guide them in picking out clothing from their wardrobe.

Of course, you’ll want to keep in mind the purpose of your night portraits. If you’re shooting fine-art images, then it’s okay to push drama and unorthodox clothing choices. However, if your goal is to capture nice portraits for your subject to hang on their wall, you may want to tone down the styling. Make sense?

woman in a red dress at night

8. Add color grading to your images

Color grading is an artistic touch that can make your night portraits truly stand out. It refers to the deliberate process of adding hues to your images during post-processing in order to create a specific mood or style. Night images, in particular, look fantastic with color grading applied.

I encourage you to spend time experimenting with different colors in your favorite post-processing program. The most popular editors for color grading generally offer color wheels, so you can select your preferred hues with precision.

Night photography portraits

One classic combination that rarely fails is adding blue into the shadows and orange into the highlights; it creates a warm and cool contrast that can be visually stunning. Don’t hesitate to try out different color combinations, though. The experimentation phase can lead to beautiful and unexpected results.

9. Try adding props

Props can add depth, context, and a spark of creativity to your night portraits. Selecting the right props is crucial, however, especially when working in low light.

Go with items that fit that moody nighttime vibe. Reflective objects or those that generate their own light can produce fascinating effects. Large glasses are especially popular in night portrait circles and can catch ambient light in intriguing ways.

Night photography portraits

Fairy lights are another fantastic option; you can have your subject hold them or drape them around your subject to add a soft glow to the image.

But make sure to balance your props with the overall theme and mood of the photograph. Avoid props that might feel out of place, like a sunflower, and focus on those that enhance the night ambiance. With the right choice of props and a bit of creativity, you can transform an ordinary night portrait into something truly memorable.

10. Use reflective surfaces

An Essential Guide to Night Portrait Photography

Reflective surfaces have a unique way of enhancing night portraits. They provide intrigue and add another layer of creativity to your shots. If you can find and include some nice reflective elements in your composition, you can easily transform a good photograph into a great one.

You’ll likely come across plenty of reflective surfaces photographing in urban areas. Windows of cars, shiny metallic railings, and even puddles of water on the street can work great. These reflections can feature neon signs or other colorful lights and produce mesmerizing effects in your night portraits.

Positioning your subject and your camera to maximize these reflections is essential. Experiment with different angles and surfaces; see if you can find a look that really complements the subject. Sometimes, a subtle reflection can add just the right touch of sophistication, but other times, a bold, mirrored image can make a powerful statement.

Also, the more creative you can get with your reflections, the better! Keep an eye out for those unexpected reflections that might showcase the glimmer of a streetlamp or the sparkle of traffic lights. And if you’re not sure whether an idea might work, test it!

11. Capture beautiful environmental portraits

Night photography portraits

Close-up portraits are undoubtedly striking. But have you thought about environmental portraits? A single subject surrounded by the weight of darkness, illuminated by gentle light, can be breathtaking. In such a case, the extra space around the subject provides context, tells a story, and adds an extra layer of meaning to your image.

A wide-angle lens or even taking a few steps back can be all it takes to capture a more encompassing frame. Finding an area without a distracting background is key. Look for spaces that allow your subject to stand out, with minimal interference from unwanted elements.

Night photography portraits

Pro tip: Incorporating negative space in your composition can lead to a minimalistic yet powerful image. Play around with the environment, and don’t be afraid to include background elements that enhance the subject or improve the story. The night offers a dramatic and mysterious backdrop; it’s up to you to harness it in your photography.

Night portrait photography: final words

Night portraits might not be easy, but they are within your reach. With practice, patience, and the application of the techniques I’ve explored, you’ll find yourself capturing creative images that resonate with viewers. It’s all about stepping out of your comfort zone, experimenting with what the night has to offer, and letting your creativity flow.

So set up a photoshoot. Scout out locations. And have plenty of fun!

What night portraits do you plan to capture? 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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