How to Get the Correct Exposure at Night with These Helpful Tips

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Tappan zee bridge

Colorful lights on the Tappan Zee Bridge reflected in the Hudson River at night. Behind the shot: ISO 200, aperture f/8, shutter speed 90 seconds, White Balance tungsten, lens used 80-200mm f/4.5 manual Nikkor zoom.

Exposing your photos correctly at night can be a bit challenging, and will certainly require some trial and error. In this article, you will learn helpful information to minimize the learning curve. Follow the tips outlined below and you will be taking better night photographs in no time.

Tappan zee bridge at night

View of the Tappan Zee Bridge and surrounding landscape at night. Behind the shot: ISO 400, aperture f/8, shutter speed 10 seconds, White Balance auto, lens used 105mm f/2.8 Nikkor.

Claiborne pell newport bridge

Night-time view of the Claiborne-Pell Newport Bridge and Narragansett Bay, taken in Jamestown, Rhode Island. Behind the shot: ISO 200, aperture f/8, shutter speed 25 seconds, White Balance fluorescent, lens used 50mm f/1.8D Nikkor.

Things You’ll Need

A Tripod

If you’re shooting at night, your exposures are going to be pretty long (anywhere from one to 30 seconds, or more). Since it is impossible to hold your camera perfectly still for that long, you will need a sturdy tripod, so that your camera does not move at all during the exposure. For added stability, you can hang your camera bag (or another somewhat heavy object) from the hook on your tripod’s center column. This is especially handy in windy conditions.

Plants at night

Long exposure of plants illuminated by streetlight at night in Nyack, New York. Behind the shot: ISO 400, aperture f/4, shutter speed 30 seconds, White Balance tungsten, lens used 50mm f/1.8D Nikkor.

Illuminated plant at night

Golden plant illuminated by streetlight at night in Nyack, New York. Behind the shot: ISO 400, aperture f/4, shutter speed 30 seconds, White Balance tungsten, lens used 50mm f/1.8D Nikkor.

Remote Shutter Release

With a long exposure, any camera movement can ruin the shot, making it soft or blurry. To ensure you get a sharp image, use a remote shutter release (remote trigger). The best type of shutter release to use is the kind that functions as a timer remote as well. If you don’t have a remote shutter release, you can use your camera’s self-timer. The only downside to using the self-timer is that you will have to keep your shutter speed at 30 seconds or less. If you don’t have too much light, you can always increase your aperture (decrease the f-stop) or increase your ISO to speed up your shutter speed.

Colors of night

Assorted foliage illuminated by streetlights in Nyack, New York. Behind the shot: ISO 200, aperture f/5.6, shutter speed 30 seconds, White Balance fluorescent, lens used 24mm f/2.8D Nikkor.

Colorful night

Colorful plants and trees in Nyack, New York. Behind the shot: ISO 200, aperture f/5.6, shutter speed 30 seconds, White Balance fluorescent, lens used 24mm f/2.8D Nikkor.

Camera Settings

Shoot RAW

Keeping image quality in mind, you should always strive to shoot in RAW format. It records more pixel information, and does not compress your images at all. RAW provides you with more post-processing options, including white balance correction. If you happen to under or over expose an image, you can easily adjust the exposure if your image is in RAW format.

ISO

When taking photographs with little available light, you are better off using a low ISO (400 and below) and longer exposure times. This is important so you don’t get too much noise (or grain) in your images. Also, make sure you have Long Exposure Noise Reduction turned on in your camera’s settings.

Yellow leaved tree moving clouds at night

Yellow-leaved tree and moving clouds at night in Nyack, New York. Behind the shot: ISO 200, aperture f/5.6, shutter speed 30 seconds, White Balance tungsten, lens used 50mm f/1.8D Nikkor.

Tree in wind

Tree in wind at night in Valley Cottage, New York. Behind the shot: ISO 400, aperture f/2.8, shutter speed 30 seconds, White Balance tungsten, lens used 50mm f/1.8D Nikkor.

Use Manual Mode

While shooting in very low light, your camera’s light meter may not read the scene too well. Your best bet is to use Manual mode, where you control both the aperture and the shutter speed. To find a baseline for the correct exposure, you can use the following trick (which I learned in this blog post):

  1. Set your ISO to 6400
  2. Set the aperture you would like to use
  3. Set your shutter speed at one second

Take a test shot using these settings to get an idea of what your image will look like. Note, these settings are almost equivalent to a 1-minute exposure at ISO 100, a 30-second exposure at ISO 200 and a 15-second exposure at ISO 400, etc. If your scene is too bright with these settings, you can see what a half second exposure at 6400 looks like. This would equal a 30-second exposure at ISO 100, a 15-second exposure at ISO 200 and a 8-second exposure at ISO 400. This baseline is a great guide, you can easily take test shots to figure out what shutter speed to use.

Autumn leaves in motion

Autumn leaves in motion at night in Valley Cottage, New York. Behind the shot: ISO 400, aperture f13, shutter speed 30 seconds, White Balance fluorescent, lens used 24mm f/2.8D Nikkor.

Tree at night

Tree and clouds in motion at night in Nyack, New York. Behind the shot: ISO 400, aperture f/5.6, shutter speed 30 seconds, White Balance tungsten, lens used 50mm f/1.8 manual Nikkor.

If you use the above trick, you won’t unnecessarily waste time taking a bunch of long test exposures. As it is, long exposure night photography is rather time-consuming. Make sure you switch your ISO back to 400, or below, before you start taking photos that you intend to keep.

In scenes where you have a decent amount of available light (e.g. places with numerous streetlights), you may be able to use Aperture Priority mode instead of Manual mode.

In Conclusion

Night photography can be rather tricky, and requires a good amount of practice. In time, you will have a feel for the amount of light in various night scenes, and be able to figure out accurate camera settings with relative ease. Hopefully, the information contained in this post will help you capture great long exposure night shots, that don’t need much post-processing.

 

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Marshall Reyher is a New York-based fine art photographer, who strives to capture a wide array of unique images, including: long exposure night scenes, urban landscapes, abstract, and nature. He aims to help others improve their photography, and writes informative blog posts featuring an assortment of useful photography tips and techniques. See more of his fine art photography on his website, see his available open edition prints and follow him on Instagram.

  • Lee Steed Kabilyo

    I’m having a little trouble believing that the shot of the Jamestown Bridge, here in RI, was done a 25 seconds! Any little breeze would cause the water and the boat to move, and they look stock still in the shot. Can you confirm the settings please?

  • Tim Lowe

    If your camera has a spot metering mode, this and a working knowledge of the zone system will give you the correct exposure every time.

  • That is a nice method considering you use the same Aperture. When you open up or stop down you then also need to compensate your shutter speed appropriately which you did not mention.

  • Absolutely Thomas, I failed to mention that. Thank you for your comment.

  • It was a very still night, I can confirm that those were the settings I used.

  • Thanks for adding that Tim.

  • Lee Steed Kabilyo

    In that case: excellent shot! RI is a lot more scenic than most people know!

  • Thanks a lot Lee, I appreciate it.

  • SteveR

    I really liked the hint of using 6400 ISO for a test shot and then adjusting the components of the exposure triangle to get the correct exposure. I have spent quite a lot of time taking long exposures and then adjusting.

  • Hi Steve, glad you liked the hint. It is certainly very useful.

  • cl5001

    useful article, thanks, i already found manual is the way to go to get the triangle right but having some suggested settings is good

  • I’m glad you found the article useful.

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  • Enrique

    Thx 4 d info. Useful.

  • Krithika Subramanian

    Thanks for the useful article. How do you decide on the white balance to use – some are fluorescent and some tungsten while some you leave at Auto. Thanks.

  • No problem Enrique, glad you found it useful.

  • No problem, glad you found it useful. With the photo of the Tappan Zee Bridge where I used Auto white balance, I simply forgot to change it. In that shot, I would have used Tungsten white balance because of the orange-colored streetlights. Of course, if you shoot RAW you can always change it later in post-processing.

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