Facebook Pixel In the Dark: 10 Tips for Street Night Photography

In the Dark: 10 Tips for Street Night Photography

1/80th at F2.8, ISO 1600.

1/80th at f/2.8, ISO 1600

Much is spoken about photographing during the twilight hour, but what about after that?

Night is my favorite time for street photography. Cityscapes are lit with a myriad of interesting and colorful light sources, such as lampposts, neon signs, store windows, car lights, and bare bulbs. People dress in their favorite outfits to go out. Bland scenes by day can suddenly turn ominous and fascinating at night.

Here are 10 tips for night photography to get you thinking about starting your next street photography session at twilight, rather than ending it.

1. Ideal camera settings for sharpness at night

To freeze motion during the day, I prefer to use a shutter speed of 1/320th, with 1/160th as my lower threshold.

At night, this changes. In the brightest areas, you will be able to photograph at 1/250th, but most of the time it will be best to use a shutter speed somewhere between 1/160th and 1/60th. You need to have: steady hands; a wide-angle focal length; and to stop your own motion completely to be able to photograph handheld at speeds around 1/60th, but with some practice it can be done.

1/125th at F2.5, ISO 6400.

1/125th at f/2.5, ISO 6400

A wide-angle lens is necessary for this type of photography because the longer the focal length, the faster the shutter speed needed to keep an image sharp. With a 28mm or 35mm lens (up to 50mm) it becomes much easier to handhold the camera at slower shutter speeds.

It will also help to use a fast, prime lens, such as a 35mm f/2. It is possible to shoot at f/4 in brighter areas, but being able to shoot at f/2.8, f/2, or even 1.8 will greatly expand your opportunities.

Finally, you will need to raise your ISO significantly. With modern digital cameras you can photograph anywhere from ISO 1600 to 6400 with decent or good quality. It’s just not possible to photograph handheld at night otherwise. I prefer to shoot at ISO 3200 and sometimes at ISO 6400 if needed.

To learn more about photographing with a high ISO, you can read about it here: Reasons to Shoot High ISO Images.

2. Seek out the light sources first

Image: 1/60th at F2.8, ISO 3200.

1/60th at F2.8, ISO 3200.

You should always pay attention to the main light sources in a scene, no matter where or when you are photographing, but at night this becomes even more important. Start by finding a beautiful light source, or an area with good lighting, and wait around for something to happen.

Focus on how these light sources hit your subjects. If you are leaning against a shop with a lit sign behind you, like the man in the photograph above, then as subjects pass you they will be lit with a strong light that has a gorgeous color to it. If your lens aperture doesn’t go wider than f/4, this is a fantastic way to get around that limitation.

On the other hand, if you stand in the street and aim the camera at the light source, as I did in the above photo, then the light will be less pronounced on the subjects, however, you will get the beautiful sign in the scene.  Notice the difference between the light on the left and right side of the man’s face in the photo.

3. Photograph nightlife

1/125th at F2, ISO 6400.

1/125th at f/2, ISO 6400

Some of the most interesting night street photographs occur where the most people are, and that is often where the nightlife is. A fantastic project to look at for inspiration is Maciej Dakowicz’s Cardiff After Dark.

4. Alternate between getting close and stepping back

I’m a proponent of the Robert Capa advice that, “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” However, at night I often alter this strategy.

I try to get close to many of my subjects, but I will also try to create scenes where the subjects are small aspects of the overall scene. At night, backgrounds can be much more beautiful than during the day, so it often works to have people become the secondary element to the scene, rather than the primary focus.

The technical advantage to this is that you do not need to use as fast a shutter speed to capture the motion of subjects when you are further away. You can freeze a moving subject at 1/60th of a second from further away, whereas you will need to use at least 1/125th when close.

5. Tripod and crowd blur

1/8th at F4, ISO 800 (Tripod).

1/8th at f/4, ISO 800 (with tripod)

For street photography, it’s usually best to go handheld since you never know what interesting thing is going to happen, and where it’s going to happen. However, one of the times to use a tripod is when you want to capture a busy scene, with lots of people and motion.

Experiment with slower shutter speeds, such as 1/8th of a second and take a lot of images.  It took me a long time to capture the image above because I wanted the people spread out evenly throughout the entire scene and I also wanted something interesting within the foreground, which is the pose of the woman in the street and the man looking at her. It took some time, and a lot of captures for this to happen.

6. Use a flash

Whether you want to try flash on the street is up to you, but keep in mind that it can easily lead to some confrontations.  I prefer to work with the constraints of the natural light on the street and I also get uncomfortable flashing strangers in the face in dark settings, but many prefer to photograph this way. It creates a fantastic look when done well.

Using a flash means that you are freed from a lot of the constraints of photographing at night. You can use a faster shutter speed and include more depth of field in the photo and less grain (noise).

You can either have the flash do all of the work lighting the scene, where the foreground area within reach of the flash is lit and everything else is dark, or you can set the camera to expose for the scene, similar to what you would do without the flash, and then use the flash to add some fill light to your main subjects in the foreground.

7. Noise and the dreaded underexposed image

1/250th at F2, ISO 3200.

1/250th at f/2, ISO 3200

Always expose correctly when photographing with a high ISO.

That being said, even with the best settings, some of your images will be taken in areas that are too dark to be exposed correctly. It’s impossible to photograph this way and expose every image perfectly within the camera. For the occasional shots with excellent content that you want to save, you will have no choice but to raise the exposure when editing.

For these photos, I will first ignore the noise and get the exposure and look correct in Lightroom. After I do this, if I’ve had to raise the exposure setting a significant amount, the grain will look terrible. Luckily, there are some keys to saving an image like this as long as you are photographing in RAW.

What I do is to first remove the grain and then I add it back. I want the image to look grainy, but I want the grain to look pleasing.  There are many noise reduction programs, such as PhotoNinja, Topaz DeNoise, and DxO. I like Lightroom’s built in Noise Reduction. If the noise is still bad after noise reduction I will sometimes bring it into Photoshop and add a very slight Gaussian blur.

Then I will use Lightroom’s grain settings to add grain back into the photo. This grain looks much more pleasing to the eye than brightened, extreme digital noise and it can further hide some of the technical deficiencies in underexposed images. The result will not be a perfectly sharp image, but it will still be pleasing and beautiful.

8. Blur and imperfection

On this note, aim to get your photos as sharp as possible when you want sharpness, but know that a photo can still look fantastic even if it’s not tack sharp.

You don’t need to freeze motion perfectly when photographing at night for the image to still look great. I hold my day images to a higher standard than my night images when it comes to sharpness.  They need to be interesting and look good and that’s what counts.

Also, at shutter speeds around 1/60th to 1/30th, you can experiment handheld with slight blur, where your subjects are somewhat sharp but have a little motion to them. It’s a great way to add an energetic feeling of movement into an image.

9. Night images should be dark

1/250th at F2, ISO 3200.

1/250th at f/2, ISO 3200

This is an overly general statement, so feel free to disagree, but I want to make a point here.

I believe that night shots should look like they were taken at night.  They should be dark, with deep shadows and areas that are hard to see and make out.  When you look at the histogram of a night image it should be further towards the dark end (left) than a day image.

When you expose a night shot, especially on automatic settings, the camera will often misread the scene and overexpose the image.  It will be bright and you will be able to see everything as you would during the day, but it will not feel like a realistic night scene.  In these cases, you will want to lower the exposure compensation on your camera slightly (-).

There are many situations where bright night images are a good thing, but don’t be afraid to make your night images dark and realistic.

10. Be careful

Depending on where you live, going out at night with a camera is not always the safest idea. Travel light with equipment and be careful about where you go. Use your best judgment on who to photograph and think about bringing a friend along. You don’t want to suddenly find yourself in a bad situation.

Do you have any addition tips you’d like to add? Please do so in the comments below.

For more reading on night photography in general check out these:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

James Maher
James Maher

is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer’s Travel Guide.
James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.