Introduction to Night Photography


20120116-IMG_0364.jpgA guest post by Sam Levy, founder of citifari.

When speaking about night photography and what there is to it, the first thought is long exposure, car light trails, etc. While this is correct, there is a lot more to night photography and since we have more time for our exposure, this might mean endless fun.

The essentials: tripod, remote and gloves

It is correct to start thinking long exposure for night photography, and therefore this might seem trivial, but no need to read further if you are not ready to carry a tripod for night photography. There is no long exposure without a stable support for your camera.
Besides a good sturdy tripod, a remote control is very handy. I typically prefer the wired controls rather than infrared for two reasons:

  • Battery sometimes fail and having the wired exempts you from one point on your checklist before going out
  • Settings on your camera might need to be changed to turn on the infrared receiver whereas the wired control always works; you don’t want to miss out on that shot just because your camera settings were reset (on turn off or timeout)

Lastly, temperatures at night drop significantly and unless on a nice summer night, you don’t want to be taken by the cold and would prefer to be comfortably covered so that you can take all the time you want for your shots. The most important piece is your gloves. Carry them with you as you will probably be holding your (wired) remote control out for most of your shooting session. Put them on early, before being cold as the cold will last much longer after you have them on.

A few techniques


20120127-IMG_0864.jpgZooming is a simple technique that consists changing the focal length (i.e. zooming) while the shutter is open. As you are zooming in, the elements that were in the center of your picture are moving outwards (when zooming out, the elements from the corners move towards the center). In order to realize this shot properly, start from a known position with a known exposure time.

Take the basic shot and check that everything is right. For instance, in the picture of the UN headquarters, start by framing properly the building, and exposing for 4 seconds.

Think about what you want to add by zooming. Here we wanted to add the light trails and the light mark at the end. So we added 2 seconds, took the shot again and started zooming in approximately after 4 seconds (the base shot) for one second and let the lights mark on the zoomed in position for the last second.

Everything is approximate and you will have to try a couple of times before getting the desired result but plan your shot and try to envision the result before shooting and you will be amazed by the results. One more tip: position your hand on the zoom ring prior to beginning the exposure, you will avoid the camera shake when coming in contact for zooming and ensure a smooth zoom.

Light Painting

You can use a light to paint elements of the shot that you would want to brighten for your shot. Typically you will use a long shutter speed to allow yourself time to turn on the light and paint. You can experiment both with direct light on the shot or a projected light, with a flashlight, an off camera flash or any light emitting source. In the example here, we went to a 20 second exposure and made sure that the background was properly exposed. Then, with a flash light we wrote I [heart] NYC in the air.


Timing and patterns

20120108-IMG_9544.jpgWhile doing these exercises you will realize that at night timing is everything. I assumed you are also carrying a watch or a cellphone to use as stopwatch. Check what is around you and how you could take onto a shot events that are not supposed to appear together.

I believe, one of the best examples would be a traffic light. Each of the three colors alternate but a long enough exposure will make all three appear together.

For this shot, start by measuring the length of the yellow (here 3 seconds) multiply by 3 and take the closest shutter speed available on your camera (here 10 seconds). Now measure the length of the green light (here 20 seconds) and next time the light turns green, start exposing a bit before second 17 (20-3). As a result you will capture 3 seconds of green, 3 seconds of yellow and 3 seconds of red (and 1 second lost somewhere in the approximation).

Mirror Lock

This is more a tip than a technique but you will notice that your camera moves as the mirror is moving inside. Some offer the option to lock the mirror, that is, to open the shutter before the capture. Then another press on the remote will start the capture. The first few times, you will forget about the option but it is a neat feature and you will easily notice the improved sharpness of your pictures.

While you might have read about these techniques already, there is nothing better than going out and trying them yourself. We work with our guests on these techniques during our New York by Night photo tour and it is interesting to notice how many guests had heard about the techniques but had never tried them. Once they try, they are so amazed and so much in love that they want to apply them at each opportunity.

Sam Levy is the founder of citifari. citifari offers photo tours in New York City. Structured as a 2-1/2 hour practical workshop, citifari tour helps you get comfortable with your camera settings and take great shots in New York City. Connect with them at their website, on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter or Tumblr.

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Some Older Comments

  • roni April 30, 2012 09:46 am

    i took this tour with citifari, it was really fun. i am an advanced photographer and i still got a lot of info and great shots from this night tour. definitely worth it!!! sam is awesome!!!

  • guillermo de la maza April 29, 2012 04:48 am

    I would like to point out that on entry-level Nikon cameras the IR receiver is enabled all the time, no need to mess-up with menus. In mid-to-high-end cameras, you've got a receiver on the front and the back of the camera which adds even more flexibility. Also, for long-exposures, you only need two clicks on the remote to start and stop the exposure, even in bulb or "time" mode. No need to keep pressing a button as in some RF remotes

    IMHO the IR remote works far better for night photography in the street, since sometimes you've got to move quickly from one point to another (ordered by city officials to clear the area; due to restrictions on the use of tripods or to avoid getting robbed at gun point -trust me, it happens). So adding another item to carry around with a cord dangling from it, it's not as wise.

  • Elizabeth April 28, 2012 11:42 am

    Thank you for another great article. I love Digital Photography School!
    I just recently started going out and taking night time shots at Disney World. I love the colors of the castle at night. I can't wait to try these tips and techniques. Thanks!

    Check out my nighttime shots here!

  • Troy Smith April 28, 2012 09:13 am

    Every year I like to take pictures at teh Kansas State Fair which includes trying to get night shots. Last year I tried the zoom with long exposure. This one is my second attempt at this particular shot. You gave some really good tips for taking shots like these. They can be alot of fun to take.

    This one's not a zoom but I got the motion on the ride spinning and moving up. I used PhotoShop to adjust the brightness.

  • Kieran1388 April 28, 2012 02:02 am

    I love shooting a night! Here's one of my night photography sets:

  • marius2die4 April 27, 2012 10:25 pm

    Some pictures

  • Allan Cox April 27, 2012 10:56 am

    The vibration from the mirror going up lasts about one quarter of a sec. So if your shutter speed is 5 secs then the vibration from your mirror going up is only 1/20th of your photo, ie you won’t see a difference. Longer shutter speeds and it becomes even less. Long story short, in most night photography situations, mirror lock up offers no value. Macro photography by contrast: it often makes all the difference.

  • Jerry Goffe April 27, 2012 09:36 am

    Enjoyed your article very much. Thanks for taking the time to put your tips and techniques into writing. One comment about mirror lock ... I issue all student photographers with me on at night, a black hat. Open your shutter with the black hat in front of the lens and slowly - or rapidly remove it from obstructing the exposure after the camera stops moving from mirror motion. In addition, this way you have something to place in front of the lens when an unwanted truck or other light source comes along. Just thought you might want to have fun with hats in the future.

    J. Goffe, aka The Bird Paparazzi

    Remember the f/stops here

  • Kishan April 26, 2012 08:42 pm

    Thanks for the interesting article. Had not heard about Mirror Lock. Will try it out soon ..

    Like many others I also love Night Photography ... I have been trying it out for the last few years beginning with Point and shoot. Recently I have also begun to appreciate the night pictures in B&W .. Its adds a different perspective to the picture.

    Some of my recent collection of Night Photographs (Both B/W and Color)

  • Scottc April 26, 2012 11:29 am

    Nice tips!

    Night photography is one my favorites.

  • Patrick Osterlund April 26, 2012 04:09 am

    Really like night photography. Here's one of my favourites;

  • Mikhail Anand April 26, 2012 12:12 am

    my favourite time to pull out the camera

  • Alexx April 25, 2012 11:55 pm

    Quote Theclerk74


    I really liked your night HDR! I’ve tried a few, but still can’t figure out how to eliminate the noise. I use Photomatix, but maybe Photoshop is the way to go on these?


    Hi Theclerk,

    I use photomatix and then believe it or not, I use to remove noise! All it takes is one time. Just crank the noise redux all the way up.

    No real HDR is just tonemapping, you need Photoshop too.

    Of course I don't use PDN for everything, just it's noise redux and colour matching.

    Colour matching is something cool to do with your HDRs too. Take the bright tonemapped version and match the colours to the original. It only works for some HDRs though.

  • Kevin D. Smith April 25, 2012 09:41 pm

    I tried light painting with my daughter in her darkened room and a led flashlight. I set the camera up for the correct exposure, then jumped in and "painted" around her with the flashlight. While my result was not perfect, it actually turned out pretty decent for my first try. Check it out on my photo blog.

  • Paul Griffiths April 25, 2012 07:55 pm

    I recently took a trip to New York and went on a Citifari tour, I cannot recommend these guys highly enough. Looking at the examples here I wish i had signed up for the night tour rather than the landmarks tour (not that I was disappointed), maybe next time!
    This article contains some great tips, I shall certainly try one or two next time I'm out after dark with my camera.

  • David Trinidad April 25, 2012 06:03 pm

    I took a photo of a bridge overlooking a freeway. Night photography is really fun!

  • Anurag April 25, 2012 04:57 pm

    Nice article... i specially like the idea of Zooming. Indeed Night photography is fun less crowd and more subjects to capture shining in the lights :)

  • Govind Vijayakumar April 25, 2012 04:26 pm

    I found it really hard to capture some nice snaps during night, During this time the light cannot be adjusted according to your wish. I use a Canon EfF 50 mm F/1.8 lens on Canon EOS 500D body for my night shots. Mostly I tend to use the automatic mode, But the harsh light from the flash makes the photo look un natural. Next time. I would like to try these tips to improve my night shots

  • steve slater April 25, 2012 03:32 pm

    Fireworks at night are a fun challenge and need careful timing:

  • Mei Teng April 25, 2012 03:26 pm

    I love night photography. The zooming and light painting are great ideas to try out.

  • theclerk74 April 25, 2012 03:01 pm


    I really liked your night HDR! I've tried a few, but still can't figure out how to eliminate the noise. I use Photomatix, but maybe Photoshop is the way to go on these?

  • theclerk74 April 25, 2012 02:57 pm

    Kind of following up on the last part about mirror lockup. Doesn't using live view lock the mirror as well? I tend to use live view more often than not at night since, for me anyway, it's easier to focus. I usually set my aperture as wide as it will go to let in as much light as possible, focus and then set it accordingly.

  • Klassy April 25, 2012 02:38 pm

    From a different perspective... Antarctica

  • Lara White April 25, 2012 01:56 pm

    I have always loved night photography, but it takes a certain finesse. Especially love the zooming. Great post Sam!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer April 25, 2012 12:27 pm

    Zooming is not a technique I have thought of doing for shots without people in them, I will definitely give that a try soon.

    Here is a recent night photograph of the city I live in, St. Petersburg, Florida which has a large pier five stories high allowing for night cityscape shots like this:

  • raghavendra April 25, 2012 12:21 pm

    Photographs are splendid.
    I have taken a pic on night

  • Jim Hunt April 25, 2012 11:01 am

    I'll also recommend kleenex as the cold air tends to make your nose run. :) I love love love shooting at night. In Detroit, well, it can be dangerous. Thats why I carry pepper spray. Check this shout out!

  • Alexx April 25, 2012 10:56 am

    I love night photography. It's one of my favourite subjects! I've tried all of the above.

    Another cool thing to do is make an HDR photograph.

    Check out my night photography on my site here:

  • Jeff E Jensen April 25, 2012 08:18 am

    I love shooting at night. there are so many options and fun things to create. I'm excited that winter is over and the weather is warmer. It makes things much more pleasant to spend a night wandering around in the dark with my camera and a bag full of painting tools.

    I've got a shoot planned for this weekend with some friends at an old abandoned sugar refinery. Should be pretty fantastic.

    Here's some work from a few weeks ago in Zion National Park:

  • Greg Nelson April 25, 2012 06:46 am

    Shooting at night is a lot of fun. I've been working a bit with off camera flashes recently and the results have been educational.

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