In this article, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know about getting beautiful night photography exposures.
As a longtime night photographer, I’m well-equipped to share with you the best night exposure techniques – so that you can create stunning shots every time you take out your camera.
Specifically, I’m going to discuss:
- the best exposure mode for night photography
- the best night photography shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings
- a quick way to check your night exposures
- much, much more!
So if you’re ready to become a night photography master, then let’s get started!
Note: If you’re serious about night photography and want to really take your night photos to the next level, check out my night photography course. It offers easy-to-follow night photography tutorials with hours of helpful videos and case studies.
1. Work in Manual mode
Here’s your first night photography tip, and it’s a big one:
Make sure you’re shooting in Manual mode.
When shooting at night, your camera will be on a tripod, and you will be working slowly. So there is no need to use any automatic mode; even if you’re not totally comfortable with camera settings, you can take your time, carefully dialing in your aperture and shutter speed and checking your exposure.
Further, there might be a little trial and error with the exposure settings (the camera can be fooled by the large differences in bright and dark areas of the picture), and you want to make sure you have plenty of control over this process.
Manual mode gives you that control.
2. Make sure you are comfortable with Bulb mode
Manual mode only works for exposures up to 30 seconds.
So if you need a shutter speed that is longer than 30 seconds, the only option is Bulb mode. Therefore, while you should generally shoot in Manual, you should also get comfortable with Bulb.
In Bulb mode, the shutter stays open as long as you hold down the shutter button. When you hit the button, the shutter opens. When you release the button, the shutter closes.
(Of course, to avoid introducing any shake or movement into the exposure, you must use a remote shutter release when working in Bulb mode.)
With Bulb mode, you can make your exposure several minutes long. If your remote shutter release doesn’t have a built-in timer, make sure you keep another timer handy (e.g., on your phone).
Also, if your remote does not have a timer, make sure it has a locking feature, so you don’t have to hold the shutter button during the entire exposure.
3. Shoot in RAW
When shooting at night, it is particularly important to make sure you are shooting in RAW format.
RAW files coming out of most cameras are 14 bits, whereas JPEGS are only 8-bit files. The more bits, the higher the range of available colors and the smoother the transitions between them.
(In other words: RAW files look better.)
Plus, most of the colors a camera can capture are at the top (bright) end of the scale. The range of available colors at the low (dark) end of the scale is extremely limited. At night, your pictures will almost always include a large dark portion. A JPEG file, with its reduced color options, will likely display (very ugly) banding.
So always, always, always shoot in RAW.
4. Bring a flashlight
Knowing your camera controls pays off at night. You can make changes to the settings without being able to see everything.
Nevertheless, a small flashlight is tremendously useful. Keep one handy to make sure you can see everything on your camera and tripod.
(It occasionally comes in handy for lighting areas of your picture, as well!)
5. Choose proper settings
Proper settings will always depend on the situation. Nevertheless, there are some helpful guidelines for choosing settings at night:
- Aperture: Open up your aperture more at night than you would during the day (i.e., use a lower f-number). Most night photographs tend to require less depth of field than shots during the day. Plus, the background and sky will be black. The larger aperture also has the benefit of letting more light into your camera.
- ISO: Keep your ISO setting as low as you can. Night photography always has dark areas, and these dark areas inevitably lead to digital noise. Raising the ISO will compound the problem.
- Shutter speed: Whereas shutter speed might be the first exposure setting you worry about during the day, it should generally be the last one you think about at night. Since you will be shooting from a tripod, you can let the shutter stay open as long as you need. If you have traffic (streaking lights), a fountain, or running water in your picture, the longer shutter speed will create a very cool effect. (Note, however, that if you’re shooting in high winds or if the ground is unstable, you’ll need to boost your shutter speed to prevent blur.)
One other setting to check is Long Exposure Noise Reduction, which will be in your camera’s menu. If you enable this option, the camera will take two exposures, one normal and one with the shutter closed. Your camera will then use the second image to filter out noise from the normal picture.
Of course, photos shot with this option enabled will take twice as long to expose, but they’ll also be less noisy.
6. Meter for the highlights
Determining the proper exposure level can be tricky at night, and each metering mode presents its own challenges.
If you use evaluative metering, the camera is likely to be confused. If you use spot or partial metering, the meter will jump around, depending on whether you’ve aimed at a bright light or a dark background.
One answer to this problem is to use spot metering and expose for the highlights. So meter off the highlights, then set your exposure between +1 and +2. The +1/+2 setting will keep your highlights looking bright but will also keep the highlights within the dynamic range of your camera.
Do not worry as much about the dark portions of your picture. If the dark areas happen to turn black, it is nighttime, so there is supposed to be some black. But you can always take test shots and adjust as necessary.
7. Take a test shot at a high ISO
You should make liberal use of test shots when shooting at night.
However, you generally don’t want to sit around for 30 seconds, a minute, or even longer, just waiting to see if the test shot is going to work out.
So the best way to create a test file without wasting a lot of time is to take a shot at a much higher ISO than you would ordinarily use.
Let’s say you think the proper exposure settings for a given shot are 30 seconds at f/5.6 with an ISO of 400. Rather than taking that shot and waiting around 30 seconds for the exposure, just crank up the ISO, then boost the shutter speed by the same number of stops. The exposure will stay the same, but it will take much less time to capture the test picture.
For the above example, I would raise the ISO to 6400. Why? Well, raising the ISO by one stop takes it to ISO 800, two stops increases it to ISO 1600, three stops to ISO 3200, and four stops gets you to ISO 6400.
Once you’ve set your ISO to 6400, you can reduce your shutter speed by four stops to 2 seconds. After all, reducing the shutter speed by one stop shortens it to 15 seconds, two stops shortens it to 8 seconds, three stops to 4 seconds, and four stops takes the shutter speed down to 2 seconds.
Then, when you are satisfied with your exposure, just decrease the ISO and lengthen the shutter speed by a comparable amount to get back to the final settings.
8. Bracket your photos
Night photography is one area where you will want to bracket your photos. Blending and HDR can work wonders at night, but even if you don’t like to use those processes, bracket your photos anyway. Think of it as exposure insurance.
After all, if you overexpose or underexpose your file, having a bracket on hand will be the difference between a failed and a successful photoshoot.
9. Verify the exposure with the histogram
After you have taken your exposures, you should always check them on your camera’s rear LCD.
However, while the picture on the LCD will show you if the exposure is close to correct, you should also check the histogram.
Because a histogram is more accurate than your camera’s LCD. You can use it to carefully determine whether the exposure is within your camera’s dynamic range.
Specifically, make sure to keep the highlights on the right side of the histogram, but avoid a spike on the far right. If the dark areas spike on the left side of the histogram, that’s okay; parts of your picture are supposed to be black.
In general, however, keep as much of the image as possible within the range of the histogram, though err on the side of keeping the highlights from blowing out.
Night photography exposure: final words
When you follow the night photography exposure tips I’ve given above, you are likely to get some great shots. Every city lights up its major attractions, bridges, and museums – often in colorful ways. So a scene that might be boring during the day can offer great photos at night.
Because of the effects of the lights, you’ll often be surprised by what you end up with (in a good way!). Taking your time and applying these tips to nail the exposure will help you maximize the experience.
If you want to improve your night photography skills fast, then check out my night photography course. It’ll teach you everything you need to know about night photography through hours of helpful videos and case studies!