Capital Photography Center | Photography Classes in Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia

10 Tips for Shooting the Lights at Night

August 23, 2012 by Marie Joabar

Downtown areas provide some of the best opportunities to photograph at night because they include some exciting and sometimes funky neon signs that beg to be photographed.  Memorial and Monuments also provide beautifully lit scenes that can convey powerful emotions or a dramatic statement if captured well.

1.  Shooting during Civil Twilight provides a deep royal blue sky  for the background which beautifully shows off the lights in a scene.  Civil Twilight lasts about a half an hour after sunset - it is no longer daylight but it is not yet dark. This lasts for only about 20/25 minutes so there is a short window to work in.  Following this magic time, the sky becomes black, still nice for shooting lights or lit scenes, just not as magical.

2.  Scout out areas ahead of time. Since there’s such a short window, time will be better spent photographing once the locations have already been determined.

Photo by E. David Luria

3.  Exposing at night can be tricky; the camera meter reads the darkness and determines a long exposure is needed which may cause the entire scene and especially the lights to be over exposed. To correct for this it’s better to set exposure manually considering the three factors that control exposure; shutter speed, aperture and ISO.

  • SHUTTER –If the lights are the main subject in your scene, it’s important not to overexpose them. Bright lights and neon signs require shorter exposure times so use faster shutter speeds (1/125, 1/250, etc) to capture the exciting colors of the light. Dimly lit scenes will a need longer exposure time so use slower shutter speeds (1/30, 1/15,  etc). The shutter speed also freezes or blurs motion so consider this if there are moving elements you want to render sharp or purposely blur such people or cars moving through the scene.
  • APERTURE– The aperture determines the depth of field and how much will be in focus in-front of or behind your subject but this may be less of a factor in the dark. Set your aperture to a mid-way setting of f8 and control the exposure with the shutter and the ISO. If the image is too dark, slow the shutter or raise the ISO. If the image is too bright, set a faster shutter or lower the ISO.
  • ISO –The lower the light you’re shooting in, the higher the ISO may need to be (ISO 400, 800, 1600, etc). Lighter scenes or bright lights and neon need less light so a lower ISO of 100 or 200 can be used. (In some cameras, a higher ISO may result in grainy or noisy looking images but with newer cameras this has greatly improved.)

4.  This type of photography works best with an SLR but if you only have a Point and Shoot camera and it does not offer manual settings, you could try to capture the lights by using the Auto Night Scene mode represented by an icon with a moon or a star and a building.  As the name states, this is great to use when photographing at night as it will give a longer exposure time (a tripod is a must).  Experiment with this to see if you get the results you want, again, an SLR would work better for this.

5.  WHITE BALANCE, the color of the light you’re capturing, is another important factor to consider.  AUTO WB is usually a good place to start but try some of the other settings to see if you get better results. If the lights you are shooting are tungsten, use the tungsten/incandescent WB to balance the yellow from these lights. This setting will also help to blue up the sky if shooting at Civil Twilight. If the lights are florescent, use that WB setting to take away some of the green hue they cast.

Experiment to find which WB setting you prefer for the particular scene you’re shooting. If you’re shooting Raw, the color temperature can easily be adjusted in post processing, not so easy if capturing JPEGs.

6.  Star filters can be great for shooting lights as they render each light bulb into a tiny star.

7.  A sturdy TRIPOD and a remote or cable shutter release are absolutely essential for any night shooting. If you don’t have a one of these, use the camera’s self-timer as simply depressing the shutter on the camera can cause vibration resulting in blurring. There’s nothing so deflating as looking at the photos on your computer only to find that they can’t be enlarged because they are not sharp.

8.  FOCUSING can be difficult in the darkness. Line up the focusing square on a point of contrast or an edge so there is something for the focusing system to grab on to. You may find it easier to focus manually. One way to check that you have achieved focus it to look at the image in the playback mode and zoom in on it using the magnifier (look for an icon of a magnifying glass on one of the buttons on the back or top of the camera.)

9.  Carry a small flashlight to see the controls on the camera, inside your camera bag, the tripod mount, etc.

10.  Check your camera settings and get your camera bag in order before heading out and trying to work in the darkness.

Photo by Tim Cooper