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8 Tips for Night Photography

September 19, 2019 by Marie Joabar

It’s exciting to photograph at night and now that the days are getting shorter it makes it easier to shoot and still get home at a reasonable hour.

Downtown areas provide some of the best opportunities for night photography because they include colorful and sometimes funky neon signs that beg to be photographed. Memorials and Monuments also provide beautifully lit scenes that can convey powerful emotions or make dramatic statements if captured well.

Photo by Instructor Geoff Livingston 

Consider these 8 tips for capturing night scenes;

1.  Shooting During Twilight provides a rich blue sky for the background making any lights appear like gems. 
      - Civil Twilight is the time just after sunset when there is still light in the sky.  We’ll see the sky turn from orange and yellow hues to pink and purple. Clouds are a bonus giving the colorful light something to bounce and reflect off of.
      - Nautical twilight follows and that’s the magic blue time. There is no more light in the sky but it is not yet dark.

Depending on the season and the location, twilight can last from 15 to 40 minutes after sunset  (and also before sunrise) so there is a short window to work in. Following this magic time, the sky becomes black, which can still be nice for shooting lights or lit scenes but it's just not as magical.

2. Use “The Photographer’s Ephemeris” App on your smartphone as a great resource for timing. Not only does it list the sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset times as well as the start and end times of the different twilights, it shows the direction of sunrise/moonrise, sunset/moonset at whichever location you dial in.  

3.  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. Notice opportunities when you’re driving home from work or make a scouting trip to areas you want to photograph.  

4.  Use Manual Exposure Mode. 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.

  • ISO – Since you’ll be using a tripod, use a low ISO; 100, 200 or 400. If you want to be playful and use long exposures to blur cars or other motion, use 100 or 200 ISO. If you want a quicker shutter speed, use ISO 400.
  • APERTURE– The aperture determines the depth of field (how much will be in focus in-front of or behind your subject) but this is usually less of a factor in the dark. If you want the lights to appear as starbursts, use f11, 16 or 22. Otherwise use f8.
  • SHUTTER – With the ISO and Aperture set, simply use the shutter speed to control the brightness of the image. Speed up the shutter if the image is too bright, slow it down if the image is too dark.
    However, since the shutter speed controls motion, consider if there are moving elements you want to render sharp or purposely blur such people or cars moving through the scene.

5.  The White Balance Setting helps you capture the color of the light you’re photographing.       
     - AUTO WB is usually a good place to start but try some of the other settings to see if you get better results.
     - With the tungsten/incandescent WB setting, the yellow cast from those lights will be removed. It can also help to blue up the sky during twilight.
     - With florescent WB setting, the green cast from those lights will be removed. It can also add a nice hint of pink shortly after sunset and just before the sky goes blue.

 6.  A Sturdy Tripod and a remote or cable shutter release are absolutely essential for any night shooting. If you don’t have a cable release or a remote shutter trigger, use the camera’s self-timer so you’ll have sharp photos.

7.  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.)

8.  Be Prepared
- Carry a small flashlight to see the controls on the camera, inside your camera bag, the tripod mount, etc.
   - Check your camera settings and get your camera bag in order before heading out and trying to work in the darkness.

Whether capturing expansive cityscapes, iconic Memorials or downtown Main street, make the most of the wee hours before or after daylight for some magical photos.

Looking to learn hands-on how to photograph at night? Join us for many of our night photography classes… upcoming are Georgetown at Night on Oct 27 and the Night Photography on the Mall on November 9. Stay tuned for our holiday classes to be announced soon, in these classes we’ll be photographing the colorful holiday lights at various locations in the area.