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

Tips for Night Photography

August 15, 2013 by Marie Joabar

When we were kids, our parents would call us in when the sun went down and the street lights came up. As adults, many of us find the excitement just begins at that time and for the photographer, night time opens up a whole new world to explore and capture. 

In September, we’ll find the sun setting between 7:45 and 7:00 giving us plenty of time to shoot and still get back home at a decent hour. October even more so as the sunset is between 7:00 and 6:15.
Civil twilight, the period right after sunset but before the sky goes completely dark, is a beautiful time to shoot.  The color of the sky is a deep royal blue making any artificial lights stand out like gems. Plus, there is still enough light in the sky to include foreground subjects in your composition.

The duration of civil twilight varies depending on where you are and the time of year, but in this area it can last from 10 to 20 minutes so pre-plan your shooting for that time. Afterwards, it’s a black sky and although not quite as beautiful, there are still plenty of opportunities to capture.

Here are a few tips to help;
1. For any low light shooting, a tripod is essential. There’s no other way to get tack sharp images. Even if your camera has high ISO settings, you’ll still do better with a tripod. 

2. You’ll want a camera with manual controls so you can dial in the exposure settings of ISO, shutter & aperture. Otherwise, you’ll end up with photos that are overexposed as your camera meter reads the darkness and tries to lighten the scene.

3. Use lower ISO’s if you can get away with it to help to keep noise at a minimum. ISO 400 should work for most situations since you’ll be on a tripod.

4. With most night photography an aperture setting of f8 should work well. If you’re trying to make the street or car lights look like starburst and you don’t have a starlight filter, try using a small aperture like f16.

5. The shutter controls the amount of time that light strikes the sensor and the darker the scene, the longer it needs to be open to make the exposure. Make your shutter speed slower to let in more light if the photos are too dark and make it faster if to let in less light if they are too bright. A shutter speed showing the inch symbol ( “ ) indicates full seconds and many night scenes call for several seconds even up to full minutes.

6. White balance settings will vary but Auto WB works well most of the time, especially in a scene with artificial lights. Shooting with a Tungsten or Incandescent WB will ‘blue’ up the scene. It’s fun to experiment for the look your after but do check the image in playback and adjust the WB if needed. If you’re shooting JPEG, this is especially important as it’s difficult to correct for color cast after the fact. If shooting Raw, WB can be easily changed using a slider in editing software such as Lightroom or Photoshop.

7. Carry a flash light to see camera controls and to see into your camera bag.

There is so much to shoot at night;
Find a black sky away from the city for shooting the stars and other celestial bodies as they’re most visible in total darkness.

Car light trails are a blast to photograph and can turn any mundane scene into an exciting action shot. Two or three seconds can work for this look but the timing takes practice.

Painting with light is incredibly fun. A couple minutes exposure gives you enough time to ‘paint’ your subject with light from your flashlight. Look for a future class on this.

Whether you’re shooting the stars, moon, cityscapes or painting with light, we hope you get out and explore all it offers.

Join us for many of our night photography classes offered throughout the year.

NY NY photo by Tim Cooper, all others by Marie Joabar