Beginner’s Guide to Nighttime Photography

One thing you may have noticed as a new photographer, is that pictures are just harder to take at night. Even with fancy cameras and lenses, sometimes photos at night just don’t turn out the way you want. Don’t even get me started on trying to take photos in dark rides (Peter Pan, anyone?). DSC_0219
Well, turns out there’s good news: there ARE ways to get the photos you want at night, and no, these don’t include buying a better camera. We’ve broken it into two methods with a few steps each, so bear with us, and we promise these tips will help you get the nighttime photos that you dream about.
Minor disclaimer: this post will cover nighttime landscape photography, so we won’t go into night portraits, flashes, or the multitude of appurtenances that you can acquire. Since this blog is for beginners, we’ll keep it simple with just landscapes.
DSC_4825 DSC_6110 DSC_0347 DSC_6351Hands-down the best way (and arguably the only way) to take great landscape photos at night is with a tripod. I repeat: USE A TRIPOD. Since there’s not very much light at night, you most likely won’t be able to balance your exposure without using a long shutter speed. If you aren’t sure how to balance the exposure on your camera, go back to our Beginner’s Guide to Manual Photography post.
METHOD 1: Step-by-Step Night Photography WITH a Tripod
Step 1: Set up your camera on the tripod and compose your photo, set to Manual Mode (M)
Basically, point your camera where you want it. (We normally put the camera at about eye-level, but that’s up to your creativity).
Step 2: Set your ISO to 100
If you’re not sure how to do this, check your manual, because it’s different on most cameras. Using an ISO of 100 will make your photos as least noisy as possible (noise = bad)
Step 3: Set your aperture to f8
This will ensure that everything in your photo is in focus. Again, check your manual if you’re not sure about how to do this.
Step 4: Adjust your shutter speed to balance the exposure
More than likely, you will have to set your shutter speed for a fairly long time. Your tripod is crucial here so that you will not take blurry photos. If you are unsure about how to balance you’re exposure, go back to our Beginner’s Guide to Manual Photography post.
Step 5: Make sure your camera is focused on your subject
Look through the view finder and make sure that your camera is focused on what you want.
Step 6: Use your automatic shutter release to take the photo
Make sure you have an automatic shutter release (we’ve been using this cheap one from Target). You’ll have to change the setting on your camera.
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METHOD 2: Step-by-Step Night Photography WITHOUT a Tripod
This one gets a little trickier. You will definitely run into scenarios where you will want to take a picture at night, and you won’t be able to use a tripod. Maybe you’re taking a picture of a nighttime parade, you’re on a dark ride, or you just don’t have time to set up a tripod. Whatever your reasoning, here’s how we’ve found is the best way to take night photos without a tripod.
Step 1: Set your camera at a high ISO
What is “high”? Whatever your feel comfortable with given your equipment. Lower-quality cameras get incredibly noisy at high ISOs (aka really grainy), while with better equipment, you can push an ISO of 1600 and be okay. Our suggestion: test your camera on different ISOs and see how noisy your camera is. You probably want to start at at least 400 and then see how far you can push it. With our D7100, we normally set it to about 800 when shooting in low light without a tripod.
Step 2: Set your aperture to the lowest setting
Your aperture depends on what lens you are using. We really love our Sigma 18-35mm, which goes down to f1.8, and is really helpful in low-light situations.
Step 3: Adjust your shutter speed to (almost) balance the exposure
Ideally, you want to balance the exposure, but since you are shooting at night, in the dark, your exposure does not need to be totally balanced. Make sure that your shutter speed does not go above 1/20s, because you won’t be able to hold your camera still enough, and your photos will be blurry.
Step 4: Review your photo and adjust ISO and/or shutter speed accordingly
If you are shooting moving objects, you may have to make your shutter speed faster so that your subject is not blurry (remember, dark photos are better than blurry photos). If your photos are too dark, you will have to raise your ISO to compensate. It’s better if your photos are a little noisy than too dark.
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What has helped you take better photos at night? Our biggest piece of advice we can give is PRACTICE! Hopefully this post gave you the tools to get started, now go take some beautiful nighttime photos!
Also, if you’re wondering about what type of equipment we use, check out our What’s in Our Camera Bag post!