Night photography, particularly as a beginner, can present both the opportunity to create compelling images, as well as some of the most difficult technical challenges you might face. Fortunately, these challenges are all learning opportunities to better your skills behind the camera. In this night photography tutorial, we’ll look at how to photograph some common subjects after dark with ease.
The idea of night photography can cover a wide range of subjects, including everything from landscapes and cityscapes shot just after sunset to highly technical astrophotography opportunities like nebulae and meteor showers, and even creative subjects like light painting. For this guide, I’ll focus on the essentials for shooting images when it gets dark, covering the best camera settings for night photography (as well as the “why” behind setting them), identifying some of the most accessible subjects and compositions to start with, and concluding with the some tips specifically for post-processing night images.
What is Night Photography?
While any image taken after sunset could fit the concept of night photography, I particularly associate night photos with a few specific categories of subjects. For me, the classic night photo is a shot of the Milky Way galaxy stretching over a unique foreground – this photo typifies many of the challenges that make night photography exciting.
Pulling off a shot like that is made easier by having the right gear, understanding how to set up your camera and exposure for the best results, and making a few smart decisions when editing. Fortunately, these same skills transfer to just about any subject you want to photograph at night, whether it’s a streetlight-lit portrait, an architectural photo, or something entirely different.
These skills all transfer because the biggest challenge in night photography is the lack of light. Light is essential to photography, and not having enough light can make a lot of the automated systems in your camera less consistent. You might find that your autofocus has a tougher time locking on, your camera’s meter doesn’t deliver the appropriate exposure for the scene, or your final photo looks grainy and speckled, thanks to noise from using a high ISO setting. All of these challenges are solvable, however. In the next section, we’ll take a look at the few pieces of gear essential to a successful night shoot, followed by building an understanding of how the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO can be best set for any night scene.
What Gear Do I Need for Night Photography?
You can create amazing night photos with any camera. Thanks to recent advancements in features like Night Mode on iPhone and similar features on Android phones, camera phones are also capable of taking great night images. Whatever your choice of camera, however, you’ll probably want some way of steadying your shot. While it is possible to shoot night images handheld, and for many subjects at night, this’ll work fine, a tripod can unlock an even wider range of subjects and possibilities.
Determining what tripod is best for you can depend greatly on both what your subject is and what type of camera and lens you’re using. We’ve got an entire, in-depth guide to selecting the best tripod for your camera that you should check out if you’re looking for more information. As a beginner, I went with an affordable tripod from Manfrotto. If I were in that position today, I’d consider the Manfrotto Element MII. This version features an Arca-Swiss-compatible ball head, a padded bag, and convenient twist leg locks, all at a reasonable, sub-$150 price point.
If you’ve got a larger budget or heavier gear, you can consider stepping up to carbon fiber tripod legs and a fancier tripod head. This can increase the stability and effective load capacity of your tripod, but can get expensive fast.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re shooting with a compact camera, phone, or small interchangeable lens camera, you can use an even smaller tripod, like the Joby Gorillapod. This unique concept functions like both a regular tripod and a flexible mount, capable of wrapping around a railing or tree branch for unique angles.
Avoiding shaking the camera is key to getting sharp photos during long exposures, which are often the exposures you’ll need for night photography. A tripod can eliminate a lot of vibration, but finding an alternate way to trigger your camera is key to getting every last detail sharp. Fortunately, there’s a lot of options for triggering your shutter without shaking your camera, and many of them are free!
The first option is just to use the delay built into your camera. On many models, you can set a self-timer or shutter delay. This means that when you press the shutter, a short timer starts, ending with the camera’s shutter triggering. In that intervening time, the vibrations of you pressing the button have time to settle out. An interval like 2 seconds should be plenty for most situations. For information on how to set this, just check your camera’s manual for the phrase “self timer”.
For some cameras, particularly newer models, there’s often an app that you can use. Canon’s is called Camera Connect, Nikon’s is called SnapBridge, and Sony’s is called PlayMemories. Each of these offers the ability to remotely control many of their recent cameras, along with a host of other features.
If you’ve got an older model, or just prefer a hardware solution, consider buying a remote for your camera. Remotes from third party manufacturers are often very inexpensive, and they work great for just triggering the shutter. B&H offers a wide range of remote shutter releases. Just make sure to check that it’s compatible with your particular camera model, as each brand often has a variety of remote standards.
On smartphones, you can choose between an app that allows self-timing, triggering with an alternate device like a smartwatch, or even using the volume clicker on headphones as a shutter release.
Once you’ve got your equipment squared away, it’s time to think about what settings will work for your scene. Depending on your subject, you might not be able to rely on your camera’s metering or autofocus, so understanding how and why to set these manually is important.
For night photography, I like to start with shutter speed. Depending on the subject and how you’ve stabilized your camera (handheld or tripod-mounted, for instance), you’ll want to set different shutter speeds. A longer shutter speed will need better stabilization, like a tripod.
To understand what counts as a longer shutter speed, it’s helpful to know this rule of thumb: a shutter speed slower than 1 over the focal length of your lens, like 1/20th of a second with a 20mm lens, increases the risk of blur. Of course, this can change with steadier hands or image stabilization/ vibration reduction systems, but the rule can provide a good reference point. Once you start to get into multi-second long exposures, you’ll definitely need to mount your camera to a tripod, or rest it securely on a surface like a table.
These multi-second long exposures aren’t without their benefits, however. Along with capturing much more light (great in nighttime situations), they also open up a wide range of artistic possibilities. With longer exposures, you can get interesting effects like light trails from passing cars, moving water can smooth into puffy clouds, or you can even “paint” light into the scene using a flashlight. As your exposure gets longer, you can also decrease your ISO or stop down your aperture because you have more light to work with, decreasing the noise in the shot or increasing the depth of field .
If you have stars in your scene, there is one final consideration for shutter speed, and it’s caused by the apparent movement of the stars themselves. Put simply, the stars move across the sky at night, and with longer exposures, you can get streaks behind the stars from that movement. We’ve got a guide on how to deliberately create that star trail effect here, but if you’re instead looking to keep your stars pin-point sharp, there’s another little rule of thumb that can help. The “500/focal length” rule, where you divide 500 by your focal length in millimeters, yields the longest exposure you should use to retain sharp stars. While this shutter speed might be a bit too long for high resolution cameras or large prints, it’s another good starting point for understanding your possible shutter speeds. (There is also a more complex alternate rule called the NPF Rule; we compared the 500 Rule vs the NPF Rule here.)
If you want to set a shutter speed longer than 30 seconds, you might bump into a limit on your camera. Many cameras cap the longest shutter speed that can be set at 30 seconds. Fortunately, most of these cameras also offer Bulb mode, where the shutter remains open as long as the shutter is held down. If you’re planning on using bulb mode, make sure to pick up a trigger – many advanced triggers offer the ability to set far longer exposures, or trigger repeatedly, acting as an intervalometer. If you’re interested in an advanced trigger, the Vello Shutterboss II is available in versions for many popular cameras, and includes all those features and more.
To recap, if you’re shooting handheld, you’ll need a short enough shutter speed to prevent blur. Once you get on a tripod or stable surface, you’re only limited by subject movement, like star trails, or your ability to set the shutter speed. You’ll want to keep those factors in mind when you’re choosing your ISO and aperture, which we’ll discuss in the following sections.
While shorter or longer shutter speeds can offer both creative options and real-world considerations, ISO choices are a bit simpler. Broadly speaking, a higher ISO will result in more noise in your image, but it can let you use a shorter shutter speed for the same level of brightness in your image. Some cameras, particularly those with larger sensors and newer designs, can offer “cleaner” results with less noise at higher ISOs, but even so, using the lowest native ISO setting (and getting a bright enough image by manipulating shutter speed, aperture, and the ambient light instead) yields the best image quality.
With that in mind, you’ll want to set the lowest ISO that will enable a proper exposure based on your choice of shutter speed and aperture. If you want to take a portrait in low light, and need a 1/30th of a second exposure, don’t be afraid to set an ISO like 3200 or 6400. On the other hand, if you’re shooting a moonlit landscape and can choose between 5 seconds at ISO 6400, or 20 seconds at ISO 1600, the lower ISO exposure will have less noise.
One more thing to remember about ISO is that it’s easy to change. If you’re trying to compose in low light, or are using Live View and need a brighter image, you can quickly increase your ISO to 6400 or higher, and use that brighter preview, while still being able to decrease your ISO for the final shot.
The concepts around ISO, digital noise, and sensors can get very complex. We’ve got articles that dig into the technical details of noise and ISO invariance, if you’d like to learn more.
The aperture of your lens, typically denoted by the f-stop, like f/3.5, determines how much light comes through your lens. An f-stop that lets more light in is counterintuitively indicated by a smaller number. A lens set at f/2.8 lets through more light than when the lens is set to f/9.
For night photography, there are two key considerations when choosing your aperture: the amount of light let through, and the depth of field. Stopping down your lens (AKA choosing a narrower aperture like f/8) lets through less light, but it increases the depth of field in your image. You can stop down to ensure that your entire landscape is sharp from front to back, or to deliberately capture less light to allow for a long exposure to capture things like star trails or light trails. On the other hand, you can open up your aperture to f/2.8 or f/1.8, if your lens supports it, to make it easier to shoot in very dark environments, like when photographing the Milky Way.
One last thing to know about your choice of aperture is how it impacts image quality. Most lenses perform better when stopped down some amount. A lens that can shoot at f/2.8 will often be sharper at a moderately narrow aperture like f/5.6. This is another situation like ISO, where you have to balance image quality against the other considerations of your composition. Especially for night photography, you may need to lose a bit of sharpness or depth of field in exchange for capturing as much light as possible with a wide aperture.
What Night Photography Subjects Are There?
There is a huge variety of night photography subjects. Some of my favorites include cityscapes, notable for their vibrant color and dynamic presence, and landscapes, where even common scenes can take on a new beauty under moonlight. You can also choose to get more creative with techniques like light painting, or more technical, with subjects like astrophotography.
Landscapes and Cityscapes
Photographing landscapes and cityscapes at night can be a great way to find new material in a scene you’re already familiar with. Fortunately, it’s easy to get started with these subjects, as you can take your time and experiment with settings.
When composing an image at night, consider the impact of movement and light. Roads can offer the opportunity for light trails, while the general bustle of a city can make for a great contrast with the static buildings. The direction of the moonlight can also make a big difference, as well as the phase of the moon – a full moon that’s low on the horizon can light the scene quite dramatically, while a new moon provides the best opportunity to photograph stars or meteor showers.
Time of night can also have a huge effect on the look of the image. You may have heard of the “blue hour” before. This 30-ish minute period after sunset can still leave enough light in the sky to create a really pleasant blue color. As more time passes, this color will fade from the sky, and that opens up the opportunity to photograph the stars and focus on artificial light sources in the scene.
While deep-sky astrophotography can become very complex (just check out some of the setups in our deep-sky astrophotography guide), photographing the Milky Way can be a great way to get started with this niche. The Milky Way, the galaxy that our solar system is located in, is a classic astrophotography subject and appears as a bright band of stars and interstellar dust.
The first thing to keep in mind when trying to photograph the Milky Way is that it’s not a static object in the sky. Depending on your location and time of year, it can look drastically different in the sky, transitioning between an arch low on the horizon, through a vertical column.
For location-specific information, I like to use the app PhotoPills, which provides a wealth of useful night photography tools. I particularly like PhotoPill’s augmented reality view of the Milky Way – this view overlays a live preview of where the galaxy will appear at any point in time, right over your phone’s camera view. This preview makes it so easy to plan shots for future dates, particularly if you’re not familiar with concepts like azimuth and elevation.
Beyond planning for the appearance of the Milky Way itself, you’ll want to consider the significant impact of the moon. A full moon can drown out the appearance of the galaxy for sure, but even a quarter moon may present difficulty, as the galaxy will appear less prominent in the brighter sky.
As a beginner, the wider and faster your lens is, the better your results will be. Unfortunately, these lenses can be pretty expensive to buy, but might make a great option for a rental. If you’ve identified a composition you’re excited about, renting a Sigma 14mm f/1.8 will virtually guarantee good lens performance. The Rokinon 14mm is a much more budget-friendly option, although it’ll require manual focus and may have more image quality issues.
Whatever your choice of lens, make sure you’re shooting as wide as you can in both focal length and aperture for Milky Way photography. This’ll increase the amount of time you can leave your shutter open before getting visible star trails, and it’s the best way to capture the faint galaxy against the night sky.
For the camera body, better low-light performance is always welcome, but most modern bodies can shoot clean enough results at ISO 3200 to make them viable. Whatever your choice of body, be prepared to manual focus. For focusing in such low light, I like to use a magnified Live View of a distant point of light, with a target like a particularly bright star, the moon, or city lights on the horizon. Once you’ve set that manual focus point, be careful not to bump it, and don’t forget to check for variation as the night goes on. Tack-sharp stars can make or break most Milky Way photos.
Milky Way camera settings are pretty simple, but they may require a little tinkering depending on your camera and location. With a wide angle lens, a good starting point is to open your aperture as wide as possible, set your ISO to 3200, and set your shutter speed to 20 seconds. From here, you may need to adjust the settings to match your environment, but probably not by too much in any direction.
As you’re iterating shots, you can try turning on your camera’s Long Exposure Noise Reduction. This setting works by taking a second exposure after your first, and using that info to remove hot pixels (pixels in your image that appear as bright dots, often from heat). This process is helpful, but not necessary when just working on your settings and composition, and it comes with the downside of effectively doubling every exposure’s time. After you get your shot set up, you can turn this setting off to shoot more quickly or on to get slightly higher image quality.
Shooting at night also presents the opportunity to create your own subjects. One of my favorite ways to do this is with light painting. The core concept is simple: in a dark area, while your camera’s shutter is open, you add light into the scene for an artistic effect. While there are dedicated tools for this, I got started with light painting with just a flashlight and some colored gels. These gels let me create a variety of colors from a white flashlight, but now there’s even a range of very affordable RGB LED lights available.
When light painting, you’re only limited by your creativity. You can combine light painting with cityscapes, portraits, product photos, or even make the light painting the subject itself. Just remember that you’ll have to write backwards if you’re aiming towards the camera – good luck channeling your inner Da Vinci!
Post-Processing Night Images
Editing night photos doesn’t have to be significantly different from editing your other photos. All the sliders still work the same, and all the same principles apply. There are two sliders that are more important for night photography than daylight photography, however: the White Balance/Color Temperature setting and the noise reduction setting.
White balance can have a major impact on the feel of a night photo. A cooler color temperature will bring across the cold, blue feel of night, and is the classic choice. In mixed lighting environments, like a cityscape, there may not be a single “right” color temperature. Instead, you’ll have to prioritize by subject or feel. Lastly, for Milky Way photos, a slightly warmer color temperature might work better, as going too cool can drown out the delicate looking structures and contrast that really make the galaxy stand out.
Noise reduction is a matter of personal taste. I find that color noise is both more noticeable and more disruptive to the image than luminance noise, so I focus on reducing color noise when possible. Luminance noise is that grainy texture visible in high ISO shots, and reducing it basically involves applying a very slight blur to the image. With the luminance noise reduction slider, avoid using too much, as it’ll make your image look unpleasantly soft.
Color noise reduction is a little easier. Color noise is visible as specs of “wrong” color in areas, or even color in colorless areas, like red dots in the dark sky. It’s easier to remove than luminance noise without negatively impacting the image, although going too far can still remove some low-level color details and saturation. For color noise, I recommend that you just bump the color noise slider up until your image looks good at 100%.
Another source of unwanted artifacts in nighttime photos is the same hot pixel issue I mentioned a moment ago. These are bright dots that may be too large for the regular noise reduction algorithms to remove, and they are especially noticeable if you left Long Exposure Noise Reduction off in-camera. These dots are easy to remove, however. After making my edits, I like to open my image with hot pixels in Photoshop, then duplicate the background layer to work non-destructively. On this new layer, I apply the Dust & Scratches filter at a radius of 1 or 2 pixels. This filter will remove almost all the hot pixels, while having little impact on other parts of the image. If you notice that you are losing details, however, like stars in the sky, just apply a mask to this top layer, or increase the threshold on the filter itself.
Whatever your choice of subject, night photography can be a wonderful way to get more familiar with your camera, stretch your artistic and creative muscles, and refine your technical skills. It doesn’t require much equipment beyond a tripod, and you can find subjects just about anywhere.
Like any new skill, learning night photography can be an iterative process. When you get your first shots on your computer at home, don’t be afraid to look at them with a critical eye. Understanding the impact of exposure settings and technical elements can make for a better photo taking experience any time you use your camera.
I hope this guide to night photography has inspired you to go out and explore some new subjects. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to answer them in the comments!
This article takes the “beginner” concept to another level. Highly disappointed. No examples whatsoever (and much needed) of exposure effects or the different alternatives with post-processing.
Would you please recommend a Swiss arca type tripod accessory for an iPhone? Thanks.
One of the things not discussed much here is exposure level. I’ve found, at least in nighttime cityscapes, Christmas lights and the like, that it’s very important to compensate exposure. If you rely on the camera’s meter, it will generally overexpose considerably, trying to turn the black night into gray. That’s nice if it’s what you want, and can give you a very evocative slightly unreal look, but if your object is the lights, they’ll blow out badly. These days it’s pretty easy to check after a shot, but for example a couple of years ago, on a night time cruise in Sydney Harbour, four stops under was not excessive.
Alex – wonderful information especially for beginner night long-exposure photographers. My best long-exposure night shots were with fujichrome and kodachrome films while in Viet Nam in 1967-8. Once shot a 5 hour night shot on the Tan Son Nhut air base of hundreds of aircraft trails, flares and nearby mortar flashes – was wild. Wondering how film would compare with digital sensor exposure shots of equal duration today!!
Hello Alex, thank you for your article. It was ver good.
Hello Alex, thank you for your excellent article. As you mentioned, the first image in this article represented some “classic night photos”. As for this kind of classic night photos, I have a question: how to choose the focus point. I notice that you used the aperture of f/1.4 for this particular piece which would yield a relatively narrow DOF. In such a situation, where should the focus be ? On the Milk Way, or on the mountain ? This is the question having puzzled me for a long time. And the second question is also about focus. In really dark night, when the camera can’t focus on the brightest star in the sky, or have trouble finding any contrast in the foreground, what’s the method you use for focus ? I found it very difficult to mannually focus according to distance, because neither the distance scale on the lens is precise nor can I evaluate the distance between the foreground and me. Even focus on “infinity” is hard, because the infinity mark on the lens is always off. So I am interested to know how you dealt with this problem. Thank you !
Hello! Thanks for reading.
To address your questions: In the case of focusing at f/1.4, I’ve focused on those mountains. As they’re sufficiently far away, everything from about 25 feet to infinity is in acceptable focus. Even at f/1.4, shallow depth of field is only a major consideration when focused closer than 45 feet with this focal length- for more on this, check out the concept of hyperfocal distance.
You can see this concept at play in the image under the aperture heading. Here, the lens is set to f/2.8, but since I’m focused much closer to the camera, the stars and landscape behind the focus point have fallen out of the in-focus region.
For very low light focusing, you’re right that relying on the infinity mark is difficult. I’ve typically been able to use a combination of high ISO, live view, and a wide aperture to find some point source that is bright enough. In scenarios where I need to focus on a close, dark subject, I’d rely on a flashlight to provide some illumination while focusing. I hope that helps!
Wow! so much information. Thank you for writing this. You’ve given me lots to think about and perhaps a whole new area to explore with my camera.
Thanks! Good luck with your photos!