Night photography

Many beginner photographers manage easily with everyday family photographs with the help of the automated systems of their compact cameras. Sometimes they are impressed by effectively shot night photographs which can be seen in different advertising materials, billboards and magazines. Unfortunately they are easily disappointed when they try to take such photographs themselves. Most often they blame their failure on the imperfections of their own camera. One statement I have regularly heard from beginner photographers is: ‘My camera is not good enough because it takes blurred photographs at night although I set it to the night photograph icon.’ In fact almost always the so-called blurring is not the result of a camera fault, but of the lack of skill and knowledge on the part of the user, who cannot use the camera properly under poor light conditions.

Is it possible, then, to take quality photographs with such a camera in this part of the day when light is so scarce? It turns out that it is not only possible, but that sometimes the night is the time when you can take some of your most interesting and colourful photographs. Night in the big city is filled with a colourful spectacle of lights, even if faint, coming from the headlights of hundreds of cars, colourful neon signs, street lamps, the small yellowish rectangles of the windows… All we need to know is how to arrange them and use them to form a colour palette with the help of our friend – the digital camera.

Remember something very important! The lesser the ambient light, the longer the shutter speed of your camera. At night when light is scarce we have to use longer shutter speeds and this is the reason we have certain effects like the blurring of moving objects in the photograph. You have probably seen many night photographs where the still buildings, road signs and trees are clearly and distinctly visible, while instead of cars what you can see on the roads is simply long bright trails of headlights. The explanation is simple and logical. If the shutter of your camera was opened for 10 seconds, for instance, during that time the still objects are projected by the lens without any change of their location, whereas moving objects draw colourful tracks with their headlights and stoplights, because they will travel some distance in those 10 seconds.

Sony A900, Carl Zeiss 24-70/2.8, shutter speed 2 seconds. The camera was placed on a stable tripod. You need to be careful when activating the shutter. If you do it by pressing the shutter button, you risk shaking the entire tripod at the beginning of the exposure, resulting in blurry still objects. You should use a remote control or a timer.
Sony A900, Carl Zeiss 24-70/2.8, shutter speed 4 seconds. Still cars can be clearly seen in the photograph, while those which are moving leave only traces. You can also see the traces of a passing trolley bus. The traffic lights are red, yellow and green at the same time, because all three colours changed during exposure time.

Often after we try to take such photos we are disappointed with the results, because not only moving objects are blurred, but also the still ones. The only reason behind such disappointing results is the movement of the camera itself while shooting. In this respect one of your most important tasks is to ensure that the camera is still.

You should keep in mind that this type of night photography requires the use of a tripod. When shutter speed is lower than 1/30 sec, the camera must be absolutely still to avoid a blurry image. Models equipped with optical stabilisation give you the opportunity to expand the range of possible shutter speeds while shooting without a tripod to around 1/4 sec for wide-angle positions of the lens. If, however, you need to shoot at slower speeds, a tripod is must. You can find both heavy, expensive and stable tripods for larger cameras and cheap, small and convenient pocket-sized tripods which work great for light-weight amateur class digital cameras and take up virtually no space in your bag.

Sony A900, Carl Zeiss 24-70/2.8. Shutter speed 5 sec. While I was shooting this photograph from the Kopito peak, there was a very strong wind. It was almost impossible to keep the tripod steady. I brought it down to its lowest point and made a wind break out of an old cardboard box so that the gusts of wind would not hit the camera directly..
New Year’s Eve, Sofia, photograph taken from Kopitoto, Canon 5D III, Canon 70-300 DO, S-30 sec. You have so many fireworks because of the long exposure times and each individual spark is overlaid on top the underlying image.

Here are some tips for this type of photography which you might find useful:

  1. Necessary equipment:
  • A compact, mirrorless or single-lens reflex camera with manual shutter speed setting capabilities and a diaphragm or an option for long exposure times – 4-5 sec as a minimum. Almost all modern digital cameras have these options but it is still advisable to choose a model which has full manual mode. Some marketing specialists believe that the general consumer is put off if their camera has too many settings and for this reason there are quite a few models without such settings. You can always switch to full manual mode, so keep in mind the following – no matter what the consultants at the shop tell you, the option for manual settings is an advantage and allows you to be more creative, should you wish so.
  • Tripod. You may select from a wide range of smaller and larger tripods depending on your camera and your needs.

2. Selecting the right spot for shooting:

  • You can take interesting photos of the night lights in the city from a tall building in the centre, from an overpass with car traffic below or at street level. Situate yourself in such a way as to avoid any bright objects around you coming into the field – for instance a bright lamp or a floodlight. If you are at street level, do not shoot cars from the front because their powerful headlights will overexpose the photograph.
Sony A99, Carl Zeiss 24-70/2.8, shutter speed 7 secа
Sony A99, Carl Zeiss 24-70/2.8, shutter speed 10 sec

3. How to shoot:

  • Firmly secure the tripod with the camera. Remember that you can easily break the sensitive equipment because of a poorly secured tripod or an involuntary push of the tripod by you or a random passer-by. Make sure that the tripod is absolutely steady and does not shake due to strong winds. Even a slight shake may be fatal for your shot. Use the timer function, a threaded cable release or a remote control (if you have one) in order to avoid the shake of the camera due to the mechanical force from pressing the shutter button with your finger.
  • Set the shutter speed and the aperture depending on the general illumination of the scene so that you can avoid having areas in the photo which are too dark. The best results can be obtained after sunset when there is still some light coming from the sky. You can select shutter speeds from 3-4 sec to 20-30 sec depending on the capabilities of your camera and the desired result. If you close the aperture more, you will have star-shaped light effects from the lights with constant position but you will have to reduce the shutter speed respectively. Other combinations which are suitable for shooting moving lights in the city at dusk are – shutter speed 5 sec and aperture 11, shutter speed 10 sec and aperture 16, shutter speed 20 sec and aperture 22 and so on. Use the lowest sensitivity setting to avoid noise in your photograph.
Sony A99, Carl Zeiss 24-70/2. shutter speed 7 sec.

Of course, night photography is not limited to photographs with long exposure times. You can take really interesting photographs even without a tripod if you shoot with high sensitivity settings of 800, 1600, 3200, 6400 ISO and using optics with good light power and higher shutter speeds. This type of photographs, however, is very hard, if not practically impossible to take with a compact amateur class camera because the truly usable sensitivity range of such cameras is usually limited to 400 ISO. To this end you will need to invest in a digital interchangeable lens camera. To be completely honest, the prices of the low range single-lens reflex and mirrorless cameras has dropped considerably over the last years and are even equal to the prices of some high range compact models.

Night photography with optics stabilisation and high sensitivity

  1. Necessary equipment:
  • Digital interchangeable lens camera with high sensitivity capabilities (up to 3200 ISO, 6400, 12800 ISO)
  • Lenses with good light power. Lenses with stabilisation are an advantage. Some brands and models offer sensor stabilisation which works with all lens types. This is also an advantage for this type of photography.
  • The speeds we use in this case usually vary from 1/30 sec to 1/100 sec and the aperture of the lens is fully open. Use lenses of the type 28/1.8, 35/2, 50/1.8, 50/1.4, 85/1.8, 85/1.4 or, if using telephoto lenses, make sure they are stabilised.

2. Selecting the right spot for shooting:

  • You can take interesting photographs from night life in the city. Take photos of people and scenes illuminated by the street lamps and the neon signs, silhouettes in front of window shops, building facades with awkward colourful ambient light reflections or even staged portraits. Using this equipment and this method you can shoot a concert in the open or in a hall, a family party, a wedding in a church where light is poor, etc.
Sonya A900, Minolta 50/1.7. S-1/60sec, F-1.7.1600ISO. The camera has sensor stabilisation.
Sony A7iii, Carl Zeiss 55/1.8. S-1/100sec, F-1.8, 6400ISO.The camera has sensor stabilisation.

Sonya A7Riii, Sony 100/5.6 STF. S-1/20sec, F-5.6, 12800ISO. The camera has sensor stabilisation and low speeds of 1/20 sec are not a problem even when shooting without a tripod.

The following three shots are part of a family photo session taken in the evening with a mirrorless camera with sensor stabilisation, high sensitivity and a lens with good light power.

Sony A7Riii, Sony 85/1.8, S-1/200sec, F-1.8, 500ISO
Sony A7Riii, Sony 85/1.8, S-1/125sec, F-1.8, 3200ISO
Sony A7Riii, Sony 85/1.8, S-1/320sec, F-1.8, 8000ISO

3. How to shoot

  • As we said before, use the most open aperture setting of your lens and the highest possible sensitivity still guaranteeing a quality image. Often the light meters in cameras can be deceived by some strong lights within the frame and can play a rather unpleasant trick on you as well. If you have a digital camera, switch to full manual mode and take several test shots on the spot to figure out what shutter speed and sensitivity settings produce the best results.
The light is coming only from the torches. Canon 6D, Canon 24-70/4 It is very important to have a weather sealed camera body. Because of the heavy snowfall the camera got wet, the water penetrated through the seals and the buttons and rings of the camera failed and would not change the settings. I could not change the aperture, the speed or the ISO. However, I decided to continue shooting, because I could not afford to miss this moment. After the shoot I immediately took the battery out of the camera and I did not use it for the next couple of days until it dried out completely. Fortunately, it was not permanently damaged.
Sony A7Riii, Sony 85/1.8, S-1/50sec, F-1.8, 12800ISO – the light in the foreground is coming from the neon sign of a bank creating a powerful colour contrast with the background.
Sony A99, Carl Zeiss 135/1.8 . S-1/160sec, F-1.8, 4000ISO. Buda Castle, Budapest

Sony A99, Carl Zeiss 135/1.8 . S-1/160sec, F-1.8, 6400ISO. The Buda Castle is in the defocus area serving as background.

  • Be mindful of the autofocus! When the aperture is opened to its widest possible setting, the focus needs to be very precise if you want to have good sharpness. Sometimes manual focus is the better option.
  • Hold the camera steadily. The chances that you can blur a photo even at speeds closer to 1/100 sec are not as small as you think!
A slideshow with photos and video from an urban night photography session. Camera Sony A7iii. Click in the middle of the screen to play the video.