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Night photography

Picture-taking when the sun's gone down


A camera-mounted electronic flash at night, even when correctly-used, often overexposes the immediate foreground and leaves the background in darkness.
A camera-mounted electronic flash at night, even when correctly-used, often overexposes the immediate foreground and leaves the background in darkness.

When that big light in the sky goes down at dusk, photographers have to rely on other light sources to obtain their images. There are two basic types of night photography: ambient (also called available or existing) light photography and artificial light photography. Ambient light may also be artificial (street lights, neon signs, etc.), but the term “artificial light ” when used here refers to light introduced by the photographer, such as flash illumination.

AMBIENT LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY

Existing light in a night scene can be vexatious to many photographers because it is often so difficult to figure out what exposure settings to use for it. When a scene is uniformly lit by the sun, a general exposure reading will usually provide good results, but when a scene is mainly dark and there are different sources of light illuminating it at different strengths, the photographer is challenged to obtain proper exposure.


Film photographers - Since most film in use by the average photographer is daylight-type color film, light sources at night may produce results that are difficult to predict. For instance, a subject illuminated by fluorescent lighting will appear to be greenish when photographed using unfiltered daylight film.

Digital photographers - You can manually set your digital camera's white balance to correct for lighting variations. (Refer to your camera’s manual for instructions on changing the white balance to suit the type of lighting.)

Ambient light at night is often sufficient for people to just make things out. A car’s headlights, for example, illuminate the road ahead, but do not illuminate the car itself or very much else. Street lights have a limited range. A city at night has bright spots and dark spots. A cafe table may be lit by a single candle, or may be brilliantly illuminated by strong interior lights. A field may be illuminated by a bright harvest moon that provides only a fraction of the sun’s light, making some shadows look blue and providing sharp contrast between highlights and shadows.

No one wants to see a house on fire at night or at any time. Fortunately, this was a Fire Department practice burn using an abandoned house. It was shot using ambient light from the flames and the night sky only.
No one wants to see a house on fire at night or at any time. Fortunately, this was a Fire Department practice burn using an abandoned house. It was shot using ambient light from the flames and the night sky only.

When the ambient light is particularly bright, it may permit sufficiently-fast shutter speeds for hand-holding your camera.
When the ambient light is particularly bright, it may permit sufficiently-fast shutter speeds for hand-holding your camera.

Frequently, the light source itself is the subject, as when photographing fireworks or a neon sign. When you are shooting light itself - not what it is illuminating - shutter speed is a major consideration, especially if the light is in motion. A long, slow shutter speed will allow a light to move across the scene for a longer period of time while the exposure is being made, tracking the light’s movement in a line across the film or digital sensor. The snaking tail-lights of a moving vehicle are a good example.

Not all digital cameras permit long exposures. Of those that do, some do a better job of it than others. Increasing your digital camera's sensitivity setting, to as high as ISO 1600 and more, if your camera has that capability, will permit faster shutter speeds in low light. Be sure to use your camera's noise reduction feature, if equipped.

The ambient light photographer must contend with a wide variety of lighting situations at night. Night photography is challenging, but once you have learned how to achieve good night pictures using existing light, it can be highly rewarding. You can produce some truly-exciting, mood-invoking images.


ARTIFICIAL LIGHT AT NIGHT

The most common form of artificial light produced by photographers today is electronic flash, although hot lights (continuously-illuminated lights with no flash) are also used by some.

Flash during daylight hours is primarily used for “fill flash lighting,” that is, supplemental lighting to brighten shadow areas when shooting a subject in another light source, which is typically the sun. Flash at night does not usually have the benefit of another powerful light source to provide illumination in areas that the flash’s light does not reach, and many night-time flash pictures have very dark backgrounds because there is simply insufficient balance between the flash’s illuminance and the feeble light falling on the background.

When exposing for light itself and when that light is significantly brighter than its surroundings, the rest of the image will probably be completely dark.
When exposing for light itself and when that light is significantly brighter than its surroundings, the rest of the image will probably be completely dark.

Reflections from wet surfaces can add light where there would otherwise be darkness.  The eye is drawn to brightness. Without the foreground reflection, this moody image would be flat and unintertesting.
Reflections from wet surfaces can add light where there would otherwise be darkness. The eye is drawn to brightness. Without the foreground reflection, this moody image would be flat and unintertesting.

Photographers using bright artificial lighting on a foreground subject at night must compose their images to take into account that far-off background objects they can see may not be visible in the image since the objects will be underexposed. The light from the flash will simply not reach them. Sometimes, this is a benefit, since bright flash illuminating a foreground object may be all you want, and a dark background may suit your composition perfectly. At other times, however, you may need to reposition your subject or your flash to provide sufficient illumination for everything that is important to the composition.


ENTER THE DARK SIDE

This section of photographytips.com is intended to provide photographers with pointers, tips and hints to make better night pictures, whether shooting in ambient light or with artificial light. Our section on flash photography is another useful resource that may contain helpful information for the photographer who wishes to use electronic flash at night.

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You may have tips and hints of your own that we overlooked when putting this section together. We invite you to send them in, along with an image that illustrates the technique or pointer. If we use the information and pictures on the site, we’ll be sure to credit you with having provided the tip and with having taken the picture.

Mercury-vapor street lights provide green illumination which is difficult to correct with filters or in the lab. A city has so many light sources that it is often best to take what you get for a realistic-looking cityscape at night.
Mercury-vapor street lights provide green illumination which is difficult to correct with filters or in the lab. A city has so many light sources that it is often best to take what you get for a realistic-looking cityscape at night.
Further information...

Basic night photography tips

Evening photography

Shoot the moon

Film for night photography

Star trails

Reciprocity failure

Fireworks

Photographing lightning
Related topics...

Daytime long exposure photography

Clandestine photography