Taking Photos at Night : A Compendium (sorta)

A night photo to illustrate the techniques in this how-to to capture night time photographs by chris gardiner www.cgardiner Iimage circa 2008

I feel like I've spoken, or written anyways, at great length about shooting Night Photos here on my blog. The problem is that today, my sister asked for advice on shooting night photos and I wanted to link her one great blog post of my own that says it all, but truth is - if it's there - I couldn't find it. So that is the purpose of this post - a semi-compendium to shooting night photos.  She is making a trip to see some of Scandinavia, and at this time of year, its a basic guarantee that you'll see northern lights.  She went to Iceland a few years ago - and did see the Northern Lights - wasn't happy with the way she caught them. I tried at that time to explain a bit about night photos, but I clearly needed a better delivery since she asked again for this next trip.

And to go with this compendium I am including a whole bunch of probably never-seen-before night photos I shot in 2007 and 2008 back when I was a beginner, to maybe provide some extra inspiration.

A night photo to illustrate the techniques in this how-to to capture night time photographs by chris gardiner www.cgardiner Iimage circa 2008

Before we start, you can't really choose a harder type of 'available light' photography to do than night photography because, well, there is hardly any available light, so everything that normally happens in a split-second photo during daylight can take minutes of time when the sun is gone.  No one will tell you it's easy, but there are some tricks that form a sort of 'night photo recipe', so here they are...

Super basic, first thing, need to mention above all else : Every photo is made by capturing an amount of light over a given amount of time on your cameras sensor.  So because we are dealing with less light than usual, we need to spend more time.

There may be a lot of writing coming up because I want to explain things well enough that you understand their principles, instead of just saying 'do this' without sharing any reasons.

If you want to use this article as reference for your night shoot - but not all 4,000 words, pay attention to the bolded text, heck - maybe even put just the bolded bits under each paragraph into a short memo on your cell phone. 

A night photo to illustrate the techniques in this how-to to capture night time photographs by chris gardiner www.cgardiner Iimage circa 2008


There are a few ways to be creative without one, but if you're learning night photography, you need need need a tripod.  Anything will do.  A joby gorilla pod is about $40. A decent manfrotto for an SLR is $90. Heck, I've even been given a 'tripod' that screws onto any 2L pop bottle so you can turn your soda pop into your tripod. That would probably run you $5 and it's still better than having your hands touch the camera while it's busy shooting a long exposure..

Because with night photos you're dealing with long shutter speeds (the time we mentioned earlier) your camera needs to stay still for that entire length of time. Very still. If you consider that 1 pixel on your average 16 megapixel APS-C sensor is probably a few micrometers, every micrometer your camera moves in the photo will translate into a pixel of overall blur in your image.   So this is like your margin for error.  A movement in your camera that is as big as a pixel on your sensor will turn into blur in your image.   I'm not saying you always need nanometers of perfection the way a pro might - that would scare you off - but I'm trying to illustrate why having your camera in one spot - not moving - is so important.
Have your camera on a tripod.

A night photo to illustrate the techniques in this how-to to capture night time photographs by chris gardiner www.cgardiner Iimage circa 2008


A trigger is the equivalent of the 'shutter button' you press with your finger every time you want to snap a photo, but with night shots, like everything else, its not so simple.  If you can get a wired or wireless remote trigger thats awesome, but still not entirely necessary.  For a beginner, you will be using the 'self-timer'.   You may not know this, but thats how people used to shoot selfies back in the day. Set the camera here on ten seconds, run there, and hope you made it into the frame in time.  For night photos, the 10 second timer has another use, you use that in order to allow any vibrations from your hand, transferred into your camera when you pressed the shutter button, to dissipate..  If you didn't use a 10 second timer, the first few seconds of every long exposure would have nanometers or micrometers of vibration which means blurry photo - and if it's oh so easy to do better, why not do the best you can do?
Set your camera to 10 second timer.

A night photo to illustrate the techniques in this how-to to capture night time photographs by chris gardiner www.cgardiner Iimage circa 2008


Okay, this is probably the single hardest step to describe, and execute from the whole thing. So don't feel bad if it doesn't work out as planned.  Before we go too far, lets talk about how a camera works because its pertinent. In order to achieve 'focus' your camera uses contrasting points of a scene, and knows it is focused when the gradation between those two contrasting areas is the sharpest… So in real people terms, your camera will always have a tough time focusing on a smooth surface. Your camera will also have a tough time focusing when there isn't enough light for it to 'see clearly'. (Every camera has a sensitivity rating for each autofocus point, but to describe that is getting excessive, so lets stop here).
To achieve focus at night, you need to overcome those challenges - lack of light, and a contrasted object in the scene to focus on.  Depending on my lens, this is how I do it.  Set your camera to use the centre auto focus point only. I have it perpetually set on this because I like to shoot this way but some don't and I understand that.  That means your camera will only 'lock on' to a contrasted object if it is in the centre point of the frame.  Now find a bright object in your landscape, further away the better.  Is there a moon in the sky? A city behind you? Perfect. Press the shutter halfway while you're pointed at this object with it dead centre of frame.  Canons and Nikons I know your viewfinder 'grid' will light up red on the point in focus. This is good thing. Now set your camera to Manual Focus. (The AF-MF switch that is usually somewhere on the left hand side of your lens if you shoot canon like me)  That means for every photo you take from here on out, the focus should be locked on this distance - at infinity hopefully anyways. Sometimes, I've even had to send a companion on a short walk 30-40 feet away to hold up a bright cell phone for me to focus on. And then I lock into manual after that.  So now, hopefully if you do snap a photo, the distant landscape, the stars and the clouds should all be in focus.

There are other ways to get to infinity - I like having lenses that have a hyper focal dial on it, so I can see how far away my focus is even if there is nothing to see in the viewfinder - but this is usually higher quality lenses, so don't count on that.  So we are almost all done with focus, but one important point, and you'll just have to trust me on this one; until you get better with night photos, shoot at the widest field of view, widest angle, you can. So if you have an 18-55mm kit lens, make sure its at 18, and not 55.  I'd love to get into principles of hyper focus, and how your focal length affects depth of field, but we can't.. we really don't have time for that. haha.
AutoFocus on a bright distant object and lock focus to manual. Have your camera set to the widest field of view you can for that lens. 

A night photo to illustrate the techniques in this how-to to capture night time photographs by chris gardiner www.cgardiner Iimage circa 2008


Ok, here is the other doosie.  Exposure. So not all cameras are created equal, some handle higher ISOs better than others, and some lenses are 'faster' than others.   So we already know that it's dark outside so there is less light. We also know that because there is less at once we need to shoot for longer, in order to make a photo that looks well exposed.  
Most entry level DSLRs come with a 30 second maximum exposure, and a Bulb Setting. Now unless you have a 'remote trigger' which I mentioned earlier, you can't use the bulb setting (ties into the whole vibration thing).  So for all intents and purposes, we are going to continue this discussion as if you can shoot at a maximum of 30 seconds.  Now the good thing about know your definite setting for shutter speed is that it constrains the possibilities of all the other decisions we are about to make - and for a beginner in photography, the less decisions you have to make - sometimes the better.

To move forward, its important to know a few buttons on your camera. ISO being one. On most canons, its up top near where your right hand index finger would be squeezing the shutter. Anyways, know where it is. The other thing you need to know is how to set your Camera to "Manual" mode (Oh how exciting maybe this is your first chance to force yourself to shoot in manual! you know, like the pros do! haha).  And lastly, you need to know how to set your aperture, and your shutter speed independently of each other (while in Manual mode).  Usually the dial near your right hand index finger on the shutter is for controlling one of the two.
Now super basic again; values preceded by " / " are your apertures.  The numbers in fractions, or with apostrophes (1/500 or 3'2") are your shutter speeds measured in fractions or whole seconds depending on the unit.  And the other ones like 100, 200, 320, 400, 640, 800, 1600, 3200, tend to be your ISO values, which is also, in old days, was considered the 'films sensitivity to light'. Now that is all simulated and it's basically just 'signal gain'.  (also make sure you know which numbers in your displays are your 'memory buffer' and 'shots remaining on card' in case they confuse you down the road)

  • These three make up your exposure triangle. Its a triangle because they are all related and connected.  Imagine any photo, doesn't matter what it looks like - if you wanted to make a new photo under the same conditions, and have it look the same brightness but do it by using different numbers, they would all need to change proportionately. So if you want to use a faster shutter speed, you're going to need to use a wider aperture (a smaller f number), or a higher ISO. And it's that easy.  Thats a 100% rule for available light photography you can't get around until you learn to control your own lights.  

So before we stray too much. Here's your starting point. In manual mode. Set your shutter speed to 30". Because you want to use all the light possible, this should always be your starting spot as a beginner.

The good thing about night photos exposure, is it's almost always going to be close to the same as it always is, and will only vary based on how much of the moon is visible, environmental ambient lighting, an stuff like that. So when you find something that works for your camera and lens, write it down - keep it safe.

Now for aperture and ISO speeds.  So aperture first. Remember when I said shoot at your lens' widest angle? That served two purposes. First one being that most lenses, especially kit lenses tend to let more light in on the wide end than they do on the 'zoomed-in' end.  And more light means an easier photo.  The other benefit of wide angle field of view, is that your 'focal plane' is deeper so it's easier to shoot more things that look sharp. I won't explain why, but just trust me on this. You'll want that extra help being sharp if we are shooting with the aperture wide open, because that has a tendency to make things blurry.  In the case of a kit lens, your f/ will probably be f/3.5.  The smaller the number, the more light you're letting in.  So if you're shooting something on f/3.5 and then switch to f/8 you will need a lot more exposure time.

Two thirds of the way there, shutter speed and aperture are done, now just ISO.  So a good starting point for night photos is ISO800. Set that. Now take a picture. Yup. You're ready to actually use a test frame now. Take a look at the camera back and see what it looks like.   If the brightness is all good, things are sharp, that's great. But chances are you'll need a full moon on snowy mountain landscape (this reflects a lot of light = easy to make bright) or a city scene for that to be the right exposure. You'll probably have to bump up to ISO 1600. You want to use your ISO slowly, its helpful, but it also introduces an unwanted effect - digital signal noise. So this actually detracts from colour, sharpness and texture, it makes your picture look sloppy so thats why we use noise sparingly.  So if your picture is still dark, raise your ISO, check again and continue until your image is looking exactly as you want it.
Set your Shutter Speed to 30" seconds, set your aperture to the widest it goes (the smallest F number) and start with your ISO around 800 and gradually raise it with each shot as needed - the salt and pepper to taste of every recipe. 

A night photo to illustrate the techniques in this how-to to capture night time photographs by chris gardiner www.cgardiner Iimage circa 2008


You're basically ready to start shooting everything now, but you should really do this one last thing. White balance. To make it really easy on yourself, set it to Tungsten and shoot in your cameras "RAW" mode. (RAW+JPEG will take up a lot of space, plain RAW is best).  RAW takes up a lot more memory card space, but memory cards are cheap. Buy a few, especially for a trip, I mean when is the next time you're planning to be in Iceland? Or Finland, or wherever you're going?  How silly would it be to miss out on photos of a several thousand dollar trip because you didn't have enough of the little $30 memory cards?
If you're unable to do RAW files, you need to set your white balance. If you can enter the Kelvin number manually, I like 3900 for night skies. If you can't, then you'll have to judge by how much light pollution is hitting the clouds in your scene. Tungsten or Fluorescent is probably a good starting point.
Use a 3900K or Fluorescent White Balance, or Shoot RAW. Just shoot RAW. 

So thats the basics to getting a 'good' night shot. Everyone defines good differently, so for me, I want a photo that is sharp enough for me to understand what I am looking at, its bright enough for me to see details in the scene from what is in the shadows and what is being lit up, and the colours should be accurate enough that it can give me an idea of what the scene really looked like.  Having control over the noise induced by ISO basically is going to control how big you'll want to print, share, and display that photo in the future.  Always remember tripod, and if you don't have one, steady your camera some way - a good safe flat spot for it to sit while actually pointing at something interesting is a great alternative to a tripod.

Thanks for reading, I hope it helped and I hope you enjoyed it. Good luck.

The photos in this post were taken with my old Canon Rebel XTi while living in Lake Louise.  Going out to shoot night photos after I finished work at midnight was one of my regular winter pass-times while I learned the ins and outs of night photography. The camera I used is one of the earliest consumer DSLRs released, so if I could do it on that, you can do it on whatever you have now, 8 years later. I promise.


These will be some more insights on the matter, including some more specific techniques.

  1. How to Shoot a Night Time Panorama
  2. Tracking the Stars at Night
  3. More on Challenging Focus Situations
  4. A Case Study : Making One Night Photo 

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