Tips for Night Photography

Posted October 28, 2013 by Paul Xymon García in Photography

Night photography, simply put, refers to taking photos at night: the photos you take anytime between dusk and dawn. It is a type of photography which I found myself gradually drawn to. It poses a real challenge to travel photographers who usually have limited photographic equipment with them and, more importantly, limited light sources. You have to be very creative as to how to use the tools and the light available to you at night.

Plus, you really have to set your camera to Manual mode when shooting at night. Otherwise, your camera automatically turns on the flash, so you get poorly lit, poorly exposed photos. That or your camera may not be able to take any photo at all because it’s just too dark.

Let me share here some tips and tricks I found useful when doing night photography.

1. Experiment with your ISO.

As I mentioned in the Photography Tips for Beginners post, your ISO determines how sensitive your camera is to available light. At night, you need to use a high ISO (any value above 1000). Of course, this is just the rule and rules can be broken. Learn to play with low ISO at night as well. Sometimes, it works, too!

Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Chiang Mai’s Yi Peng Lantern Festival (shot with a very high ISO 3200)

Marina Bay Sands

Helix Bridge in Singapore’s Marina Bay (ISO 1600)

Swatch Art Peace Hotel, Chartered Bank Building & North China Daily News Building on the Bund, Shanghai

Shanghai at night (shot with ISO at only 800)

2. Learn how to use center-weighted and spot metering.

The meter is your camera’s tool in determining the amount of light available in a shot. There are many types of metering modes. At night, when there is usually a specific, limited source of light available, I found that center-weighted or spot metering works best. With these two, your camera’s meter only evaluates the light available in a small part of the frame (i.e. the light source). The meter renders the light source correctly exposed, underexposing all other distracting objects.

Blue Moon New Year 2010

Center-weighted or spot metering works best with a singular light source, e.g., celestial bodies, a lit candle, a lantern, etc.

3. Get yourself a prime lens.

A prime lens is a lens whose focal length (zoom) is fixed. Because the design of a prime lens is simpler, its aperture is usually larger. Thus, it gives you the ability to shoot in low-lit conditions (e.g., at night). The most reliable prime lens I have encountered is the Canon 50mm F1.5. It’s cheap, costing just around 100 USD. With Nikon, I have used the Nikon 35mm F1.8 lens, but results were varied.

UP Lantern Parade 2009

The University of the Philippines Lantern Parade shot with a Canon 50mm F1.8 lens

Hoi An, Vietnam

Lanterns in Hoi An, Vietnam shot with a Nikon 35mm F1.8 lens

4. Buy a tripod or learn to improvise without one.

At night, you may be forced to shoot in very low shutter speeds. If your hands are not stable enough, your photo comes out blurry. A tripod will work best in this situation. Then again, you can always learn how to improvise. Fences, railings, or rocks, when available, may just work as well as a tripod when shooting at night. Being able to work with very low shutter speeds brings you into the whole world of long-exposure photography, which is discussed in detail here.

Hanoi Night Lights, Vietnam

Hanoi Night Lights (shot with a tripod)

Pudong Skyline, Shanghai

Shanghai Night Lights (shot without a tripod)

These are just some of the tips and tricks I learned when messing around with night photography. As with any type of photography, I recommend playing and experimenting with it. You might just surprise yourself with the results.

About the Author

Paul Xymon García

Paul Xymon Garcia is a Filipino, born and bred in Manila. He studied journalism and is now pursuing a career in travel writing and photography. His stories and photos have been published in several Philippine-based publications such as CebuPacific Smile Magazine, Meg Lifestyle Magazine, and Travel Magazine. He has contributed to a photography exhibition organized by the United Nations Population Fund. He blogs at WalkFlyPinoy.com.

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