Night Photography: Tips & Tricks for Getting the Shot

A night time photo overlooking Freising.

Photo © M. Kohlhofer

One of my favorite times for taking photos is at night. Therefore, it’s probably about time that I finally wrote an article about shooting at night. You will be faced with an entirely new set of challenges to master this photographic venue. In this article, I will give you a number of tips, and if this is your first time out, to help make sure you’re properly prepared.

I’m also introducing a new photo gallery into this site. I posted a question on Twitter that I was looking for a new Flash based photo gallery. A few minutes later, Oliver (aka @fotolist on Twitter) came back with a winner! I’ve played around a bit with dfGallery 2.0 and am suitably impressed. Watch for the photo link at the end of this article to see the first photos in the Gallery.

While developing the photos for the gallery, I found myself using a number of settings over and over again, so naturally, I’ve bundled these settings into two new Lightroom presets that I’m making available for download. The presets basically remove or reduce some of the inherent color casts you’ll find at night, they adjust the recovery and contrast levels to compensate for timed exposures and also have built-in noise reduction to counteract any noise or other artifacts that may develop. Ok, lots of stuff, let’s get started …

Getting your Equipment Together

Before you go out on a night shoot, you should make sure that you’re properly prepared. The obvious things of course – check that the battery in your camera is fully loaded. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting to your destination and realizing you’ve only got enough battery life for about 10 minutes of shooting. Don’t forget your tripod! Probably the most important piece of equipment you’ll have for a night shoot! You’re going to need it (period). Unless of course you’re planning on doing some high-ISO work and your focus is street photography. Additionally, here’s a few more tips to make sure that you’re prepared for the shoot.

Photo of Manfrotto Black Tripod

Manfrotto Tripod Black - 055XPROB

I’ve already mentioned a tripod. It’s going to be your best friend for the next few hours. I know it’s a pain in the ass to drag along and set up, but the results will be worth it. This clever tripod has a center column that can be swung into a horizontal position allowing for creative and flexible camera mounting. You’ll see me setting it up in a shot further down the page.

Photo of a MAG-LITE Flashlight

MAG-LITE from Mag Instrument

Take along a flashlight! You’re going to be shooting in the dark! Now unless your camera has a back light for your settings display your going to need it to see what you’re adjusting. At some point, you’re also probably going to be looking for something in your camera bag and a flashlight will come in handy. And let’s not rule out signaling for help should you get lost. :-)

Photo of a battery and Compact Flash Card

Spare Battery and Flash Card

Take along a spare battery and film (Flash Card). Enough said.

Photo of a remote timer cable release

Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3

Get a remote release. I haven’t got one of these babies yet, but I’m currently looking at getting one. There’s nothing more irritating than getting that perfect shot only to see slight blurring effects when you get the shots loaded into Lightroom. (you’re definitely not going to see any slight blurring on that tiny 2-3 inch monitor on the camera!) Shown here is a unit that includes a remote timer for doing time-lapse photography.

Photo of a reflective safety vest

Reflective Safety Vest

Make sure you’re properly dressed for the night. If you’re shooting on a cold night, a warm jacket is always nice to have. Also, gloves will ensure you don’t freeze your fingers off. If your ears are sensitive to the cold, take along a hat. If you’re planning on shooting along a busy road or highway, a safety vest is highly recommended. It’ll really spoil your shoot if you end up in the hospital because someone didn’t see you standing on the side of the road. :-(

Photo of a camera showing the mirror lockup menu

Mirror Lockup Function

In order to minimize the vibration caused to the camera when the mirror flips up just prior to exposure, I set my Canon 30D to pre-lock up the mirror. Most modern DSLR’s will have a similar function buried somewhere in a sub-menu. Just another precaution to avoid the tiny bit of vibration that will cause minute levels of blurring in your photo when the mirror flips up just before the exposure!

Time for the Photo Shoot

In this latest night shoot, it was terribly cold, it was lightly raining and there was lots of wet mushy snow on the ground. Now I don’t really like the cold or snow but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. We arrived at our first location and before taking the first shot I set up the self-timer feature of the camera to make sure I was not “touching” the camera at the time of exposure. The logical alternative is a remote release adapter (which I don’t have yet) that will allow you to remotely “fire” the camera. This, combined with the mirror lock-up, would ensure I had no undesirable “shaking” of the camera.

Small photo of me preparing the tripod

Preparing the tripod for the next shot.
(click on photo to enlarge)

Equally important is to know your equipment! There’s no point in fumbling around in the dark with your gear when you don’t know how something works. Practice with your camera and learn it well. I was certainly glad that I practiced re-orienting my Manfrotto tripod. I needed to re-adjust on that night and I remember the surprised look on Michael’s face when I pulled the center post out of the tripod and turned it 90 degrees! The first thing he said was, “Hey, my tripod can’t do that!”

Small photo of monastery clock tower

Photo shot with this setup.
(larger version in gallery)

“Had I gone out shooting street-life, I would have left the tripod at home and set the camera at 1600 ISO or even 3200 ISO and would have worked with a wide open aperture. The camera would have been set on aperture-priority to give me the fastest possible shutter speed for a given aperture.”

For the majority of the shots that I took on this evening, I used an ISO setting of 200. There was no need to shoot anything higher, I had a tripod and had all the time I needed to get the shot. I was typically shooting with apertures around f/8 – f/22 and exposure times ranging from 2 to 20 seconds.

Small photo of me photographing the clock tower

You need to do whatever it takes to get the shot!
(click on photo to enlarge)

Now just for the record, I’m going to say one more time – “I just hate the cold, ice and snow!” But, I would never let that get in the way of me “getting the shot”. One of the key ingredients in photography is to find a unique and interesting vantage point from which to shoot your subject. This is a lesson I learned many years ago and have been rewarded with better photos since. Don’t be content to shoot at eye level – change your elevation, and you’ll begin to “see” a whole new world!

Small photo of b&w street scene

Finished photo taken at our second location.
(larger version in gallery)

Small photo of me shooting the street scene

Take your time in setting up the shot.
(click on photo to enlarge)

On our last setup of the evening, we briefly stopped to photograph a shot I had seen on our way to the monastery. I had wanted to photograph it earlier but Michael convinced me we could get it on the way back. I’m sure glad I did, because it has become one of my most popular Flickr uploads. You can read the details behind this shot’s Lightroom post-processing on Flickr. Feel free to leave a comment as well – I’d love to hear from you!

Download the Lightroom “Night” Presets

While I was developing these shots in Lightroom it dawned on me that the settings I used might be a good starting point for those who want to try some night shooting. In the download, you will find two presets – one for color shots, the other for converting your color into black & white night time shots.

The color preset reduces the color casts that are commonly found in night shots. It then fine tunes your black, contrast, vibrance and saturation settings. A healthy dose of color cast reduction is applied with the hue, saturation and luminance sliders. Also, I’ve added a nice blend of noise reduction and sharpening to round things off. Now don’t forget to have a look at the photo gallery below to see these presets in action. Enjoy!


Download the Focus Night Lights Presets

Collection:  Focus Night Lights Presets
Version:  1.0
Updated:  10. March 2009
Size:  1.41 KB
Downloaded:  12,854 times.

New Photo Gallery featuring Night Photos

Small photo of me shooting the street scene

Photo © M. Kohlhofer
(click on photo to enlarge)

As I mentioned in the introduction, I’ve implemented a new photo gallery to showcase the photos from this night’s shoot. As you can discern from the photo on the left, I consider this shoot as a huge success! I didn’t take a lot of shots but the nicest ones have made it into this week’s gallery. Enjoy the show and feel free to leave a comment on the gallery page!

If anyone has a question about this article or Lightroom in general, you can always contact me on Twitter under my account (@profiphotos).

Until next time, I wish all of you, a pleasant round of night photography.


Cover photo for the new gallery

Click on the photo above to view the photo gallery. Once the Gallery is loaded, you can control it’s behavior using the menu bar at the bottom. For best viewing & listening I would suggest you select the “Full Screen” option and then click on the sound icon to turn on the music. Enjoy!

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14 comments to Night Photography: Tips & Tricks for Getting the Shot

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