Night Photography – Equipment and Exposure

Photography equipment

As I said in the last post, taking top quality night photos can also be achieved with just basic equipment. Since almost all of compact cameras have an automatic night mode, they can be used for taking night photos. Many of these cameras also have a complete manual mode for advanced users where you can manually set the exposure, the f-number and the ISO speed, settings that are of great value and importance for night photography. A compact camera is good, but a DSLR is way better. The main advantage of these cameras, regarding night photography, is the quality of the image and the lower level of noise, given by the high ISO speeds.



A very important accessory you want to have when photographing at night is a tripod. You’ll find it of a great value, since it help reducing the shake of the camera, due to the long exposure times that are used during the night (sometimes even minutes). Other objects around you can be used to put the camera on them while shooting, but the advantage of the tripod is that it has a movable head, which allows you to orientate the camera in any angle you want.

Camera integrated flash

Camera integrated flash

If it’s dark, you’ll need light, so for night photography another important accessory is a flash, especially for portraits and other similar photos. We will talk about this more detailed later. There are also other accessories that can be used when you shoot at night (exponometer, different lights and lenses, etc), but these are not as necessary as the ones I’ve presented above.

One of the basic questions regarding night photography is “How to expose for night?” All digital cameras have a metering system, which, unfortunately, is designed for use in daylight, so you can’t relay on it for night shots. Yet, it can be a good start for correct exposure settings. Exposure meters work on the premise the area in the frame contains equal amounts of light and dark areas. It can then integrate the reading to a tone of gray. Most of the times this works great, but for night photography it will not give good results. The main advantage of digital cameras is that you can take e shot and evaluate if the settings are correct, make some adjustments and shoot again. With time you will get enough experience to do this settings very quickly and your instincts will surpass any camera meters capability.

Night Sky

Night sky

Although the metering system is not very useful, digital cameras are yet prepared for night photography. Due to the lack of lighting, exposing the image generally takes much longer. Both compact cameras and DSLRs offer the possibility to adjust the exposure time to values up to 30 seconds. This setting can be done either in fully manual mode (M) or in exposure priority mode (Tv). The limitation of that 30 can be exceeded by using the B or Bulb setting (if available). With this setting the shutter will stay open as long as the shutter button is pressed. Another similar setting is T or Time setting. The only difference between these two is that using “T” the shutter button is pressed once and released to open the shutter and again to close the shutter. The advantage of this over the “B” setting is that the photographer’s hands are free and the risk of camera shake is reduced. When using either of these settings the timing is controlled by photographer rather than depending on the camera shutter timer. Unfortunately, the risk of camera shake is very high for both of these settings, so some sort of remote control of the shutter is highly recommended. If you don’t have a remote control the self-timer of the camera you can use, but not with the “B” or “T” settings.

It is a common belief that the lower the available light, the faster the ISO speed needs to be to record enough light, especially for night photography. This can be a good practice, but it’s not always necessary. Instead of increasing the ISO speed you can set a longer exposure time and the same result will be obtained, but with less noise in the picture. Be careful with long exposures because camera shake can be a great problem. Use a tripod; it is a very useful accessory for night photography.

Some DSLR and compact cameras have an automatic “Night Mode”. In this mode the flash will usually fire to light the foreground subject and a longer exposure will be used for the background. Not having control over the exposure will make this mode a rarely used one for quality night shots.

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