Nighttime Photography That Shines — in Six Steps


Is your camera roll filled with hundreds of dim and blurry nighttime photos?

I’ll bet you’ve hit the same wall that I did in capturing nighttime photography whether you snap your photos on a smartphone or a fancy DSLR camera. And if your story is anything like mine, you might have resigned to thinking that photography is best left for daytime. And you’d be wrong. Don’t give up on nighttime photography!

Some of the most interesting shots you’ll ever take will happen “after hours”. The mild nighttime light offers you a whole new look at that person, that landscape, that environment, or even that starry sky. If you slow down and follow a few steps, a whole new world of nighttime photography will open up to you. That, and you’ll hit the trash button on your camera far less often.

So you’ve discovered a breathtaking landscape during your travels and you’d like to snap a photo. Great! It also happens to be 10:00 o’ clock at night. Hmm. Don’t worry, it’s not a problem! Follow these six steps to help your camera or phone squeeze every bit of beauty out of that nighttime view.


Nighttime Photography — In Six Steps

Step 1: Bring a tripod
Photography of a lightweight camera tripod.
A standard camera tripod

If you want sharp nighttime photography, you’ve got to keep your camera steady as she goes. And unless you’re a statue, you’ve got no hope of holding your camera perfectly still for ten, twenty, or thirty seconds.

Using a tripod (even an inexpensive one) will allow you to mount your camera in place, tilt your camera on its side, or even make the sort of incremental adjustments that allow you to capture a panoramic photo. The size of the tripod doesn’t matter, and yes, you can find tripods that fit your smartphone. Most importantly, that tripod will keep your camera absolutely still as the shutter opens to let in whatever small light it can find in the night sky.

Just make sure that your tripod is set on solid ground. Even the slightest wobbling will make your photos blurry. Sometimes the tripod will have a hook at the bottom of its central pole, where you can hang a purse or backpack to add weight and stability.

Forgot your tripod, eh? Look for a rock, shelf, barrier, or stool where you can set your camera down and trust that it will stay motionless during your shots.

Step 2: Turn off your flash

Your camera’s flash certainly has some valuable uses, but you’ll want to skip the flash this time around. Instead, let the moon, the stars, or the ambient light from a nearby neon sign give you the natural-looking light you need for nighttime photography. For some of you, this may be as simple as turning off your flash setting. But on many cameras, you may need to turn the dial away from the safety of “Auto” in order to take control over your flash.

Which brings me to the next step…

Step 3: Take charge of your shutter speed

Every camera has a shutter mechanism that blocks light from passing through the lens to the camera sensor that records the image you’re trying to take. The shutter snaps open for a brief moment (an “exposure”) — letting just enough light in to record your exposure. During the middle of the day, that shutter might stay open for 1/100 of a second, or even 1/4000 of a second. But at night, the shutter needs to stay open far longer so that it can let the smaller amounts of light spend more time reaching the sensor.

By shifting your camera into “Shutter Priority Mode”, you will control your camera’s shutter speed rather than letting the camera try to read your mind. On a Nikon camera, just turn the wheel on top of your camera to “S”, or on a Canon camera, turn the wheel to “Tv”. Smartphones that allow this level of control will likely have a shutter slider to adjust.

Explanatory photograph displaying where to find "Shutter Priority" mode on a DSLR camera.
“Shutter Priority” mode on a DSLR camera

Now you can choose how long you want to keep your shutter open by setting the shutter speed. It is all about light. The darker your environment gets, the longer your shutter speed should become. The lighter your environment gets, the shorter your shutter speed should become. The odds are that you’ll likely need to experiment by taking photos at different shutter speeds until you’re pleased with the photo that appears on your little screen.

If you’re shooting in a night sky with no moon, I’d recommend that you start somewhere around 15 seconds, which may read on your camera as 15″ or 15. This is what you’d call a “long exposure”.

For those of you who are familiar with “Manual Mode”, shifting into this setting on your camera will allow for even more fine-tuning and better results.

Now it is time to focus in on your subject…

Step 4: Illuminate your focal point

Autofocus can be a lifesaver in daylight, but a minor nightmare in the dark.  It’s not all that different from your own eyes struggling focus on anything in a darkened room. Similarly, your camera will have trouble figuring out if anything really is in focus or not in the dark. It will let you know it is struggling if the autofocus motor keeps spinning noisily, or the picture on your viewfinder moves from blurry to blurrier to blurriest.

You can help your camera out by bringing a small flashlight, or using the flashlight on your smartphone. Turn on the flashlight to illuminate your subject or focal point momentarily while your camera focuses in. At this point, turn off autofocus on your camera or lens (or use your Exposure lock button) to keep your lens focused on that specific point. Then turn off the flashlight and whatever you do, don’t take your picture!

Wait, what?

Step 5: Keep your hands off that camera!

I pointed out in step 1 just how critical it is that your camera remain still during nighttime photography, and I recommended using a tripod. Even if you’ve got a tripod, you can still ruin your shot by doing something as normal as pressing the shutter release button that takes the picture. Simply touching that button can cause enough vibration to make your camera wobble and haunt your photo with blurry ghosts. So how can you take a photo without touching your camera?

  • Use your camera’s timer feature. This is probably the best bet for nighttime photography with a phone. Set the timer, hit the shutter release button, and step away from the camera. I repeat, step away from the camera.
  • Photograph of a wireless camera remote control
    Tiny remote. Totally effective.

    Use a remote control. Many camera makers produce inexpensive, wireless remotes that do nothing more than let you click a button to take a picture without touching your camera. Some cameras even have companion smartphone apps that allow the phone to trigger the camera’s shutter release!

  • Use exposure delay mode. Most DSLR cameras offer an exposure delay option that will cause the camera to wait for a certain number of seconds after you press the button before it opens the shutter. This option gives you enough time to hit the button and step away from the camera before the action begins.

Now you’re ready to snap those photos!

Step 6: Review your photos before you leave

Maybe you’ve got limited time to shoot or perhaps it’s just plain cold outside. Nighttime photography can tempt you to pack up and get moving as soon as you’ve taken a few photos. That would be a mistake. Instead, take a breath, and take a close look at your photos on your viewscreen to see if you got what you came for.

Viewing your photos on the small review screen of your camera can make it difficult to tell if individual photos are what you had hoped. To get a better view, use your camera’s zoom buttons (often indicated by a magnifying glass icon) to in closer to a 100% view of your photo, which will show you a portion of your image as though you were seeing it at full size. Look to see if your focal point is indeed sharp, and pan around the rest of the image to see if you captured some unintended camera shake. Hopefully not.

Keep in mind that nighttime photography can produce an image that looks very dark, or “underexposed”. Don’t trash it yet! Even if your photo doesn’t look like a winner, you may very well have captured something special. Photo-editing software like Photoshop, or even the built-in photo editors on Windows, Mac, or smartphones can increase your exposure after the fact and bring some light and details to that dark photo. Remember that it is far easier to adjust exposure upward on a dark photo than it is to adjust exposure downward on a washed out (overexposed) photo. It is wiser to err on the side of capturing too little light, rather than too much.

A Case Study: Nightfall at Lake Tahoe

I had hoped to snap some high altitude photos of the stars during a recent camping trip at Lake Tahoe. I set out at 9:00pm to find a quiet pier to set up my gear and seek out some good perspectives. And I waited, and waited. The sun took its sweet time going down behind the Sierra Nevada mountains, which meant there was too much light to snap the stars. So instead of waiting, I opted to shoot some simple nighttime photography of the local landscape. Here’s how I got the shot at the top of the post:

Step 1: I set up my trusty tripod on the pier, but realized I needed to move off the pier when a string of people walked on to the pier, shaking the camera. I moved down to the shores instead.

Step 2: I shifted into my camera’s “manual mode” to turn off the on-board flash.

Step 3: I slowed my shutter speed to 30 seconds to improve my odds of getting some good shots with the faint natural light.

Step 4: I selected a rock in the water as my focal point (not too close, not too far away), and focused in upon it. The ambient light meant I didn’t need to use a flashlight. I slid my autofocus switch to manual.

Step 5: At first I tried to use my remote to trigger the camera, but found that my remote battery was dead. As a backup, I switched to 2-second exposure delay mode and started taking shots.

Step 6: I spent a few minutes looking back at my shots, which all seemed too dark to me at first glance. But as I zoomed in, I could see that a handful of them were still sharp and showed real potential.

Here’s some of the EXIF data to show my exact camera settings:

[exif id=”1168″]

With that, I had some great shots that really popped with a bit of editing at home.

Underexposed nighttime photography of Lake Tahoe
Before: Underexposed, but workable
Long exposure nighttime photography upon the shores of North Lake Tahoe as the stars begin to shine.
After: Increased exposure, beautiful

So now it’s your turn. Follow these steps and take some photos that capture the power and emotion of a nighttime scene you encounter. Just keep in mind that you may need to do at least some light editing of your nighttime photography to bring out subtle details before you share your photos with the world.

Good luck, grab a tripod and get shooting!

When it comes to capturing your own nighttime photography, what steps would you add to my list? Tell us in the comments below.