Tips For Night Pictures (II)

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Self-Portrait in Nantes, France

A lot of you have been asking me questions about photography and how to achieve certain effects. While I’m by no means an expert, I’m an avid photographer and I had to chance to experiment a lot. I’m also always a teacher at heart and yes, I like talking about photography, because I’m sure I can give you some tips and learn from you as well.

So I decided to start the Saturday Series again, this time with a focus on photography. A new “lesson” will be published every Saturday, for a total or ten posts. Enjoy the “Ten Photography Tips“!

London, Paris, Toronto, Ottawa, Nantes, Beijing, Buenos Aires… I love roaming around at night. It’s a chance to capture a different atmosphere, to show the other side of a city.

But taking good night pictures is challenging at first. Pictures can be too dark, too bright, hopelessly blurry… Been there, done that!

So here are my five tips to take better night photo:

Stop using your flash: a lot of people think the key to good night pictures is to use the camera built-in flash. But in fact, it doesn’t help at all, especially when you are shooting a scenery or a city skyline. Indeed, a small flash unit cannot reach over large distances. Worse, it may bounce off a closer object and show an annoying burst of light. The only time I use a flash is for night portraits. The rest of the time, disable your flash and make good use of the light available to you, such as lampposts, neon, cars etc.

Long exposure: because there is less light at night than during the day (duh!), you need to leave your camera “open” for longer than you would normally need in daytime conditions. This is why you need a slow shutter speed. On compact cameras, you usually can’t control the shutter speed but you will most likely have a “night” setting, or even a “fireworks” setting you can use. On DSLR, select shutter priority and set your shutter speed according to the amount of light available. For instance, to take this series of pictures, I set a 15 seconds aperture. It’s pretty hard to calculate the aperture needed so I usually bracket exposure: I take several shots with different exposure times and see which one works best. With a lot of practice, you will learn to better guestimate.

Watch for camera shake: because the shutter is open for longer than usual at night, your camera must be really steady, otherwise you will see some camera shake, and your pictures will be blurred. While some blur can be artistic, it may not be the effect you are looking for! It is best to carry a tripod for night pictures, but you can use any stable surface to put your camera on: guard rails (I love when they are flat and not round!), a bench, a table, your friend’s head… Note that if you have steady hands, you may be able to snap good hand-held night pictures: for this shot of Yonge Street in Toronto, I set the exposure at 1/30 and somehow managed to get a clear picture. Takes some practice though!

Shoot at dusk: shooting at dusk can be extremely rewarding. First, there is still a little bit of light so the exposure time doesn’t have to be as long. I also find my pictures capture more details, and you can even shoot hand-held because the shutter setting can be faster.  Finally, you may get a perfect midnight blue sky, and that alone enhances the picture!

Experiment: night photography is all about experimenting. For instance, you can try to capture motion, such as car light trails, tramway leaving or anything fast. You can take picture of “ghosts”, people moving fast around you: can you spot Feng in that picture? You can also set your camera out-of-focus and produce some cool bokeh, some people find it very artistic.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

14 Comments

  1. Good tips. I learned about turning off the flash a long time ago. The camera shake is a problem so I bought a small tripod and use the shutter delay. I need to learn about the shutter priority some more and experiment with the bracketing that you discuss.

  2. Renny has a mini tripod which he has in his camera bag. Its not very tall of course but he can usually find something to stand it on and then can aim and adjust the angle just like a normal tripod. Myself I don’t care much for carrying a lot of accessories. So I do a lot of camera balancing 🙂 Thanks for sharing your tips!

  3. Great tips… night photography is very challenging… I hardly do it because I am never happy with my results.

    Hmmm… shooting while having a smoke 😉

  4. I agree with Diane. Don’t even try night shots if you want something good to come out of them without a tripod and timed or remote controller. Same goes with long exposures. Camera shake just doesn’t work period at night… But good tips!

  5. Hey Zhu, I did notice that whenever I used the built-in flash at night, the shot didn’t turn out well at all.

    What brand of camera are you using. It seems like a stiff competition between Nikon and Canon DSLR ya 😀

  6. i love your photographs. i can tell that you like to take pictures of anything and everything. as they say, practice makes perfect.
    i love taking photos at night, especially in urban areas where there is a lot of light from shop windows, street lamps, neon signs, headlights, security lights etc.
    also, i like to take night shots when it is raining because the light reflects off different surfaces than a “normal” night photo might capture.
    those are all great tips, zhu. and i like your example photos on flickr. you have a gift for night work.

  7. I should really get a tripod…
    I tend to turn off the flash even when taking portraits because I find the light from the flash too artificial. Sometimes it works out well but most of the time the pictures are really dark and it’s difficult to distinguish people. I’ve found out that the “candlelight” setting works probably best but in dark places, such as a pub with very dim lights, it’s still not great. Any tips for that?

  8. @Yogi – Definitely try to play with shutter priority: you can get some great long exposure shots!

    @DianeCA – Small tripods like that are really handy, especially given that tripods can be quite a pain to drag around.

    @Sidney – 😆 I know! You should try though, with a bit of practice you can get some great results.

    @expatraveler – I don’t have a remote but I usually use the timer, it’s enough for me.

    @Agnes – Guilty as charged!

    @khengsiong – I have a light tripod. I wish it was taller but it’s good enough… and I can almost always find something to put the camera on.

    @shionge – I use a Nikon D-60… I love Nikon, good value for the price.

    @Seraphine – I’m with you on rain pictures, they are magic! I always try to capture the wet pavement with lights reflecting.

    @Em – I’d use a longer exposure time for night portraits. It’s not easy and you do need a bit of light for it to work fine, but 7-10 seconds should be enough. Now the tricky part is to get your subject to stay still…!

  9. Although, most compact cameras do come with “night scene” or “fireworks” settings, I personally find “museum” setting best for night views.

    I only discovered that through couple of trials.

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