Stunning Night Photography Secrets

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When the days grow shorter and you think photography will be difficult, there are great opportunities for night photography in the city. Urban and city areas can be accessed in the dark, often at rush hour when there are amazing shots to be had in relative safety.

Millenium Bridge

Kit List and Checks for the City at Night

If you are heading out after dark you need to do a little planning and prep. First your kit requirements:

  • A tripod is essential. You can get by with other forms of support but they are never as good as a solid tripod. Many of your exposures are probably going to be 5-10 seconds or more. You really need a quality tripod with a good head to ensure sharp shots.
  • A cable or remote release in order to fire your shutter without touching the camera. This will help prevent vibration and camera shake. Yes you can use the camera self timer to release the shutter but it can be frustrating trying to time shots.  Investing in a cable or remote release allows you to retain control of when the shutter releases.
  • I will assume you have a camera with which you are familiar but there are a few points you might want to consider in how you set this up for night work:
    • Ensure your lenses and sensor (assuming you are shooting digitally) are clean. Night shooting tends to emphasise dust and flare from dirty equipment. You will be surprised at just how dirty your kit is once you start shooting at night.
    • If your camera has a long exposure noise reduction option, turn it to automatic. Typically this causes the camera to take a second exposure with identical settings to the first, but with the shutter closed. The noise pattern from the second exposure is then analysed and used to remove the noise from the first. The downside is this doubles the duration of each shot you take so a 10 second exposure will take 20 seconds.
    • Check to see if your camera has a mirror lock function (usually this is in the cameras custom functions) or be prepared to shoot in live mode if your camera has this. Both options allow you to take your shot without the mirror flicking up and causing a vibration during the exposure. Personally I like live mode as it's very effective at seeing in the dark.
  • Exposures can get quite lengthy at night, especially for film users where reciprocity failure becomes a problem. As the longest exposure most cameras can calculate is 30 seconds, you will often find situations where this is exceeded. I find it useful to have a light meter which will cope with much longer exposures. Alternatively, carry a card with exposure durations on written on it at 1/3 intervals.
  • Getting the exposure right at very slow shutter speeds can be very tricky and often involves guessing. Shooting in RAW format can help give you a little more flexibility in post processing.

Safety and Locations

Before looking at possible subjects, just a quick word on safety. It might still be early but you still need to be sensible and keep personal safety in mind. Where possible work with a friend or two and look out for each other. Avoid being out too late as drunks seem to find cameras unusually attractive especially when mounted on those strange metal legs we know as a tripod. Stick to areas with good lighting and lots of people. These tend to make for better images but are also usually safer.

Now you have your kit prepared, start to think about the type and location of the shots you want to take. It's tempting to turn up somewhere and then look for something to shoot. A better option is to think about the type of work and then pick a suitable location. Sometimes however you just get lucky and providing you are prepared you can get some good shots. I took this picture of Cologne Cathedral from a hotel balcony.

Cologne at Night

City skylines are the obvious targets for night photography as many office buildings tend to have lighting for the night. Monuments such as churches often have night lighting also as do many industrial sites which work 24 hours. If you do decide to photograph industrial sites stay a good distance from the location as you don't want to be suspected as a terrorist. I was however recently surprised when I went around London at night armed with a camera and Gorillapod. I thought that I daren't be seen with a tripod at night. What I found were lots of other photographers all carrying full tripods and using them openly in the streets.

Don't rule out poor weather as wet pavements can be particularly attractive as they reflect the lights of buildings and traffic. When shooting moving objects you should consider what effect you are trying to create and what a suitable shutter speed is to achieve this. If for example you are shooting a car, the headlights will show up well, but when the car is moving fast and the shutter speed is long, the only thing that can be seen are the light trails. With shorter exposures you will probably retain some of the car in the image as well as the light trails. In this shot I had my aperture wide open to give me a sense of movement but still allow the viewer to see this is a London bus.

London by Night

You can of course use longer exposures to your advantage, for example when photographing people at night perhaps outside bars. People sat or stood may look relatively well defined whilst those moving past don't show up at all. In this image showing the movement of the London Eye I tried for a different composition but also used a long exposure allowing me to hide the distracting crowds of passing people on the pavement.

The London Eye

When exposing your shot, be sure to cover the back of the viewfinder to stop light entering and affecting the exposure times. Different cameras seem to have different levels of susceptibility to this but every camera I have used has underexposed if I haven't blocked the viewfinder during a long exposure. Getting the correct exposure can is quite a task and open to guess work, so if in doubt just take the cameras exposure. If you like to judge exposure based on the camera histogram be aware that the histogram is likely to be clipped at both ends. Areas will become pure black and other areas of bright light will have no detail. Sometimes it's worth bracketing shots a stop either way to ensure you have one you are happy with.

It may sound strange but the time of day, or rather night can be quite important. The temptation is often to time our shooting for the night when the sky appears inky black. Whilst this might provide a stark contrast to the lighting on the building it also means there is no interest in the sky so you probably need to minimise its inclusion. Earlier in the day however the lighting on buildings doesn't appear quite so strong although there might still be some colour in the sky which is more appealing. So when considering your subject give some thought to the time of the day and also consider this when selecting your composition. In this Paris image the sky retained some of the afterglow from the sunset and appears much more attractive. I was therefore happy to include more of the sky in the frame.


Another interesting aspect of night photography is the colour of the lights used in many settings. Street lighting for example is usually yellow and Fluorescent and mercury vapour lighting (often found in industrial settings) has a green appearance. Whilst these mixed lighting scenes can appear attractive in the image, you sometimes need to take extra steps to deal with these conditions. The most obvious step is to ensure your camera is set to AWB but even this doesn't correct all the situations you come across. In this shot of the Lowry Theatre I had to do quite a bit of post production work in Photoshop to selectively correct colours. Film users might face an even steeper challenge as long exposures can cause unpredictable colour shift in the film although this can be quite attractive.

The Lowry, Manchester

In summary, use the correct equipment with good technique, pick your subject, composition and approach and you will be able to capture some great night images in your city. Most of all, remember to keep to the busy areas and stay safe.

About the Author

Robin Whalley is a UK based Landscape Photographer whose work has appeared in magazines such as Canon EOS User, Photography Monthly and Outdoor Photography. He has been a finalist in both Photographer of the Year and Landscape Photographer of the Year, where his work has been included in national exhibitions. His Lenscraft website is packed with landscape photography and tutorials to help the aspiring photographer.

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