The word “photography”; comes from the Greek words “phōtos” (light) and “graphé” (drawing) – essentially “drawing with light”. Taking good pictures at night is difficult precisely because you do not have much light to draw with.
The “secret”, as it is, is to choose camera settings that maximize the amount of light reaching your camera’s sensor: wide aperture, slow shutter speed and high ISOs. There is of course a little more than that, so let’s dig in.
The tool you need for photos at night
There are some tools that can help you maximize the amount of light you can capture or, if you use a flash, actually create light to use.
A tripod is an incredibly useful tool for slowing down the shutter speed. If you are trying to capture nocturnal landscapes or do astrophotography it is important. Unfortunately, if you try to take pictures of moving subjects – like humans – a tripod does not help at all.
A flash helps with moving subjects, but the downside is that if you do not use multiple flashes carefully placed, the image will look like a flash photo. If you do not mind this look – say you are taking a nightclub, family or news photos – it’s fine, but it does not work for a natural look.
Finally, the easiest way to get more light to hit the sensor is to use a lens with a wider aperture. Most night photos are taken with an aperture between f / 1.2 and f / 2.0. All narrower and you have to make compromises to get a useful shutter speed. It also helps if you use a wide-angle lens, as it allows you to use a slower shutter speed without breaking the mutual rule.
Aperture for night photos
The aperture is simple for the night: go as wide as you can. There are almost no situations with low light where the depth of field is more worrying than just opening the camera too much light.
By using as wide an aperture as possible, you give yourself more flexibility with shutter speed and ISO. If you have a lens with a wide aperture, such as a 50 mm f / 1.8, use it over your kit lens. If you only have your kit lens, use it at the wide-angle end of 18mm so that you can use its maximum aperture of f / 3.5.
The only time you should consider using a narrower aperture at night is if you are using flashes. Then you can use apertures to balance the flash power.
Shutter speed for photos at night
The shutter speed of photos at night depends on the type of photo you are trying to take. The two main situations are:
- You want to maximize as much light as possible as dark objects, such as the night sky, are visible in the final image.
- You want to take a normal photo as a portrait, so you try to use a shutter speed that still freezes motion but lets in as much light as possible.
In the first case, you want to use the slowest shutter speed you can, which does not lead to star tracks (if they are in the scene). Use the 500 rule to calculate the shutter speed. Divide the focal length by the corresponding focal length of the entire lens of the lens you are using, and this is the slowest shutter speed you can use. With a 20mm lens, for example, you can use a shutter speed of 25 seconds (500/20 = 25). With a 50mm lens, you can only use a shutter speed of 10 seconds (500/50 = 10). This is why so many astrophotographers use wide angle lenses with wide apertures.
On the other hand, if you are trying to use the slowest shutter speed you can get away with for moving subjects, you should use the mutual rule. The slowest shutter speed you can use is 1 /[the focal length of the lens]. In other words, with a 20mm lens, you can use 1/20 of a second. With a 50mm lens you can use 1/50 second. With careful technology or optical image stabilization, however, you can push it a bit, so use the mutual rule as more of a guideline.
ISO for night photos
ISO is, as almost always, the balancing factor. At night, you will need to push it much higher than you would during the day, as in many situations you will not get a well-exposed image just with shutter speed and ISO. Usually I start with an ISO of 800 and work from there. Depending on your camera, you can slide it to anywhere around 3200 or 6400 and still get clean, useful images. After about 6400, you will probably see much more digital noise that can clutter your images and reduce their quality. The best thing you can do is experiment and find what you feel is the limit of the type of work you do.
Taking pictures at night is usually about making as few trade-offs as possible to capture enough light. The easiest ways to do this are either:
- The widest aperture and the slowest shutter speed you can use, with the lowest ISO giving you the results you want.
- The widest aperture and fastest shutter speed you can use, with the highest aperture giving you clean images.
With these two tips on your side, all you need is something fun or interesting to put in front of your lens.