In 1933, a photographer by the name of Gyula Halász, more commonly known as Brassaï, published a book entitled Paris de Nuit or Paris by Night, and in so doing, he cemented his position as one of the original cameramen to truly capture the essence of life after dark.
It’s been almost a century since Brassaï began taking his nightly walks through the streets of Paris, but his words are still cited frequently today: “Night does not show things. It suggests them.” What’s obvious during the day become a riddle when the sun goes down and the moon comes up.
It takes a special kind of photographer to take pictures in the dark. There’s an old rumor that Brassaï himself used to measure long exposures based on the time it took him to finish a Gauloises cigarette.
We asked ten Shutterstock photographers to tell us their own unconventional tricks for capturing the right shot in low light. Below, they tell us how to capture that perfect nighttime photograph.
1. Incorporate movement in different forms
“When I’m photographing at nighttime, I try to incorporate movement in different forms: low clouds, a flowing river, cars driving down a city street. Nighttime allows for long exposures of these elements, which take on a life of their own when you capture them over the course of several minutes.
One other thing I do in my nighttime photography is use the light on my iPhone to help me focus on subjects where there is no ambient light. I’ll place the phone light next to the subject so that the subject is illuminated, and I can focus accurately. Once focused, I take my phone out of the scene and begin the exposure. This is especially useful when working with older film cameras that can only be focused manually.”
2. Photograph handheld with a slow shutter speed to have a sense of movement
“Sometimes I photograph handheld with a slow shutter speed to have a sense of movement. Other times, I use a tripod and a small LED lantern. I actually have a few images with a very large LED lantern from a friend; he was actually pointing the light so I could photograph. I can also remember an image where I used the car lights. Most of the time, though, I use available light, either natural or from other sources.”
3. Bring a small battery-powered lantern to help with focussing
“I consistently hear that one of the things people struggle with the most shooting at night is focusing in total darkness. I always bring a small battery-powered lantern with me, turn it on, place it in my desired focus plane, focus the camera, lock the focus, then remove the lantern and begin shooting. Works like a charm every time.”
4. Keep ISO as low as possible and use a very sturdy tripod
“I try to keep my ISO as low as possible and use a very sturdy tripod, and this is usually enough for most cases. When strong artificial light is in the frame, I try to bracket my shot so I can recover the blown highlights in post-production. Also, for composition, I always try to include some moving elements in the shot- water, clouds, etc- to give interest to the image, combined with the long shutter time. I think the thing that works best for me is to shoot alone; that’s the easiest way for me to focus and find interesting compositions.
A funny little tip I can share is to use a black t-shirt, wrap it around the lens, and hold it against the window when shooting from indoor observation decks. This helps remove all the glow and the reflections coming from around in the window itself.”
5. Utilize bracketing, then fix highlights in post-production
“For night shots and low-light shots, I always use a tripod and a remote control. I try to work with a low ISO (usually ISO 200), and I always bracket my shot so that if some lights are burnt because of the long exposure, I can touch them up in post-production.”
6. Try adding water and/or reflections to your composition
“Use a tripod and a remote cord. I try whenever possible to have water and/or reflections in the image. Also, for images using stars, I typically use 30 seconds at f4 as my “base” exposure and bracket from there. For long exposures including stars, I sometimes set my white balance to tungsten to get a little more blue in the sky.”
7. Autofocus is virtually useless; experiment with manual focus techniques
“Obtaining critical focus can be challenging when shooting at night or in low light. Autofocus is virtually useless under these conditions, so if one fails to properly plan ahead, they may end up with soft images.
Photographers have numerous factors to consider before going out in the field, but two of the most critical factors affecting focus include the lens and the distance to the nearest foreground subject. Knowing the approximate distance to the closest subject will inform the photographer’s decision regarding the proper hyper-focal focusing distance at which to focus to obtain the necessary depth of field to cover both foreground and background subjects. In a lot of nighttime shooting, we are using wide angle lenses, which helps with gaining greater depth of field. Also, the nearest foreground subject is often far enough away so that one can simply focus at infinity to get everything sharp.
However, focusing at infinity can be tricky if one does not know where their particular lens actually focuses at infinity, or if they don’t focus there before it gets dark. The infinity mark on most lenses is an inaccurate guide for setting infinity focus. One lens may reach infinity focus in the middle of the infinity mark, while another may require focusing at the far end of the infinity mark. The variation between lenses can be quite dramatic.
One trick for obtaining infinity focus is to focus your lens before the light gets too dark, so that autofocus will still lock on a faraway subject. The photographer can then turn off their autofocus features and place a small piece of gaffer’s tape on their lens barrel to prevent the focus point from changing.
8. Turn off in-camera noise reduction
“Turn off in-camera noise reduction. The in-camera noise reduction process can sometimes be more harmful than helpful to images, whereas using noise reduction in Lightroom (or third party software) can yield better results. Also, wear a headlamp. Not only are they helpful when you’re trying to see which lens you’re grabbing from your bag in the dark, but they can be useful if you’re trying to focus on a specific object for a long exposure at night.
Abide by the 600 rule. If you’re trying to avoid motion blur in stars during a long exposure at night, divide 600 by your focal length, and that gives you the maximum amount of seconds you can expose for before you’ll start to see blur. For example, if you’re shooting with a 24mm lens, 600 divided by 24 gives you a 25-second long exposure at most.
This is the most obvious tip, but it goes without saying that using a tripod can make or break a nighttime exposure. Even if you think you have super steady hands and it looks great on the back of your camera, it’s probably at least a little blurry on a bigger screen. Combine a tripod with your camera’s built-in 2 (or 10) second timer, and you’re set. Don’t forget to use that weird rubber thing that comes on your camera’s strap too; that’s meant to be slipped over the eyepiece during long exposures to block any light that could come in through the viewfinder.”
9. Shift white balance to more blue for city images
“I usually change the white balance of my night images to be more blue, and for city night shots, desaturating the yellows a little in processing tends to make things look a little nicer. I tend to expose long exposures as brightly as possible without blowing out highlights. Brightening an image in post-processing tends to increase noise, but darkening doesn’t.
For night landscapes, I like my stars to be kept still rather than having startrails. Using a high ISO (3200 or 6400) and a 25-second exposure works great for this. It can be helpful to shoot the foreground of the scene at twilight when there is more light, and then when it is totally dark, take an exposure for the stars. Later, you can blend using layer masks in Photoshop.”
10. Use artificial light sources to add drama to the composition
“Shooting at night can be pretty flat, so look for light sources to include in your photograph: street lights, lit houses, headlights, any light source can help add some interest and drama.”