How to Take Pictures in the Dark: A Guide for Noobs and Night Owls

How To  /  Photography
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The sight of a great night photograph leaves me awe-struck. There’s something so captivating about a dazzling, starry sky, or a soft glow illuminating a subject in still darkness. Maybe it’s my night-owl-by-nature self that has me so interested in the craft, but for years, I’ve been saying to myself I want to create that, too. So, here I go: my first foray into night photography. I’m a complete newbie, but we budding photographers have to start somewhere, sometime, right?

Panorama of Hamburg skyline at night.
No, I didn’t take this picture. But I wish I had — it’s the kind of night image that inspires me.

My first lesson: just go take some pictures. It’s important for beginners leading busy lives to remember we can’t wait for the perfect night sky or ideal subject before getting to work. We have to start somewhere. I had limited time this week, and not a ton of ideas or locations in mind, but instead of putting it off again, I grabbed my Nikon D800, attached my Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8 G ED lens, connected my Nikon remote shutter release cable, loaded up my Really Right Stuff tripod and Kirk L-bracket, and headed out.

I wasn’t sure where I was going, but I left the house at 10:00 p.m., and there was no turning back. It was already pretty dark out, and the near-half moon wasn’t giving off too much light. Though I wished I were someplace more inspiring — like  Crater Lake National Park or something —  I finally settled on  my local City Hall building because of its soft lights and lit fountain.

I didn’t go into the night without some study. There are a ton of online resources for night photography tips and techniques, and as many organizations and pro photographers who offer help on the topic. Some resources I recommend are:

One thing I learned early on is that a tripod is a must-have for long-exposure work, as well as that remote shutter release cable; keeping a shutter open for longer exposures means that any slight movement to your camera can easily cause unwanted blur.

Tripod's are necessary for long exposure photography    Long exposure photo at night

Other pointers I’d learned ahead of time included:

  • Set a low ISO of 100 or 200, considering desired depth of field and its associated aperture setting (e.g., f/1.4 to f/4 for sharp main subjects and defocused backgrounds vs. f/8 to f/11 for greater sharpness overall).
  • Put my camera in Mirror Lock Up mode.
  • Select Matrix Meter mode.
  • Turn on Live View on the back of the camera to compose my shots, and close my eyepiece to prevent  potential leakage.

I also turned on an option in the D800 menu that helps to reduce noise during long exposures. I was fortunate this time that there was enough light in my frame for me to use auto focus on a specific point in the middle of the scene, though my final product was the result of several attempts at composition and shutter speed. But that’s the beauty of photography – there are so many possibilities when it comes to what you’re going for in terms of photo effects. You just have to keep moving around, tweak some settings, and keep shooting; you’ll ultimately get your desired outcome.

Below are some shots—including botched ones—from my very first night photography adventure.

City Hall at night - attempt one by Daniel Evans. Photo © Daniel EvansAttempt 1. At first I thought I’d go for the entire front of the building with the water fountain display.

The details: ISO 100, f/11, 4 seconds, 24mm

The good: Decent composition, cool fountain effect.

The bad: my shutter speed was too fast, so the scene is too dark. Some of the fountain lights on the back left side weren’t working, and the flag pole cuts into the H on Hall.

City hall at night attempt 2. Photo © Daniel EvansAttempt 2.

The details: ISO 100, f/11, 15 seconds, 24mm

The good: With the slower shutter speed came the longer and better exposure, letting in more vibrant light, and more color.

The bad: CITY HALL was over-exposed, and I still wasn’t loving the composition — that big concrete wall overwhelms the scene.

City Hall night photo attempt 3. Photo © Daniel EvansAttempt 3. I picked up my camera and tripod, and moved closer to the subject to recompose.

The details: ISO 100, f/11, 25 seconds, 26mm

The good: I could see the water fountains better.

The bad: I felt like the composition was still off. The highlights in the water fountain were too strong, with the wall and fountains overpowering the scene. A car also drove by during the exposure,  creating a cool —  but unwanted — taillight streak.

City Hall night photo, final attempt. Photo © Daniel EvansAttempt 4. The final product (plus some post-processing to slightly alter hue, and reduce shadows).

The details: ISO 100, f/11, 4 seconds, 32mm

The good: Much better composition – I moved in closer, ensured an equal number of windows on each side of building, framed the fountain so that it took up less of the frame, with the wall and fountain acting as a leading line to CITY HALL.  The flag pole no longer covers any part of CITY HALL, and the image is sharp throughout, with details on the bricks. The exposure time was less, since the closer proximity of light sources provided more ambient light.

The bad: Branches covering window on far right of scene (unavoidable, really). I wished the trees had more even highlights and color throughout, and that the night sky was slightly brighter.

Still, not too shabby for a first time run, I’d say, and, more importantly: great practice. The key for us newbies is to build on what we learn each time we head out into the night. This experience invigorated me, and I can’t wait to attempt shooting a city skyline, or trying my hand at some light painting.


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