Night Photography: How to Take Successful Pictures at Dark – Part 2

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Night Photography: How to Take Successful Pictures at Dark – Part 2

Welcome back. I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of Night Photography. Now that you’ve got the basics under your belt and your equipment ready, it’s time to get out there and start shooting.  I’ve picked up some helpful tips and creative tricks over the years, so I thought I’d share them here.

Top 5 tips for successful shooting in the dark

1. Know your camera before it gets dark. As I mentioned in Part 1, you will be shooting in Manual Mode, and your meter readings will pretty much be useless. The last thing you want to do is be scrambling in the dark trying to figure out how and where to change your settings (aperture, shutter speed, maybe ISO). If it helps, just practice in a dark room before you venture out to shoot. It sounds silly, but it’s smart – and it works!

2. Start early. I always set up my camera and tripod ahead of time, and start shooting well before the ideal glow time. This gives me time to ease into the shot and my settings as the light changes, and the timing becomes more critical. It also gives you time to experiment with variations on your shutter speed and aperture, so you can see what works best for your scene as it unfolds before you. It’s also not uncommon for me to go back to a location a few nights in a row to try different techniques with the same scene.

3. Use a wider lens. As I mentioned in Part 1, wider lenses tend to be much more forgiving during night shoots. Plus, when stopped down to F16, F 18 or F22, you get an amazing level of sharpness throughout the image.

4. Nail your focus first.  How do you focus in the dark? Yes, it can be tricky. Here’s how I do it. First, I try to find an area of the scene with some light, so I can use it to set my focus. Once my tripod is set and my focus is sharp, I usually switch my lens to Manual Focus. This ensures my focus remains locked as I continue shooting. Just remember to re-focus any time you move your tripod or adjust your composition. If the area where I want to focus on is too dark, I pull out my flashlight to help illuminate the area to set my focus.  I always encourage beginners to start with a scene that includes some lights to target your focus.  And, again, close your aperture down to F16, F18 or F22 to lengthen the exposure and achieve sharpness throughout the scene.

5. Get creative, be patient, and just keep shooting. During long exposures, the camera has a way of registering light not visible to the naked eye. Just when you think it’s getting too dark to capture any kind of color or glow, keep shooting. I generally find that the most dramatic shots occur about 10-15 minutes after sunset, sometimes even later. It varies depending on where you are shooting, the amount of clouds in the sky, and how the sun reflects into the sky after it sets. Sometimes the sky may appear truly black to the naked eye, when it will register as dark blue to the camera. Bottom line, it’s an art, not a science, so just keep shooting.

Photographed 15 minutes after sunset, 10-22 lens, F16, 5 second exposure, ISO 100. Notice the blurring and ghosting of the children, which adds to the moodiness of the image.

A few fun tricks to get creative in the dark

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with some of the night shooting basics, it’s time to get a little more creative. Here are a few tricks and ideas for taking those low-light images to the next level.

Include people in your scene during a long exposure. This can be really fun and have a moody effect. I start with a wide landscape composition, and then incorporate people into the shot. The subjects may be a little blurry or ghosted from the long exposure, but that often adds to the overall mood of the image.

Manually pop your flash off camera for fill light.  With longer exposures, sometimes you have as much as 30 seconds to pop your flash 3 or 4 times targeting darker areas of your image. Of course, you must be close enough to the area you want to illuminate and plenty of time to get there safely in the dark. If you can’t reach the destination, ask a friend to come along on flash duty.

Paint light with a flashlight.  “Painting” light with a flashlight is a great way to subtly illuminate darker areas of your composition.  It generally results in a much softer light than popping an area with a flash.  I recommend using a flashlight with a wider beam to broaden your paint stroke.

Experiment with sparklers or other light sources – Think of unique ways to add light to your scene. Try using glow sticks or sparklers to create blurred movement over the long exposure. You can make shapes and cool designs as the light registers over time.

Create headlight and taillight streaks. As seen in the image below, you can create some pretty cool effects allowing car lights to register over a long exposure.  The long exposure allows the car to move fully through the frame leaving the dramatic streaks behind, without the body of the car registering. Below, I used an extremely high F-stop (F32) to keep the scene from overexposing.   It also helps keep the entire image sharp, and lengthens the exposure time to enhance the streaking effect.

I captured this scene just as sun was setting. Lens 10-22. Settings: F32, 25 second exposure. The car's lights registered as streaks, but the body of the car does not register at all. One of my favorite tricks!

I hope this articles helps shed some light on why shooting in the dark can open up a whole new world of creative opportunities. So, next time the sun goes down and the light starts to fade, instead of packing up and going home, get out there and shoot!

About the author:  My name is Tricia Krefetz, owner of Click. Capture. Create. Photography, in Boca Raton, Florida. Although I’ve been shooting professionally for six years, last year I started my own portrait business to pursue my passion of photographing people. I absolutely love sharing shooting techniques I’ve learned over the years with fellow photographers. You can follow me on Facebook for more tips and examples of night images, and visit my website for my portrait work.

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 Night Photography: How to Take Successful Pictures at Dark   Part 2

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8 Comments and 0 Replies



  1. 1

    Wow! That was great! Nice tips, I am going to go “play” and see what I can come up with. Thanks!

  2. 2
    Teri/scraptag says:

    Love your articles. Thank you for helping me think creatively.

  3. 3
    Nikki says:

    Thanks Tricia for articles on night photography. Your explanations were so helpful and easy to follow. Can’t wait to give it a try.

  4. 4
    Kelly says:

    I love this series. I wrote a night photography series on my blog (http://klsphoto-outsidetheframe.blogspot.com/2011/01/night-photographypart-1.html) in January, but I never considered shooting at sunset. I usually wait until it’s totally dark and I’m using 1 hour exposures. I really like your tips, thanks for the perspective!

  5. 5

    It’s so obvious, but the tip I was missing was “nail your focus first” – thanks for this great post!

  6. 6

    Thank you for your article! The last few days have been really cloudy, so not much in the way of sunsets and vivid colors. So, I went out at 9:00 tonight and this was what I was able to capture :-) This is atop a parking garage at Purdue University, overlooking Lafayette and West Lafayette, IN. So glad you posted this article!!

    24-105mm lens, f16, 30 second exposure, ISO 400

  7. 7

    [...] area for me for some time.  I encourage you to read her posts as well.  Read Part 1 and Part 2 to get a bunch of great info and help on shooting at [...]

  8. 8
    Linda Deal says:

    Very cool effect with the car lights.



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