Whether you’re shooting cats, buildings or people, shooting photos at night can be particularly challenging. Your smartphone camera is good and there’s no question most photos look great on that bright little screen when you turn the phone around and check out your work. The problem is when you expand that photo to full size or look at it on anything other than your phone you will see graining and lack of clarity. You CAN shoot in manual mode on your phone (I don’t know many people who do), but you’re still going to be limited in how accurate your shot reflects the image, especially when viewed at larger sizes. If you’re just shooting for fun it’s no big deal, but if you have a desire to take better photographs you may want to follow these tips to improve your night photography, and your photography in general (especially indoors).
For the sake of bandwidth space, all the photos are compressed which results in a loss of detail, but you’ll get the idea…
First of all, and this is a huge step and may knock you right out of this article, shoot in manual mode. Whether you’re using a DSLR, mirrorless or mid-range point and shoot, the basic understand of the camera’s manual mode is the one great step you can take in improving your skills and subsequently, your photographs. There are whole classes taught in how to use your camera’s manual settings so it’s hard to “teach” on a blog, but basically it consists of understanding the three basic settings you manipulate to create the sharpest, most vibrant image possible give the situations. The three basics are ISO, aperture and shutter speed. Here’s the briefest of brief rundowns of what each is. You’ll want to explore all of these in more detail and there are a lot of good videos around that can help. On a sunny day, walking around the Forum in Rome you might want to set your camera back to a simpler mode (google “aperture priority” for instance), but there’s no question a good understanding of the basics of manual mode are going to provide you with a much higher quality image when you return home.
Take the time to learn your camera's settings if image quality is important
ISO refers to the light sensitivity of the imaging sensor. When you change the ISO on a digital camera, you’re rendering the sensor more or less sensitive to the light coming in. A low ISO number means you have to adjust the other two (aperture and shutter speed) to let more light in. The key benefit is that a low ISO number like 100 means much less grain or noise on the image. Shooting during the day in the bright sun you’ll always be shooting ISO 100. At night, your camera will want to shoot high ISO, but you adjust this through manual settings to get as low as possible for a less grainy image. If you raise ISO sensitivity, you can choose faster shutter speeds and reduce camera blur, but you lose the noise-free photo. If you’re using a good DSLR you’ll have a live view through the LCD screen along with a gauge. Check that level gauge and try to find the sweet spot right in the center by adjusting your settings. Sometimes you may want to override that and shoot a little lighter or darker, but it’s a great tool to start with. You’re going to get a pretty grain-free image if you shoot a night photo at 1600 ISO or less, but if you’re using a tripod I’d suggest bringing that down much lower. Of course all of this depends on the camera and lens…
f/11 at 8 seconds with ISO 100. People are blurred due to shutter speed, but image is clear
f/4.5 1/50 second ISO 800. People are fairly clear although walking, but more photo grain
f/2.8 1/80 second ISO 3200. People are clear although walking, but even more photo grain
Aperture refers to the opening of a lens’s diaphragm through which the light passes. It’s basically a hole within your lens to control how much light enters, like the pupil of your eye. Wider apertures allow more light and narrow apertures allow less light to come in. Aperture is measure by f-stops (f/1.4, f/22, etc.). What can be confusing is that the lower the number, the wider the aperture. Different lenses allow different apertures. The most common use of aperture as far as seeing the results on a photo is the bokeh, the blurred background behind a sharp foreground focus. For that result you’ll want to use a small aperture. Too small though and you’ll end up having issues with your focus. It can get so detailed that at a very low aperture your photo of a cat’s face may be focused on the whiskers and not the eye. I’ve had a few photos ruined because I got greedy with the low aperture trying to create a great bokeh. In general for night photography you want to have a lower aperture as long as you’re evening things out with the other two settings.
Example of TOO LOW of an aperture. Not enough in focus, just tips of ears. Cute cat though.
This seems to be the easiest to wrap your head around. At least it was for me. Again, you’re going to be adjusting all three of these settings for the ideal image, but in general, shutter speed refers to how long the camera lens stays open. This setting is going to effect the clarity and focus of the image more than the other two settings. If there’s any movement going on from the subject (or hand shake), a longer shutter speed opens the lens for longer and any movement will create blur. You can control the noise on the photo to a certain degree with post editing through photoshop and lightroom, but a blurred image is a dead image. There are advanced techniques in photoshop that can reverse some shake, but they’re complicated and not completely effective. As far as shooting at night, you’re going to need a longer exposure to bring in as much light as possible, even up to 30 seconds or more. Since most people, other than corpses, are going to have some hand shake standing there for 5-10 seconds or more, you’re going to need to either rest your camera on a stable object (hopefully not a windy area), or use a tripod.
f/6.3 at 2 seconds with ISO 100 - Notice movement of people is blurred, but image is clear
f/5 1/4 seconds ISO 500 - Notice less movement but grainier image
Specifically for this article, a good travel tripod. Not only would you look stupid carrying around a full size tripod, you also wouldn’t make it through security or through the doors at many spots. Even with the small travel tripod, there are still churches, museums and other areas where they are off limits. Even though it’s a bit of a burden, I still carry mine in my bag all day with the added benefit of being able to use it to fight off a pack of rabid dogs if need be. I use a JOBY GorillaPod 3K Kit. Compact Tripod 3K Stand and Ballhead 3K for Compact Mirrorless Cameras or Devices up to 3K (6.6lbs). Black/Charcoal. The advantage of this one is that it can be manipulated into different positions. This can be very helpful if there isn’t a level floor or shelf to rest it on. Whether you’re slightly adjust one leg or bending two legs to wrap around a pole (which you’ll do more than you’d expect), this tripod has great advantages of the typical miniature models. It also fits very neatly inside carry-on luggage.
Use your camera’s self timer. No matter how steady your hand, even with a tripod, when you press the shutter button it creates a small amount of movement on the camera. Not a big deal with normal shutter speeds during the day, but for a long exposure night shot it can make a difference. Your camera’s self timer means that once you have the right settings and proper focus with your camera on the tripod, if set to self timer, you press the button, stand back and the camera waits an amount of time before taking the image. Easy to set in most situations and the only negative is that more often than not (at least for me), I forget that I have it on the setting so the next photo I take after removing the camera from the tripod, I end up standing there like an idiot with the camera in my hand waiting for the button to click. I usually swear when this happens which can cause some blurring…
If you’re using manual settings this is a technique that might offer a greater shot of coming home with a good photo. Some cameras can be set to do it automatically, but the idea is to find your ideal setting and then adjust a little up and a little down for an additional photo at each setting. So, even though your camera’s meter says it’s centered and you have the perfect shot, very often a little boost or reduction on one of the settings may provide a better photo. You’ll be filling up your memory card but it will be worth it when you take a look at the photos. If you’re using a tripod you can even layer the photos under photoshop for an HDR effect – using the best parts of each exposure to create a perfect image.
If you’re really serious about photo quality, shooting in RAW mode offers the best option for full resolution images. You will need a post processor that handles RAW images, and you’ll need to edit them, but you’ll be working with the clearest most “true” image available. Might not be an ideal setting for beginners since you do need some experience in photo editing (not just those auto and cartoon modes on your smartphone). RAW images also take up to twice the space on your memory card of a normal JPG, so keep that in mind. Worth it if you’re selling photos, but maybe not just for your private photo galleries at home.
Good memory card
I’ve referred to this a few times above and it’s for a good reason. You want to refrain from as much contact with your memory cards as possible and that means buying the highest space available for your needs. I took around 7000 photos on our last 3.5 week trip to Europe. That’s a lot of shots. I doubt you’re going to do that unless you’re a little nutty and you don’t mind annoying everyone you’re with. For me, a minimum size of 64GB is a must, but a 128GB SanDisk Extreme Pro is even better. If you’re shooting RAW images and bracketing your shots I’d suggest at least 32GB. If you’re shooting video with your camera you’ll definitely need to bump that up though. You will see a wide variety of prices and quality representations for SD memory cards. I don’t know that there’s a huge difference in them – the reviews on that are mixed – but I wouldn’t gamble with a bargain brand.
Clean your image sensor. Your camera may have a setting to do it automatically on startup but no matter what, occasionally go to your camera settings and clean the image sensor.
Clean your lenses. Nothing is worse, especially for a night image, than a smudge or speck on a lens. You can fix some in editing, but other issues can ruin the whole photo. Keep some lens wipes available and use them often, especially after a windy, dusty day.
Your lens caps. This is a personal one for me…. I’ve lost a few lens caps on vacation and had to quickly google photo stores to find a replacement. Since I use different lenses, that’s not always easy. You can buy straps that attach to the lens and they’re a little awkward and not foolproof but it may prevent your lens from rolling into the Spree River which is what happened to me in Berlin, Germany last year.
Battery backup. Always have a spare battery and always bring your charger (and adapter). It’s not easy finding a battery replacement. I left mine in a hotel in Pisa Italy and had to google for replacements. I did find one in our next destination, Prague, but having to spend an hour and hire a taxi wasn’t an ideal introduction to one of the most spectacular cities in Europe.
So there you have it. Some very basic information and tips that will prove very helpful if you’re shooting photos at night. Even if you don’t shoot night images, these are all good rules to follow for better results on your next holiday.
Have fun shooting!