Through the Gadling Lens: taking photographs at night

Recently, I received a note from a friend of mine who’d just returned from a vacation:

I just returned from a vacation in which much of our activity was at night. I didn’t carry a tripod, and I was dissatisfied with using either the auto setting on the camera (the flash burst overexposed my subjects’ faces) or the in-camera “night setting” (the subjects’ skin seemed blurry and everything in the background had a nuclear orange glow). Do you have any tips for making night shots easier or better?

Night shots are definitely tricky, and sometimes downright impossible without a tripod. That said, this week, I’ll share some of my tips and tricks to taking photographs at night.
1. First, turn off your flash.

As you know, I’m not a huge fan of flash, but even more so at nighttime. To show you why, I asked my husband to come outside with me last night to our little garden swing, so I could take his photograph. The swing is in a quiet part of our garden, and the only light we had was a citronella torch to keep the mosquitos away.

This first image, was shot using a flash:

You’ll notice that while Marcus is well-lit, and you can see all the details of his face, it’s quite obvious that there was a fake light source utilized to capture his image. I call this the “party pic” effect — using your flash is fine if what you want to capture is your friends at the club having a good time, just to prove they were there.

However, take a look at the following image, taken without the flash:

In this case, although the details aren’t nearly as sharp, notice how the mood is captured — this is much closer to what I saw as we were sitting in the darkness outside. Now, in this case, I’d cranked up my ISO to 3200, and was handholding the camera — this is why the image is as grainy as it is (tips on how to avoid that to follow). But the point is made: taking the shot without the flash captures the ambiance. And this is true, whether your subject is a person, a martini glass in a bar, or a street scene.

So now that you’ve turned off your flash, what should you do next?

2. Take your camera off manual mode. Don’t get me wrong: you can take nighttime shots on fully manual mode, but you really have to be an expert on aperture, ISO and shutter speeds. If you are an expert, than really, you probably don’t need to be reading this post — go forth and capture great images, my friend. If you’re not an expert, however, trust me, your best bet is to have the camera in automatic mode.

3. Consider your ISO.

Remember about 7 months ago, we discussed ISO, or the “light catchers” of your camera? Be sure to read that post before you go forward, because it talks about how ISO, aperture and shutter speed are all related. So go ahead, and read that. I’ll wait.


So, in a nutshell, the general rule is as follows:

The lower the ISO number, the fewer light catchers you’ll be using to catch the light. Low ISOs work better in bright sunlight — no flash necessary.

The higher the ISO number, the more light catchers you’ll be using the catch the light. High ISOs work in overcast or low light — and again, no flash will be necessary.

Now, for the purpose of nighttime shots, this isn’t to say that you can’t shoot in low light with the a low ISO. And so, a corollary to the general rule above, is as follows:

For nighttime shots:

If you don’t have a tripod (or something you can use nearby to steady the camera), crank up your ISO as high as possible, hold your breath, squeeze the trigger, and hope for the best. This is not an ideal situation, because of the following:

1) Since you’re using a high ISO, this means that you have tons of “light catchers” working in your camera to capture your image with the low available light you’re letting into your camera through your aperture. This usually means that your image will come out looking grainy — the lower the ISO setting, the less grainy your images are; the higher your ISO, the more grainy. The shot I took of my husband in above was taken at an ISO setting of 3200 — a staggeringly high ISO, resulting in the grainy image that you see. Also:

2) Since you’re hand-holding your camera, the high ISO setting still might not be high enough to reduce camera shake. Remember, in low light, if you’re camera is set on automatic, the shutter will likely stay open long enough for your light catchers to capture your light — and when your shutter is open, the *slightest* movement will cause a blur. Cranking your ISO up to a high setting will shorten the amount of time your camera’s shutter stays open, but it might not be enough.

The following images are a couple of shots I took in London last winter at dusk (so not full nighttime), handholding the camera, and setting the ISO to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 1600:

Again, notice that the images are somewhat grainy — but still, the mood of London on that cold November night remains intact, without the distortion of a flash.

Now, if you do have a tripod (or a way to steady your camera close by), this is a much better situation. Here’s what you should do:

a) Lower your ISO as much as you dare. Again, you’re doing this to try to lower the amount of grain in the resulting image. Don’t get it too low — the shutter may never close — but somewhere in the neighbourhood of 400 — 640 might be able to do the trick. (An aside: your shutter *will* close if you set your camera on “shutter priority” mode, where you can set the time for how long you’d like your shutter to stay open. Once you’ve mastered shooting at night in fully automatic mode, try playing with shutter speeds, next.)

b) Affix your camera to your tripod, or whatever makeshift “tripod” you may have jerryrigged. Note — your tripod doesn’t have to be huge — there are tons of travel tripods (like the Gorillapod) that are out there which are sturdy enough to handle your camera, but small enough that you can toss it into your camera bag.

c) Set your camera on “timer” mode. Why do this? Because at a low ISO, even the act of clicking your shutter might cause enough camera shake to create a blurry image. By setting your camera on timer, this will give the camera enough time to settle after you’ve squeezed the shutter, and before the camera takes the shot.

d) Aim, focus, and squeeze the shutter. Now note well: if you’re shooting people, they’re going to have to stay VERY STILL while the shutter is open, or they’ll appear blurry. However, movement can be a nice effect if you’re shooting a busy city street — the buildings and lights around the people will remain perfectly in focus, and the blur created by the people milling around will convey the movement.

The following are some pretty stunning shots shared in our flickr pool captured at night:

This beautiful shot of an alley in Venice shared by Geir Halvorsen was shot with a point-and-shoot, and an ISO speed of only 400. I’m guessing that Geir had a tripod or a railing to steady the camera — as you can see, it’s a great shot.

In the above amazing shot shared by ohad*, the ISO setting was at a mere 100 — the kind of setting you’d have for broad daylight! In this case, the shutter stayed open for 13 seconds — which explains why the image is generally pretty sharp, but you have those lovely lights created by the cars below.

And speaking of lights, what about that “nuclear orange glow” that my friend mentioned in his email to me? That’s generally caused by the street lamps — because street lamps aren’t has bright as sunlight, they burn with an orange glow. Personally, I like the effect — it adds a coziness to the image — but if you find that it’s too much, try adjusting your white balance setting (often indicated by a “WB” on your camera, check your manual) to the “lightbulb” setting, and try shooting again.

So that’s it! As with every photography technique, the way to master it is to practice, practice, practice — go out in your own neighbourhood at night for a photoshoot, so you’ll be ready and know your camera prior to taking it out on vacation. And as always, if you have any questions, you can always contact me directly at karenDOTwalrondATweblogsincDOTcom – and I’m happy to address them in upcoming Through the Gadling Lens posts.

Karen is a writer and photographer in Houston, Texas. You can see more of her work at her site, Chookooloonks.
Through the Gadling Lens can be found every Thursday right here, at 11 a.m. To read more Through the Gadling Lens, click here.