I often say that when I photograph at night, I feel like I’m cheating. The bright lights and colors produce scenes that are almost always more dramatic than if I was walking around during the day. I don’t have to wait for special lighting.
Cities and other institutions spend lots of money lighting up bridges, buildings, and other structures for me to photograph. It is almost unfair. At the same time, photographing at night is not without its challenges.
Tripods are a must.
Dynamic range problems abound. And the exposure process is often not intuitive.
That said, if you understand the basics of exposure, then you already know everything you need to know to successfully expose night photos.
In this guide, I will walk you through everything you need to know about night photography settings to successfully capture images after the sun goes down.
Preliminary Settings for Night Photography
Before we start talking about how to expose your night photos, let’s talk about a few settings that you should adjust.
Use Manual Mode
First of all, you will have more success if you set your camera to Manual shooting mode.
That will allow you to set all the exposure settings yourself. You can get away with using Aperture Priority mode but avoid automatic settings.
The lack of light will cause your camera to attempt to use completely inappropriate settings. You need to take charge of the process.
Shoot in Raw Format
At night, you need to be shooting in your camera’s raw format.
I hope this is something that you are already doing. Shooting in RAW is always a good idea, but it is particularly imperative at night.
Night photos involve extreme dynamic range issues, which is the range of tones between pure white and pure black. Raw files can capture a much wider range than JPG files. In addition, you will be able to deal with digital noise to a greater extent by capturing raw files.
With these settings made, you are now ready to start thinking about your exposure.
How to Meter for a Night Exposure
The first part of setting your exposure for night photography is determining what exposure level is necessary.
That is done by your camera’s meter, of course, but at night it is a tricky operation and your camera’s meter can be fooled. Night photography usually involves extremely bright highlights in a sea of darkness.
What part of that scene does your camera use to determine the proper brightness level?
The first and easiest way to meter, which actually works pretty well, is to let the meter in your camera attempt to average out all the tones in the scene. This is done by the camera’s “automatic” mode of metering.
This automatic mode is called different things by different manufacturers. For example, Canon calls it Evaluative Metering mode, Nikon calls it Matrix, and Sony calls it Multi-Segment.
The good news is that this automatic mode will usually work pretty well. Just center your meter and the result should be pretty good, but if not, just adjust and try it again.
If you want to be more in control of the metering process, then use Spot Metering. In this mode, the camera will only use one small spot (typically in the center of the frame) to determine the proper exposure level.
If you use this mode, aim your camera so that the spot is on one of the highlights in the picture. After you have done this, set your meter at +2, meaning it will be two stops above normal exposure.
Doing so will keep the brightest part of your picture within the dynamic range of your camera. At the same time, it will hopefully pull your shadows up enough so that they will have some detail.
The danger is the shadow regions aren’t quite bright enough, but if your darks go to black that is okay. It is supposed to be black, after all, it is nighttime!
Again, I would start with the Automatic Metering mode and let your camera do the work for you. In addition, you will find that a slight overexposure often looks better. Once you have metered the available light, you’ll be ready to start working your exposure controls.
Setting Your Exposure Values
Now let’s talk about how you actually expose your night photos.
As mentioned above, you will be using Manual Mode, so you will be setting your Aperture, ISO, and Shutter Speed yourself with no assistance from the camera.
Where should you put these settings? Obviously, it will depend a bit on your situation, but there is some guidance I can give you to help you get started.
Let’s look at each of these controls individually.
First let’s set your ISO, which is the sensitivity of your camera to light.
The higher you set it, the more sensitive it is, but at the same time that can lead to digital noise in your photos.
It is going to be dark, so you may be inclined to increase your ISO.
Resist that temptation though, since you want to avoid noise to the highest extent possible.
Further, as you will see when we talk about the other two controls, the way you set aperture and shutter speed will give you some latitude in setting ISO so that you do not need to set it so high.
In most circumstances, set your ISO between 200 and 800.
That is high enough to get a good exposure without going to extremes on your other controls. But not so high that it will lead to a lot of digital noise.
Drone shots are slightly different.
You need to use a faster shutter speed in case the drone moves and you need to keep the ISO low because the cameras aren’t as good as your DSLR or mirrorless camera.
On the other hand, you can use the largest aperture available since everything is far away (at the infinity focus plane) and therefore you don’t need a lot of depth of field.
The next exposure control setting is the aperture.
As you may be aware, using a small aperture limits the amount of light allowed into the camera. But it also gives you a wide depth of field, resulting in a photo that is sharp front to back.
On the other hand, using a larger aperture allows more light into the camera, but causes a shallow depth of field. So only your subject and its immediate surroundings will be sharp.
Here’s the thing about night photography though: you don’t need a depth of field as deep as you might if you were shooting, say, landscapes. The reason for that is that ultimately your background is usually just going to be black.
That’s not to say you should open up the aperture all the way. You don’t want a depth of field that is too shallow.
Rather use something on the larger end (or middle), defaulting to around f/5.6-8.0. That will get you a decent depth of field, but will also allow a lot of light into the camera. The good news is that this is typically the sharpest aperture of most lenses as well (call the “Sweet Spot”).
The third and final exposure control setting is shutter speed. This is the length of time the camera opens the shutter in order to expose the picture.
Longer shutter speeds let in more light. But the danger in using longer exposures is that if the camera is moved or bumped during exposure it will result in a blurred shot.
Typically, in night photography you will be using a tripod. That will hold the camera still, so you can use a longer shutter speed (long exposure).
As you have already set the ISO and Aperture, just set the shutter speed to whatever your meter says will give you a proper exposure. For the most part, it does not matter what shutter speed you use.
Exposing the Night Sky
“Wait a second” you might think, “all this exposure stuff is for shooting in cities and urban environments! What about the countryside and the night sky?”
Photographing the night sky is a completely different story, and not really the focus of this article. But here’s the good news: I can already tell you the exact exposure settings you should use when you are attempting to capture the night sky.
Your exposure settings are always the same since it is always dark! Any time you want to photograph the night sky, default to these settings: Shutter Speed: 15 seconds, ISO:6400; Aperture: wide open. You might have to adjust the first two values a little bit if the aperture on your lens doesn’t open up very wide.
Lenses with f/2.8 (or larger) apertures work best. Use a wide-angle lens as well.
Why these settings?
First of all, you cannot just use a super long exposure or shutter speed.
The stars are moving across the sky, probably a lot faster than you think. Anything longer than 15 seconds (okay, you can get away with 30 seconds with an extreme wide-angle lens) will result in short star trails that look like blurs in the sky.
Since it will be so dark and starlight is so faint, you’ll need to take extreme measures to allow enough light into the camera. That means a high ISO. An ISO of 6400 is about as high as you want to go on modern cameras because beyond that the digital noise is just too great. The lack of light also means you will have to use a wide-open aperture.
Don’t worry about the resulting shallow depth of field though, since everything in your shot is likely to be on the same plane of focus (infinity).
Now we’ll get back to the exposure of urban scenes.
Bracketing: Exposure Insurance and Additional Options
There is one more thing you should do when setting up your exposure, and that is bracket your photos.
This is sometimes called Exposure Bracketing and other times Auto Exposure Bracketing or AEB.
When you enable this in your camera’s menu, it allows you to take three different exposures of the same thing at different exposure levels. The first picture will be the exposure level you set, the second picture will be underexposed, and the third picture will be overexposed (some cameras may shoot -2, 0 then +2). You tell the camera how far apart to set the exposures.
I find that a 2-stop difference usually works best.
Why do you do this? Because night photos have a super wide variance of tones.
You will have tones in your picture that are dark or even black. At the same time, you will usually have really bright lights in your picture. Your camera has trouble capturing all those tones in one picture.
Sometimes, you will use these three bracketed exposures and blend them together, using the best tones from each. Other times, you’ll just like one better than the rest and use that one.
There will also be times you will use HDR (high dynamic range) software to combine the images. If the thought of HDR made you groan a little, understand that things have changed a lot and the days of HDR looking surreal are over (unless, of course, you actually want that and push the settings in that direction).
Processing: Bringing Your Night Photos to Life
Now that you have captured your photos, and it is time to bring them to life with some processing.
Everyone processes photos differently, and every scene is different. But after processing thousands of night photos, I can tell you one adjustment that you can make that will dramatically improve your pictures almost every time.
Sometimes you may be walking around without a tripod. When that happens to you, use as fast a shutter speed as possible by opening up the aperture all the way and set the ISO as high as you are comfortable going.
A Simple Processing Move
Simply increase the shadows and pull down the highlights.
Virtually any post-processing software is going to have a Shadows slider and a Highlights slider.
Lightroom and Luminar both have these. In Photoshop, Elements, and Lightroom you will use the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) screens that appear when you open up the picture. Even your SmartPhone has these controls (try the Snapseed app).
Here is what you do:
First, pull the Highlights slider to the left until the bright lights are toned down.
This will also make them appear more saturated. The amount is up to you, but don’t be shy about this move.
Second, push the Shadows slider to the right until the rest of the picture is brightened up a bit.
When you have done this, you will have evened out the exposure so it looks like a picture instead of a few highlights in a sea of black. If you find the picture looks a little washed out from the shadows increase, pull the Blacks slider slightly down (to the left).
Very often, that one simple move creates a pretty nice picture. Of course, you can work with colors, sharpness, noise, etc. to your heart’s content, but that is usually the same as what you would normally do for all your images.
HDR for Night Photography
Sometimes, however, you will find that there is such a vast disparity in tones that this move is insufficient.
In that case, use HDR to solve this problem. As mentioned earlier, HDR is no longer the surreal mess it used to be. Now, Lightroom and Photoshop both have very nice HDR functions and they produce very realistic looking results.
I’ll show you how to do it Lightroom here because it is the easiest to use.
Doing HDR in Lightroom is very simple. All you do is select your bracketed pictures, right-click, and choose Photo Merge. When you do, an option will appear labeled HDR. Choose it.
From here, Lightroom pretty much does the rest.
The only thing you need to worry about is whether there is anything moving in your pictures. If there is, just choose the proper amount of de-ghosting. If there isn’t, choose none. Lightroom will now process your picture and put it back in your Library module.
The photo will not look like an HDR photo. In fact, you might actually look at it and be disappointed. But do not worry, all you are doing in this step is creating a file with useable tones. It’s not done yet.
Armed with this new file, do the same edit we just talked about – pull down the highlights and push up the shadows. This new file will give you much more leeway with which to work.
Carry on and edit as your normally would from there.
You should now have everything you need to go out and capture some great night photos.
I have thrown a lot of concepts and numbers at you, so let me conclude with a few thoughts.
First of all, remember that this is digital photography and the light doesn’t really change at night. Therefore, you can take your time and you always get a “do over.” If you got it wrong, or just don’t like the way it looks, just adjust and take another shot. It costs you nothing.
Finally, try your best, but don’t get too hung up on your exposure values. Sometimes you will look at your settings later and wonder what you were doing. For example, take a look at this shot:
Everything about these exposure settings is wrong.
ISO 3200? What was I thinking there?
An aperture of f/8 when I have objects in the immediate foreground that I wanted to keep sharp as well? That makes no sense.
And why the fast shutter speed? I don’t know. But in the end, I like the shot.
And that’s what is important. Shoot what you love and enjoy it!