It’s a well known fact that photographers of all genres love golden hour. That yummy light an hour or so before sunset illuminates our subjects in the most gorgeous way. But what about after the sun has set? Can we really create amazing photos without sunlight? Yes! Night photography is definitely a challenge, but it can be just as rewarding as capturing that golden sun.
Shooting at night provides a unique perspective, a slower pace, and a different feeling than shooting during the day. I love the quiet of star photography and the tranquility of light painting. And I also love getting a different take on the same scene. Night photography helps me stretch my photography skills and my creativity.
6 Things to add to your night photography portfolio
To photograph stars, you need darkness. You need to be away from the city and any ambient light pollution or haze, which will dull the view of the stars. Remember, when the sky blackens, the stars brighten.
I use a tripod in order to keep my shutter speed really slow. I like to keep the ISO setting as low as possible to keep digital noise under control. I find the brightest star in the sky, set my camera to live view, and magnify so that I can see that star on the back of my camera. Then I manually focus on that star to get it as sharp as possible. I use a tethered remote to activate the shutter, in order to avoid camera shake. My favorite lens for photographing stars is the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L, wide open.
2. Light painting
Light painting takes practice, but you can create really unique night photography images using this technique. Because you are “painting” light onto areas of the image that would normally be dark, your images will come out with a totally different look. And you can still capture the essence of the night sky without ambient light to dull the stars.
When I’m getting ready to light paint, I set my camera and gear up for taking a long exposure (about 30 seconds or more). After I click the shutter, I turn on my flashlight and shine it on the foreground subject that I want to light. I move the light around to “paint” light onto all the areas I want to illuminate. The flashlight only needs to hit each spot for a few seconds while the camera is exposing. My lens choice depends on my subject, but I often use my Canon 24-105mm f/4L. It’s usually necessary to experiment several times to get the right amount of light on the subject.
3. The Milky Way
The Milky Way has a distinct and unmistakable appearance in the night sky and can make for amazing star images if the season is right. In the northern hemisphere, spring and summer are the best times for photographing the Milky Way. During the late fall and early winter, the heart of the Milky Way is below the horizon.
To shoot the Milky Way, you’ll need a truly dark location. Do not use a flashlight once you are in the spot where you’ll be doing your night photography. Let your eyes adjust to the darkness. It is amazing how much you can see when it is truly dark! This is where the red light on my headlamp comes in handy. After my eyes have adjusted (and only if necessary), I turn on the red light in order to set up my gear and adjust my camera settings. My best advice is to know how to adjust your camera settings with your eyes closed. I use a tethered remote to avoid camera shake, or my two second timer works as well. I always use a wide lens for this type of shooting. My go-to is the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L.
Pro tip: Use a red light instead of a regular flashlight or headlamp. Because our eyes are less sensitive to red light, our night vision is better preserved. Our eyes can readjust to the dark night quickly once the red light is turned off. If you are shooting with other photographers at night, they will greatly appreciate your use of a red light.
One way to highlight a beautiful sunset or sky is by blacking out your subject. Silhouettes give the viewer just enough information to recognize the form and shape of your subject, while removing the distraction of extra details.
To achieve a nice silhouette, there needs to be some light in the sky. Your subject will be between you and that light. I often hand-hold silhouette shots and manually focus. That means keeping my shutter speed fast enough to avoid camera shake while using a wide-open aperture and high ISO. Meter for the light, not the subject. This is what creates the silhouette. I often use the Canon 24-105mm f/4L or Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art for this type of shooting.
5. Star trails
It takes patience to photograph star trails. You need about 40 images taken at intervals, and then you blend those images together in post processing. The earth’s rotation creates movement in the stars, and when blended together the photo looks like thousands of continuous light circles.
For star trails, I use the same techniques as when shooting stars. But, I set the camera to “bulb” and activate the shutter about every 40 to 50 seconds. Some of you may have cameras that will do this for you. It takes about 45 minutes to create one image. You can take fewer images or use longer/shorter intervals, which will result in the trails being different. The settings you choose will make the trails lighter, heavier, or more sparse. It takes patience and some experimentation to get your star trails just right. I use StarStaX in post processing to blend the images into one.
6. City lights
If you can’t get away from the lights of the city, embrace them. Cities take on a completely different vibe at night. Take advantage of this unique feeling to enjoy some creative photography. Try long exposures to capture headlight trails, create starbursts with street lights, and photograph illuminated billboards and signs to capture the unique persona of the city at night.
Any images requiring long exposure will require a tripod. But photographing car light starbursts, neon street signs, or other subjects of that nature can be captured handheld with a high ISO. Since my Canon 24-105mm f/4L is my walk around lens, that’s what I would be using for this type of shooting. But, I’ve also used Lensbaby Sweet 35 and Lensbaby Edge 80.
More reasons to try night photography:
- With fewer people out at night, it’s easier to avoid them in your frame.
- Landscape scenes often seem more dramatic at night.
- The camera sees nighttime colors that our eyes do not see.
- Shooting after sunset is a great way to strengthen your photography skills.
- The nighttime peace and tranquility is great for relaxing.
What to wear for night photography
In cold weather, be sure to dress in layers and have a heavy jacket to keep warm. It gets really cold standing in the dark! And I cannot overstate the importance of gloves. I wear Seirus gloves with liners. I also wear heavy socks, long johns, a wool neck scarf or a Buff Neckwarmer and knit hat.
If it’s windy or raining, I wear my Thermal Slicks raincoat. It blocks out the cold wind and keeps me dry underneath. I also wear Ugg waterproof boots, which keep my feet warm and dry, and water resistant pants by The North Face (worn over regular pants and/or thermals).
A bandana style handkerchief comes in really handy for so many things. I always keep one in my bag and one in my pocket.
Be safe when shooting at night.
Everything is more confusing and difficult in the dark. You need to know where you’re going and what the surroundings will be like before going out. Scout the location during the day if at all possible. If you need to hike a trail to get to a location, use a headlamp or flashlight, and make a lot of noise. Make sure all batteries are well charged. Depending on how remote you’ll be for your night photography session, it’s good to verify beforehand if your cell phone will work. Let people know where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Most importantly, take someone with you. Your safety is of the utmost importance. No picture is worth risking your life, so be careful.
All photos by Nadeen Flynn