Tips for Great Night Photography

An Easy to Understand Guide™ to Better Night Photography
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When I first started taking photographs I would dread nightfall because I believed that all the good photo-taking opportunities were over for the day. However, when I caught my first glimpse of a stunning photograph taken at night my whole world, photographically speaking, turned upside down. Since then I have grown to learn that when the sun goes to rest for the day, there is no reason for a photographer to do the same. In fact, some of the most dramatic photography opportunities don't happen until well after sunset.

Here are a few techniques that are sure to help you capture the perfect waterfall and river photograph when you go out on your next big adventure!


golden bridge and water in Tulsa Oklahoma

Nikon D700 12.1MP and Nikon 105mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor Lens - 105mm 104.0 seconds f/13, ISO 100 (photographed almost 40 minutes after sunset)


Night photography can be a little tricky for some people to get the hang of because it involves more than just a point-and-shoot kind of approach. A lot of the same techniques needed for good day photography, such as assessing lighting conditions, creating a good composition and an understanding what aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings to use in a given situation, are also needed for good night photography. However, night photography adds the difficulties of having to photograph in extremely low light conditions and working with longer than normal shutter speeds which could range from a few seconds or minutes to as much as a few hours.

While night photography can be more challenging than at other times of the day, it has an incredible payoff when done correctly. Being able to capture the amazing colors within a night scene that the naked eye will never be able to behold is truly rewarding. So in order to get you on the road to taking stunning night photographs, I have listed a few key things that will help you achieve great results that you will be proud of.


1. Take a Good Sturdy Tripod

Photographing night landcapes, cityscapes, waterscapes or any other "scape" for that matter, will require longer exposures to be used. This means that you will not even want to attempt a night shot without one. Hopefully you have one that will adequately hold the weight of your camera well for long periods of time without moving or shaking. If not, then you can get a really good one for a decent price at any of the following online retailers - B&H, Adorama or Amazon.



2. Use Manual Mode

I will be the first to admit that I do not always shoot in Manual mode with my DSLR camera. Some photographers might frown upon me for doing so, but I truly love the semi-automatic modes of Shutter Priority and Aperture Priority as well. They work great for a lot of different situations because they allow me to adjust only what I want to and then let the camera do the rest.

However, for night photography I usually tend to use Manual mode. The reason is because I like to have complete control over all aspects of the shot so that I can tweak them until I find just the right exposure to get the result I am looking for. If you feel really intimidated by the Manual mode setting on your digital camera then you can always try the Shutter Priority or Aperture Priority modes and see what you get.




3. Lower ISO

When some people think of taking night photographs they often think that the lower the ISO the better. While this is true in most circumstances, a super low ISO is not always the best way to take night pictures. The reason is because there are often lights that we don't think of that can cause a night shot to come out really bad if the ISO is too low.

Some examples are the direct moon light, street lights, star light, city lights and car lights to name a few. If you just put your camera on the lowest ISO setting then you could end up with a really bad exposure. I usually start with an ISO of around 200 dialed in and then adjust it up or down depending on what the exposure looks like it needs. Within a couple of shots I usually get the exposure I am pleased with.


4. Use a Remote Shutter Release or the Timer Function

While a tripod will help to reduce camera shake during longer exposures, it's a good idea to use a remote shutter release (if your camera takes one) or the timer function to really cut down on blurry images. You might not realize it but each time you manually press the capture button on your camera, you move your camera.

Now while this is not a big deal when you are shooting with faster shutter speeds, slower shutter speeds aren't as forgiving. I personally use a remote shutter release on all of my night shots. However, if I am ever so clumsy as to forget my remote shutter release, I simply use the camera's built in timer to avoid me having to manually hit the capture button.



5. Shoot RAW

This is not required to get good night photographs...but it sure does help! JPEG is the common format that many photographers use to take their pictures. Some of the most incredible images I've ever seen were taken in JPEG format. So then why do I recommend shooting in RAW? The reason is because a RAW file allows much more forgiveness than does a JPEG. Without getting into too much detail, allow me to explain.

If you shoot a picture in JPEG (which is really just an already processed RAW file that your camera processes for you quickly and easily) you can always take it into a photo-editing software and "tweak" it until you are pleased with the outcome. However, since it is has already been processed by your camera then you are working with a file that has had a lot of the original information your image sensor captured out of it (due to processing). That information that your camera "processed out" is gone...never to return again!

When you shoot RAW you are photographing like most professional photographers do! Before you get too excited about this do remember that this does mean that you will be the one required to do the processing...not your camera. So you will need to have a RAW file converting software of some kind. I will not get into the ins and outs of RAW files in this article but all you need to know is that shooting in RAW will allow you to work with all of the information that your camera originally captured.

This is great because if the image looks underexposed, or overexposed, at first glance you can do much more than you would be able to with a JPEG file to get the image to look like the scene you originally looked at through your viewfinder. You will also be able to adjust white balance, regardless of what your camera was originally set to. These are just a few of the advantages of shooting RAW, but some that will apply directly to photographing at night.

To give you a good example of what shooting RAW can do for your night photographs, look at the image below. The first image you will see is the original RAW photograph I took inside of a local park of downtown Tulsa. I obviously underexposed much of the lower left part of the image in the original settings that I had the camera dialed in at. However since the image was RAW there was a lot of information in the underexposed areas that I was able to bring back out in the processing stage (I use Adobe Lightroom 3).

When you roll over the original image you will see the same photograph that I originally captured after I was able to adjust the exposure values, white balance and saturation levels of the RAW image. Note: both images were converted to JPEG from RAW files. No Photoshop or other post-processing was used on the images.

Had I shot the original image in JPEG and allowed my camera to process the image for me, there is no way I would have been able to recover as much of the information that the image sensor originally captured. This is why I love to photograph in RAW and encourage others to do the same.



(Roll Over Image)

Nikon D700 12.1MP and Nikon 16-35mm f/4G ED VR II AF-S IF - 21mm, 2.5 second f/4, ISO 100 (photographed almost 45 minutes after sunset)



6. Watch the Light

Although night photography is done after sunset, there is still light that you have to watch out for. Depending on when you are planning to take your night photographs will determine which primary source of light you will need to really focus on. For example if you are going to take a picture within the first hour or so after sunset, you will have to account for the residual light of the sun left in the sky.

If you are photographing well after sunset you will look for the light of the moon (which is really just reflected light from the sun). If the moon is your primary source of light then the phase that it is in will be very important to consider. A full moon will cause you to be unable to use very long exposures without overexposing an image. This is why some photographers like to photograph during the crescent phases of the moon so that they get some light on foreground and distant objects while still being able to take fairly longer exposures.

The new moon (no moon) phase is my favorite time to take star trails photography or other images that require very long exposure times. However, no moon being present does present some challenges. For example trying to take landscape images at night with no moon light will often leave your ground subjects to be very dark or not even able to be seen at all.

More Helpful Information:

Moon Phase Calculator

Moon Calculator


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7. Take a Flashlight

As we briefly discussed, some times the light is not adequate at night to illuminate aspects of the scene that you would really like to make apparent. This is why I always take a flashlight with me anytime I am photographing at night regardless of the phase of the moon.

The technique of using a flashlight (or headlights, light from a watch or any other source of light your imagination can come up with) is often called "painting with light" because you are essentially doing just that. With longer exposures you can shine your flashlight on a subject that you want to make stand out and it can give off a really cool effect.

Try it sometime and experiment with different amounts of light with various long exposures. It's fun, free (except for the cost of the flashlight) and opens up several photographic opportunities at night that wouldn't really exist otherwise.


To view my entire gallery of night and low light photography click here.

All images are available for purchase in both fine art print and digital format.

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