How to Set Up Your Camera for Night Photography

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An obvious key to successful night photography is the correct setup for your camera. There are no hard and fast rules for settings for night photography because many of the settings you choose depend on the scene before you and how you want it to look in the final image. However, this guide will give you a foundation for setting up your camera to capture the wonders of the night.

Photographs ©Todd Vorenkamp

Exposure mode



 

The good news is that all exposure modes can and will be used in night photography. If your camera has a built-in flash, using Full Automatic mode may pop the flash and set your ISO for you. That is not always desired in night photography, but it can be in certain situations. Program Auto mode will not pop your flash but it will let the camera automatically set your aperture and shutter speed.

A great deal of night photography is done in manual mode, where the photographer chooses the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, but there may be times in which Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority work best. Aperture priority will allow you to control your depth of field or sharpness while letting the camera determine the shutter speed. Shutter priority can be used at night if there is movement in the frame and you want to capture a specific duration of that movement.

Note that most cameras, when in automatic modes, may have a limit to how much time the shutter can remain open. Some cameras max out at 30 seconds while others have considerably slower maximum slow shutter speeds. This limits your ability to use the automatic or semi-automatic modes.

Real-world scenario: Most night photographers will tell you never to use Program Auto at night, but when I was in the Persian Gulf and photographing a guided missile destroyer launching Tomahawk missiles in pitch-black darkness, I could not set the aperture and shutter speed fast enough in other modes to capture the launch. After missing photos of several launches, I switched to P mode and just concentrated on pointing the camera in the general direction of the destroyer. The camera did the rest.

Yes, auto mode. Yes, it is not sharp. My excuse: It was pitch black (no moon night at sea) and I was photographing a moving ship from a moving ship with a Nikon 80- 200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm using a Nikon D1x.

Metering mode

Metering mode controls how much area of your frame is measured for an exposure.Like exposure mode above, selecting a metering mode depends on the scene you are trying to photograph. In nature, nighttime scenes may not have a lot of contrast between sky and ground and, therefore, multi-segment or center-weighted metering is probably fine to use. In urban environments, or in areas with artificial lighting, you may want to experiment with spot metering or center-weighted metering to keep brighter regions of the frame from getting overexposed, or for drawing detail from dark areas at the expense of possibly blowing out highlighted areas.

White balance

Digital cameras have the ability to change the way the sensor interprets the color cast of the image. This is done by setting the camera’s white balance to one of the presets (Tungsten, Fluorescent, Daylight, Shade, Cloudy, or Flash) or by setting the WB to automatic mode wherein the camera tries to neutralize the color cast for you, or a preset mode where you can assign a color temperature between one of the presets.

Color cast is subjective and urban scenes at night can contain a variety of color temperatures in one image. Sometimes a warm cast fits a scene. Conversely, a cool cast works for others. There is no law governing the selection of white balance in digital photography. Some night photographers swear by shooting in Tungsten mode while in urban areas at night, while others prefer different presets. Personally, I shoot at night using auto (AWB) and then I tweak the colors later in post processing by neutralizing the image on a known gray or white area, or by accepting or introducing a cast that I feel helps convey the feel of the image.

ISO

Many discussions around night photography feature a conversation about ISO. In general, if you are doing night photography from a tripod, you will not need to raise your ISO as longer shutter speeds are possible due to the use of a stable camera support. So, in those cases, you want to set your camera to its native ISO setting. The native ISO setting of your camera is the one that is not electronically lowered or boosted. If you are not sure, you can likely find what that ISO is for your camera by searching the Internet.

There are instances when you must increase your ISO. Usually this happens when you are shooting in low light without a tripod, but there are scenarios when you are trying desperately to freeze action in the dark and you need to achieve the fastest shutter speed possible.

Real-world scenario: I was recently photographing a lighthouse that had red and white sectors. I was using a tripod and I wanted to freeze the action so that I could see the red and white beams of light separately. I opened my aperture all the way and still needed to increase the ISO in order to get the shutter speed to where I got the effect I wanted.

Fujifilm X-T1. Fujinon 56mm f/1.2 lens. 1/5sec f/1.2 ISO6400 in an attempt to capture the red and white sectors of the light.

In summary, shoot at the native ISO unless you have a very good reason to change it.

Image quality

Shooting images in raw format is definitely the best solution at night. Raw images will give you the best performance in post processing when it comes to adjusting color temperature, removing noise, and many other considerations. If you are going to shoot JPEG files, be sure that you are shooting the highest resolution JPEG images available on your camera.

Noise reduction

Camera companies have improved noise-reduction technology over the years, but you will be hard-pressed to find an experienced night photographer who supports the use of either High ISO Noise Reduction or Long Exposure Noise Reduction. High ISO NR is only applied in-camera to JPEG files and it reduces sharpness as it tries to remove noise. Long Exposure NR is a nice feature, but on most cameras it works by shooting a “dark frame” of the same duration as the photograph you just captured. So, if you just did a 30-minute exposure, your camera will spend another 30 minutes creating a dark frame to remove noise from the first shot and you are out of the photo business while the camera is creating and crunching that data.

The best noise reduction is done in post processing.

LCD brightness

To help preserve nighttime vision, many photographers recommend turning the brightness of your digital camera LCD down to its lowest level. This certainly helps, but the inherent danger is that you might misjudge your exposure when reviewing images. If you are going to change your LCD brightness from its normal setting, be sure to verify your exposure using your histogram and by turning on highlight and shadow “blinkies” in the image preview.

As you can see, there are no specific prescribed settings for night photography. The night can be dynamic, so be ready to change settings on the fly, visualize what you want to capture, and do not be afraid to experiment with different settings.


Thank you for joining our journey into night photography! For more Visualizing the Night content, please click here: Visualizing The Night and share your enthusiasm for the art below in the comments section or reach out to us on social media using #visualizethenight. Thanks for reading!

How do you set up your camera for night photography? Please share some experiences in the comments below and help out your fellow nocturnal shooters!

22 Comments

Any suggestions on settings for night photography for sporting events in a sports stadium.  Love photography by hobby and take the team pictures for HS Mens' Lacrosse.  I use a Nikon D5000 and the lens is Nikkor AF-S 70-300 for most of the games.  I do not use a tripod however thinking that might help but would appreciate a starting point on the ISO, shutter speed and F-stop settings along with any suggestions for other settings on the camera to avoid the blurry photos.  Thank you so much!

Hey Donna,

Great question and an easy answer, but before I dive in, know that you are fighting a battle against physics!

You have a fine lens and camera combination, but that 70-300mm lens has a variable maximum aperture of f/4.5-5.6. That opening is challenged to let enough light into your camera during nighttime lax games and, because of this, your shutter speeds are longer than you need to freeze action and avoid blur.

There are a few ways to try to overcome this:

The anti-physics way is to destroy your kid's college fund and buy a telephoto lens with a larger aperture. The budget option would be the 300mm f/4 lens (Nikon has two versions). This will give you a bit more light, but probably not enough in most cases. After that, you have to step up to the professional f/2.8 aperture zoom telephotos or primes that you see the professional sports photographers use on the sidelines. These lenses are large and heavy and hugely expensive. I am only mentioning it is as solution, not necessarily a recommendation as few people have the budget for such an expense.

So, lets talk about how you can try to get better results with the gear you already have. Two suggestions: monopod and settings....

Putting your camera and lens on a monopod will help reduce the blur by eliminating a portion of your camera shake. They are less stable than tripods, obviously, but they allow you to follow the action much better.

And, camera settings. A lot of folks might suggest using Shutter Priority set to 1/500th of a second (at least) and fire away. This will help get rid of the blur, but my guess is you will be left with some very dark photos. This is not the end of the world because you can draw a good bit of detail out of dark digital images. I would also suggest trying Aperture Priority mode and "forcing" the camera to shoot at your maximum aperture throughout the game. This will maximize the amount of light you are getting and get you the fastest possible shutter speed for the given light. I might also use exposure compensation in this mode to shoot -1 EV or -2 EV underexposed to gain one or two more stops of shutter speed. When it comes to ISO (with either priority mode), I would shoot at ISO800 or ISO1600 at minimum. You will get some digital noise, but that is a necessary evil when doing low-light action photography. If you are still getting blur, try ISO3200.

My advice is to try both Aperture and Shutter Priority modes and see what seems to work best. Pick one and refine it with higher or lower ISO settings.

Let me know how it goes and if you have follow-up questions!

Thanks for your question!

Thank you for the article.  I have been wanting to try night photos for a long time but only had an opportunity just a couple of days ago.  I was tryinig to photograph a meteor shower but the meteors didn't show up (literally not just figuratively). I did see one trace in a frame.  My biggest issue was trying to get the stars to show up.  I could get the foreground with a washed out sky or just a black sky.  I was running my ISO from 200 to 1600, f stops from 4.5-8, both 11-18mm and 18-70mm zoom lenses.  I was shooting at a wind farm facility to reduce ambient light noise to the lowest I could. Since I could not see anything for framing the foreground, I found I could run my ISO to the camera max, shoot a frame at 1 sec. or less (faster processing time) to see the foreground, make an adjustment then shoot until I got the image I wanted.  I then backed off the ISO and shutter speed to try for the image I was looking for.  I shot about 100 frames trying to get one but will neeed more time and practice.  I also want to try city photos like the ones in your examples.

Hey Steve,

Thanks for sharing. What you discovered, on your own, is what we call "High ISO Test Shots." They are a great way to shorten your exposure time to adjust composition and dial in exposure before you fire off the "real" photo that can take several minutes in duration. 

Thanks for reading and keep on shooting in the dark! Experience is often the best teacher in photography!

I do not see any comments on focusing at night. It is too dark for auto focusing. Assuming manual focus and that one is not focusing on a bright object, how does set the focus for a scene?

Hi Mike!

It is almost your lucky day! This was not an oversight, but I have a full article coming out very soon on how to focus your camera in the dark. Covering focus in this article would have doubled the length of the piece, and it really does not always fall under camera "setup."

Thanks for reading and stand by and stay tuned for the focus article!

One thing that helps me especially shooting fireworks and holiday lights at night is using manual mode and setting the shutter speed to bulb and have the aperature between F8-F12

Thanks for sharing your tip, Matthew! Have you seen my article: How To Photograph Fireworks?

Hi Todd - continuing in my role as the group's resident luddite - most of the time when I am out photographing at night, I am caught in situations where I have to make do without a tripod, so I rarely take long exposure shots.  That said - these days, most cams can deal with far higher ISO settings and still avoid noise (or too much noise), and with wider apertures on a decent prime, I manage to capture some great images.

Of course there's plenty of stuff that I can't hope to capture that way - your missile shot, for a start.  BTW if anyone has the gall to make obnoxious remarks about any blurring in that shot, tell them they can be as rude as they like - AFTER they prove they can do any better than you managed to.

But then life would be dull if we all took the same shots, anyway.

For what it's worth - I first started taking night shots over half a century ago - sometimes on open shutter, sometimes with flash - some colour, mostly (then) black & white.  My standard film was 100 ASA (AKA 100 ISO), my "fast" film was 400 and on odd occasions I experimented with super fast film - 1000 ISO !!!!!!  A tripod was a "must" for practically any of it.  And the flash used by most people at the time was pretty useless, so I snaffled a second hand Graflex press photographer gun, using one-shot bulbs the size of what was (at the time) a 150W household bulb - I've long since forgotten what those bulbs were rated at, but staggeringly more than you'd ever get from any household bulb - and two or three blasts from that were enough to light up the universe !!!

Hi jean pierre,

Cool stuff!

There is definitely room in the genre of night photography for hand-held images. When done well, they can be fantastic. Also, it isn't practical to assume everyone can carry a tripod with them all the time, so many of us have been there—aperture opened, ISO cranked up, leaning against a wall, and holding our breath half-way through an exhale. 

Thanks for reading and writing in!

All I will say is that I dearly miss my OM-2 and FAST....  Focus  Aperture  Shutter Speed and once all of that stetings are done THINK !

easy peezy in comparison to having to get a PhD with these digitgal bells and whistles  PhD = Piled Higher and Deeper...

Victor, some photographs enjoy and relish in the challenge of this type of photography. I don't consider it piled higher and deeper, I consider it a personal best. As I tell my students; if you make the effort, you will get the shot."  I got my degree in the early '80's (film) and have had to work hard to maintain a high knowledge base  keeping up with technology paired with the basics of this art. Though these 'bells and whistles' have introduced themselves into our cameras, your not completely obligated to use them. There is a M selection on your camera, feel free to use it. If you want chromatic aberation and grain may I suggest a color FILM.

 True quality knows no "easy peezy". 

Well said, Bob. I agree with both and and VICTOR. I will say this, however, sometimes you can get lost in all of the technical aspects of the art of photography and forget to make art! There are people in this world more concerned with pixel pitch than composition and light!

Thanks for reading!

Keep an eye out in the B&H Used Store, VICTOR! I am sure some OM-2's grace the shelves there from time to time!

And, yes, there is something to be said for the simplicity of shooting film!

Thanks for reading!

White balance is particularly difficult at night, because it seems that the manual k setting can't go low enough or just doesn't get it right with manual Kelvin adjustment alone. Well, one fine evening shooting indoors in very low light I discovered an amazing feature of my Sony a-77 - if I went to the setting where the camera does the manual white balance by measuring a white object, it can use not only the color temp adjustment but also the magenta and cyan filter adjustments and gets it just perfect! I have no idea if this is for the Sony line alone but try it and see.

This doesn't necessarily solve your problem, Gary - but I just shoot RAW at night & ignore white balance - fix up whatever, in post processing.  I'm sure I could achieve something better if I tried adjusting the Kelvin balance, but this produces "interesting" colours from the lights that were in the scene, and suits my purposes perfectly.

I'm afraid I'm a recalcitrant - I LIKE "natural light", including whatever turns up after hours - as an act of desperation, I SOMETIMES add a bit of artificial light (flash - strobes - floods - whatever) but I try to avoid it if I can.

Thanks for helping a fellow B&H customer and Explora reader, jean pierre! I thought you were a luddite! The truth comes out! Ha! 

See you around!

Hey Gary,

I feel your pain. I am a big fan of Automatic White Balance, but some very very good night photographers have tried to sell me on using the presets. I have yet to see the need to do that—nor any improvement when I did. Also, it seemed like I was still adjusting it in post processing.

Yes, I believe many cameras can let you set WB manually by targeting gray cards or neutral areas of an image. For those reading, dive into your manuals!

I will still promote AWB and post-capture adjustments unless you enjoy adding the WB selection to your process. Just be sure to change the WB back to something else when the scene changes!

A slower process when I have time in my hands is setting ISO and Aperature for desired depth of field, then placing the camera in "bulb" mode. Using a wired intervolometer I use random counts (seconds) and critique images via the LCDR to make adjustments. Pretty much a trial and error approach but learn along the way what works best in given situations. When time is of the essence, Aperature mode for depth of field and let the camera do the work......fortunate my camera captures both RAW and JPEG on separate cards, which always leave me with options for post-processing which I try to do very little with other than straightening and/or cropping.

Hey Rick,

Interesting technique. I and most night photo gurus will encourage you to always leave your ISO at the native setting unless you have a really good reason to change it. This will maximize your image quality every time.

Experimentation is always good. I've never heard of anyone using random seconds, but if it works for you, go for it! I personally try to work only in full "stops" when it comes to shutter speed, ISO, and aperture so that I can work easier math to make adjustments if needed.

Thanks for sharing and reading!

I have got to learn how to take excellent night photography.

I hope this article helped, Nancy!

Please let us know if you have specific questions. Thanks for stopping by!

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