Once the sun has gone down and as the evening slips into night, it can be a magical time wherever you are in the world. But it can also be a notoriously difficult time to photograph well. What follows is a set of tips to help you make the most of the night-time light before the slumbers call.
Night-time photography: 10 tips for photographing after dark
1. Watch the colour of the sky
The hour or so after sunset is known as twilight or the blue hour. It’s the time of day when the light hasn’t quite disappeared and the sky takes on a whole array of indigo hues. You also get a similar light in the morning just before sunrise.
‘Hour’ is actually a bit of a misnomer because it depends on the time of year and the latitude you’re at. In the summer, when the far northern or southern hemispheres hardly get dark at all, the night can consist solely of the blue hour. Conversely, nearer the equator, the sun can seem like it just plops behind the horizon and is immediately followed by intense darkness.
Whitby Abbey © Diana Jarvis
2. Turn off your flash
The first rule of night-time photography is to turn off the flash in the camera’s settings. It might sound counter-intuitive but nine times out of ten, adding stark white light to your scene isn’t going to enhance it.
Theyyam ritual in Northern Kerala © Diana Jarvis
3. Get familiar with your camera’s settings
If you have a bridge camera or DSLR, you can easily take control of how the camera uses the available light by getting familiar with Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority or by going fully Manual. You should also become familiar with altering the ISO.
The settings you need to balance between for capturing scenes well at night are ISO and shutter speed. The ISO relates to how the light intensity is captured on the camera’s sensor. A higher ISO will allow you to take an image in low light with a shorter shutter speed but it will look very grainy. A long shutter speed will allow more light on to the sensor but is useless if you don’t keep the camera still or if the scene is moving. On a DSLR, it’s worth learning how to go fully Manual for good shots at night.
For point-and-shoot cameras, take a look at the various programmes your camera offers; you might find that the ‘sport’ setting has been programmed to capture fast movement at the expense of the graininess. This could work well for festivals, carnivals or firework shows. The 'landscape' mode could be programmed to preserve the ISO and take longer exposures.
Florence skyline at night © Diana Jarvis
4. Think about how you’re going to use the available light
Will you want a long exposure or a fast exposure? This really comes down to what kind of image you’re looking for. For example, if you want light trails from cars whizzing past, you will need to use a long exposure but for capturing people in the dark, you’ll need something a bit faster.
Daan Roosegarde’s art installation Waterlicht at King’s Cross, London 2018 © Diana Jarvis
5. Invest in a tripod
For long exposures, you need to keep your camera as still as possible and best way to do this is with a tripod. They come in an array of sizes and weights and, of course, for travel photography you want something as lightweight and compact as possible. A gorilla grip is an ideal size to keep in your backpack all day but might struggle to hold larger SLRs in place. Alternatively, carbon fibre tripods are lightweight and can cope with the weight of larger cameras, making them a great option for travel photographers.
Porto Soller in Mallorca © Diana Jarvis
6. Learn to use stationary objects instead of a tripod
If you don’t want to splash out on a tripod, you can always improvise and find a flat surface to rest the camera on – bins, benches and railings all make good bets. As you’re more than likely to have your hands on the camera body while shooting like this, another technique you might want to try is known as sniper breathing. As you might guess from the name, it's something that sniper shooters follow in order to not miss their targets. The principle is that you manage the intake and outage of breath for the duration of the shot so that no extra shake or movement is incurred.
The BBC Scotland building in Glasgow shot from Bell’s Bridge © Diana Jarvis
7. Try shooting light trails of moving vehicles
Take a look at how fast the traffic is travelling. You want to avoid lights stopping abruptly midway through the image so look for fast-flowing traffic or conditions whereby the shutter can stay open for as long as it takes for several vehicles to move through the composition from one end to the other. Bridges can be a good vantage point but avoid places where the roaring traffic will cause vibrations.
The Seine taken on Pont Alexandre III in Paris © Diana Jarvis
8. Add colour on rainy days
When the weather is providing you only with grey skies and rain, why not add some colour by shooting at night? Wet concrete surfaces become shiny and city lights of all hues dazzle. Be careful, though, not to get your camera too wet; it’s worth collecting those little silica gel packets that come with many newly bought items, keep a few of these in your camera bag to soak up moisture.
A rainy evening in Oslo, Norway © Diana Jarvis
9. Head to Dark Sky Parks for shots of the Milky Way
This follows the same principles as shooting light trails from vehicles. The only tricky thing is finding somewhere dark enough and isn’t hindered by light pollution. Great places to head for are Dark Sky Parks: around the world there are a number of these, which can be located with their mapping tool.
Because of the earth’s rotation, the stars will appear as if they’re moving, so you don’t want an exposure any longer than about 30 seconds otherwise they’ll begin to look blurry.
The Milky Way as seen from Paradise Valley in Morocco © Diana Jarvis
10. Try shooting the Northern Lights on a dedicated photography tour
Unlike blue hour photography, the aurora borealis is only visible when all daylight has truly gone and the night sky is pitch black. The rule of thumb here is to crank the ISO up as high as it will go, let as much light in with a wide open aperture (even as low as f/2.8 will work nicely) and a shutter speed of anywhere between 3–15 seconds depending on how much movement there is in the aurora. Often, what you capture with your camera will look different to what you’re seeing; because you’re capturing intensity of light, it will look greener in the picture.
As you might need to be up all night waiting for them to appear, going on a dedicated trip to photograph the Northern Lights with expert photo tuition and no daytime distractions from catching up on sleep is the way to go. Tatra Photography offer a number of trips to Iceland and Greenland.
The Northern Lights over the Jokulsarlon lake, Iceland © Diana Jarvis
Al images are by Diana Jarvis, you can see more of her work on her website.
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