Paul Timpa Photography Blog Photography Tutorials and Tips from Paul Timpa Photography


Night Photography / Low-light Photography — Tips for Night Photos

Star Trails, Costa Rica

Star Trails, Costa Rica

The allure of the night shot. The sparkling lights of a city skyline, the moonlit seascape, neon signs, and star trails to traffic trails... For some (including myself) the night shot represents the epitome of fascinating, enthralling photography. Looking at these photos in awe, we cannot help but say “wow”.

Of course, one thing separates night photography from many other types. It requires a fairly significant amount of “technical” skill to get good results. It’s much easier to wind up with blurry, incorrectly exposed, or out-of-focus photos at night than it is during the day. So how do we fix that? This brief guide will show you how…

Night shots can be spectacular to look at. A properly executed night image can impress even the most jaded viewer. But one thing ruins probably 90% of night shots out there. Blur. Let’s talk about how to take sharp photos at night…

Because light levels are so low at night, longer shutter speeds are required to allow enough light into the camera to expose the image. You’ll often need shutter speeds that last several seconds. Of course any time you’re using longer shutter speeds, you’re introducing the possibility of blurry images due to camera movement. First and foremost, it’s just not possible to handhold a successful night shot. A tripod or other support must be used, even if it’s just a bench, railing, recycling bin, or tree branch. Yes, “technically” you can up the ISO to get a manageable handholding shutter speed, but I don’t recommend it. High ISOs lead to noisy images (multicolored or white speckles all over the image), loss of sharpness, and loss of detail. If you really want to take a powerful night shot, you should keep the ISO at 100, unless for some unusual reason you need ISO 200. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend going over 100.

OK, so you’ve found a great position to take your shot, and you’ve successfully balanced your camera on the back of a sleeping coyote (he’s very still). Now what? Provided the ISO is set to 100, it’s time to set the exposure…

Sunset, Costa Rica

Sunset, Costa Rica

Firstly, set your camera to full-manual mode where you manually set the aperture and shutter speed individually. Your camera’s meter doesn’t work well at night and will only cause problems and inconsistencies from shot to shot, so don’t concern yourself with it. Once in manual mode, it’s time to determine what to set for shutter speed and aperture. If we know that the longer the shutter is open, the more chance there will be of movement (resulting in blur), then we should do whatever we can to get the shortest shutter speed possible. Since we’ve already established that we’re sticking with ISO 100, that means we need to use the widest aperture that will work for the scene. Using a wide aperture (low number), more light enters the camera and you can use a faster shutter speed. Unless you have objects that are both very close to you and very far from you that all need to be in focus (which I find rarely to be the case in night photography), you can get away with fairly wide apertures such as F5.6. I’d recommend starting with an aperture of F5.6 and a shutter speed of 3 seconds. This usually provides me with a good starting point of evaluating how much light is in the scene and often results in a decent starting exposure. Look at the LCD and see if the image appears too dark or too bright. If it’s too bright, set the shutter speed to 1.5 seconds and try again. If it’s too dark, set to 6 seconds. Experiment with various settings until you arrive at a shutter speed that works for the scene. There are three main reasons why you might want to have a smaller aperture (keeping in mind that you will be lengthening the shutter speed and increasing the chance of blur). (#1) – small apertures create that “star” effect on small bright lights – if you want the stars, you’ll need an aperture of at least F8, and more likely F11 and smaller, (#2) if you have objects that are up close and also far away, and all need to be in focus, then you’ll need a small aperture to increase depth of field, and (#3) for creative purposes, for example if you want a longer shutter speed to increase the effect of traffic trails, to create a silky blur of the ocean, or to allow yourself time to do some “painting with light” (using a flashlight to manually illuminate certain areas of a scene), etc., then you may want to use a smaller aperture.

Let’s talk about focusing for a bit. The reality is, cameras really don’t autofocus all that well in the dark. You’re going to have to rely on some skill here. When you attempt to use autofocus in the dark, generally one of two things happens: either the camera focuses on the wrong object or the camera hunts around in the dark for a few seconds, it can’t find anything to focus on, and it prevents you from taking the shot. Neither one is what you want, especially if a spectacular scene is unfolding in front of you. There are really only two options. Firstly, you can set the lens to manual focus and just use your eye to focus as best you can. If you’re focusing on a far away city skyline or landscape, you can just look at the lens barrel and focus at infinity using the infinity marker on the focus ring. The second option, and the one I use most often, is a hybrid of auto and manual focus. Set the camera to use only the center focus point and turn off the other focus points. On most cameras, the center focus point is the most sensitive to light and works best in the dark. Look through the viewfinder and position the center focus point on where you want to focus. If there is a bright light near where you want to focus, use that. The brighter the object, the more easily the camera will find focus. Press the shutter button half-way to try to autofocus. You may need to give it quite a few tries for it to successfully lock on. If you successfully autofocus, immediately switch the lens to manual focus on the lens barrel. Be careful not to touch the focus ring and change focus as you’re doing this! Now compose the shot as you need to, again being careful not to touch the focus ring. Now you can take your shot without worry of the camera focusing on the wrong object, or worse, hunting in the dark unsuccessfully and never taking a shot at all.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

Brooklyn Bridge, New York City

If possible, I also recommend using your camera’s mirror lockup function, if it has it. This text on mirror lockup is taken from my Note on “Taking Sharp Photos”:

If your camera has a “mirror lockup” feature, you can also use this. You may know that when you click the shutter, the mirror flips out of the way so that the light can hit the sensor. The flipping of this mirror can cause the camera to shake, which is especially visible when using long lenses. By setting the mirror lockup, you are flipping up the mirror before the actual picture is taken, preventing camera shake and the resulting blur.

My final note on sharpness, and something that is perhaps one of the most common mistakes in night photography: always remember to use the self-timer or a remote control to fire the shutter. Using your finger to press the shutter will result in blurry shots. The sturdiest tripod, the most accurate focus, will not help at all if you touch the camera when trying to take the shot. I recommend getting a remote control for your camera, so you don’t have to wait 10 seconds every time you take a shot as you would if you use the self-timer, and you have more control over when it fires (for instance, if you’re trying to fire it exactly when there are no people walking in front of the camera). Remote controls are relatively inexpensive and small (easy to carry around). The one for Canon cameras is less than $25 and it’s smaller than your thumb.

A few tips on specific types of night shots:

Moon photography: The most common mistake when photographing the moon is overexposure. The moon is reflecting the sun. It is extremely bright. You must use very fast shutter speeds to avoid overexposing the moon. If you don’t see individual craters and shades of gray (meaning it just looks like a bright white circle), the image is overexposed. Set a faster shutter speed and try again.

Traffic Trails: By nature of having the shutter open for several seconds during night shots, you will almost always get traffic trails when there are roads in the photo. Set the shutter speed to longer or shorter as necessary to adjust the length of the trails (and don’t forget to adjust the aperture to match the shutter speed you’ve chosen).

Lightning Strike over East River, New York City

Lightning Strike over East River, New York City

Star Trails: If you keep the shutter open long enough, you can capture star trails. Star trails result from the rotation of the earth. Objects on the ground remain stationary, but since the earth is rotating relative to the stars, long exposures will show this rotation (see the shot at the top of this post). You’ll generally need exposures of at least a half hour to show trails (though you will see small trails in as little as a few minutes). You can either take a single shot for the entire duration (which may result in a noisy image, but is very easy to take), or you can take a few shorter shots and layer them on the computer. Set your camera to Bulb mode, and using a remote control, open the shutter, wait the appropriate amount of time (just use your watch), and close the shutter with the remote. Make sure to have something on the ground in the shot, to add interest and emphasize the motion.

Taking night shots can be incredibly exciting and result in some spectacular images. Good luck and happy shooting.

I've also created an app for iPhone, Android, and iPod Touch which teaches you photography -- more info can be found here:

Photography Trainer for iPhone and Android

Photography Trainer iPhone app

Photography Trainer iPhone app

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South Street Seaport, NYC

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