When most people think of a portrait they tend to think of one shot during the day.
However, a lot of opportunity is missed by putting your camera away when the sun goes down.
In fact, not only are night portraits some of the most fun types of sessions, the results can be quite creative and dramatic!
Here are some tips you can use to capture some great shots of portraits at night.
Photo by S.H.P.
Find the night portrait mode
If you have a basic point-and-shoot digital camera or a DSLR you’ll find there’s usually a mode for night portraits.
This setting is useful because it combines long exposure with flash.
The flash is able to freeze your subject while the longer exposure will fill in the background.
This combination is what fixes one of the biggest challenges photographers face when taking a night portrait – that ugly “flash look” where the subject is illuminated while the background is dark.
On most cameras, the flash will appear first, but some models also have a rear-sync flash. This enables you to fire the flash during the end of the exposure instead of the start. It’s a good idea to take a few practice shots to see which method you like the best.
Photo by fulzio rossi
Set the ISO
When the lighting is low you’ll usually have to use a higher ISO setting.
High ISO enables you to use quicker exposure times. If you are unfamiliar with the ISO setting, take a look at this article we wrote: Understanding ISO for more information.
If the ISO is high enough, you might be able to take a night portrait without needing flash since there will be enough ambient light.
A high ISO, such as 800 and 1600 is comparable to using this speed of film. Therefore if a digital camera is set to 800, it would be the same as using 800 speed film etc. However, the trade off between using a high ISO is that it introduces noise and grain into the image
Having a grainy-looking photo is fine in some cases as it can add to the style and mood of the shot, but in other instances it could spoil the photo. Only you can decided what is acceptable or not.
It’s easy to experiment with the ISO. Simply adjust the setting and take a few practice photos of the same subject and then compare them. If they’re not acceptable, then try using the flash.
Photo by Adcuz
Try the flash
When using flash for night portraits you need to be careful that the person doesn’t become washed out.
When using a camera’s built-in flash it’s a good idea to turn the intensity down a stop or two.
Most DSLR camera’s have this as a setting in a menu. If you don’t have this option you can try covering the flash with something like wax paper if you don’t have a flash diffuser on hand. More tips on using the on-camera flash can be found by reading On- Board (In-Camera) Flash Photography Tutorial.
If you’re using an off-camera flash it can always be pointed upwards and reflected off of a a wall or bounce card. This usually results in producing more flattering light for your subject.
For more tips on using an off-camera flash check out our article on Flash Photography 101 and Bounce Flash Photography Tips any Photographer Can Do.
Photo by Eduardo Regaldo
Make Use of Ambient lighting
In general, portraits at night are nicer if you can utilize some ambient light.
If you can use the light from neon signs, streetlamps or lighting coming from a nearby store, try it out. Sometimes this is just enough light you need to capture a great portrait at night.
Also, shooting shortly after sunset can be a good idea as there’s still a glow in the sky. If you’re lucky, you’ll have enough light for the shot that flash won’t be needed.
Photo by Antoine Robiez
Blurring the background
If you want to blur the background then have to use a wide aperture to allow more light into the camera. Low f-stop numbers create shallow depth of field.
Start with an f-stop setting of of 4.5 or lower. Blurring the background is a great way to make the subject stand out more.
If you really want to learn how to master the aperture setting on your camera, check out our book Mastering Aperture in Digital Photography.
Photo by Zero CEM
If you want a traditional still portrait it’s a good idea to use a tripod so nothing moves. This means the model also has to be as still as possible.
If you want to experiment though, try moving the camera around while the exposure is ongoing or have the person move while you stay still.
You might end up with some pretty creative results, especially if there are neon signs and/or streetlamps in the scene’s background. If you have a tripod you can have the subject move as soon as the flash goes off and then stay still in their new position during the remainder of the exposure.
This technique can be quite interesting as it often creates a double image.
Another cool trick is to create a light painting effect, by having the model twirl around a glowing object, while at the same time using a slow shutter speed. The effect can be quite amazing! For more information on lighting painting check out our Light Painting Photography Tutorial and Video.
We hope you enjoyed this article on capturing better night portraits. Now that you’re finished reading, leave a comment below telling us which aspect was your favorite and share any experiences you’ve had taking these types of photographs.
Then, check out our related posts to learn even more ways to improve your photography.
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