Home Camera Settings Choosing Camera Settings for Night Photography

Choosing Camera Settings for Night Photography

14 min read
night photography settings neil armstrong2

Taking photos at night can be a real challenge for many photographers.

Most new photographers don’t know how to set up their camera settings with the correct night photography settings. This often results in photos coming out too dark or grainy with a lot of visual noise.

What most photographers don’t know is that the trick to night photography is finding the right combination of low aperture, low ISO and slow shutter speed. In this photography tutorial, we’re going to teach you how to achieve great looking photos at night by explaining everything to you in a full night photography settings guide.

Camera Requirements for Night Photography

Camera requirements are pretty simple for night photography. Here’s what your dslr camera needs to have:

  • Manual Exposure Mode – Allows you to independently set aperture, ISO and shutter speed.
  • Bulb setting – Allows manual control over shutter speed to take exposures longer than 30 seconds.
  • Connection for shutter release cable or Wireless remote setting – This is very important because the slightest vibration of camera shake can cause motion blur in your photographs. It is not advisable to press the shutter release button on the camera because pressure from your finger can cause movement of the camera. Invest in an inexpensive cable release or wireless remote for your camera.
  • Ability to shoot in RAW format – Some photos may look completely dark in the viewfinder but if its not clipping in underexposure the RAW format can allow you to pull out the details by adjusting exposure in post-processing
  • Connection to mount onto a tripod – This is very important because night photography requires very long exposures and no one can hold a camera steady long enough to capture sharp images. Night shots vary in exposure time and can require between 30 seconds to thirty minutes of exposure time.
night photography settings neil armstrong2
Photo by Neil Armstrong2

Selecting a Lens

We recommend that you only use a wide angle lens for night photography.

Here’s why:

  • The most intriguing night shots are ones where you can tell they were taken at night. This often requires a photo to include both a foreground and background within the scene. A wide angle lens is best for this shot.
  • Focusing at night can be very hard to do. A wide angle lens is more forgiving with focus because the depth of field is so large. Being a tad off in focus is not as noticeable as when using a telephoto lens.

How to Focus at Night

At first it may seem impossible to focus at night. Auto focus doesn’t work because it can’t detect a subject through a dark viewfinder. The same thing goes when trying to focus by eye – you can’t see anything. So, what do you do?

Set your focus ring to the infinity setting . This makes everything up until infinity within your scene in focus.

If you’d rather focus on a closer subject in the foreground then you can either guess the distance between the lens and the subject and change your focus ring setting to match, or use a flashlight to illuminate the subject and look through the viewfinder to adjust proper focus.

Choosing an Aperture Setting

When you’re shooting night photography depth-of-field is usually not a factor because you’re lens is set to focus to infinity. This takes all of the guesswork out of choosing an aperture setting. Just open your lens up to its widest f-stop. Your goal in night photography is to allow as much light as possible into the camera. So, if your lens opens up to maximum of f/5.6, choose that setting.

Choosing an ISO Setting

night photography settings zimmelino
Photo by Zimmelino

The ISO setting on a camera is a gift and a curse for night photographers. Its a gift because you can boost the setting when shooting in a dark location in order to brighten up the image and its a curse because the more you boost the ISO the more noise it introduces into the photo. High ISO settings cause photos to look grainy and lower quality.

When choosing the ISO night photography setting on your camera try to keep it as low asĀ  possible (for example ISO 100 or 200). This will give your photos a higher quality look by reducing the noise. With that being said you’ll want to use a high ISO setting when doing your test shots. We’ll explain more about this in the next section on choosing a shutter speed.

Choosing a Shutter Speed

Shutter speed is the most difficult night photography setting to choose on your camera because every scene is lit differently. Scenes can vary from a pitch black landscape with only the moon providing any light to a brightly lit city with lights coming from every building. Its really just a matter of guessing which shutter speed will work for your situation and making adjustments from there. The only draw back is that in night photography there are times when you’ll have to use shutter speeds that last as long as 10-30 minutes to get a proper exposure. But, instead of wasting an hour just to take two test shots we’re going to teach you a trick on how to figure out proper exposure for your scene in a fraction of that time.

Here’s what we recommend you do when trying to choose a shutter speed for night photography:

  1. Set your ISO to the highest setting possible on your camera
  2. Choose a shutter speed you think will give an acceptable exposure
  3. Take a test shot and see how the exposure came out
  4. Adjust your shutter speed up or down until the test shot has a proper exposure
  5. Finally, use arithmetic to find the same exposure at a lower ISO setting. This reduces noise and captures high quality photos. Each time you reduce the ISO one step (for example, from 400 to 200), the camera needs to let in half as much more light for the same exposure. So, if you had a shutter speed of 1/500 at 400 ISO, going to 200 ISO would let you get the same exposure at 1/250 second – providing the aperture remains unchanged. Another example would be a test shot with a shutter speed of 1 minute at 1000 ISO which is the same exposure as a ten minute shutter speed at 100 ISO and very little noise.

Also, keep in mind that because night photography requires longer shutter speeds, its often unavoidable to prevent light trails from moving objects with lights in your scene like cars. Just embrace it.

A Final Tip

When starting out in night photography we recommend that you start taking photos at dusk when the sun sets. At first, you’ll still be able to use the light meter within your camera to achieve proper exposure, but as it gets darker you’ll learn how to manually adjust the settings on your camera to compensate for this change.

A Recap: Proper Night Photography Settings

  1. Use a camera with full manual settings
  2. Always use a shutter release cable or wireless remote and a tripod to prevent camera shake and motion blur
  3. Attach a wide angle lens to your camera
  4. Set the focus ring to infinity (or focus on a close subject using the tips above)
  5. Open your aperture to its widest setting
  6. Set your camera to its highest ISO setting only during test shots to find a shutter speed that gives proper exposure
  7. Find out which slower shutter speed gives the same exposure at a lower ISO setting using the arithmetic tips above.

One Comment

  1. Kevin

    February 3, 2012 at 6:31 am

    Nice article. Everything here provides one with the tools to play with night photography. Use the tools here and play, play, play. Try thunderstorms…you will be amazed (keep the camera dry though).

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