One of my favorite styles of shooting is long exposure night photography. When traveling somewhere new, I always specifically look for locations where I might be able to capture epic night photos.
But long exposure night photography can be very challenging. Mastering your exposure settings, focusing, and composition without being able to really see what you’re doing, takes lots of time, experience, and significant failure. It can be a tough struggle, but once you get there, the results are worth it.
So we thought we would put together a list of some tips for creating “stellar” long exposure shots at night.
First, what is long exposure night photography?
Long exposure night photography is the process of capturing photos at in low light using a long duration shutter speed. There isn’t a commonly agreed upon definition for “long” but I would argue it is anything over one second.
Because we are talking about shooting at night, this means we are dealing with scenes where there normally would not be enough light to capture an image. Therefore, to capture an image, you have to use the manual settings on your camera to be able to let more light onto the image sensor, by keeping the shutter open for longer periods of time.
Once you understand that basic principle, everything becomes a lot more awesome. The reason? You can start to play with reality in your images. You have more creative control than with other types of photography.
1. The key to everything: length of exposure
What makes taking long exposures at night so much fun, is the fact that you are able to portray a scene in a way that is uniquely different from what your eye is able to see in real life.
Most photography consists of freezing a moment in time, by opening and closing the shutter speed in a fraction of a second, so that it capture just the light that was available in that instantaneous moment.
With long exposure night photography however, the goal is to keep the shutter open for significantly longer, enabling the camera to capture light as it moves through the scene – over a set period of time. Therefore, the photographer has tremendous creative control in determining how the final shot will come out, by being able to play with various shutter speeds (ie, length of exposure).
2. What does this mean? It means you need a tripod
To some of you this next tip may seem incredibly obvious, but it needs to be stated loudly: invest in a quality tripod. This is really what will set you apart from simply, playing around to actually trying to capture compelling images. You need a solid, sturdy, mobile platform to place your camera. You need the best tripod for night photography that you can get.
Many people initially try and get away with simply placing their camera on a solid surface. However this misses so many compositional opportunities, and dramatically increases the chances of having a blurry image from camera shake.
3. Understand sources of light
First thing’s first, you have to be able to read the ambient light in your environment. You have to understand what is the approximate length of time that you will likely have to keep your shutter open in order to get an even exposure. This is how you will lock in your exposure settings.
Tip: It’s not a good idea to rely on your camera’s histogram when shooting at night, so I recommend simply taking lots and lots of test shots until you dial everything in. Once you have calibrated your shutter speed and aperture, now you can start looking at the other sources of light that you can use to your advantage.
One of the coolest ways to take long exposure night photos is through the use of light trails – the movement of a source of light through the scene. In order to capture light trails, you have to consider your various light sources, and understand how their movement throughout the scene will affect your final photo. This could be cars, stars, a flashlight, lanterns, etc.
Long exposure night photography with light trails requires a lot of pre-visualization in order to be successful; you have to try and picture your final scene before you even set up. It’s difficult, but it can produce amazing results.
4. Capture multiple objects in motion
In the above photo that I took in the Marin Headlands, above San Francisco, California, I was able to capture two moving subjects that left light trails. The stacking of multiple 30 second exposures shows both the movement of the stars across the sky, and the movement of a ship as it enters the bay.
5. Position stationary objects in your frame
If you are just starting out with long exposure photography, it can be easy to get carried away. A lot of people go overboard trying to capture movement of light trails. While this can sometimes produce an interesting creative effect, I personally find it much more beneficial to have an element of relate-ability in a scene.
What I mean by this: seeing a streak of car lights, or trails of stars that pass over the sky, is a somewhat distortion of the way that we are normally able to see things. Therefore it is much more pleasing to the viewer to be able to have a strong, still subject that gives context and normalcy to the image.
In the above photo, the buildings and roadway are stationary, and in sharp focus. It is within this context that we see the car trails throughout the scene.
6. Use a shutter release remote
Do everything in your power to minimize camera shake. What may seem trivial at the time (simply pressing the shutter speed for example), will absolutely cause your image to lose noticeable sharpness. This is why I highly recommend using some sort of shutter release technique that allows you to keep your hands off the camera itself. This could be an intervalometer, a wireless shutter remote, or simply the self-timer feature on your camera. Either way, this is crucial.
7. Stay in manual mode
Digital cameras have come a long way. They are great at reading and metering light to determine what a proper exposure should be – in the day-time. At night however, when the sources of light are very select, the camera has a much harder time. This is why to be able to take a good long exposure at night, you will need to be entirely in manual mode.
Manual mode gives you control to determine the most important setting of all for night photography: shutter speed. Once you determine how long you want to shutter to be open to be able to capture moving car trails for example, you can reverse engineer all your other camera settings in order to make that work. For example, with the below car trails photo, taken at Twin Peaks, San Francisco, California:
I shot this with the following settings in order to capture multiple cars as they drove slowly around this windy road:
- Shutter speed: 30 seconds
- Aperture: f/8
- ISO: 100
- Focal length: 24mm
8. Keep ISO as low as possible
As a general rule in night photography, the goal is to try and keep your ISO as low as possible, in order to ensure the highest quality possible in your final image. In a lot of situations, you can simply lengthen the shutter speed, or widen your aperture in order to make this happen.
However, remember that shutter speed is usually the priority in long exposure night photography, so there are times when you may have to increase your ISO in order to accommodate shutter speed limitations. For example, you may want to only capture a partial light trail from a car, and not have it be a giant blur.
Another very common example of having to increase ISO in order to accommodate a preferred shutter speed, is when photographing the Milky Way.
One of the key tips for photographing the Milky Way (a subject that we will dive much deeper into in another post), is understanding that the Earth is rotating at an alarming rate. Because of that, exposures at 30 seconds or longer will tend to show movement of the stars across the sky, when this is not necessarily the desired effect. For Milky Way photography, I strongly prefer to have the stars remain as pinpoints of light, which means I do whatever I can to limit shutter speed to 25 seconds or shorter. The tradeoff of this, is that I have to bump the ISO up to 3200, 6400, or sometimes even higher in order to let the right amount of light in.
9. Always shoot in RAW
This one is another one that may feel basic to a lot of people, and we will elaborate in another post, but has to be stated clearly. Shooting in RAW file format, means that you are capturing all the information in the scene. By Shooting in JPEG, you are letting the camera make decisions about what data it considers to be important by losing all that extra information.
One of the biggest parts of shooting night photography, is the post-processing. You need to have the flexibility to lift the shadows, adjust exposure, and change the white balance depending on the final image that you are hoping to achieve. This all becomes much, much easier when you shoot in RAW. To understand this more, you can learn Lightroom with online classes that will show you how to bring out the most in your final photo.
10. Use only manual focus
A major challenge of night photography, is being able to focus in the dark. There are a lot of techniques and work-arounds for how to achieve this; everything from using the live-view mode to focus on a specific source of light, to pre-focusing before dark, and then taping your focusing ring with some Gaffers tape. Whichever technique you choose however, the most important thing to remember is that you are always going to be in manual focus.
All auto-focus modes, will have your camera trying to find it’s focal point (we call this “hunting”), but there simply isn’t enough light in a night scene for your camera to be able to do it. What’s worse, you may have found the prefect focus, but then as your subject moves through the scene, the camera will try to adjust – causing you to lose your focus. Pro tip – keep it in manual focus at all times when shooting at night.
11. Bring a headlamp / flashlight
This is a tip that I had to learn the hard way, so I’m including it here to save you from my mistakes: The journey UP to your shooting location is very often done pre-sunset, when there is still light. The journey DOWN from your location however (after you are done shooting), is very often significantly darker, and it is much harder to see where you are going.
I live in Northern California, a place that is geographically very beautiful and has incredible shooting locations. However these long, scenic trails are also home to mountain lions, sharp cliff edges, and other hazards. Attempting to traverse these trails that I have embarked on to get these shots is significantly less fun when you can’t see where you are going.
Bring a headlamp.
12. Take lots and lots of test shots
Long exposure night photography is primarily a game of trial and error. You are going to take a LOT of incorrect exposures before you really nail it. That’s ok. In fact, it’s a huge part of the process, and I encourage you to go out and simply try these techniques in a familiar location, just so you can get an idea of the areas that you may be struggling with.
There is a rarely-spoken about secret of pro photographers that I’m going to share with you:
This means that you really just have to get out there and start shooting, because it is the only way that you will learn from what doesn’t work, and start to create stunning long exposure images. No photographer that I know captures the right exposure the first time on-location. It takes a LOT of test shots, changing the composition, exposure settings, focus, and ambient light, and more test shots, to be able to produce a final image that you will be proud of.
13. Learn from the pros
It has taken me years and years to develop my night photography skills to where I am today. I taught myself mostly through trial and error, experimenting, and reading the occasional article online like this one. However there is a faster way to learn these tips and start implementing them into your photography, and that is through quality, online courses taught by the best in the industry.
Working with CreativeLive, we have produced a series of courses called Night Photography Week, where all these techniques and approaches to capturing stunning long exposure night photography are laid out in clear, on-location video format. Nothing like this has ever been available online before. Before this, if you wanted to learn these skills from a pro, you would have to pay between $400-$1000 for an in-person workshop in the field. Now, we have put all these pro-level tips in one place – I highly recommend checking it out. Watch this video that we made (using my time-lapse footage) to showcase everything that you will learn.
Read our full review of Night Photography Week and then head over to CreativeLive and check it out for yourself. Did we miss any crucial long exposure night photography tips? Let us know in the comments what you think!
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