Nighttime is the right time for fun photos

Want dramatic photos of city scenes? That’s easy! Photograph at night. When city lights are turned on, buildings, streets lights, signs and skylines take on a magical glow.

Sure, nighttime scenes are photogenic, but capturing those scenes creatively with your camera takes a little know-how. Here’s a rundown on a few techniques that have worked well for me.< One surprising tip for nighttime photography: Don’t shoot late at night! A good time to take pictures is actually not after the sun goes down, but rather when there is still some light in the sky. That’s the time when you can capture city lights along with a hint of light in the sky. The images you’ll get under these conditions are often more dramatic and picturesque than those taken against a dark sky.> Use a slow shutter speed. A shutter speed of as long as several seconds can enhance nighttime scenes that include moving cars. Long shutter speeds blur taillights and headlights and let them streak through the scene, creating a sense of motion and adding drama to the scene. If you plan to use long exposures, you’ll need a tripod to steady your camera. To eliminate camera shake during a long exposure, use a cable release or actuate your camera’s self-timer. Another option for steady shots at shutter speeds faster than around 1/2 sec is to use an image-stabilizing lens.< When setting the ISO, bear in mind that as the ISO increases, grain in film cameras and noise in a digital picture also increase. To reduce digital noise, use your digital camera’s noise-reduction feature (if it has one). For the cleanest film shots, use a film with a relatively low ISO.> No matter what camera (analog or digital) you use, here is a general rule for nighttime photography when shooting in an automatic mode: Set the exposure compensation control on your camera to -1/2 or –1, especially when the sky and street take up a fair portion of the scene. That reduction in exposure will help prevent the highlights (lights) in your scene from being washed out – something that is very difficult to rescue in the digital darkroom.

Here are three quick suggestions for night shooting under different circumstances.

  • When photographing family and friends at night, a flash will brighten nearby faces. Bracing your camera or using a tripod and setting your digital camera to the non-flash Night mode will usually result in good overall exposures. However, you’ll get a shutter speed that’s slower than the one the camera would set in the Program mode, so moving background subjects will be blurred.
  • When using film, set your camera to Manual mode and then determine the correct-exposure aperture by first selecting a slow shutter speed (say 1/30 of a second). That way, you’ll be able to shoot handheld if the lighting conditions are sufficiently bright.
  • Finally...Wear brightly colored or reflective clothing if you plan to shoot near a busy street, Personal safety should always come first.


Rick Sammon is the author of The Complete Guide to Digital Photography. He also recently produced two interactive CDs, Photoshop Makeovers and Photoshop for the Outdoor and Travel Photographer. Visit with Rick, and see clips of some of his television programs, at

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