Camera Settings for Night Photos
A good night time photo, like a cityscape at night, can produce some beautiful colours and look really stunning. But you may be asking yourself, which camera settings for night photos? You can use either a DSLR or a phone, I’ll cover both in this blog post. I’ll also cover
- Camera Mode
- Shutter Speed
- Post Processing
Under each photo, I will list camera mode and settings plus any equipment used. What I generally set my DSLR camera to is aperture priority.
I will concentrate on night photos of a cityscape in this article with real examples just to show what is possible. And to help you take better night photos.
Unless you are using a phone, chances are you will need a tripod. These come in various shapes and sizes. Personally, I use a Ranger travel tripod, a fairly inexpensive bit of kit. I will put a link in at the bottom so you can see for yourself.
I like it because it is light, folds down really small and is nearly as tall as me when fully extended. Night photography usually requires a long exposure and you will not be able to hold your camera still enough if you don’t use a tripod.
Night photos can be tricky things to take. Sometimes your camera gets it absolutely right other times it can be a dismal failure. Knowing how to deal with your camera makes for much better night photos.
Fortunately, due to the digital age of photography, you can see the results immediately and not have to wait for the film to come back from the developers. So take one photo, look at it on the back of the camera and see how it came out. Then if required, you can adjust it.
Camera Mode – Aperture Priority
The first one of my Camera Settings for Night Photos is Aperture Priority. For 95% of the time, day and night, my camera is set to aperture priority. That way I have control over the depth of field – what is in focus in the picture. For a full explanation, see my depth of field article.
But, the long and the short of it is,
F3.5 = Small Depth of Field
F22 = large Depth of Field
Aperture priority is usually denoted by an A symbol on the dial. This allows me to adjust the depth of field which, for me is more important in landscape photography, as these are generally the photographs I take. Then if it is underexposed overall I switch to manual and set the settings myself.
Using aperture priority, your shutter speed will be dictated by the aperture you have set. That can be overridden if you wish but I find what the camera suggests when I have the camera set to matrix metering is usually pretty accurate!
The photo above shows the effect of a rock formation in the sea with a long exposure of 30 seconds. The lights from the buildings near the beach have lit up the scene. The long exposure has made the wave tops give an almost smoky dream-like effect to the water.
One interesting thing about night time photography is the fact it can make the most mundane images look different. The rock formation looks like a sea monster emerging from the waves! The lack of fine detail and colour makes our brains fill in the gaps, sometimes with a surprising effect!
Just as a reference, the small photo is the same rock formation during the day from a different angle. As you can see, it looks nothing like the night photo.
More effects of long shutter speed
Another useful effect you may want to try, is to use a long shutter speed when you don’t want lots of people in your photo. This is due to the fact that moving people reflect a lot less light back to the camera compared to the stationary objects in your photos.
Let me show you what I mean.
The two photos below illustrate this perfectly. They are both of Charles Bridge in Prague, which if you haven’t been there, is busier than a dead fox on a termite mound. Unless you visit at 3 am there will be people there.
Set the longest time exposure you can. Both of the photos below are 30 second long exposures. You can tell the exposures are long by looking at the clouds in both photos. The lights from the city have time to reflect on them and also they are blurred in their direction of travel.
If the people keep moving, your night-time photo will come out without any people in it. If the people stop or go past with a phone or other bright object they will appear in the night photo.
As can be seen below the first photo is when this technique goes wrong! People were standing about and somebody walked past looking at their phone.
When it goes wrong
As can be seen below, this is what happens when the technique goes right. The people keep moving and don’t show up in the picture. Although if you look closely at the right-hand bridge wall you will see some vague images of people, almost ghost-like. It took me several attempts to get this shot, so keep at it! As you can see both night photos had exactly the same camera settings.
I have both Long Exposure Noise Reduction on and High ISO Noise Reduction on. This will help reduce the speckle or ‘noise’ picked up by the camera’s sensor.
The good news!
Phones are great for taking night time photos. Usually, you don’t have to worry about Camera Settings for Night photos. They are designed to just point and shoot. All the photos in this section are taken with a Samsung smartphone.
Both the night photos below are taken with a Samsung S8 phone in Panorama mode held vertically. On both occasions, there is a tiny bit of light left in the sky just to add some interest. Panoramas can add a little something extra to a standard photo, just watch out for distortion.
Just Point and Shoot
Sometimes point and shoot is all you need to capture a night photo. As can be seen below, the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh, Morocco came out well, even some cloud reflection of the city lights.
Your phone may have various modes. If it has a pro mode you can adjust things like shutter speed and aperture, but more often than not, it’ll do the job perfectly well on auto.
However, if you use the pro mode there are a few things to look out for.
There are two that we need to concern ourselves with primarily. At the bottom, it starts with ISO. ISO is like the grain size of the photo, the larger the ISO number, the larger the grain, the less sharp the picture.
The second one, currently set at 1/10 is the shutter speed. Camera shake will become a problem at anything lower than this. Even at that speed, you would need to hold it really steady.
The phone will show you the results of your settings so if it doesn’t look right, ie to dark, lower the shutter speed. Rest the phone on a fence or other suitable surface if you need to steady it.
You can go as crazy or not as you like with post-processing! Above, all I have done is increased the contrast lots and the brightness slightly. Below, it’s crazy time!
On the left is the standard photo and on the right is the crazy one. Contrast up, saturation up and all sorts of things in Lightroom. Obviously, I’ve gone too far with this one to make a point. The point being night photos, especially if you take them in a RAW format, have the latitude to experiment with. Usually, with post-processing, you can make almost any photo better.
Common Night photography problems – and how to solve them
Earlier I mentioned about adjusting your photograph if it didn’t come out right. Now, you’re asking how you do this. So let me tell you. Look at your photo and decide what’s wrong with is it too dark? Is it to light? Not in focus? Is it blurred?
To light or too dark
This is where you will have to adjust the exposure on your camera and there are several ways to do this. If it is too light it is overexposed. If you have an AE lock button on your camera focus on a light bit of the photo, zooming if you have to. When you zoom into the light spot you will notice the camera’s readings change. Now press the AE lock button and compose the shot as you had originally, all the time holding down the AE lock button.
What this does, is to keep those light settings in the camera’s memory and it will take the picture accordingly with those settings.
Another way is to use exposure compensation if you have one. If your photo is too light, or overexposed, adjust the exposure compensation so the camera takes a quicker photo. You will know if you’re going the right way because the shutter speed will increase.
Another way is to do all this manually in your viewfinder. You can set the shutter speed and the aperture to suit yourself. Your camera will tell you if it is underexposed or overexposed but, seeing as it is already fooling the internal light meter you can adjust the exposure to a faster or slower speed.
This works the same if your photo is too dark but all you have to do his do the opposite settings i.e. if your photo is too dark you need to let more light in a slower shutter speed or a larger aperture.
Not in focus
- If your photograph has not focused properly, it can be that your camera is having trouble focusing in the dark. There are several ways around this, if you’re using a DSLR you can choose a manual focus option. Often, you will find a switch on the side of the camera or indeed, the side of the lens which allows you to turn off autofocus. If you’re photographing a long way away, a landscape or cityscape shot, set the focus to close to infinity, that is the ouroboros sign, the one that looks like a figure 8 laying down.
- If like me, your eyes are not so good, choose a light bit of the composition, move the camera so that bit of the photograph is in the centre of the frame then halfway press the shutter to focus. When it focuses, take note of those settings, switch to manual focus, use those settings, recompose and then take the photo.
Picture is blurred
It could be that you’re not using a tripod or there is a strong wind that moved the tripod or the tripod was knocked during the exposure. If it was wind, you can hang your camera bag or something heavier in between the legs of your tripod to help stabilise it and hold the tripod down.
If you’re in a crowd of people and somebody knocked the tripod try and make a barrier around it with yourself while you take the photo rather than standing off to one side.
A way to save the photograph being blurry is to use the self-timer when taking any photo on a tripod. You may be accidentally moving the camera when you press the shutter release.
As I say, I tend to use this in any situation day or night, when using a tripod.
Another tip for taking cityscapes and especially the traffic in cityscapes is to leave the shutter open for over 15 seconds. This allows any traffic that passes through the frame to leave a blur of either head or tail lights thus giving the photo movement and the dynamic effect.
Adjust your aperture to give your camera a shutter speed of between 15 to 30 seconds and then, set the self-timer to 2 seconds or thereabouts. Press the button and stand back. Any traffic will come out as a blur as can be seen in the photos, above and below.
Some cameras come with a special bit of kit to hide the eyepiece however mine is still in the box.
What I use is a bit of black electrical tape which I keep on the bottom of the camera at all times and when I am ready to take a night photo after I have composed the shot through the viewfinder, I place the electrical tape over the viewfinder so it does not let any light in to the picture.
Using electrical tape that is always stuck to the bottom of the camera means you’ll never be without something to block the eyepiece during long exposures.
If you are trying to do star photos check out my separate article for that, Astrophotography Shooting the night sky, including post-processing tips for Lightroom and the free Windows 10 photos program.
If you are photographing star trails, use the bulb setting. Below, the bulb setting was for about 1 hour. It was taken at ISO 100 at F22. The key to star photography is to, first and foremost, be in a dark sky location.
You may be wondering what kit I use to take my photos below is a link to that my camera bag section the website showing all the photographic equipment I use below on this page you will find Amazon links to the equipment I specifically used in these photos.
You will notice that I have listed a UV filter. That does not enhance the photo in any way, it is purely there to protect the lens from scratches. It’s a lot easier to replace the filter than to replace the lens.
All of the night photographs on this page I have taken with either a Samsung camera phone or a Nikon D7200. For most of my night photography, I have used a Sigma 10-20mm lens. I love the way the lens, being so wide can fit of much of the night sky in the frame as possible.
Below is a selection of the actual gear I use. For the full list of equipment I use to take all these photos check out My Travel Camera Bag
For all my tips and tricks see my Photography Tutorials page.
To see all my gear, check out What’s In My Camera Bag.
Below is a list of my most popular tutorials on photography.
They form the Basis of My Top 10 Photography Tips
Click here for my Photography page with all the links on.
Disclaimer: In short, some of the links on this site are affiliate links. These means that if you click on the link and buy the item, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. The money, of course, helps go towards the upkeep of the site – so it’s a win-win for both of us! Any videos used on this site if not my own, are, of course, used within Youtube’s sharing guidelines.