The Secrets of Night-Time Photography

By Matt on 25th Jul, 2012

The Secrets of Night-Time Photography

If you love photography but are a little unsure about shooting at night; don’t worry, help is available. Below you can learn some of the secrets from the members of ‘Night View’ - the club for night-time picture specialists. From capturing fireworks to shooting cityscapes, you can now discover the full potential of your creativity and your camera.

Capturing a light trail

Taking a picture of the light trail made by a vehicle driving along a mountain road without any artificial lighting is a beautiful part of night-time photography. Thanks to the slopes and sharp curves of the road, pictures possess a dynamic quality rarely found in other shots.

In general, cars driving on unlit mountain roads tend to drive at a slow speed. Since the maximum shutter speed supported by DSLR AV, TV and M modes is only 30 seconds, the bulb feature and a remote control are crucial pieces of equipment.

light trail
light trail 2

When selecting a lens, a wide-angle lens is more appropriate than a telephoto lens; this gives you a complete light trail instead of partial trails. Keep in mind that ultra-wide lenses - below 20 mm - will result in wider and much clearer light trails.

For the White Balance setting, it is best to select fluorescent or tungsten mode. The sharp contrast of the white light trail and the pitch-black night sky will really grab attention. Also keep in mind that the colour of light trail becomes whiter as the colour temperature decreases

Regarding exposure, a slight underexposure is desirable. In some cases, you may also need to emphasize the light trails by making the background darker to bring out the dynamic quality of the car's motion. You therefore need apply an exposure compensation that is 1 to 2 stops darker, instead of relying on the optimal exposure value.

Considering the nature of the shooting, I recommend going out with two or three friends instead of taking pictures alone. Finding a car driving along a mountain road late at night is quite difficult, so you may need to drive your own car to take a picture instead of waiting for one to come by. If you have a friend or two who will press the release cable for you while you are driving, this would be perfect. Make sure to check the path of motion and composition of the picture beforehand. Finding a perfect composition in complete darkness only by relying on your senses is not an easy task. I also recommend visiting the site before sunset to check various possible motion paths and decide how and where to take pictures with possible light trails in advance.

Shooting cityscapes

One of the merits of taking night-time pictures is taking pictures of glamorous city lights.

Generally, you should use the lowest ISO to take your pictures, with an aperture setting of F8 to 13. When taking a picture of a fully-lit building, you should also set the shutter speed from 2-6 seconds to 8-13 seconds.

To capture clean and vibrant light effects, I use the clear mode on my camera. I also use a fish-eye lens with extreme angle of view because of its unique characteristics.

Furthermore, when you are taking pictures of well-lit buildings, a long exposure is not required. In this particular situation, the conditions were quite dark, so I used a slower shutter speed to brighten up the sky.

Cityscape 4


For taking pictures of fireworks, you need a camera equipped with bulb mode, zoom lens, tripod, remote control, and black paper board or a hat. Since we do not know the exact spot where the fireworks will detonate, it is better to use a wide-angle zoom lens instead of a prime lens for flexible screen composition.

Since fireworks can be much larger and detonate at a higher level than expected, using a wide-angle lens becomes a must, especially when taking pictures from a close distance. Use the zoom lens to secure the desired angle of view or composition. After the angle has been decided, you can change to a prime lens for a clearer picture.

You can get great firework photos by using an aperture setting of F8-F16 and and ISO speed of 100-200.

- Jungdae Kim

fireworks 1

In order to take picture of multiple fireworks, set the camera to bulb mode, open the shutter, and cover the lens with either a black paperboard or hat. Then expose the lens only when the fireworks detonate. By repeating this, you can get several fireworks in a single picture. The use of a lens cap should be avoided since it can cause a slight movement of the camera and result in a shaky background. The use of a remote control is also a must when using the bulb feature, since it prevents the camera from moving.

The AF (auto focus) setting may fail to focus on the fireworks, so use manual focus for setting the camera focus. Since the spot where the fireworks detonate will also differ slightly from time to time, it is recommended to use smaller aperture values for a deeper depth of field even when you are using manual focus. You can use the auto mode for the WB (white balance) but using the tungsten mode or manual WB, or setting the Kelvin (K) value manually, can result in a better, bluer background colour.

fireworks 2

You can get much clearer firework pictures during the early stages, because the fireworks later on are often covered with smoke that prevents better shots.

Instead of taking pictures of only the fireworks, you can get better shots by including the cityscape in the background. To do this, check the exposure of the cityscape first. Then take the picture using the bulb feature. You may use the paperboard to cover the lens when it is adequately exposed. Then expose the lens when the fireworks detonate to take a picture with both the fireworks and the cityscape.

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