What settings should you use when making exposures in low light or at night? Use a tripod and cable release, set ISO to 800 (or higher), open up f5.6 or wider, focus at infinity and keep exposures below 20 seconds. While this is a good starting point, that’s all it is, as you’ll need to modify settings based on the specific light(s) in a location, the equipment you’re using, and the effect you want to produce. Instead, ask, “What concerns do I need to be mindful of and what points of control do I have when making low light or night photographs?” Develop your sensitivity to these factors and you’ll know why and when to improvise and even what more you can explore. These twelve tips will give you a solid foundation from which to begin your explorations in low light and night photography.
1 Use A Tripod
Tripods are essential for long exposure techniques. The tripod head you use is as or more important. Use good ones.
That said, don’t feel like you have to make all of your low light exposures on a tripod. Today’s digital cameras offer exceptional high ISO performance that open up a whole new range of light for us all.
2 Use A Cable Release Or Intervalometer
Minimize camera motion by using a cable release to make exposures. (In a pinch, you can use the self-timer mode to delay exposure at least 2 seconds after you touch the shutter release.) Once you’ve composed an image, touch the camera / lens / tripod as little as possible.
If you’re stacking multiple exposures to create star trails, consider using an intervalometer to automate timed exposure sequences.
3 Use Bulb Mode
Bulb exposure mode is the only mode you can use to make very long exposures. Most other camera modes won’t exceed 30 seconds.
4 Use Mirror Lock Up
Further reduce motion blur by using the mirror lock up function on your camera.
5 Use A Fast Lens
Use a fast lens. Each fstop offers twice the amount of light as the previous one, which will translate into an exposure that lasts half as long (reducing motion artifacts) or one lower ISO rating (reducing noise).
If you can pick up the speed you need with high ISO (without noise becoming unacceptable) and image sharpness is a primary concern, consider using sharper apertures. The sharpest aperture on most lenses is either f8 or f11. Confirm if this is true with an individual lens by testing it, preferably before making exposures at night.
When you’re shooting on a tripod don’t use image stabilization, it will reduce rather than increase sharpness.
6 Find Infinity Focus Point
Test your lenses and find the most used point of focus – infinity.
When possible, use a flashlight to illuminate objects to focus on, focus, then immediately turn off auto-focus, if you haven’t already.
7 Use High ISO
New digital cameras offer extraordinary high ISO performance. Test your camera to find the upper limit when noise becomes unacceptable. Use this when long exposures are likely to cause unwanted motion artifacts.
8 Check Histograms
Monitor histograms after every exposure. An exposure’s histogram will tell you if the shadow or highlight detail has been lost, if underexposure is likely to produce noise, and if you need to make multiple exposures.
9 Consider HDR Techniques
Histograms will tell you if you need to bracket exposure. Remember, data in the lower half of the histogram tends to be noisy and gets noisier the closer to the black point it gets. To reduce noise, you’ll want to bracket exposures more frequently than you might think, even if you only use the additional exposure(s) for one part of an image (such as the parts without motion) and not another or even one small piece, like the moon. There’s a progression of HDR techniques that will help you with a majority of your exposures, not just your low light photography.
Find my HDR resources here.
10 Use Long Exposure Noise Reduction
In camera long exposure noise reduction works by taking a second exposure of the same length with the shutter closed to map fixed sensor noise and then remove it from the first exposure. This is particularly useful with longer exposures when sensor noise becomes most pronounced. But doubling exposure times for every exposure may not always be advantageous, especially with shorter exposures at lower ISOs when noise is less pronounced – so learn how and when to turn this camera function on and off.
11 Master Noise Reduction Post-Processing
Learn what kind of noise and how much of it can be removed in post-processing and you can comfortably use even higher ISO settings.
Find my noise reduction resources here.
12 Consider Adding An Artificial Light Source
At a minimum bring a small flashlight to help you check camera settings and find equipment in the You don’t have to be in the dark to prepare to make exposures in the dark.
In addition, consider bringing a strong flashlight for light painting techniques. Light up an existing visual element or add a new one with the light itself. Some of today’s compact flashlights are surprisingly strong. Flash units can be another excellent source of artificial light.
You can blend multiple exposures, with and without artificial light sources to control where and how much to introduce light into a composition.
Before you shoot, test, test, and retest. Test what you can ahead of time; familiarize yourself with camera functions, find infinity focus, identify acceptable ISO including post-processing, know at what exposure times you can expect motion artifacts like star trails, etc. The last time and place you want to be testing your equipment is while you’re trying to make finished exposures in exciting locations. Testing ahead of time will greatly reduce but not entirely eliminate on site testing. To optimize your exposures for each unique situation you’ll need to make minor modifications to the general practices you’ve previously established. On site you’ll most likely want to make two types of test shots. First, make a test shot at exceptionally high ISO to confirm composition – and possibly focus. Second make a test shot at acceptable ISO to confirm optimum exposure – if you’re lucky this may be your final exposure, but quite often you’ll find you need to make a slight modification to that exposure or a second or even third bracketed exposure to enhance the first. Optionally, you may want to test what motion artifacts are introduced by extended exposures and if they are pleasing.
There’s a lot left to be discovered in night photography. Use these tips to help guide your explorations.
Read more resources on exposure here.
Learn more about night photography in my digital photography workshops.
Upcoming workshops include Atacama Desert Argentina, Death Valley California, and Iceland Auroras.