Why Can’t I Take Good Photos at Night?

I remember when I bought a “superior” camera of its time, a compact point and shoot no more than four years ago, and I figured it was the “perfect” camera for night shots. Little did I realize that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to night photography.

Bear in mind that there are a lot of important things to consider when photographing at night. Here are some important tips:

  • You won’t want to use flash. The rule of thumb in photography is that flash only affects the foreground subject. In fact, the flash coverage of many cameras doesn’t go far (9-13 feet). As a result, a distant building 50-60 feet away (or even a closer building 20 feet away) won’t be captured at all that clearly. If anything, the entire image will be grossly underexposed. The resulting image will be very dark with minute amounts of light or even black.
  • A long exposure is important. Because the light from the distant subject needs to reach your lens, you need to use a long enough exposure to let the proper amount of light in. This is why, as I discussed in my previous post, you need to focus on the exposure time and will most likely want to shoot your night shots in “Shutter Priority.”
  • Use a tripod. Unless you are a statue, despite your “calm composure,” you need to have a stable device to prevent against camera shake on long exposures. When taking long exposures, the slightest motion can cause the camera to shake, so having a sturdy tripod is essential. Otherwise, your resulting image may come out undesirably blurry.
  • All blur is not that bad. In general, you want a crisp night shot, but some blur can be good. Consider a car zooming by at night. You might see a blur of headlights in the photo, but essentially this can be seen as a creative approach to your outcome.
  • Get a remote control. If your camera has an external remote control, use it. It is best to minimize pressing the shutter directly to eliminate any possible camera shake.
  • Shoot wide if you can. Because most lenses have a larger aperture at the widest angle (larger apertures allow more light in), you’ll likely want to shoot with a wider angle. If you have a tripod, this isn’t essential, but most lenses were built in such a way that zooming in closes the lens opening a little more (larger F number), so you’ll likely force the camera to increase the exposure time because the camera has to somehow compensate for the smaller aperture.
  • Take note of your ISO settings. The ISO settings of your camera may come in handy when you shoot. Because the picture isn’t as clear at a higher ISO (e.g. 1600) than a lower ISO (e.g. 100), photographs taken at a higher ISO don’t take as much time to compose as they do at a lower ISO. This is helpful, but the cost is a photo that has a lot of noise. An image that takes 1/15 seconds to shoot at ISO 1600 may be very grainy. This is why you want a tripod at night; the same photo might take 6 seconds at ISO 100 but you will have a clear noiseless photo. Consider the photo below that I took in London earlier this year (EXIF information is intact):

London Tower Bridge at Night, ISO 800

This photo was taken at ISO 800 and was shot in 1/10 seconds.
On the other hand, take careful note of the image below:

London Tower Bridge at Night, ISO 100

This shot above was taken at ISO 100 and the exposure took 6 seconds.
Note the “smoothness” or “blur” of the Thames river below because of the length of the shot.

  • Dusk photos are great too! It’s dark around sunset, but not too dark that you still cannot take handheld shots. I took the photo below at ISO 800 and 1/60 seconds with the light that was available to me.

London at Dusk

In the end, practice makes perfect. Night photography is an acquired skill. It takes a lot of patience to achieve desirable results. You will want to experiment (ISO, shutter speed, and even aperture modes might help here) to see the perfect combination for a great photograph. You don’t want to use the flash; it doesn’t travel far and you will be disappointed in the results. The most important thing to consider is a long exposure time; the correct amount of light that can travel to your camera is essential. Without that, you might as well reserve to photography during the daytime.

Don’t get discouraged (and don’t be embarrassed at the prospect of walking around with a bulky tripod)! Just remember that while our eyes capture the beauty of a building or landmark at night because we can see the proper amount of light, the camera is just not as sophisticated as we are, and you will need to make the proper adjustments in order to create successful night photos.

2 Responses to “Why Can’t I Take Good Photos at Night?”

  1. I am envious of your pictures. I hope to one day get a “real camera” as well. I do suppose there is more to a camera than high megapixels.

  2. Hey PixelHead, thanks for the compliments. :) I hope you’re not considering those “photo of the day” photos mine — they’ve actually been gathered from Flickr. I’ll usually credit the owner of the photo when it’s not mine and will use mine for examples without credit. In this post, all of these example photos are mine. :)

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