Back to Blog
header graphic for a photography blog about shooting photos at night

After Dark: Mastering Night Photography

beginners creative technique tips Apr 17, 2024

Photography, by its very nature, is the art of “painting with light”. But what happens when the sun sets, and there’s very little light to capture?  With a little bit of planning, it’s the time of day that opens up lots of opportunities for fantastic images. Familiar scenes take on a new life as buildings are illuminated artificially and the absence of light in some areas can be used to your advantage by hiding unsightly areas of your composition.  It’s a world where long exposures, patience, and a tripod is all you need to capture stunning photographs.


Why Dusk or the 'Magic Hour' is better than midnight

The time just after sunset, often called the magic hour, is a treasure trove for photographers. The sky, painted in hues of pink, orange, and purple, provides a soft background that outlines your subject and provides a subtle light in the shadow areas without being too obtrusive. Depending on the weather conditions there’s usually a 30 minute window of opportunity immediately after the sun sets before the colour in the sky fades to complete blackness, so it’s important to plan ahead and be in position with your tripod.



It’s perfectly possible to take photographs after magic hour, when the sky is almost black, but to do so you will need to rely on artificial light sources as your only illumination. These can create stark, high contrast images and often result in a flat or monochromatic palette dominated by the strongest light source. While this can certainly be dramatic, the nuanced colours and soft shadows of dusk often offer a more interesting palette.


The Role of a Tripod in Night Photography

The magic of night photography often lies in capturing movements and lights that our eyes cannot see in real-time. This is where long exposures come into play, and a tripod becomes your best friend. Long exposures allow your camera to capture light over an extended period, making everything from star trails to streaking city lights beautifully visible. A tripod ensures that your camera stays perfectly still during this time, preventing any blur that might come from even the slightest movement. If possible, couple this with a shutter release cable or remote release to ensure that there is no inadvertent movement when depressing the shutter button.


Getting to Grips with Long Exposures

Long exposure photography at night is a game of balance. You’re balancing the need for enough light to create a compelling image with the need to avoid so much exposure that your photo becomes overblown or loses its definition. Start with setting your camera to a low ISO to reduce noise and a wide to medium aperture depending on the depth of field (DOF) you need in your image. Many dusk/night images tend to be wide scenes including illuminated buildings etc so your lens will probably be focused on infinity anyway negating the need for a really small aperture to maximise DOF.  Then, experiment with shutter speeds; start from a few seconds and extend to minutes if your scene is particularly dark. If you haven’t got a remote shutter release use your camera’s timer to avoid shaking the camera when pressing the shutter button.


Planning your shoot

Scout Your Location: The right spot can make a world of difference. Look for places with interesting light patterns, reflections, or subjects that can anchor your composition.

Timing: Aim to arrive at your location before dusk to set up and capture the transition from daylight to twilight. Pay attention to the sky.  A clear sky will turn a deep shade of blue, but clouds can enhance the drama and diffuse the light beautifully.

Cityscapes at Night: Urban environments come alive at night. Use long exposures to capture the flow of traffic as streaks of light, or focus on illuminated buildings against the night sky.

Natural Landscapes: Don’t shy away from natural scenes. Moonlit landscapes or skies peppered with stars can create awe-inspiring photos. Consider using a wider aperture if your focus is on the stars and keep your exposures between 15-30 seconds if possible to avoid star blur caused by the earths rotation.

Experiment with White Balance: Auto white balance may not always capture the mood of a night scene accurately, particularly in cityscapes where there may be mixed light sources such as neon, LED, sodium, etc. Try adjusting your white balance settings manually to warm up or cool down your image, depending on the effect you’re after. Ideally, shoot RAW files rather than JPG so that you have more flexibility in processing later.

Manage high contrast with HDR: If your night scene is particularly high in contrast consider shooting several images at varying exposures (use the automatic bracketing feature of your camera) and then merge them in post production to create a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image. It’s a great way to maintain detail in both the highlight and shadow areas when it can’t be achieved in a single exposure.


Avoiding Common Pitfalls

New photographers might find their night photos blurred or underexposed. This often comes down to not using a tripod or not allowing enough time for the exposure. Remember, night photography isn't about capturing what's immediately visible; it's about revealing the unseen through your camera's lens.

Avoid the automatic modes on your camera as most of them will attempt to make your night scene as bright as daylight. Manual is best, but if you only have access to automatic modes then use the exposure compensation feature (look for the +/- symbol) to tweak the exposure until you get the result you want.


Embrace the Night

Dusk and night photography might seem daunting at first, but they offer unparalleled opportunities for creativity and expression. With a tripod, a bit of technical knowledge, and a willingness to experiment, you can unlock a whole new world of photographic possibilities. So, as the day ends, don’t pack away your camera - set it up, step into the twilight, and let the night reveal its secrets to you. In the world of night photography, the end of the day is just the beginning.


Our weekly Tips and Techniques email is FREE.

Sign up today, unsubscribe anytime.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.

Don't miss out on unlocking your full photography potential. Join the MYP community on a monthly subscription to gain exclusive access to photo critiques, expert tutorials, and a network of like-minded photographers. Transform your skills from amateur to awe-inspiring.

Tell me more