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How to photograph at night

Night photography is a lesser known and often underutilized photographic discipline. And for good reason: light is the basis of the photographic language, so what do you do when it is missing? This is the paradox of night photography. Yet there are many scenes to photograph before or after sunrise.

The night offers a unique setting for photography: from the glittering lights of the city to the mysterious shadows of the countryside and the starry sky, there are a multitude of subjects available to photographers who practice capturing the dark.

Night photography is at the intersection of many photographic disciplines. After dark, urban, architectural, and street photography take on a whole new dimension. If the sky is clear, you can also try your hand at astronomical photography. Capturing this atmosphere through the lens of a camera is the work of the night photographer.

© Anton Reyes – Spéos

Night-time exposure techniques for stunning results

The main characteristic of night photography is the limited amount of natural light available. This is a crucial point that puts many photographers off, but with the help of a few exposure techniques, it is entirely possible to capture the nocturnal glow.

To fully capture the magic of the night, there are three parameters to consider: ISO sensitivity, diaphragm aperture and exposure time (shutter speed). These are the three main parameters that control the exposure of an image. The relationship between these three parameters is what is commonly referred to in photography as the “exposure triangle”.

© Florian Poitout – Spéos

ISO sensitivity: ISO sensitivity measures the camera sensor’s ability to capture light. Increasing the ISO value allows the sensor to capture more light in less time — a great way to compensate for lack of light!
Be careful, however, as higher ISO values will certainly make the image brighter, but they can also introduce noise (grain) into the photo. In photography, the term “noise” refers to the presence of unwanted pixels, giving a grainy appearance to an image. It can affect overall image quality by reducing sharpness and clarity.
To avoid this problem, it is best not to use the automatic ISO sensitivity, as it can sometimes select values that are too high. It is better to use manual mode, starting with a low ISO sensitivity (100-400) and gradually increasing the sensitivity as needed.

Aperture: also known as the f-stop, the aperture is the setting that controls the amount of light entering the camera.
It is important to understand the intricacies of this setting when starting out in night photography. The term “f-stop” is a number representing the ratio between the focal length of the lens and the diameter of the aperture. A smaller f-stop number (for example, f/1.4) indicates a wider aperture, allowing more light to reach the camera sensor. Conversely, a higher f-stop number (e.g. f/16) represents a smaller aperture, allowing less light to pass through. In night photography, we generally use a maximum aperture between (f/1.4, f/2.8) to allow more light to reach the sensor.
However, combining this with a high ISO sensitivity can lead to compromises in depth of field.It’s best to experiment with different aperture values to find the right balance between the amount of light needed and the desired depth of field.

Shutter speed: in night photography, you’ll choose a shutter speed of between 1 second and several seconds, depending on the ambient light and the effect you want to achieve. A slower shutter speed allows more light to reach the sensor. Again, using a slow shutter speed has a direct effect on the image. A slower exposure increases the risk of motion blur, whether due to hand tremors or changes in the subject’s position. This parameter must therefore be taken into account before increasing the exposure time. Motion blur can be seen as an aesthetic flaw in photography, but it can also be used creatively to capture streaks of light, such as traffic lights or stars. This can create very artistic results and add a special atmosphere to night photography.
These subtle adjustments can produce striking results that emphasize the nighttime glow in low-light conditions.

© Anton Reyes – Spéos

Urban and natural lighting in night photography

Once you’ve mastered the exposure triangle, you know how to compensate for lack of light, but to get quality shots at night, you also need to look at composition. And to do that, you need lighting. In fact, the whole point of night photography is to find sources of light.

Exploring urban neighborhoods reveals many artificial light sources. Illuminated windows, neon signs and streetlights are all sources of light. The night photographer’s job is to play with the urban lights to create reflections, shadows, and plays of light that add depth to these photographs.

For example, they may choose to photograph subjects specifically lit by artificial sources. This highlights the subject in the context of the surrounding natural light. They can also work with the effects of light trails created by the movement of cars, people or other moving light sources. This adds dynamism to the composition. Playing with urban lighting creates visually rich and evocative compositions.

On the other hand, the night photographer can also take advantage of the available natural light. The moon, stars, and twilight create a soft, enveloping natural glow that can be used to subtly illuminate subjects. The best time to do this is during the so-called blue hours. Just after or just before sunset, the soft light of these blue hours creates a soft glow that blends well with urban lighting.
It is by combining artificial and natural light that allows the night photographers to capture the most complex and visually interesting scenes.

© Manu Gim – Spéos

Post-processing specific to night photography

Once you’ve mastered the exposure triangle and explored urban lighting, it is time to sublimate everything with appropriate post-processing, to further enhance the mystical atmosphere of the night.

Post-processing in night photography requires a delicate approach to get the best out of each image. It involves the subtle adjustment of various parameters to achieve the desired visual effect, while preserving the nocturnal atmosphere captured at the time of shooting.

As mentioned above, night photography often uses high ISO settings to compensate for the lack of light. This can lead to digital noise, which can be reduced with post-processing software.

The same goes for contrast and brightness. By adjusting contrast and brightness levels, you can enhance detail in shadows without affecting bright areas, thus adding depth to images.

Night photography often has a special atmosphere, with the interplay of light and shadow creating mysterious, dramatic or simply captivating scenes. Post-processing can be used to adjust exposure and intensify night tones, to sublimate the mystical atmosphere of the night.
Creative effects can also be added, playing with blur, textures or specific tones to make the result of the shot even more striking. Whether in the city under city lights or in remote locations under a starry sky, night offers unique perspectives that reveal a different, compelling dimension of the world around us during the day. Night photography offers a rich and diverse artistic space, allowing photographers to explore their creativity while overcoming the technical challenges associated with low light.

By combining night-time exposure techniques, the skillful use of urban and natural lighting and the application of specific post-processing, darkness becomes a playground for the creation of images that are as dazzling as they are original.

© Anton Reyes – Spéos

Discover the training courses at Spéos

Spéos offers a range of training courses, from simple one-week photography courses (introductory and advanced) to 1-year, 2-year or 3-year courses. Long-term training courses to become a professional photographer not only enable you to master all photographic techniques and vocabulary (blur, hyperfocus, sharpness zone, depth of field, backlighting, focal length, shutter release, autofocus, wide-angle, rule of thirds, etc.), but also all stages of shooting and image processing.

Visiting the school allows you to discover the premises, studios and equipment. In addition to Open Days, Spéos offers visits by appointment throughout the year, so that you can discover the school in the company of a member of the team.

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