Light Up The Dark with Night-time Photography

Night-time is a favorite time of mine to shoot photos

Night-time photography is shooting scenes after dark, by moonlight or street lighting, is a technique that many photographers have attempted. It involves a tripod-mounted camera with the shutter left open until enough light has reached the film or image sensor to create a properly exposed image. Even with today's fast films, exposures can be many minutes long, especially for pictures created by moonlight alone.

a highway image at night
The length of a night exposure causes the lights on moving cars to streak across a highway image at night

Night-time is a favorite time of mine to shoot photos. Shooting at night. You're faced with an completely new series of challenges to overcome for this photographic endeavor. I'm going to give you several tips, and of it's perhaps your first time venturing out at night with a camera in your hand, to help ensure youíre properly geared up.

The Blue Hour

The ostensible "blue hour" has become the holy grail on behalf of a great many night-time photographers. It's that time subsequent to the sun dropping below the horizon while the remaining light remnants have withered away and the sky turns into a deep indigo. Trees and skylines can still retain some definition while acquiring the glowing lights of the city. When this blue hour is over, the sky wilt into darkness taking that beautiful hue along with it. Many photographers wait until evening until this occurs, however truth is the "blue hour" also takes place during the hour before sunrise. I believe most people, are not like me, and would rather wait until the sun sets rather than have to get up in the early morning before the sun rises. Almost everyone is wide awake when the sun sets, However only a few of us can be wide awake at the blue hour before the morning dawn.  

Golden Gate Baker Beach
Golden Gate Baker Beach with the bridge lights reflecting on the bay

Getting it Together - Equipment

Before you head out on a shoot at night, you should check your gear to see if youíre really prepared. The most obvious thing of course is to check to see if your camera battery is fully charged. And don't do like I did (One time only) drive 30 miles and discover there's no battery at all in the camera, and no spare. Thereís quite as frustrating as arriving at your destination and recognizing there's enough battery left for only 15 minutes of shooting.

Remember your tripod! The most significant piece of photography equipment to have along at a night shoot! You will need it (period). Except if youíre intending on doing high-ISO photography and your objective is on street shooting or you have a bench or wall to place your camera on. A sturdy tripod is going to become your best friend over the next several hours. Now I realize itís a major pain in the lower back to take along and set it up, however the outcome will be well worth it.

Sunset on Pixley Slough
Sunset on Pixley Slough - Actually I cheated a little and used a Sunset Filter

Additionally, here's a few more suggestions to assure that you're ready for the shoot. Take your flashlight! Youíll be photographing in the dark! So unless your camera contains a bright back light on your display settings you're going to have to look at what it is youíre fine tuning. At some time, youíre probably also going to be digging for something out of your gear bag and the flashlight will become a priceless tool. Plus it could also be used to signal for help just in case you get lost.

Sunset on the deep water channel under Interstate-5
Sunset on the deep water channel under Interstate-5

Plan on using manual focus, since autofocus systems typically function poorly in low light environments. Newer digital cameras incorporate a Live View mode which often allows very accurate manual focusing. Bring a stopwatch, to time those long exposures when the camera's bulb setting is used.

Extra Battery and memory card. Not much else to say.

Remote Controller. Take a remote shutter release. I have one of these Nikon babies and it cost me all of $6.95. Thereís hardly anything more upsetting than acquiring the perfect image only to discover faint blurring effects caused by camera shake as you load your prized shots into Photoshop. (for sure, youíre not going to observe any faint blurring effects on that dinky 2 or 3 inch camera screen!)

Stockton Lowes store at night
This Stockton Lowes store at night photo was shot during the Blue Hour, about an hour after sunset. It was dark. It shows that the camera sees differently than the human eye
Reflective Safety Clothing. Be sure youíve properly dressed to be out in the dark. If youíre photographing during a cold night, then a nice warm jacket is a good thing to have along. Additionally, gloves will guarantee that your fingers won't freeze. If you have ears that become sensitive to cold, wear a hat. If you will be photographing along a busy street or highway, then a safety reflector vest is might just be a life vest. It would really mess up your photo shoot if you land in the hospital just because somebody didnít notice you standing by the road side.

If you are sincere about architecture, landscapes, long telephoto images, poor light or night photography, a sturdy tripod with even a better tripod head might just be the best camera accessory you ever acquire. When you want the ultimate in image quality, having a first-rate tripod should not be underestimated.


  • Celestial bodies (See astrophotography.)
  • The moon, stars, planets, etc.
  • Streets with or without cars
  • Abandoned buildings and artificial structures that are lit only by moonlight
  • City skylines
  • Factories and industrial areas, particularly those that are brightly lit and are emitting smoke or vapor
  • Fireworks
  • Nightlife or rock concerts
  • Bodies of water that are reflecting moonlight or city lights
  • Lakes, rivers, canals, etc.
  • Thunderstorms
  • Amusement rides

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