Long Exposure Night Photography Tutorial

Written by Jesse Warren Thursday, 28 January 2010 10:29

Long exposure night photography offers an extensive array of creative possibilities for photographers. Although night photography is best done with a DSLR, compact point and shoot cameras are also capable of producing spectacular results.



However, for greater control and flexibility, nothing can replace a DSLR; the possibilities are endless. This tutorial will explain the basics of night photography, with several examples of special applications.

•  The most important thing for effective night photography is a good, sturdy tripod . You may be able to get by at times by placing your camera on the ground, tables, or ledges; but a good quality tripod will make it much more easier.

•  Whenever possible, shoot at your camera's lowest ISO setting. This will give you the cleanest image with the least amount of noise. If you camera limits exposure time, it may be necessary to increase the ISO value to capture enough light. The resulting images will have more noise, but that is the price one must pay. Low ISO values can still be used if one is shooting in Bulb Mode (more details later).

•  Enable the self-timer and if possible, set the mirror lock-up ( MLU ). The self-timer should be set before a long exposure to prevent motion blur generated from camera shake. MLU is another important setting which prevents vibrations that may blur the picture. It flips the mirror up before the shutter opens, allowing the vibrations to subside before the exposure. Using these two settings in conjunction with each other will ensure a sharp, blur-free image. Using a remote cord or wireless trigger can also prevent vibration which blurs the picture.

•  Set the manual focus to infinity when shooting landscapes at night. In extremely dark environments, auto focus often hunts and is unable to lock down; therefore, manual focus should be used and set to focus at an infinite distance, thus bringing the entire scene into focus and delivering a sharp image. Higher aperture values also help to bring a maximum amount of scenery into focus, as they produce a much deeper depth of field, as well as a sharper image in general.

•  Shoot in Bulb mode . This feature gives you the greatest flexibility possible for night photography. Bulb mode allows you to expose for any given period of time, whether it be 2 seconds, 2 minutes, or 2 hours. Aperture and ISO are pre-set, but the shutter speed is determined by you. This can be tricky, but with some practice, it will come natural. The best way to learn is to experiment. To shoot in Bulb mode, you will usually need a remote trigger.

•  Shoot in RAW mode to ensure accurate white balance and exposure. White balance can be a tricky thing at night, and the only sure way to get it right is to shoot in RAW, enabling you to adjust the white balance after the shot is made. The same applies to accurate exposure. If you prefer to shoot JPEG, you can use a white balance cap to give more accurate white balance results. It also helps to experiment with different white balance settings; Tungsten often produces more accurate results, which helps to capture the tone of light often found at night.

Here are a few examples and special applications of long exposure night photography:


Although not quite night yet, shooting at dusk employs the same techniques. There's only a small window of time to capture light like this, so pay attention to timing and colors. (Photo: Jesse Warren )


This long exposure was taken with a film camera and a remote shutter. Long star trails like this require shutter speeds as long as one hour. (Photo: Matthew Saville )


Light trails can be made using a flashlight, laser pointer, cell phones, or other devices with strong concentrated sources of light. With long exposures, you can get as creative as your imagination allows. (Photo: Matthew Saville )


30 second exposures are about as long as you can go before stars start to appear as little trails instead of the bright concentrated points of light that they are. (Photo: Jesse Warren )


Twirl your camera around during the last seconds of a long exposure in order to get “firefly” trails such as seen above. (Photo: Jesse Warren )


This shot was taken using a remote trigger and Bulb Mode, exposed for 82 seconds. Sometimes light levels are so low that they require longer exposures than your camera allows. (Photo: Jesse Warren )


To produce a ghostly portrait effect, simply pop the flash, then walk away while your camera continues to finish the long exposure. (Photo: Jesse Warren )


Long exposure night photography can even make night scenes almost look like daytime, as seen here on Kuta Beach in Bali. (Photo: Jesse Warren )


Seeking out high ground, using wide angles, and composing carefully can often give you a unique perspective in your long exposure night photography. (Photo: Jesse Warren )


Compact cameras are also capable of decent night photography shots, albeit at a price. For less noise and longer exposures, use a DSLR. This was taken with an old Can A75 at ISO 400. (Photo: Jesse Warren )

Last Updated on Thursday, 17 June 2010 16:56