Who doesn’t love those slighty surreal photos with vibrant colors and beaming lights, when cars and trains are turned into streaks of light and the sky suddenly glows in hues you didn’t even notice before. While it certainly requires a bit more than a regular skill set to approach night photography, already considering a few basic steps will make a huge difference. And the good news is, you won’t have to drag loads of high-end equipment along on your next journey.

But first things first. Researching tipps online will throw an overwhelming amount of advice on you. Of course there are thousands of expert-level photographers out there who are capable of adjusting even the slightest detail blindfolded. But if you are among those just starting out, don’t lose heart about this. Simply try not to follow all suggestions at once but narrow it down according to your camera knowledge and, if necessary, start with the basics.

cordula_nightshot01 Hand-held shot, camera stabilized by balustrade (25s, f20, ISO 200)

The prep-work: Camera
For night shots, it is important to use a device that lets you control its basic settings. You don’t have to go fully manual immediately but steering away from the preset modes is a must.

Now let’s take a look at aperture settings and exposure time (or shutter speed), controlling those is key. Aperture is the size of the lens opening; the shutter speed controls how long the shutter stays open. A large aperture lets in the most light and requires a shorter exposure time (faster shutter speed), a small aperture requires a a longer exposure time (slower shutter speed) since it takes longer for the light to reach the sensor.

It might be easiest to choose the aperture settings first and then adjust the shutter speed accordingly. When in doubt, it’s better to slightly underexpose your photos rather than overexposing them: Overexposing destroys details in the lighter parts of the picture which can not be restored in processing whereas you can always light up darker spots.

Speaking of darkness: Some cameras have difficulty focusing in low-light conditions. In this case, simply switch the lens to manual and focus on the lights. If they are distant, focus the lens to infinity.

The prep-work: Setting
Usually the blue hour, the time before and shortly after sunrise/sunset is best for low-light photography. Given you are on a city trip, you are certainly eager to capture the beautiful skyline during a dramatic sunset. But where is the best place to go? Make sure to pick your photography locations in advance as this will save you precious time before getting to work. Also, allow extra time in case the area/event you are heading to is popular with other photography enthusiasts.

Now let’s get the camera rolling.

cordula_nightshot02 Hand-held shot, no flash (1/30s, f3.5, ISO 720)

cordula_nightshot03 Hand-held shot, no flash (1/15s, f4.8, ISO 1600)

Don’t fire the Flash
One thing that will massively improve the quality of your night shots might not spring to mind first: Turn off the built-in flash. The flash is good to illuminate the immediate surroundings up to a distance of about 5 meters, depending on your camera model, which is not nearly enough to lighten up a rather far-away skyline. Quite the contrary: Everything in the far background will black out. Letting go of this source of light will require the addition of another helper: The tripod.

Standing still
A tripod usually is the best option to stabilize your camera as you are flexible in choosing your point of view. Then again, any other non-vibrating surface will do, too: A wall, a bench, balustrades, a suitcase, … By the way, bridge railings and bridges in general do slightly shake because of their architectural structure so depending on their style they might not be suitable. When considering a lighter travel tripod, make sure to pick one with a bottom hook on the center pole to attach weight for stabilization as even wind can cause unwanted camera movement. This leads up to the next step.

cordula_nightshot04 Photo taken with tripod (10s, f8, ISO 200)

cordula_nightshot05 Photo taken with tripod (20s, f5.6, ISO 200)

cordula_nightshot06 Notice the difference in lights and surfaces. The left photo was taken freehand (1/20s), the right one with a tripod (10s).

Don’t touch this
In low-light conditions, even the slightest camera movement results in blurry images. Vibrations can be caused by wind, an unstable underground or even by the touch of your finger when pushing the shutter. Every camera has a built-in self-timer, so simply use this one. Alternatively, you can use a remote or cable release.

Going freehand
If you’re out a about without a tripod and the lights are going low ? don’t worry. Most cameras/lenses have IS or VR (image stabilization or vibration reduction) to help you out. Also, opening the aperture wide will allow more light in and increase the shutter speed. If this is not enough, you can increase you camera’s ISO. ISO defines how sensitive your camera is to light. Rule of thumb: The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the camera, the shorter the exposure time. Try not to go overboard here as higher ISOs can result in more digital noise.

cordula_nightshot07 Hand-held shot, camera stabilized by sill and window pane (1/13s, f3.5, ISO 1600)

cordula_nightshot08 Hand-held shot (1/13s, f3.5, ISO 1600)

cordula_nightshot09 Hand-held shot, taken while walking (1/5s, f5.3, ISO 200)

Now, this might seem like a lot but really, don’t worry about getting everything right with the first shot. Experimenting can be fun, too. And if all else fails, don’t hesitate to put your camera back into the automatic mode and take it from there. Happy snapping!
Cordula Schaefer Cordula Schaefer is a photography enthusiast who loves to venture out to explore new places and hardly ever leaves the house without a camera. A New Yorker at heart, she is especially fond of city trips and has a soft spot for beautiful beachscapes. She currently bases herself in Berlin and keeps the visual documents of her travels at Cordugram.