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Flashless night photography - long exposure techniques for beginners

Updated on September 8, 2014

Most casual camera snapshooters take it for granted that when taking pictures at night, the camera will automatically deliver a burst of light from its built-in flash - enough for the job at hand, usually a person or group of people standing just a few feet away.

What, no flash?
Most are completely unaware that there are interesting 'flashless' shots that can be taken at night with nothing more than the same camera and available light. Flashless night photos such as the ones featured here need long exposure times. That means the camera's shutter must be allowed to remain open for long enough to allow sufficient light to expose the shot properly. It's essential that the camera is firmly fixed in place by means of a tripod or by resting the camera on a level surface. Unless you want a special effect such as in the bottom picture of light trails, you can't hold the camera by hand, as there's no way that you could hold it steady enough for the time required. If you've only ever used the 'auto' setting on your camera, this is your chance to check out the manual options which let you control, among other things, the shutter speed.

Lightning flash - long exposure
Lightning flash - long exposure | Source


This picture was taken late at night as a thunderstorm was approaching. Of course, you'd have to be incredibly lucky or have, literally, 'lightning fast' reflexes to point your camera at a random area of night sky and capture a strike at exactly the right instant. A much surer technique is to choose a likely area of sky, i.e., in the direction of the approaching storm, set the shutter speed to around 10 seconds, fix the camera securely in place and take the shot. Use a tripod or fix it in place somehow. Don't touch the camera while the shutter is open. If you're lucky, a lightning strike will appear in the field of view. If not, try again and again, till one shows up. You've got until the rain arrives and makes a clear shot impossible.

Use your failed shots to experiment with other settings such as the camera's aperture. If you find the shot is over exposed, then select a higher f number to enable a smaller aperture. Alternatively, you can reduce the time that the shutter is open. Bear in mind though that the shorter the shutter speed, the more you reduce your chances of the shutter being open when the lightning decides to strike. This shot was taken in a city (Bangkok) so the city lights are going to overexpose. That's ok. It's not ideal but it's acceptable as they're aren't the subject of the photo. The shutter can't stay open too long though or the whole picture would soon over expose.
If you take the shot in the countryside away from lights, you can afford to keep the shutter open for longer and increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time, in terms of capturing the strike. Be aware, though, that being in the countryside, you also increase the chances of being in the wrong place at the wrong tome and end up being struck yourself. Cities are safer in this regard, as they're full of lightning conductors that offer lightning a more attractive route to earth.

Flash would obviously be completely ineffective in this type of shot, and anyway it pales into insignificance compared to the awesome burst of light energy supplied by the lightning itself - Mother Nature's very own flash gun.

Loch Lomond at night - long exposure
Loch Lomond at night - long exposure | Source

Loch Lomond at night

This picture was taken late at night in midsummer at Loch Lomond in the Scottish Highlands. Being quite far north, darkness comes pretty late in midsummer, so it was almost midnight before I got the chance to try it.
The camera was placed on a tripod and the shutter left open for almost a minute. Although the sky was almost (but not quite) pitch black to the naked eye, and the waters of the loch were too dark to see, leaving the shutter open long enough allowed what little light there was to slowly build up and make an impression on the camera's sensor (or film as was the case with this shot).
The sky has the most residual light and shows up brightest, with the water not far behind. The interesting thing about this photo, and the reason for taking it, is that the water is continually moving throughout the shot which results in a pronounced smearing, almost misty, effect.

The hills reflect very little light but the white building (hotel) can be clearly seen as well as a few light coloured hillside cottages. The tree stump reflects virtually no light at all. A touch of flash in this case may have thrown a little light on the tree stump and revealed some of its texture, but as a dark featureless sillhoutte rising eerily from the 'mist', it's more atmospheric.

Illuminated fountain - long exposure photography
Illuminated fountain - long exposure photography | Source

Illuminated fountain

Illuminated fountains always make good subjects. As with the Loch Lomond shot above, the water is constantly moving and the smearing effect is more pronounced. The water takes on the colour of the light too for a more interesting effect. Being so close to the light source, the shutter speed is only a few seconds, but as always, other controls on your camera such as aperture (F no.) and sensitivity (ISO) affect the exposure. Trial and error is the way to find the best settings, especially when you're subject, unlike the lightning, is there permanently and not going anywhere.

Hikawa Maru, floating restaurant, Yokohama - long exposure photography
Hikawa Maru, floating restaurant, Yokohama - long exposure photography | Source

Illuminated buildings

Ok - it's not a building - it's a ship. Actually it's a retired liner, now a floating restaurant in Yokohama harbour. These kinds of shot are straight forward. You need to experiment with the shutter speed to find the right value. The best setting depends on the brightness of the lights, which depends on their distance from the camera as well as their power. Start with a couple of seconds and increase or decrease accordingly.

Firework display - Bangkok
Firework display - Bangkok | Source
Fire trails in night sky - abstract symmetry photo manipulation technique
Fire trails in night sky - abstract symmetry photo manipulation technique | Source


Many digital cameras these days actually have a fireworks setting. Basically, it sets the shutter speed quite low and assumes that you will be a certain distance from the display. Don't rely on it. Bracket your shots, meaning take many shots while the display is going on, using shutter speeds above and below what the camera suggests. Most modern cameras offer automatic bracketing. You take one shot and the camera takes extra shots in rapid succession from your single press of the shutter. As with manual bracketing, these will have exposure settings above and below what the camera thinks is the optimal setting - just in case.

Artistic effects

The word photography means "painting with light". It's a good descriptive term because that's exactly what happens when you take a picture. The light enters the camera and makes an impression on the sensor or film. If you move the camera while the shutter is open, it normally ruins the shot, but with this kind of arty shot, moving the camera by hand causes the light to smear all over the image in an abstract way that can be interesting, or at least made interesting by a touch of post processing.

In this case, the light sources were from dozens of sky lanterns at a festival in Thailand. Only the light from their flame is visible; the lanterns themselves are too dark to register and don't stay in one place long enough to allow what little light they have to build up enough to make an impression on the sensor. Only the light from their flame is enough to register on the image. Both their movement and my unavoidable hand-held movement created an image of light trails across the night sky. I then used Photoshop to make a more colourful, symmetrical look.

If you're interested in this technique of making patterns from images of real life subjects read my article about it and see some more examples of this technique of 'abstract symmetry'.

© 2012 chasmac


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    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 5 years ago from UK

      Thanks Ray - Yes I agree. It's definitely worth taking some time to get the best results.

    • raydevlin profile image

      Ray Devlin 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Great work - i find that low light photography can be the most time consuming but easily the most rewarding of all photography disciplines!

    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 5 years ago from UK

      Thanks livingsta - It's appreciated

    • livingsta profile image

      livingsta 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Beautiful and informative Hub!

    • chasmac profile image

      chasmac 6 years ago from UK

      Thanks, Cassy and Ali for your positive comments. They're much appreciated.

    • alipuckett profile image

      alipuckett 6 years ago

      This is great! I almost never use flash. These photos are some truly exceptional examples of what can be accomplished without it!

    • CassyLu1981 profile image

      CassyLu1981 6 years ago from Spring Lake, NC

      I love doing this :) Great Hub!


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