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Night Photography

Updated on April 10, 2011

Photography in one way or another can still be carried on out of doors after the sun has set, by the afterglow in the sky in the period of dusk, by existing street, shop-window, or floodlighting, and by moonlight. The photographer can supplement these effects to a greater or less extent by adding lighting of his own- generally flash.



The camera, its accessories, and a firm tripod form the principal items of equipment. There is one important addition that does not usually form part of a photographer's kit— a pocket torch.

There are some after-sunset pictures that can be taken with any camera and others that call for something special. If the lighting is so feeble that the photograph needs a time exposure, with the camera mounted on a tripod or other support, then one camera is as good as another. Night scenes were photographed in this way as early as the beginning of the century with lenses and sensitized materials that were impossibly slow by modern standards. So for time exposures, even a box camera will serve; the quality of the results being as good as its simple lens and limited adjustments will permit. The subject in all such cases must of course be still.

Moving subjects call for a lens with an aperture of f3.5 or preferably f2.0 with accurate focusing and a shutter giving automatic exposures down to half a second. With such subjects it is not essential for the camera to be on a tripod, but some form of support is usually desirable. This is the field of the miniature camera and, in fact, the advent of this type of instrument, together with modern high-speed panchromatic emulsion, was directly responsible for the popularity of night photography.

Whatever the camera, it must have a large, clear viewfinder, plainly marked scales, and a deep lens hood. Automatic film transport is a desirable feature as it is difficult to see film numbering at night. A bloomed lens is an advantage when there are artificial lights facing the camera.


Apart from photographs taken by dusk, moonlight, or lightning, all photography at night relies on the presence of some form of artificial lighting. This may consist of isolated street lamps or of masses of lights in busy city centers, in arcades and fair grounds, or of the special concentrations of lights at the foot of floodlit buildings. The subject may be the pattern made by the lights themselves, or an illuminated scene in which the light sources may or may not appear.


In every case, the special character of the illumination has to be considered and, in the main, this means its peculiarity of falling off abruptly at a short distance away from the source. This is the result of the operation of the inverse square law. Artificial lighting indoors is either concentrated by reflectors or so much of it is reflected back on to the subject by walls and ceiling that the law applies only in a very modified fashion. But outdoor lighting usually radiates in all directions and is not often reflected back in useful amounts by light surfaces nearby. So the intensity of outdoor lighting at, say 20 feet from the source is only quarter the intensity at 10 feet, at 30 feet it is one-ninth, at 40 feet it is one-sixteenth and so on.

The consequence is that the picture tends to concentrate itself into localized pools of light immediately surrounding the source, with featureless areas of black in between. This is not what the eye, with its tremendous range of sensitivities, sees when it looks at the same scene. So the picture is apt to be disappointing and not at all what the photographer hoped to get when he made the exposure.

There are several things that can be done to improve the picture. The first is to choose scenes in which there are light-reflecting surfaces (buildings, foliage and flowers, even vehicles) to make the most of what light there is in the faintly illuminated areas. Secondly, the highlights in the picture can be doubled by choosing a rainy night (preferably just after a shower) when they are reflected in the wet pavement. It is often possible to make use of the surface of a river or lake in the same way, while snow-covered ground and light dusty road surfaces are equally helpful.

The violent contrasts of the scene can be reduced still further by keeping the light source out of the picture. This can often be done by choosing a viewpoint where the sources lie outside the field of the lens. Another solution is to choose a position where a foreground object (e.g., the trunk of a tree or a lamp-post) comes between the light source and the camera. This trick is particularly effective when the obstruction has a recognizable shape- e.g., a piece of statuary or even a human figure.

It also helps to use a low-contrast, sensitized material—i.e., one of soft gradation. This point is generally taken care of automatically, since the night photographer almost always uses fast panchromatic materials which tend in any case to have a soft gradation.

For the same reason, exposure should be on the generous side to get the maximum shadow detail, and development can safely be cut by 25 per cent to prevent the highlights from blocking up.

Using Flash

When flash is used out of doors at night there are no light surroundings, like ceilings and walls, to act as reflectors and throw indirect light back on to the subject and its setting. So flashlight in the open falls off rapidly and illuminates nothing beyond the actual subject. (It also illuminates any foreground objects very brightly so that they can quite easily steal the picture.)

This characteristic offers a valuable means of completely isolating a particular subject. Anything photographed in this way prints out against a solid black background. If the background and setting are necessary, the easiest way to handle the problem is to shoot around dusk, when there is just enough sky light remaining to record the setting while the shutter is open for the flash. Usually, the best way to do this is to light the subject by open flash technique and leave the shutter open long enough to give the required exposure to the landscape. Many novel effects can be created by this method of combining flash and evening light.


When the light sources appear in the picture, they are bound to show some sign of halation. This causes the image of the source itself to spread, and surrounds it with a halo of scattered light. As a rule, the longer the exposure and development, the worse the halation. It is also worse with unbacked materials, but nowadays any plate or film likely to be used for night photography is backed or treated against halation by the manufacturer.

Halation can be avoided by cutting out the light source, or it can be kept to a minimum by giving no more exposure or development than is absolutely necessary. Development in a surface developer is also an excellent way of avoiding halation. Finally, it can be lessened by rubbing down the affected areas of the negative with a fine abrasive paste like Baskett's reducer. But it must be remembered that a trace of halation adds a natural radiance to the light sources that can be most effective.


Most lenses produce some form of flare, but there is generally some position of the source where flare is avoidable. These positions can be found by setting up a candle or lighted torch bulb in a darkroom, focusing the lens on it, and noting the effect of shifting the image about on the focusing screen. Any serious flare noted can be avoided by keeping the light source away from the corresponding position of the test light in the picture area.

The position of a flare patch on the focusing screen of a twin lens reflex is no indication that the taking lens will form a similar patch on the negative. Flare in most lenses is generally worst at small apertures. Coating a lens reduces the likelihood of flare; any photographer who intends to take up night photography can always have the lens of his camera coated reasonably cheaply if it is not coated already.


At night it is difficult to focus by any of the regular methods, because the subject is too dim to be seen in a focusing screen or a rangefinder field, and the light sources are too intense. The camera can be focused on a torch held near the subject; another method is to measure or pace out the distance, or, if necessary, estimate it. Slight errors in focusing are in any case less noticeable in a night photograph. As a rough rule the lens should be focused on a point about one-third of the way from the front edge of the depth of the field to be covered sharply, but it is easier to turn it right to the infinity stop for scenes where the interest lies beyond about 50 feet.


There is no single correct exposure for any night subject; everything depends on what the final print has to show. The minimum exposure that will register the light sources would be adequate where the picture consisted of a pattern of lights only, but as soon as the negative must include an image of objects or scenery illuminated by the light source, then it becomes necessary to give a longer exposure. And the longer the exposure, the more of the scene will appear in the final print.

At the same time, there is no point in giving such a lengthy exposure that the details of the subject will be as plain as in a daylight photograph, because without some proportion of completely black shadow the photograph would lose the essential after-dark atmosphere. So the best exposure will generally lie somewhere between the above extremes. In practice this allows a great deal of latitude which is extended still further at the printing stage. By choosing a hard or soft paper, the amount of shadow detail in the final print can be widely controlled.

All that can be said about exposure is that it should be based on a selective exposure meter reading, interpreted in the light of experience and experiment and study of data published with night photographs taken under similar conditions. A rough starting point is indicated for each of the various classes of subject that are dealt with below.

Most night pictures are time exposures made with the camera mounted on a steady support or a tripod. In addition to the usual precautions taken to ensure that the camera does not move during the exposure, a special technique is necessary if there are passers-by or lighted vehicles moving in front of the camera. A piece of black card is held in front of the lens while the interruption is going on and removed as soon as it is over. This procedure can be repeated ad lib, so long as a check is kept to see that the total time for which the lens is uncovered adds up to the required exposure. However, people walking fairly quickly across the picture can be neglected; they will not affect the image.

Sensitized Materials

Since even the brightest of night scenes is dull compared with daylight, only the fastest panchromatic materials can be considered. Even for time exposures it is better to use fast panchromatic materials for the sake of their softer gradation.

Often the fastest materials are still not fast enough- particularly for use in a camera with an f4.5 or smaller lens. At such times it is worth-while hypersensitizing the film or plate. This can be done either before or after exposure. There are various methods of hypersensitizing which can be expected to double or treble the speed of the material for a few days at least.

Processing and Printing

As the subject contrasts are generally too extreme to be recorded by the film, development should aim at low contrast- e.g., by curtailing the development time up to 25 per cent, by employing two bath or water bath development, or (preferably) by developing in a compensating fine-grain formula. Fireworks and similar light trace patterns, however, are rendered best by development in an ordinary M.Q. developer to get extra contrast.

The typical night photograph is best printed on a fairly hard grade of paper to bring out the shadow detail and to also reproduce good quality blacks.


The best time for taking open scenery and panoramas is immediately after the sun has set, and as soon as the buildings and streets are lighted up. At such times there is still enough sky light left to show up silhouettes of buildings and the line of the horizon, while lighted windows and street lamps stand out against an inky-black background.

Open landscapes with plenty of lighted roads and buildings (or even public illuminations) make excellent pictures taken in this way. Sometimes a better result is achieved by making two exposures, one just after the sun has set, and another very much later, when all the lights have been switched on. The camera must of course be left untouched on the tripod between exposures.

The exposure for the landscape immediately after sunset should be 4 to 8 seconds at f8 on fast panchromatic film. If a second exposure is given later to get more lights in the picture, the same exposure should be given.


In the older parts of most towns there are lamplit street corners, archways, flights of steps and alleys that make excellent picture material. Generally all that is needed is a suitable figure either under the lamp or silhouetted against its light and the result is an atmospheric picture that can be taken even with a box camera. If the light is reflected in a wet pavement, so much the better. Exposure will be anything from 5 to 10 minutes at f11.

Street scenes in the busier part of the town call for instantaneous exposures to arrest movement. Fortunately the lighting is more powerful in such places and, by shooting when the subject is well within the full brilliance of the lamp, exposures as short as 1/25 at f3.5 will give a reasonable image. At this speed the movement should be towards or away from the camera. By taking the moving figures in silhouette against a brightly lighted surface, or against lights reflected in a wet pavement, even higher speeds may be used.

Many of the latest types of mercury or sodium vapor street lamps enable much shorter exposures than this to be given, particularly if the subject or group is standing directly under the lamp and silhouetted against pavement reflections from other lights. A single figure can be very effectively photographed looking at a newspaper under the street light, because the newspaper acts as a light reflector to improve the illumination of the face.

Shop Windows

Lighted shop windows give an opportunity for two types of picture: the display figures and window-dressing arrangements and people looking at the window.

1) As the lighting is all directed away from the observer, there is no danger of flare or halation and the results are usually excellent.

One or two window shoppers silhouetted against the light help to make things more interesting. Exposures will depend on the number and power of the lamps (which vary widely) and a photo-electric meter reading is the only answer.

2) A camera station well to the side is necessary to show the faces of the spectators as well as something of what they are looking at. This gives the photographer a chance to steady the camera against the side of the building and take a time exposure. As the faces are lit only by reflected light, the exposure must be as long as can be given without showing movement. Since the subjects are interested in what they are looking at, it is often possible to give an exposure as long as 5 seconds, but even at 1 second the result may be satisfactory.

Busy Centers

Every city has its Piccadilly Circus where there is a general blaze of light from street lamps, lighted shop windows, advertising signs and the like. Here there are interesting groups of people, newspaper and flower sellers, traffic and lively action. The possible subjects are endless and the light is generally strong enough to make snapshooting possible. Even so, the longest practicable exposure should always be given at the greatest stop that will give the required depth of field. A tripod will be out of the question, but there is never any shortage of lamp-posts, pillar boxes etc., to serve as a camera rest.

For general views of the centre, it is a good idea to shoot when traffic is stationary, just as the traffic lights are changing over. This is the right time also to catch pedestrians waiting to cross and who are generally standing under the brightest illumination.

Normal shots around centers of this type should be given an exposure of 1/10 second at f2, but by carefully timing the instant of exposure it is possible to get pictures which show little movement at 1/2 second at f4.5.

A novel type of picture results from stopping down the lens and giving a long time exposure during which the lights of moving vehicles register as parallel streaks of light. For this type of shot the camera should be on a tripod and if possible looking down on the center.

Fairs and Markets

Pictures around fairs at night call for a variety of techniques because the subjects and lighting vary so widely. Generally speaking, there is not much point in trying to get pictures in the poorly lighted spots. The fun of the fair is in its life and action, and there are usually a number of vantage points around the more elaborate mechanical entertainments where the lighting is bright enough for instantaneous exposures. Here, the technique recommended for busy city centers will apply and exposures will be about the same.

Brightly lighted stalls like shooting galleries, houp-la, and coconut shies can be tackled like shop windows—i.e., showing the spectators silhouetted against the brightly lighted background of prizes, or shooting from the side to catch their expressions. Markets with their stalls, cheap-jacks and their audiences can be dealt with in the same way.

One great advantage of the individual lighting in such places is that, by taking a little trouble over the viewpoint, it is generally possible to isolate the subject completely against a dark background.

Finally, the long exposure technique applied to roundabouts, switch-backs or the Big Wheel will often yield delightful light-trace patterns if the shutter is left open for one or more revolutions.

Floodlit Buildings

These are ideal subjects for simple cameras, since they can be given a long time exposure without any fear of movement. The building should first be studied from every angle to find the most effective viewpoint- it is rarely the flatly-lighted view from straight in front that shows the subject to the best advantage. With a camera that has no rising front movement it will usually be necessary to choose a distant viewpoint to keep the tilt of the camera as small as possible. At the same time, a violent tilt from a close-up viewpoint may be effective.

The subject should be framed if possible (e.g., by shooting from between trees or foliage, or the bold shapes of other buildings) to give a feeling of depth and distance. A foreground figure silhouetted against the light is an alternative device for imparting space.

Exposures with this type of subject vary with the intensity of the floodlighting and the color of the building. Average conditions call for about one second at /8 for white lighting; when the lighting is colored, it is generally weaker, and will require up to four times the white light exposure.


It is possible to make color pictures of after-dark scenes which include artificial lighting, but it is difficult or impossible to get the color values exact. If the lighting is a mixture (as it usually is) of tungsten, fluorescent and gas discharge light sources, no single type of color film can reproduce them all faithfully at one and the same time. The result, whether you use color film corrected for artificial or daylight, is bound to be a compromise. This does not always mean that the result will be unpleasant, but it will not be an exact reproduction of the colors of each light source.

The problem is worse when there is still some daylight left in the sky and you want to reproduce it as well as the street lighting, advertising signs, lighted house and shop windows and so on. A professional photographer will generally use artificial light material and concentrate on getting good, clear colors in the man-made lighting. Amateurs usually want to shoot only one or two frames on this kind of subject and are not prepared to load up with an A-type color film when the greater part of it would be wasted. Those who shoot off a few night exposures on a daylight color film must put up with a certain amount of color distortion, however carefully they gauge the exposure.

The extreme lighting contrast of night photographs also means that the dark parts of the picture are invariably underexposed- they are, after all, night. Similarly, light sources in the picture are over-exposed, While this does not necessarily detract from the pictorial effect, it does mean that on color film a certain amount of distortion of the shadow and brightest tones occurs. With long exposure times, reciprocity failure effects lead to further color changes. In practice, the results are usually still acceptable, especially as few people can accurately remember (or even reliably see) the color values in a dimly lit scene.

Paradoxically, accurate exposure in night photographs is not so critical, because the exposure level mainly affects the degree of gloom or brightness in the final color transparency. Accordingly, the effects obtained vary with the exposure, but the result is an authentic night shot over a surprising range of exposure levels. Without this pseudo-latitude successful night photography would be impossible.


Taking photographs in the rain at night is an unpleasant procedure, but it is always worth while going out with a camera immediately after a shower when the wet pavements and roads reflect all the lights of street lamps, shop windows, advertising signs and so on. The pavement reflections also form a bright background to figures and objects that would otherwise be lost. The extra reflected light enables exposures for most subjects to be cut by about a half.


A covering of snow is an even better reflector which also adds a touch of novelty to the most ordinary scene. Powerful lights near the camera should be avoided as they will create a glare in the foreground that nothing else in the picture will be able to compete with. Shooting during a snow-fall gives the picture a misty, soft-focus appearance.

Exposures can be cut to half the normal value or even less.

The use of a lens hood is desirable to protect the lens against falling snow.

Mist and Fog

Both these conditions affect the subject in the same way: they obliterate distant lights and put a luminous halo around the ones nearer the camera. So they tend to isolate and simplify the subject and lend it an atmosphere of mystery or unreality.

Here again, a well-placed figure can often have a dramatic impact.

There is no need to increase the normal exposure- in fact, particularly in mist, it may be possible to reduce it. This is because the mist acts as a reflector and actually increases the illumination of the shadows.


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    • TrahnTheMan profile image


      6 years ago from Asia, Oceania & between

      Wow. Super thorough article! I just got a 50mm f1.8 (although I've used a 1.4 previously, but I couldn't afford the cost of that extra stop) and it's really incredible to be able to shoot at night inside without a flash. One thing I've wondered about though is taking pictures of fire works. Even at night, is an ND filter necessary to get the long streaks of a rising rocket and it's umbrella explosion?

    • rjsadowski profile image


      7 years ago

      A superb article. I particularly enjoyed the advice about taking pictures at night. Back in the 1960s all I had was a tripod, a Minolta SR1 and some Kodacrome 25, but I still got some excellent night pictures. As I recall, inspite of all of my efforts to prepare for a time exposure, bracketing the exposures really paid off. Unfortunately, I seldom take pictures now.

    • RenePogel profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from behind the camera

      Get one and you can fully explore the other 12 hours of a day when darkness reigns!

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      This is a splendidly thorough and fantastic guide, RenePogel! I really need to get a better lens for shooting at night!


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