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7 Tips To Create Stunning Night Portraits

Updated on May 5, 2020
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Julian is a filmmaker and photographer. He received his M.A. in Communication from Wichita State and currently works for Yale University.

Background lighting courtesy of Old Chicago.
Background lighting courtesy of Old Chicago. | Source

There's a light at the end of this tunnel, it's just kind of dim right now.

So you've got the basics of portrait photography under your belt. You understand how your camera works, how to light, pose, and properly expose your photos. So naturally, you're ready for your next challenge, right?

One surefire way to improve your craft is to force yourself to shoot under demanding circumstances. In this case, we're going to talk about shooting after the sun has set, which means that light is going to be scarce. But just because natural light is hard to come by doesn't mean you're out of luck for photos. On the contrary, night photography can provide you with some of the most creative, vivid, and colorful photography you'll see.

But enough about all of this, let's jump in and make the dim light at the end of the tunnel a little brighter with these 7 simple steps!

1. Location Scouting

Besides your model, the location you choose is probably the most important aspect of shooting at night. You have to keep in mind that there isn't any natural light for you to use, so you'll either have to create your own light, or find some other man-made light source.

A day or two before your shoot, hop in your car, turn on some music, and cruise around the major streets of your city after the sun has gone down. Keep an eye out for places that have notable light sources that would make for interesting shots. Bars and other places of business usually have neon signs turned on after dark which make for vibrant props. Where I live, some of the major tattoo parlors have killer neon signs that I take advantage of when I shoot after dark.

I'd recommend keeping an eye out for these elements:

  • Neon lighting at bars and tattoo shops
  • Large business signs that are lit up
  • Places with plenty of street lights
  • Christmas lights (if you're shooting around the holidays)

Keep a list of the locations you find so you can be sure to get to all of them when you schedule your after dark photoshoot!

My local tattoo parlor's sign is killer.
My local tattoo parlor's sign is killer. | Source

2. Position Your Light Source Accordingly

Again, since light is so important for these photos, you need to be acutely aware of how you're positioning your light source for your portraits. You'll most likely do one of two things with the lights, so there's really only one question you need to ask yourself here: Is your light source going to be the backdrop, or the light source for the model?

If the lights are going to be the backdrop, then it'll naturally be behind or above your model, and create an interesting background for your viewers to look at.

As an example, here's a photo where I made the neon sign the backdrop.
As an example, here's a photo where I made the neon sign the backdrop. | Source

Of course, if your neon lights are behind your subject, it won't be providing any light to expose the model, which means you'll need to be prepared to light them yourself. In the case of the photo above, I used a string of fairy lights to add light on my model's face. This is a method that's really popular on Instagram right now, and you can pick up a string of lights pretty cheap at local stores or online. You could do something like I did in the photo, or even use the flashlight on your cell phone to illuminate them a little bit as well.

And the other option, if the neon light isn't going to be your backdrop, is to use it to illuminate your model. You'll typically do this by placing your model next to the light source or interacting with it in some way.

The sign to my model's right is the main light source for this photo.
The sign to my model's right is the main light source for this photo. | Source

You'll want to keep in mind with this method that whatever color the lights are, will be the dominant colors that will be on your model. Overly red, pink, or orange hues could potentially be unappealing if they're too strong. Properly exposing your image here is critical, and the neon tones can be taken down a little during editing to make sure they aren't too abrasive.

For additional information on shooting your neon and after dark portraits, check out this informative video:

3. Bring A Prop!

Regardless of what kind of portraits you're taking, I'd always say that props are great to have. They can add to the story of your portrait, give your model something to interact with, and just make your photos more interesting in general.

For night photos, the best props to bring are things that either emit light, or interact with the light source in some way. In terms of light emitting props, you could consider:

  • Fairy lights
  • Sparklers or fireworks
  • Glowsticks
  • Cell phone
  • Glow in the dark paint

For props that interact with the light source, a lot of photographers use a prism, which reflects lights when you put it near your lens. This creates cool patterns and psychedelic effects in your photos. I believe the photographer in the video I posted above shows how he uses a prism as well. They're fairly inexpensive props, and they can come in handy for a lot more than just neon portraiture!

An example of a prism being used in photography.
An example of a prism being used in photography. | Source

Another popular prop is a set of clear sunglasses. These allow the model's eyes to remain visible while also creating a reflection of the light source in them. This is a really popular method that's used regularly by Brandon Woelfel, a prominent portrait photographer on Instagram.

The model's clear glasses reflect the light source, but still let us see her eyes
The model's clear glasses reflect the light source, but still let us see her eyes | Source

While they're not a necessity, I think that props can add a lot to your photos, and if you have the opportunity to purchase some or bring them along, I'd highly recommend including them in your photoshoot.

4. Make Sure Your Camera Settings Are Right

This is incredibly important for your portraits. I shoot in manual mode all the time, but I know a lot of people prefer aperture priority or shutter priority when they're shooting. When shooting with such little light, you'll probably find yourself opening your lens as wide as it'll go. The lens I use opens up to f/1.8, and my shutter-speed is typically set to 1/60th of a second.

Be careful with your ISO, as you'll probably be tempted to ramp it up pretty high in order to expose your photo really well. The higher your ISO is, the more grain will be introduced in your photo, so it's better that you shoot a little underexposed and bring things up in Lightroom during editing.

For a more detailed explanation on camera settings, check out this tutorial:

5. Shoot In RAW

This is another tip that everyone would do well to follow regardless of if they're shooting in the dark or not. No matter what or where you're shooting, you should absolutely be shooting in RAW. Most every DSLR or mirrorless camera should give you the option to shoot RAW or even RAW + JPEG modes, and you'll be doing yourself a huge favor by diving into your camera's menu, and making sure you're shooting in this format! The staff at B and H give a great, detailed explanation behind why you should be shooting in RAW.

Essentially, RAW files aren't compressed like JPEGs, which allows you a lot more control over your editing. Being that you're shooting at night with little light, or with crazy colors, you'll probably want to toss your photos into Lightroom or Photoshop to touch them up before you share them.

RAW files will give you more wiggle room when changing exposure and hues among other elements after the fact, which we'll get to a little more in the editing section!

6. Experiment With The Location

This is my favorite part of any shoot. There's always more than one way to shoot a location, and since you've probably got the time to play around, experiment with it! Put the light source in different places in relation to your model, have the model interact with it in different ways, and change the settings on your camera to try and get different effects. I'm a firm believer that the best way to learn and improve at something is to just keep doing it and practicing it.

For example, take a look at these three shots I took at one location by simply rotating my model. I didn't change location at all:

For the traditional shot, I had my model simply look at the neon light, which illuminated his face.
For the traditional shot, I had my model simply look at the neon light, which illuminated his face. | Source
As an alternative view, I shot into the window of the store where the neon sign was hanging, which gave me this picture of model's reflection.
As an alternative view, I shot into the window of the store where the neon sign was hanging, which gave me this picture of model's reflection. | Source
I had my model turn toward me and put his hand up to his face, which created a split in the tones being cast on his face.
I had my model turn toward me and put his hand up to his face, which created a split in the tones being cast on his face. | Source

By experimenting with the location, you'll be training your photographic eye and building your repertoire of techniques!

7. Edit, Edit, Edit That Photo!

Arguably one of the most influential parts of neon portraiture is the editing. If you're not wanting to edit your photo, this style or portraiture may not be for you. By taking your photos into Lightroom, you can properly expose them and change the neon hues to best match the atmosphere you're going for in the video.

Since I'm not focusing specifically on editing in this article, I'll leave you with one last informative video on how to edit your photos similar to how Brandon Woelfel edits. If you're not comfortable playing around in the program on your own to get the desired results, follow along with the video and see if that helps you on your way to editing.

A Brighter Light, Right?

I hope that dim light that we were talking about at the start of the article is much brighter now. Like anything, neon portraiture can be something you can get under your belt with practice and determination. I hope this has been informative to you and helped increase your understanding on portraiture a little bit.

Good luck with all of your photographic endeavors, happy shooting!


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