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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

8 Pro tips for beautiful photos after dark

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

A landscape photo of Exmouth by moonlight by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
A moonlit Exmouth scene

Just because the sun has set, there's no reason to put your camera down! Although taking photos in low light can be challenging, the results can be stunning. So embrace the blue hour and dusk, by learning how to take great photos in low light. Here are just a few tips to get you started.

1 Use a tripod or find a wall!

As the light gets low, you're probably going to be using longer shutter speeds. Anything slower than around 1/50th second can result in camera shake which can ruin your photo. So, either invest in a basic tripod, or if you don't have one try and find somewhere that you can rest your camera to prevent camera shake, such as a nearby wall or bench to rest it on.

2 Turn off your flash!

It might seem counterintuitive, but turning off your camera flash (if it has one, as many compacts do) is likely to lead to much better photos after dark. As well as only lighting up items that are near you, flash light can be harsh and definitely does not improve landscape or cityscape photos after dark; it's always better to switch it off and use the ambient light available, and often the same applies to taking photos of people too, if you're in a well lit area.

3 Make the most of the 'blue hour'

The blue hour happens in the time before sunrise, or after sunset when there is still light in the sky and it is not completely dark. This is often the best time to take photos, as the sky will still have some colour to it, and there will still be enough ambient light to take a well exposed photo without resorting to the very long shutter speeds or very high ISO needed when it is completely dark.

4. Learn how to get off 'full auto' mode

Every camera is different, so it's not possible to know exactly how your camera will cope with taking photos after dark. Because of the low light, it will either have to increase the sensor sensitivity (ISO) which can lead to grainy pictures, or increase the shutter speed (needing a tripod to prevent camera shake) in order to cope with the low light levels. It might also pop up a built in flash, which might help if you're taking photos of people, but won't help for taking landscapes or cityscapes after dark. It's certainly worth experimenting, but don't be surprised if your camera gives mixed results.

It's definitely worth starting to learn how to get off full auto mode, so that you can take a bit more control of your camera. Ideally, learn how to use shutter priority (S or Tv on the mode dial of many cameras); this allows you to specify the shutter speed, and the camera adjusts the other settings to give you a well exposed photo. However, you can often make a decent go of night photography by using 'scene mode' that many cameras have; this allows you to start telling the camera what you are trying to take a photo of, so that it has a better chance of getting it right than using full auto. E.g. 'firework mode' is likely to make a better job of firework photos than full auto, or if there is something moving (e.g. a night time parade or a carnival) then telling the camera it's a 'sports' scene (if you have it) will ensure that it prioritises keeping a faster shutter speed (so that the moving objects aren't blurred).

Of course, the ideal is to use Manual mode, and take full control or aperture, shutter speed and ISO, but you might need to come on one of my training courses to help you do that!

5. The most fun comes with using long shutter speeds (Pro tip!)

In my opinion, by far the best fun after dark comes with using longer shutter speeds, either on shutter priority (S or Tv on your mode dial) or full Manual mode (M on your mode dial) if you know how to use it. After the sun has set, it's possible to get long shutter speeds (of multiple seconds) without needing ND filters. If there's nothing moving, then it doesn't really matter what shutter speed you use, although it's better to do a longer shutter speed rather than using a high ISO which can give a grainy image. If something is moving, then your shutter speed will depend on whether you want to freeze or blur movement. E.g. for a carnival with people moving, you will want to use a shutter speed faster than around 1/200th of a second, so that you freeze the movement (meaning that your aperture may need to be wider, and your ISO higher to ensure a well exposed image). If you want to create a light trail of a passing car, then you will need a much longer shutter speed; probably at least ten seconds (and be on a tripod!). Don't forget that despite playing with the technique, you still need good composition to make a good photo!

6. Take a torch (and make sure it's charged!)

Even if it's still light when you start, remember that it's going to get dark, and if you're in a poorly lit area, without a torch you will not be able to see your camera controls when it gets dark. More than that, if you're by water or very remote, it could even be dangerous if your torch gives up on you (or if you don't take one). Thankfully so far, the worst that has happened to me is falling a metre off a beach ledge when I was angling my camera up rather than at where I was walking, and my badly charged torch dying on a dark night shoot; thankfully I was close enough to my car for my phone torch to get me back safely. It could have been much worse, so please be well prepared!

7 Experiment with small apertures (Pro tip!)

If you know how to set your aperture, either in aperture priority or manual mode, it's worth experimenting with a very small aperture (something like f20 or f22). With small apertures, all point light sources (such as street lights) will become little 'starburst' shapes, which can look really cool!

8 Some ideas for night photography projects

  • Go into a local city centre after dark, and experiment taking photos of well lit areas.

  • Go to a town or city and look for reflections of buildings and lights in the water (harbours, canals, rivers or even wet streets after rain). Using a slightly longer shutter speed (1 second plus) will flatten minor ripples and give you a better reflection

  • Start experimenting with moving water in the blue hour. If you know how to use shutter priority (or manual mode), then the blue hour is a great time to start playing with water motion. If you're near a beach, you can start experimenting with blurring water movement, as you can get shutter speeds as slow as 1/2 to 1 second without the need for filters.

  • Find a bridge over a busy road, and try doing light trail photos (using shutter speeds of at least 10 seconds)

  • Go somewhere really dark (when it's cloud free) and try taking photos of the stars; open your aperture up really wide so that you can keep your ISO low, and don't use a shutter speed longer than 10 seconds (or else you will get star trails and not point stars!)

Want to learn how to take photos like a pro?

If you want to learn more, why not consider one of my one-to-one courses, or if you're not local to Devon, one of my highly rated weekend residential workshops for beginner photographers or for intermediate photographers?

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