Night street photography. Seduced by the darkness

Updated: 2021-08-17

Night street photography can be a mystery for many. Nightlife anywhere in the world is a fascinating subject to photograph. And most times the sad part is that we won’t see the beauty in front of us until someone else comes into our home towns, or cities, and shoots what they see from their perspective.

We very rarely appreciate what we have and this is definitely the case when we’re talking about photographing the local nightlife. Think about it. We’ll happily to go another city, another town and photograph all that we see there and think it fascinating, but isn’t that just what other people are doing when they come to where we live?

So isn’t it feasible to think that there might be something that you can do with the nightlife in your area? I think it to be an eminently suitable idea, and that’s why I took myself up on the offer to go paint the town red –  figuratively speaking of course. And since I know my city better than an outsider will, and since I also know the best vantage points to get the best shots, I came away with some of the best nightlife  photography shots of my life. It also helped that I knew exactly where not to go as well.

This ensured that my camera stayed within my possession and that I didn’t get mugged. And since it was nightlife  shots I wanted I have to say that I pressed the boundaries slightly, but only very slightly. I really didn’t  see getting myself some new gear and losing all my hard work. 

Night street photography: trails of light (cars)

There are a few different ways that you can go about night street photography and it all depends on how you want your shot to turn out. But one of my favorite nightlife shots is the one with the trails of light from passing cars.

Settings for night light street photography

This can be accomplished simply by getting yourself to a good vantage point  overlooking a highway or any major road for that matter. The more centralized and in the hub of the city life, the better your shot will turn out. Set up your camera, and you will need a tripod for this, somewhere out of the way where you won’t disturb anyone and compose your shot.

The road in the foreground with a backdrop of illuminated city life works wonderfully, but as ever, everything depends on where you are. After composing your shot, set your camera to a lengthy shutter speed and just wait as it soaks up the car trails as time passes by.

This type of shot also works very well along beachfronts with a boardwalk along it. The car trails look amazing against this backdrop.

Night Sky Photography: Trails Of Light (stars)

And if you’re interested there is also the possibility for you to take star trails as well. In this instance you need to be a significant distance away from the bright lights of the city or they will drown out the light of the stars.

Again set your tripod and camera up in a convenient place and aim the camera lens towards the heavens. Set the shutter speed on ‘bulb’ if it has that setting or set it in a manual mode to the longest possible shutter speed.

Since you need at least a few hours to get any significant star trails registered on your camera you will need to display a little patience here, but I can tell you that the results are well worth the wait.

How to shoot the stars – beginner guide

Nighttime photography: weather and exposure

Who doesn’t love the night sky? Whether you are admiring the stars, or a really cool array of light, there are probably many night pictures that have been burned into your mind, right?

Well, why not capture them on film? If you have been intimidated by night street photography, or have failed at it in the past, there are a few simple tips that can help you take better nighttime photos. First of all, it is always a good idea to know when you should and shouldn’t attempt to take a nighttime picture.

That way you won’t get so frustrated and waste your time! Some of the most beautiful photographs are taken at dusk. You will notice some really stunning natural lighting colors available at this time, as opposed to completely dark.

You should take a little time to check out the weather and know ahead of time what you may encounter that evening. If there is a chance of rain and it is cloudy, you won’t have much time to capture the stars, if any at all!

Also, the location of your shoot is important. If it’s possible to get out of the city, you will be able to capture better pictures. The most important aspect, aside from weather, when taking a night street photography is the exposure. You need to use a longer exposure time for the night pictures.

This will allow as much natural light through the aperture to the picture as possible. If you want to capture incredible details and use less flash, then using a longer exposure time is the only way to go. If you are going to use a long  exposure, make sure that you use a tripod, as any movement at all during the picture will cause the picture to become blurred.

Also, you can capture some pretty cool effects, like car lights, when using a long exposure. You will want to make sure that you know how to use and when to use your flash when taking a night picture, too. Most of the time, you probably will not even want to use your flash when you are taking a night street photo.

If you are taking a picture of an object, like a person, though, you will want to use your flash. When taking pictures of the night skyline, though, it is best to use a long exposure and take advantage of the natural lighting conditions. If you decide to take pictures at night, you will want to be able to control the photo as much as possible.

Basically, you would take a shot of the area you want in your picture. Then, you take a picture of that same shot, only with the lens cap on. The reason for this is that at night, some of the pixels in the picture will not be visually good. When you take the picture with the lenses cap on, you will be recording the pixels again, while they are hot in your camera’s memory.

You can then use those pixels to repair the bad ones in the photo, with a photo editor. (If you don’t happen to have a photo editor, you can download one for free, just search for one on the Internet.) This may seem a bit overwhelming, but just follow the steps and the instructions on the editor and you will be all set!

In general, it is very hard to take a great night shot, unless you learn to use long exposures. This will allow your camera to use a longer shutter speed and really take in all of the natural lighting that is available. Remember to use a tripod, so that your camera remains still during the photograph, though!

Night photos can be extremely beautiful, but very challenging to take. Just like many other parts of life, though, if you practice, you will get better and more natural at it. The beauty of digital photography, too, is that if you don’t like a shot, you can just erase it and do it over, without having to develop the film and wait another day to retake the photo! 

Night horizon photography: water, horizon and sunglasses

In the world of digital photography, there’s always something new to learn (and people are always coming up with the most amazing tricks). Some are solutions to problems as old as the art; others are just clever new ways to make the product better.

One of the classic “tricky shots” people encounter is the horizon. It can be maddeningly difficult to line up flat surfaces properly in a hand-held shot, or even on a tripod. The interpreting algorithms in a digital camera’s software can make that even more difficult by “un-straightening” the horizon for you!

Try taking a few versions of a favorite horizon shot at slightly different angles. This is another reason to shoot as high resolution (and with as little compression) as possible; photo-editing software often has the capability to rotate a picture in 1-degree increments, or even less. Unfortunately, this will result in “blanks” at the corners of the shot that you will have to crop out, reducing the resolution of the final image.

It’s also a good idea (especially if you take a lot of shots like horizons or reflections on water) to frame a little bigger than you want to: imagine the inner three-quarters or so of your shot will be the final picture, because after fine rotation and editing, you may have shaved that much off. On the subject of resolution, higher is better, right up until you run out of memory.

You can always lose resolution during editing, but you can never add it. It’s trivially easy to shrink that 6-megapixel image for sending in an e-mail, so shoot it at maximum resolution – you’ll thank me every time you have to crop an image for content, composition or other reasons and the result is still sharp enough to use. 

Night photography: use tripods

I’ve mentioned tripods once already – if you don’t have one and use one, you’re not taking advantage of what your camera can really do. From those tricky horizon shots to low-light photography, the stability provided by a tripod is essential to get the best shot.

There are big, heavy, expensive professional sturdy tripod that can stand up to wind but are a beat to carry. There are high-tech carbon-fiber tripods that fold up to fit in your pocket or be strapped to a tree branch.

Personally, I like the cheap collapsible tripods that you can find at bargain stores for less than $15. They fold up and can fit in your back pocket or camera bag, and you can make your own strap from Velcro or a bungee cord to hold your mounted camera to a branch or fencepost. Best of all, if it’s damaged or lost, you didn’t lose a sizeable investment.

At this price, it’s almost silly not to have one! The more you experiment with your camera, the better. Even inexpensive cameras will generally let you have control over some useful features, like  white balance. This adjustment lets you adjust the “temperature” of the CCD sensor, to emphasize different colors.

Changing from the automatic or default setting to the “cloudy day” setting will enhance reds and yellows, which can make objects in those colors look brighter and draw more attention. Try taking the same shot with different settings to compare. 

Night street photoshooting: Use low-cost filters, Polarizing sunglasses again

One thing many low-to-midrange digital cameras lack is the ability to use filters. Or do they? There’s no reason a filter can’t be held in front of the lens of a compact digital camera, and you can even use sunglasses to provide filtering effects, and some of them can be pretty interesting.

Polarizing sunglasses can provide the same effect for the camera as they do for your eyes, reducing glare and reflections. Sunglasses can also alter color balance and filter out certain colors, and can even be used to compensate for the washing-out of light areas that can occur when using slow shutter speeds to capture motion blur.

You should be careful what you use for a filter, and always take an unfiltered shot for comparison. Sunglasses in particular can have flaws, scratches, dust or uneven coatings that may not be easily visible until you start working on the image you just imported to your computer.