Photography Tutorials

5 Common Night Photography Mistakes

1.  Not using a tripod.

Tripods are essential for keeping your images sharp and your image quality high.  If you try and hand-hold your shots in low light using high ISO's you might be able to take the shot but your image quality will go down.  Even during the day with plenty of light and fast shutter-speeds nothing beats a tripod for sharp focus and low ISO image quality. I know carrying a tripod everywhere can be a pain, but your photography will be so much better if you do.  Plus tripods cause you to slow down, forcing you to really take the time to compose your images. Here are some more tips:

  1. Buy the lightest tripod you can afford.  I love carbon fiber tripods for Really Right Stuff. They are light weight, built like a tank, reliable, strong, and a one time investment. 
  2. Buy a ball head or geared head. Ball heads are easy, quick to use, and light weight. 
  3. Buy a camera bag that can carry a tripod. When traveling, carrying a tripod around all day can be tiring and having a place to store it while not in use can really make your day so much better.
  4. Consider a smaller travel tripod for longer trips. You will sacrifice some stability but it will be easier to carry for longer periods. 

With a tripod you will also be able to take advantage of long exposure techniques.  For example, being able to expose closer to the 30 second exposure limit.  Like my next tip.


Griffith Observatory - Los Angeles CA - using a tripod, high up a hill in Griffith park. 

2.  Not exposing for long enough.

One of the very first things I discovered while learning night photography was the benefits of long exposures. I discovered that the closer I was to the "30 second exposure limit" the better my photos would turn out.  Being close to this 30 second limit benefits you in several ways:

  1. Ability to capture light trails from cars.
  2. People can walk through your frame without being captured.
  3. Better image quality because of lower ISO values.
  4. Clouds blurring from movement.
  5. Happy, unexpected, artistic accidents. 

Try it yourself. When your out shooting at night (needs to be dark), put your camera on a tripod and set your camera in manual exposure mode.  Next set your shutter speed as close to the 30 second limit as you can.  Now adjust your fstop to balance your exposure back to 0, or 1 stop over exposed (see bonus tip at the bottom). With these settings I think you will be surprised at how good some of your photos turn out.

Example of exposing close to the 30sec limit. Notice the light trails from the bus on the right and the car trails from the freeway. 

3.  Forgetting about white balance.

One of the very first mistakes I made when I was learning night photography was forgetting about my white balance while I was out shooting.  I would set my white balance to "AUTO" and just trust that my camera knew what it was doing. To be fair, it did a pretty good job but over time I learned that setting my white balance manually gave me much better and more consistent results.  Here are some white balance tips:

  1. Start off using "Daylight" white balance. Use this setting, from the beginning of sunset through the start of "Blue Hour". 
  2. Once "Blue Hour" begins, watch the street lights/sky in your scene change color.  Once your images start to become really "Yellow/Orange" switch to "Tungsten" white balance.  This will reset your lights to white and your sky back to more of a blue color as the light levels/sky fades to black . 
  3. Get your white balance correct in the field to insure your have enough color information in your raw files. Extreme white balance changes can produce weird results when adjusting raw files.  Better to get it right in the field.

If your shooting in RAW you can always adjust your white balance in your RAW converter afterwards. However there are limitations to this. If your image was captured using a very "yellow/orange" white balance and you try and adjust it too a very "blue/green" white balance you will notice that the colors can reach a breaking point and might look weird.  Because of this it is always better to get it right in the field and only do smaller adjustments in your raw converter afterwards rather then doing large adjustments. 

Sydney Opera house - Using Tungsten white balance. 

4.  Not manually focusing in live view.

When I was first starting out, I would use my auto focus a lot. I would set up my shot on a tripod, hold down my shutter half way and pray that it would focus correctly.  When I would get home I would be so disappointed to find out that half of my shots were unusable because my focus was soft or not in the right place.  Once I started focusing manually I noticed a HUGE jump in quality and consistency with my photography.  Here are some tips to help get your started:

  1. Start by turning the auto focus on your lens to manual. Most lenses have a button on the lens that does this.
  2. Set your fstop to a high aperture so you have maximum DOF. I like to start with f16
  3. Turn on live view and use your magnifying tools to zoom in to an object that is 1/3 of the way into your scene.  Side note: I have also achieved good results by focusing on the most distant subject (usually a group of buildings or cityscape). By doing this it usually sets your lens to "infinity".
  4. Once zoomed in, focus your lens until your building/window/rock/etc is in perfect focus
  5. Zoom back out and shoot away. 

This method takes a little bit to get used to but once you switch you won't go back.

Bonus Tip: If you are shooting bracketed images, manual focus is a MUST. By having your focus locked, you prevent your camera from focusing during each exposure possibly causing inconsistent focus for each of your brackets. If you try and blend these exposures together it will not turn our well.  Trust me, use manual focus!

Tower Bridge - London using manual focus. I focused on the set of windows on the right of the bridge.

5.  Not staying in one place long enough. 

Once you start shooting an amazing location it can be really temping to move around a lot and try and capture as many compositions as possible. I highly recommend that once you find your perfect composition, that you try and stay in that one location as long as you can.  The reason for this is so you can watch the light change over the course of the "sunset to night transition." Without staying in one spot it will be harder to be aware of that perfect moment when the lighting is just right for your subject!

When I first started doing night photography I often left a location too quickly missing the most amazing lighting in the process.  In an instant I would look up and the lighting would be PERFECT but I would be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  If I had just stayed where I was I could have captured the "money shot" with the best light. I can't tell you how many nights I was kicking myself all the way home for missing it.  Don't let that happen to you and follow these tips.   

  1. Try and stay with your best composition for a long as you can.
  2. Once you have nailed the lighting for your "money shot" then consider moving to other locations.
  3. Try and stay in a location/area for an extra 30 minutes after the best lighting of the day is gone.  Some of my favorite photos have come from just staying in a spot those few minutes longer.  You never know what surprises might happen.

Final Bonus Tip: Expose 1 stop over using exposure compensation. 

While shooting at night, unless you are bracketing exposures, always try and expose your images 1 stop over exposed. Because it is so dark, your camera meter will often under expose your images by mistake. By exposing 1 stop over you ensure that your images will be closer to what your eye sees and have enough light captured in your raw files.  Try it for yourself! You will notice a big difference. 

Syndey Opera House - shot using a 10 stop ND filter to blur the water and sky.