Nighttime photography is already very challenging, but it’s even more so if you want to take photographs without a flash. There are lots of reasons to want to take photos without a flash–often, the flash overpowers the image or your subject may be too far away for the flash to do any good. So, what do you do?
If you want to get sharp, clear photos at night, there are night photography settings that can help. We’ve put together a list of 11 night photography settings that professional photographers use, when they don’t want to use the flash, but do want good images. Let’s start with the camera settings, and then, we’ll move on to other photography tips.
Camera Settings for Low Light
These low light photography tips for night shots will help you to take advantage of the available light so you won’t have to use a flash:
1. Faster Lens
A fast lens is also called a bright lens. It’s quite simply a lens that has a wider maximum aperture than other lenses. They help because the problem with a normal lens is that if you open up the aperture as wide as it will go, you will have to use much slower shutter speeds. These lenses let you use that wide open aperture with a somewhat faster shutter speed, which will help prevent motion blur.
The way to understand aperture is that the amount of light captured is inversely proportional to the square of the selected aperture. If you are shooting at f/4.0, 4 squared is 16, and 1/16 is the numerical representation of the amount of light you capture. If you’re shooting at f/1.4, the square is 1.96, and the inverse is basically one-half.
To represent one-half using a fraction, we could say 8/16. So, the amount of light that an aperture of f/1.4 is letting in is 8/16 versus 1/16 for an aperture of f/4.0, which means that an aperture of f/1.4 is letting in 8 times more light than f/4.0. For most night photography situations, you will want to use a wide aperture.
The problem with having to increase or use the maximum aperture, even though it’s often necessary for low light photography, is that it impacts the depth of field–that is, the sharpness or clarity of the photo. It will be more difficult to keep the entire subject in focus when you increase the aperture width (i.e., use a lower aperture number). That means you’ll have to play around with the ISO and use various shutter speeds to try and get the perfect numbers for the photograph you want.
The ISO settings relates to your camera’s sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO setting, the more sensitive your camera is to the available light. Therefore, for low light photography, you want to use a higher ISO. The amount of light captured is proportional to the number for which your ISO is set. For example, if you have your ISO set to 200, you will capture double the amount of light as compared to an ISO of 100.
The problem with using a higher ISO setting is that is also impacts the quality of the image, and often, low light photography requires a minimal ISO 1600 setting to let in enough light. What that means is that when you increase the ISO, you will have more ‘noise’ in the photograph. More ‘noise’ means the image will have a more grainy appearance. To help reduce the noise, you can adjust the shutter speed, but only so much. If you can’t reduce the ‘noise’ that way, you can also clean the image up in post production processing.
4. Shutter Speed
Shutter speed regulates the amount of time for which the camera’s shutter remains open. The more time it is open, the more light it can capture. This is typically represented by fractions–½, ¼, etc., and the faster the shutter speed, the less light you can capture because the shutter will be open for a shorter amount of time. Thus, with low light photography and without a flash, you’ll want a slow shutter speed.
But, the problem with that is that the longer the shutter is open, the more difficult it is to capture a clearly focused photograph. Basically, you have to play around with the shutter speed, ISO, and aperture until you can get the right settings for each that will let in enough light to capture the subject, but will also have the least amount of ‘noise’ and no motion blur–assuming that you don’t want motion blur. Some photographers want some motion blur to create more of an abstract image.
5. Camera Vibration
Because you will be using a slow shutter speed when you’re not using a flash, you’ll want to ensure that there is no vibration that could result in a blurry image. Most cameras have an image stabilization feature that will allow you to reduce the problems associated with motion blur.
Depending on your brand, it might go by different names. For example, on Nikon cameras, it’s called vibration reduction (VR) whereas on Canon cameras, it’s called image stabilization (IS). This might be located on the camera body or on the lens, so you’ll have to check on your specific camera to find where it’s located.
6. Tripod (and Shutter Release Cable)
It’s also imperative to use a tripod and a shutter release cable to avoid camera shake. When you’re shooting photographs at night, holding the camera in your hand won’t be good enough to avoid camera shake, no matter how stable your hand is. You’ll want to use a tripod and a shutter release cable.
That way, the camera will be mounted on a stable surface and you won’t even have to touch it to take the picture. If you don’t have a shutter release cable, you can set your camera’s automatic timer to take the photo after 2 seconds.
The drawback to using a tripod is that it means you have less flexibility with regard to taking spontaneous images. And, of course, you have to carry it around, although most tripods are lightweight.
Explore the most light-weight and portable tripod.
7. White Balance
One of the problems with night photography is that artificial light sources produce unrealistic color tones. For example, incandescent lights produce a yellow color while fluorescent lights produce a green color.
It might happen that the color produced by the light source adds to the mood you’re trying to create, and thus, you might choose to leave that uncorrected. But, if you don’t want that, you’ll want to set the white balance in accordance with the type of light source you have available. By doing that, what looks white to your eye will also look white in the image because you’re telling the camera what white should look like.
8. Shoot in RAW
RAW images are uncompressed, and they capture more detail and information about the image. Because of this, RAW images tend to be more like what your eye sees, and these images are easier to edit during post production processing. You can preserve the detail of the subject even while adjusting what is wrong with the photo.
The problem with shooting in RAW format is that each image takes up a lot more memory. Usually, RAW images are about 4-5 times larger than JPEGs. Additionally, not all cameras have the ability to produce images in RAW format, and not all photo editing programs are able to read RAW formats.
9. Shoot in Black and White
One way that you can get good images in low light without having to worry about the issues that affect the colors of the image is simply to shoot in black and white. That has an artistic appeal as well, and you can capture images with sharp detail.
Other Night Photography Tips
While these are not technical camera settings, they are non-technical considerations that work in concert with your camera settings to help you get those clear images you want:
10. Post Processing Tips
Producing good images taken at night without a flash almost always requires post production processing. By using a photo editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom, you can make adjustments to the brightness, sharpness, contrast, color saturation, and shadows.
You can also divide the image into zones and edit each zone separately. That way if you have a starry sky contrasted against a rock outcrop in the foreground, you can divide those areas and apply different corrections to each one.
11. Painting with Light
Another technique that you can use to capture more light is to paint your subject with light. What that means is that you take some kind of light–like a flashlight–and shine it on the subject to give your camera a bit more light to capture. More specifically, it can be used to help add a fill light where there are areas of dark shadows.
These 11 camera settings and techniques will help you to capture clear, compelling images at night without a flash. Whether your subject is the starry sky, the darkened streets downtown at midnight, or an active nighttime street scene, these tips, with a little practice, will help you get the stunning, creative, and compelling image you’re after!
Watch Our Video on Night Photography Tips and Tricks
Frequently Asked Questions by Photographers:
What other kinds of light sources can be used instead of a flash for night photography?
There are actually many other light sources available. We discussed painting with light using a flashlight, but, if you’re in town, neon signs, store lights, traffic lights, and street lights are all examples of other sources of light you can use to help you get clear photographs.
What is the best aperture for low light?
This really depends on a number of factors–what is your subject and how far away is it, how low is the light, and what depth of field are you wanting to get? But, if you’re taking photographs at night without a flash, unless you have other sources of artificial light or a very bright moon, you’re going to need the widest aperture your camera allows.
What is the best ISO setting for low light?
When there’s lots of light, you can use an ISO setting of less than 400, but with low light, what setting you should use depends on several factors. Many photographers routinely use an ISO setting of between 1600 and 3200 whenever possible. There are situations, though, when an even higher ISO is necessary.