Long Exposure Night Photography Basics


Long exposure night photography is a tricky subject to master. Those familiar with daytime photography theory and best practices can sometimes be left scratching their heads when the sun goes down. Using a long exposure allows you to create stunning nightscapes, interesting light trails, and shots of the Milky Way, but there’s more to it than just setting a long shutter speed. In this article, we take a look at some of the basics you’ll need to master in order to produce the very best night photography shots you can. We’ll also cover some of our top tips to help you get started.

Long Exposure: Basics

By increasing the shutter speed on your camera, you’re allowing more time for the sensor to capture light. As a result, any light source that’s in motion will soon appear blurry. This in itself isn’t an issue, as it means you’ll be able to capture light trails, star movements, and other interesting features. However, it does mean that the slightest wobble in the camera will blur everything. For this reason, you should always use a tripod and a remote or self-timer when shooting at night.

Another factor to consider is your ISO. ISO determines how sensitive your camera’s sensor is to light. Using a higher ISO means that you can use a faster shutter speed to minimise blur, as well as reduce how long you have to wait for your photo to expose correctly. However, shooting at higher ISO increases image noise, which is the grainy-like quality you’ll sometimes see in your shots. It’s therefore important to balance ISO with shutter speed. If you’re shooting on a crop-frame camera, you’ll ideally want to keep the ISO to 100 and use a longer exposure time. Those who own modern full-frame or mirrorless cameras can realistically go as high as 6400 ISO without experiencing too much image noise.

Night Photography: Location

As with regular photography, location is crucial. Depending on the type of shot you’re trying to take, you’ll want to pick out different features. For example, a light trail shot using car headlights always looks great if you can capture both front and rear lights. A road with regular traffic in each direction will create a nice stream of red and white lights. If you’re shooting over water, you’ll want to frame the shot with either some stationary natural features or a city skyline. The motion of the water will create a gorgeous smooth effect to contrast the scenery.

When you choose a location, you may want to scout it out during the day beforehand. This will give you an idea of the type of lens you want to use, and which angles look best.

Long Exposure Night Photography: Top Tips

Below are some of our top tips for when you’re heading out for a long exposure night photography trip:

  • Shutter Speed. Choose a shorter shutter speed when there is lots of ambient light, but a longer one when you’re shooting in a very dark location. Always use a tripod and remote or self-timer.
  • Aperture. Initially, aim for a wider aperture to allow more light in through the lens. If you need more depth of field, increase it slightly but balance it out with shutter speed and ISO.
  • ISO. For a crop-frame camera, use ISO 100. For a full-frame or mirrorless, anything up to ISO 6400 should be fine.
  • Trial and error. It’s unlikely you’ll get the perfect exposure first time out. It’s therefore important you assess the results and adjust accordingly until you get a shot you’re happy with. Don’t be afraid to experiment and get creative.
  • Pack well. If you’re going out for a long photography session, make sure you pack appropriately. Take suitable clothing for yourself, as well as a spare battery and any extra lenses you may need.

Final Thoughts

Long exposure night photography can be incredibly rewarding, but it takes a lot of practice and know-how to get right. We’ve outlined the basics here, which will help you make a start. However, the best way to learn is to spend time outside at night with your camera. Play around with your settings and take a broad range of shots to see how each one changes.


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