With some frequency I get asked "I'm trying night shooting but I don't know where to start. Got any tips you can share?" This question is often followed by questions about my camera equipment, my settings, when I'm shooting, etc. It's a fairly big topic so I'm putting together a list of what I learned as I started to experiment with night photography in hopes that it might help someone learn a little faster. And this is very likely just a part 1 on this topic.
As a digital photographer, I'm not going to cover film in this post. That's a different set of skills and techniques, and not something I could do justice. I'll begin by listing out some "aha moment" topics, and I'll expand on each, further below.
Manual vs Automatic
Handheld vs Tripod
Manual shutter release vs remote release
Aperture size and starbursts
UV filter ghosting
Before I get started let me say I'm still learning and (hopefully) improving. If you see something wrong or have better advice, please include it in the comments.
Manual vs Automatic
When I started shooting at night, I didn't manually expose my shots. I relied on the camera's auto settings to do the work, as I hadn't grasped things like aperture sizes, bulbmode, and ISO, etc. I had used toy cameras, digital point and shoots, and my phone for so long I never took the time to dig into this crucial piece. The results of this missing experience led to frustration and disappointment when I tried to capture a scene that caught my attention.
To close this gap, I began by reading, watching videos, and trying things each time I went out. Then I picked up a copy of "Understanding Exposure: How to shoot great photographs with any camera" by Bryan Peterson and read it cover to cover. That was when the lights went off for me and night time photography became more accessible. His methods of explaining exposure were easy to follow and easy to put into practice. IF you are really, really serious about doing night photography, learning to control your camera manually is a must.
Handheld vs Tripod
This one seems the most obvious to me now, but early on I thought I could pull off steady shots like a trained sniper with my arms (psst they don't shoot handheld either). Today, when I'm asked how I get such crisp photographs, I tell the person to put their camera on a tripod. Often the response is "Yeah, I guess I should use mine more" or "I don't like the inconvenience of carrying one". Sorry. If you want really sharp images, then you'll need a steady platform; Especially when you're in a very dimly lit area and need to open the shutter longer than 1/80 or 1/50 of a second. My Sony A7iii has in body image stabilization and a fast 35mm/1.4, but to get those really dark scenes requires boosting my ISO to noisier limits (more on this, below) or opening up the aperture wide, thereby throwing more of the image out of focus.
If you're stuck without a tripod and need to capture something handheld you can use this trick: Set your shutter speed to the same number as your focal length. So if you are shooting with a 50mm lens try not to make your shutter speed lower than 1/50 of a second. This only works to a certain point. Longer focal lengths will mean faster times (capture less light), while shorter focal lengths will mean slower shutter speeds. Eventually you'll need that solid base.
Buying a tripod is a whole separate topic so I'll just write this: If you don't already own one, don't spend a lot. It's better to buy something cheap and learn what you like and don't like before spending too much. Trust me. The more you shoot off a tripod, the more you'll discover what works and doesn't. Do try to experience the tripod in person before you buy it to make sure it supports your camera properly.
Bulbmode basically allows you to keep the shutter open for as long as you desire by pressing the shutter button or using a remote. This is helpful when you need to go longer than the timer on your camera, which caps at 30 secs on my cameras. Really dark scenes or scenes where you want a greater depth of fields with smaller apertures (e.g., f/11 or f/16) will require longer exposure times to collect enough light. Bulbmode can help in these situations.
One other advantage to using this mode is the ability to easily bracket my exposures. With timers you have to adjust menus, whereas in bulbmode I just increase or decrease my exposure times by how long I press the shutter release. My remote and cameras also display the length of time on screen so I can shoot one after the other with little pause between each image.
This setting can be found on your camera body (e.g., on my Fuji X100F and GFX 50S it's part of the dials) or at the far end of the shutter speed options. Just keep scrolling towards the longer speeds. Consult your camera owners manual if you're having trouble locating it.
Manual shutter release vs Remote release
I touched on it in the section above, but finer control over the shutter release is another important skill when shooting at night. When I write "manual shutter release" I mean using your finger to press and hold the button on the camera, while "remote release" means using a cable or remote device.
Who wants to keep their finger pressed to the camera for long periods of time? Your finger WILL fatigue and you'll definitely add shake, even if you don't think you're moving. I choose to use either a cable (with my X100F) or wireless remote devices (with my GFX 50S and A7iii) to control how long my shutter remains open. If I had to choose between cable and wireless, my preference is wireless. Here's why:
With wireless you reduce potential for camera shake. Even the best of us are bound to make a mistake and get caught up in a cable, pull on it too hard or accidentally drop the remote end against the tripod. Especially at the end of a long night.
I don't have to wrap/unwrap or plug/unplug the cable from my tripod when I'm moving from location to location. There's nothing more annoying than having to untangle the cable when you have few crucial moments to get a shot.
Walking with the cable attached can cause the remote end of the cable to bang against the tripod and reduce ones stealth in the quiet, still night.
There's a level of trickery that can be achieved with a wireless remote. You can pretend to be looking at your phone or doing something else while taking a shot. This helps in situations where someone may be sensitive to a camera. Just be sure your autofocus light and chimes are off.
In the cold weather you can keep your hands warm while you expose the shots. Rather than standing with the cable in your hand you can just keep your hand in your pockets and snap away.
When buying a cable or remote device be sure to do your homework to make sure it will work with your camera.
In Bryan Peterson's book I mentioned earlier, he humorously uses bees to explain ISO to the reader. The shortest way I can explain that is the bees bring extra light to the camera. By turning up ISO to higher numbers, you're bringing more bees and more light into the camera and onto the sensor. The higher the ISO, the more bees flying into your camera, and the more noise in the image. Of course there are no bees, but the noise created by high ISO settings are the tiny dots you see when you zoom into a digital photograph. As ISO goes up, that noise becomes more visible and will appear without zooming. Unless you're going for a particular style, high ISO can destroy the clarity of your night shot.
When I shoot I lock my ISO at their lowest setting. On my X100F that is 200. On my GFX I keep it at 100. This allows me to shoot for extended periods of time and keep my image nice and clear.
More information on ISO can be found here.
Aperture size and starbursts
When shooting at night you'll likely end up with lights somewhere in the frame. Depending on your f-stop/aperture size, you can have more of a starburst look or more of a globular look to the lights. Smaller apertures/larger number enhance the burst to be more pointy and star-like, while larger apertures/smaller number will result in a globular, spherical glow. For an example, f/16 will be pointy while f/2.8 will be more spherical. You'll have to decide what you prefer and also consider how much of the composition you want in focus. The smaller apertures will have a greater depth of field and put more in focus.
Here's a good demonstration of this effect borrowed from SLRLounge.
UV filter ghosting
I typically keep a UV filter on my lenses for some measure of protection. It's a debated topic if you search on it, but I still keep mine in place. When shooting at night towards bright lights you may end up with ghosting of those lights in the frame. For me, it typically looks like greenish blobs floating somewhere in the composition. They typically match the number of lights seen in the photo. This ghosting occurs from light reflecting into the lens and back out and onto the back of the filter. It's easily fixed by removing the filter for the shot. This one took me a bit to figure out and I would usually avoid shooting so directly at the lights, which helped.
I hope this has been helpful. If you have other questions, please add them in the comments.