How do you shoot in darkness? By adding the light sources around the subject. We’ll approach night street photography in with the help of the same technique. During nighttime, sky is dark, streets are lit by multiple sources of lights, such as lights mounted on series of poles, mall, shops, or buildings. urban street photographers have made great use of these available light to make stunning photographs.
Let me share my thoughts on how you can master the techniques of street photography at night.
1. Prioritize your safety
Crime rates are higher during nights in comparison to daylight in any city you travel. Be mindful. Take care of yourself, your expansive gears, and valuables if you’re new to the city. Read the reviews of the area where you want to travel, whether it’s secured or not. Best, accompany a guide or friends to such locations where you’re not sure about safety.
Travel solo only if you’re familiar with the location or absolutely sure about security. There are blind spots and relatively darker areas – avoid these locations. Avoid extending your street documentary to late nights.
I wanted to stress this point first, before talking about photography tips, because I can’t put you guys in danger while you’re busy documenting night street life.
2. Evaluate sources, directions, and quality of light
Next, let’s talk about lights for photography during nights in the street. It’s the light which is the biggest factor that separates between day and night, right? So, let’s explore it in detail – every elements of the light leveraged for photography.
Sources of light: City streets are lit with many colorful lights from the sources like buildings, streetlamps, shops etc. When you identify the subject, see how the different sources are lighting your subject and the background. For example, cityscapes are lit by the lights in the window, light mounted on its top and streetlight. A portrait can be lit by light coming from the shop or streetlamp.
Direction of light: unlike daytime when Sun is the main source of light and all the surfaces like roads, walls etc reflect to provide lights from all sources, nighttime lights are largely directional in nature. You can’t change the direction of the ambient light, but you can move yourself to see the light falling on the subject from a different direction. Try multiple angles to position yourself for desired composition.
Quality of light: The quality of light is defined by brightness, color, harshness, and softness. Street photographers largely depend on what light is available in the street. Rightly so. Because that’s what defines the authentic photo. Even if you can’t manipulate the light or move the subject, you can move yourself to see whether the quality of light changes.
Net-net make best use of night lighting in the street to make the photo dramatic and moody.
3. Don’t mind raising ISO
High ISO is your only friend to get apt exposure. Don’t mind even if it results in a little noisy picture. If I’ve to prioritize between grains and exposure of the photo, I’ll pick exposure. I should be able to tell my story by exposing the subject well. I can live with the grains in photos. On few occasions, even the grainy pictures look artistic.
Even if you get a noisy photo and you want to get rid of the noise, Lightroom or Photoshop will do a good job to remove noise. More about editing night street photos is written below.
4. Make optimal camera setting for night outdoor photography
Two basic setting which is applied in all my street photography is extended to night street photography camera settings also: shoot in raw and shoot in manual mode. Keep the white balance auto – with a raw photo you can play better with white balance during editing.
Keeping lens in auto focus mode during night may pose additional challenge – if the subject is dark, you won’t get sharp photo. Toggle auto focus to manual focus mode to see if that’s more helpful.
Aperture width controls exposure and depth-of-field. If you need better exposure keep the aperture wide — f1.8, f1.4 etc — to the extent your camera allows. If you need to keep everything in focus go for narrow aperture – f8 and above. Keeping aperture narrow (f8 and above) will compromise on exposure, which you can compensate with higher ISO or slower shutter speed.
Keep the shutter speed optimal to avoid any motion blur. To freeze human motion shutter speed of 1/120s should be ok. For static objects you can reduce the shutter speed to 1/60s. But then you need to hold camera in hand firmly to avoid camera shake. Alternatively, mount the DSLR on tripod if you’re going to lower shutter speeds.
Increase shutter speed for vehicle motions or faster moving objects. Increasing shutter speed compromises the exposure which is already a challenge in the night. If you need to increase shutter speed, compensate with increasing ISO (yeah you can go up to 1600 or 3200 ISO depending on make of your camera) or opening aperture wider.
At the cost of being repetitive, sharing that don’t mind raising ISO for good exposure. Secondly, shooting in raw enables better leverage of managing exposure and handling noise during post-processing in comparison to shooting in jpg.
5. How to edit your night street photos
Every time someone tells me how sharp my photos are, I assume that it isn’t a very interesting photograph. If it were, they would have more to say.Unknown Author
I’ve always advocated not to edit street photos much to keep it authentic. I edit photos to improve the composition by cropping; improve white balance that would have been impacted by camera; and, improve exposure which the gadget would’ve failed to capture. Keep the photo as you viewed. Natural.
Night photos need one additional step of editing to remove noise and improve colors. Lightroom or Photoshop does excellent job of addressing noise and grains in the photo. Don’t remove the noise so much that the whole picture looks soft. Trade-off between sharpness and noise. Even if you get some noise, don’t mind so long as there is a good storytelling in the photo. If you’re not able to improve the photo’s noise, neither the photos have great narrative, reject it. Don’t get emotional with the photo.
Play with exposure, highlights, shadows, and contrast sliders to find a sweet spot of exposure. Don’t mind moving the sliders to extreme – sometimes it surprises you with the contrast and exposure. Don’t spend too long on a photo while you’re experimenting with tons of adjustments.
If there are multiple photos exposed in similar light conditions and camera setting, you can edit them in batch or copy settings of one editing and paste it to subsequent images. In Lightroom, the command is ctrl-C in Windows to copy all the settings you’ve adjusted in an image and press ctrl-V to paste the setting.
At times, you need to correct color of certain elements in the picture, if something is distracting. If the colors are boring, convert the picture into black and white.
6. Subjects for night street photography
You can shoot pretty much everything that you shoot during the day in the street: buildings, poles, roads, vehicles, people. Everything. The only difference is that all those subject looks differently because of light conditions.
Portraits: The person can stand below the light pole and lit with help of the streetlight or in front of a shop. You don’t necessarily shoot portraits from front. You can make photos from side or back. You can make staged or candid portrait. In staged portrait you typically ask the person you met in the street to pose. In candid street photos, you don’t disturb the scene. Both are authentic, so long as the scene is not altered.
Buildings: Lights on the buildings, or any concrete structures make street and travel photography attractive.
Streetlights: A series of light coupled with people or vehicle is also a good night street photo subject.
Vehicles: You can either shoot busy traffic, isolate vehicles, or motion blur with those vehicles.
Reflection: if there’s a water body or glasses, make use of those to shoot reflection of your subjects: buildings or people.
Long exposure photography: There are many ways in which you can make long exposure photos during the night. Capture streaking light of passing vehicles. Soften the reflection of city building in the reflection of a water body. Or, leverage long exposure photos to improve the exposure of photos in the dark street. Don’t forget to carry a tripod to shoot long exposure photos. A tripod would keep the camera stable for the duration of long exposure.
7. Which is the best lens for night street photography
The lenses with wide aperture 1.8 or 1.4 are best for nighttime street photography, for the simple reason that it can handle low light conditions best. So, go for 35mm f1.8 lens or 50mm f1.8, f1.4 lenses depending on your DSLR manufacturer.
Based on the choice if your subject, you may need to keep couple of lenses in the bags. For example, if you plan to shoot cityscape, a wide-angle lens is a good idea. For street portraits, a 35mm or 50mm prime lens is recommended.
8. Do you need flash for night outdoor photography
Flash would be useful only if you’re making street portrait. For rest of the subjects like buildings, vehicles, roads, shops, wider angles, external flash won’t be much of the help. The other problem with flash is that it doesn’t make the photo authentic because you’ve not seen the scene in presence of the flash. You’ve viewed it in ambient light. To stay close to what you viewed and the same you want to compose, leave the flash at home even for nighttime street photography when light is not enough to lit the subject.
That fact that there’s less light and the photographs become dramatic, you wanted to proceed with documenting streets in night, right?
9. Making street portraits in night
I’m fond of street portrait photography. So, my street photography isn’t complete till I make few close portrait of strangers who bring some unique perspective – their hair, hat, glasses, dress, or candidness. Which means, if there’s less light in night will I be deprived of making such street portraits? No.
What I’d look for when there’s less light is the creative portraits that I can shoot with the limited light falling on the person. The color of light, direction of the lights and darker areas in the frame produces the portraits which is not possible during the day street photography.
Like other rules of close street portraits, take permission, explicitly or implicitly, before you click the shutter button in front of a stranger. Explicit, because you may ask them to pose. Implicit, because they approve with their body language and you want to make a candid street portrait.
10. Make black and white night street photos
Black and white street photos are timeless and artistic. While reviewing my photos after shooting dozens or hundreds of pictures, I apply the perspective whether the photo would look better colored or black and white. Make a snap judgement without wasting time or deliberating over the photo whether you should convert the photo into black and white.
I, generally, convert two types of photos into black and white:
i. When colors are boring, I’d neutralize it with B&W
ii. When picture looks grainy
Once you decide to make the photo black and white, play with exposure, shadows, highlights, and contrast. The exposure in color vs B&W make the picture look drastically different. So, make adjustments based on your own artistic expression and the quality of the photographs.
11. Shoot early morning for less busy street
Shooting monuments, buildings and urban roads are great experience during blue hours. The blue hour is the time before dawn or after dusk, a period of twilight. The sun is still below the horizon and you start getting rid of the darkness of night. Shooting early morning has an advantage that you can shoot without struggling with the busy streets.
In summary: Pursuing night street photography poses challenges that needs you to handle it well. You can’t miss the night streets which is 50% of the time during 24 hours of a day. Few cities are defined due to night life. How can you miss photographing urban streets in night?