15 Tips to Long Exposure Shooting at Night

Nikon D850, 24-70mm @ 24mm, f/14 ISO 100

After you’ve secured your basic equipment, (Camera, tripod, remote trigger and spare battery), it’s time to prioritize your to do list for shooting long exposures outdoors at night.

  1. Scout location as close as possible to your intended shooting time.  This will give you insight as to camera positioning, which lenses to bring along, traffic patterns and ambient light conditions.  I like to choose a setting that has both static and dynamic elements to show contrast in motion vs. static subjects in the frame.
  2. Charge your batteries and install a memory card into your camera.
  3. Go through this list and preset all of the camera functions that you can while indoors so that you’re not doing it outside in the dark.
  4. Set your camera to RAW if you have that function.  This will give you more color bit depth, larger files with better resolution and more flexibility in post production to push and pull your image to your liking. Shooting RAW also allows you to assign any color balance you want later, in post production as the color balance will not be “baked in” to the image, but rather “sits on top” of the image and can be stripped off easily.
  5. Put camera on manual focus.  Be sure to monitor this while shooting.
  6. Put your color balance and exposure functions to Manual.  Put your camera on the Tungsten setting as a default.
  7. Set ISO settings to 100.  Note that there is a dance between ISO and exposure time and aperture during night shooting.  I try to set my lens to an f/8 where most lenses are at their sharpest, and then juggle my exposure by varying my exposure times and boosting my ISO a bit.  I don’t like to go over ISO 800 unless I have to.
  8. If your camera has this function, turn on “Noise Reduction For Long Exposures.”  This will slow you down a bit while shooting, as the camera will take two exposures, one just for cleaning up sensor noise out of the image.
  9. If it’s windy, consider removing your camera strap and even lens shade but be mindful of unwanted stray light hitting your lens directly, as it may likely flare the lens and milk out your image. (Sometimes we want the flares, sometimes we don’t.). These items can catch the wind and minutely jiggle the camera during exposure.
  10. If you have the ability to flip up the camera’s mirror during exposure, acquaint yourself with this feature, so you can easily repeat it outdoors at night.  This function eliminates the in-camera vibration and contributes to overall better image sharpness. A good reason to use a mirrorless camera if you have one!
  11. Conserve your battery power while shooting by turning off your camera’s stabilzaion, as your camera will be on a tripod.
  12. Minimize your use of the cameras rear LED screen to save battery power.
  13. Acquaint yourself with the camera’s shutter speed options.  This includes whole seconds. Most cameras will shoot up to about 30 seconds in Manual mode.  There is also “Bulb” mode where the shutter will remain open for as long as the trigger is pressed, (use a release as your finger on the trigger will most definitely vibrate the camera), and also “Time” mode which releases the shutter when the trigger is pressed, and closes the shutter when it is pressed again.  Note that long exposures will drain your batteries pretty quickly, which is why you always want a spare.  On big events I always have spare batteries and cards.
  14. Once you have determined your correct “base” exposure, play with different shutter speeds to see the effects of a longer vs shorter exposure.  Remember that exposure is based on an algorithm, so if you increase your exposure time, reduce your ISO or f stop to compensate.
  15. Bracket your exposures being very careful not to move the camera/tripod.  This means shooting one exposure that properly exposes the midtowns in the frame, then another exposure just for highlights (or added dynamic elements like car headlights), then a good exposure for the blacks to ensure you have good solid blacks and not just noisy mud.

You can combine these images in photoshop, using the best parts from each exposure.

Helpful accessories: Ballhead and clamp, remote trigger, small flashlight on your phone, ND filters.

Of note: A lot of night photography we see is from movies, many of which originate in the States.  Up until now, the US was lit by primarily sodium vapour lights, which cast a strange orange mixed with green glow.  The entire landscape of the US is now changing over to daylight coloured LED lights, so that now the content beginning to come out of the States is slowly changing and the warm sodium vapour glow which we all recognise (consciously or unconsciously) is going to be forever changed.