Shooting at Night

A lot of photo enthusiasts say, "The sun's out--time to take pictures," and put their camera away come nightfall. But if this is your philosophy, you're missing half the fun of photography. You can take some exciting night shots of colorful neon signs, the streaked taillights of traffic in motion, or shadowy figures silhouetted by street lights. The photo opportunities after dark are plentiful.

During twilight, lingering light in the sky balances the colorful lights of the city.
Reader photo by Charles Harrison, Cincinnati, OH


You can use fast film (or the equivalent ISO setting on a digital camera) in the 400--1600 range for outdoor night shooting. Also--particularly when using slower films--you'll want to use a tripod or another means of camera support, unless you're shooting night scenes with a lot of light, such as buildings in Las Vegas.

One challenge you'll encounter when photographing in existing light is color balance. All color films are keyed to a particular light source, such as daylight film that's balanced for sunlit scenes, and tungsten film for photographing subjects lit by tungsten lamps. However, when you shoot at night, lighting often comes from mixed lighting sources, such as mercury vapor and neon lights, for example. It's difficult to predict how your final pictures will look, or how close your colors will be to reality. It's best to use a daylight film that you like--or set your digital camera to auto white balance--and allow the colored lights to be rendered naturally. You'll probably be pleased with the final results.

Photographing a neon sign using a little movement results in a very colorful image.
Reader photo by Richard Lotman Brown, Kansas City, MO

If you're shooting when the sky is pitch-black, sometimes lit buildings are rendered as disembodied lights in the sky. For this reason, it's a good idea to shoot pictures in the early evening, or twilight, when lingering light in the sky balances the colorful lights of buildings and signs. Photographers often call twilight "the magic hour," as it yields a lot of color for a relatively short amount of time. You'll want to have your camera ready before this brief window of opportunity begins, which also means scouting out a great location ahead of time.

If your camera will allow you to use a slow exposure, you can get some great motion effects at night.
Reader photo by Richard Bluestein, Boca Raton, FL