IN THE FIELD: Night Photography


For me, night photography in the digital age is really enjoyable due in part to the instant feedback available. For instance, when I’m photographing headlight and taillight trails, I can instantly see whether the exposure is where I want it, and if the composition is working. In the days of film, experimentation, experience, and a good bit of luck, played a major role in creating successful light trail photos.

I took this photo a few weeks ago around 8:30 pm. and it was actually quite dark outside. I was hoping to create an image resembling an evening at dusk with headlight and tail light trails.

Not having a benchmark where to start, I experimented with many different shutter speeds ranging from five seconds up to 25 seconds. As the shutter speeds got progressively longer, the camera’s sensor gathered more light, and each photo resulted in a lighter scene with light trails.

Shutter speeds below 10 seconds still produced the light trails, but the scene looked like it was late at night…completely black except for the points of light and the trails. Shutter speeds beyond the 10 second setting were getting closer to the look I was after. And on this particular evening, the 20 second mark produced the best results. Any more than 25 seconds and the photo was over-exposed.

Digital sensors can be pushed pretty far before the heat generated by the sensor produces digital noise in the image. After taking long exposures of 20 seconds or more, it’s best to let the sensor cool for a minute or two before taking the next shot. And of course, a tripod or other sturdy support should be used to keep the camera steady during such long exposures. Also, a cable release or the camera’s self timer will assist in avoiding movement from tripping the shutter.

Have fun and experiment…the results can be quite rewarding.


20 sec

ISO 200

cloudy WB

  1. June 21, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Thank you dear David, this is wonderful share, I am thinking to take a night pictures in the village soon… Have a nice weekend, love, nia

    • June 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm

      Thanks Nia, it is so much fun to go out at night and just play. You never know what your results will be! Have a great weekend!

  2. June 21, 2013 at 11:39 am

    I like the hazy blue lighting-I think this would have worked well as a vertical, too.I agree it is fun to experiment with shutter speed -sometimes I don’t want to lighten in order to get a more colourful sky or for fireworks.But for city shots it is nice to see some detail rather than just sillouetes. Happy summer!

    • June 22, 2013 at 1:14 pm

      The amazing thing is, I couldn’t see any of the objects in the background it was that dark. All that was easily visible were the cars and the lights on buildings. The camera picked up way more light than I expected! I should go back to the same spot and try some verticals. Yup…underexposing for sunsets, sunrises, and fireworks is the way to go for good color saturation! And a happy summer to you too!

  3. June 21, 2013 at 4:21 pm

    It is amazing how digital photography has changed. You know right away if you like what you have taken and if not and you can instantly redo the shot.

    • June 22, 2013 at 1:16 pm

      Yes…the days of waiting a week or two to see the slides or prints are a thing of the past. Although sometimes the wait was worth it. I have to admit though…I like the instant feedback!

  4. June 22, 2013 at 4:07 am

    That’s a lovely photo – creative headlight exposure but you can see the detail as well. We have a similar problem when trying to photograph the moon and capture the background as well – you easily end up with a burned-out disc. It’s just a case of trial and error, and taking lots of photos! Good fun, though.

    • June 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm

      That’s how I look at it…good fun! And it doesn’t cost anything to take a mess of shots. In the days of film, I always had to be aware of how many shots were left on the roll, or how many rolls I had in my bag, and even were funds available to pay for all the developing that week LOL. Moon photos are a bit of a challenge, but as you said…trial and error is the key.

  5. June 25, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    Beautiful! I have yet to try capturing photographs using headlights from moving vehicles. I always appreciate seeing how others accomplish this feat. Maybe one day I will try or I will continue to let the experts like you do it and enjoy the results.

    • June 25, 2013 at 4:20 pm

      Hi Marcus, It’s super easy and sure is a heck of a lot of fun. You have some primo spots with the cityscape in the background and the twisting turning highways. You gotta give it a go! Tripod or a wall or some other object that doesn’t move, start with an f-stop around f8, f11 or somewhere thereabouts, electronic cable release and shoot on the “bulb” setting, and try different lengths of time. Play until you get the results you want. Then play some more!

  6. June 27, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Very cool! I know you live by the cloudy WB rule but somehow when I try it my images seem too “yellowish” to me. Maybe it’s my eyes or something – any ideas?

    • June 27, 2013 at 11:21 am

      You are correct…the cloudy WB can add a yellowish (warmer) cast to very light objects. I have found the warmer look more pleasing for outdoor photos. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just what I like. Easy test….find a scene day or night, take a shot with the sunny setting and then take the same shot with the cloudy setting or even fluorescent, shade or any of the others and see what you like best. Experimentation is the key!

  7. July 1, 2013 at 6:38 pm

    Nice shot of the light trails! I haven’t tried this kind of photography, but I’ve been tempted to try.

    • July 2, 2013 at 2:26 pm

      Thanks Fergie, you gotta get out there at night for light trails. It is so much fun ’cause every shot will be different. You can shoot next to highways, parking lots, roadside gas stations, convenience stores, and the list goes on and on…

  8. July 8, 2013 at 1:43 am

    I lovbe it how you write about the technical photography bits like it’s the simples thing in the world 🙂 Great shot, night photography is very fascinating!

    • July 8, 2013 at 2:34 pm

      Photography doesn’t have to be difficult. I’m totally self taught through experimentation and reading, so I guess that’s why I try to keep things simple. Not beneath anyone…just plain and simple. I bet you would have a lot of fun with night photography!

  9. July 8, 2013 at 1:44 am

    *love it* even 😀

    • July 8, 2013 at 2:36 pm

      That’s ok…I knew what you meant.

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