A Detailed Introduction to City and Street Photography at Night
When it comes to city photography, there is just no better time to photograph than at night. Not even the golden and blue hours can compete – cities just sparkle and come alive at night.
While I find that you will come back from a night session with many more keepers than during the day, the reality is that night photography can be a lot harder to do well, at first. There are a lot more constraints to work around, specific settings to use, and depending on what you are shooting, you often will have to push your camera to its limit (which is a good thing).
*Side note: Be Safe: Beyond the photography, one of the most special aspects of photographing cities at night is that you get to walk around at such a special time. Typically crowded streets are empty, the mood is enhanced and you have quiet time to think and reflect, and surprises are around each corner. Night is my favorite time to explore. But you have to be careful. Please know where you are going, be safe, and when in doubt, bring a friend along for the experience.
This article is going to be split equally into talking about cityscape photography at night and street photography at night. Both types of photography are equal parts of capturing a city after dark, but their approaches are so different that it is important to compare the strategies.
City photography at Night – Introduction
Capturing night cityscapes and urban landscapes is a slow, methodical, and relaxing process. With newer cameras that do very well at high-ISOs, you can get away with photographing without a tripod, but I highly recommend using one. The low ISO will allow a quality in the image that you can’t get handheld and you will often be able to photograph scenes that you would not be able to capture handheld, due to the light.
You will be able to have more depth of field and thus more sharpness throughout your scene, which is particularly useful for grand cityscape images that have foreground, middle ground, and background elements in them.
Also, you can try slow shutter speeds for motion in people, crowds, or car lights.
Street photography at Night – Introduction
The way to shoot night street photography is nothing like night cityscape photography. The name of the game is using a high-ISO and shooting handheld.
Whether you are shooting street photography during the day or at night, the world is a fast-moving place, and you need your camera to be able to capture those split-second moments. A tripod will just slow you down too much to have the spontaneity that you need.
With more traditional city photography with a tripod, you have more flexibility where you can shoot and what backgrounds you can use, whereas, with handheld street photography, you are more beholden to the light. The name of the game, which we will talk about in more detail, is to seek out light sources and use them to your advantage.
Night City Photography Camera Settings
When using a tripod, you have complete freedom over your camera settings when shooting at night just as you would in bright sunlight. You can shoot in Aperture or Shutter Priority modes, which I often recommend during the day, but I often find Manual Mode to be ideal at night.
The key is that we have time here, the time to dial in the perfect settings to get the perfect exposure and we want to take advantage of this. So set your camera to manual and experiment until you have the perfect settings.
I often like to use a deep depth of field, typically F8 to F16 on a full-frame camera. Night landscapes are often images with a lot of depth in the frame and you want everything to be sharp, to I will start by choosing the right aperture for this effect. This is not always the case of course – for some shots, I prefer the look of a shallow depth of field.
If I am shooting with a deep depth of field, I will turn my camera to a low ISO, but not always the lowest. It depends. With F8-F16 and ISO 100, your shutter speed will often need to be a 20 second, 30 second or even longer exposure. This is usually fine unless there is wind strong enough to blow the camera around. In this case, you need to offset the blur from the wind. So I will raise my ISO, often to 400 or 800 (and the naked eye can rarely notice much grain in newer cameras at ISO 400 or 800), lower my aperture a bit, and try to get the shutter speed down to 5-8 seconds. Then I will take a bunch of photographs in between wind gusts to make sure I get a sharp shot. The difference in quality between these settings is barely noticeably from the perfect settings.
When shooting with a shallow depth of field such as F2.8, you will need a much lower ISO and faster shutter speed, so you do not have to worry as much.
Capturing Motion in Low-Light
Part of the beauty of using a tripod at night is that you have the ability to capture long exposures to capture motion in crowds or in the lights of cars. With a shutter speed of 4-6 seconds, you can capture a gorgeous scene of a crowd in motion, with some people stopped completely, others in partial motion, and the fast-moving people as whisps through the scene. This is only possible to do during the day with a darkening neutral density filter, but it’s ideal to do at night or in any general low-light situation.
Best Lenses for City Night Photography
I prefer a good mid-range zoom lens such as a 24-70mm or 24-105mm on a full-frame camera. These lenses typically are wide-enough yet can zoom enough for 95% of the content that I want to capture.
Some photographers prefer more super-wide-angle lenses, including fish-eyes, and some prefer to zoom incredibly far to capture far-off city details. Both are very valid and can capture incredible shots, but I prefer to stay in the more normal range and these are the lenses that I take out with me. I prefer to travel light with lenses so I have more energy for walking and carrying my tripod.
Night Street Photography Camera Settings
For street photography at night, we need the freedom to be able to shoot quickly and instinctively. Since we need to handhold our cameras, we will have to push their settings to the limit.
Luckily, newer cameras give us the incredible luxury to be able to do this. You can read about my favorite cameras for street photography for more examples, but I highly recommend the Fuji X100, Fuji X-T, Ricoh GR, and Sony A7 lines as the best cameras for night street photography.
I typically shoot on Aperture Priority or Manual Mode for night street photography. Manual mode works well when the night lighting is consistent, but I find Aperture Priority is usually my favorite mode since the light will change constantly, and it can help you to focus more on the content of what you are capturing if the camera does some of the work.
I then will turn my exposure compensation to -1. This allows us to make sure that the scene is truer to the darkness of the original scene – we want these moments to feel like they were captured at night, and it will allow us to not have to push our camera settings quite as much since we will not need to record as much light.
We will have no choice but to put our ISO up incredibly high, and I typically shoot at ISO 3200 or 6400 at night. The added noise/grain will still look beautiful and will add to the feeling that this was a moment that was tough to get. But it’s also important to say that there is a big difference in the type of image quality that is often celebrated for cityscape photography and street photography in low-light. People typically expect these photos to have a different look and feel to them.
Using a large aperture such as F2.8 or F2 is often ideal as well, and typically necessary. The light is so low, even near store windows that we just have no choice. Thus, a fast lens is necessary to use.
Finally, the name of the game is your shutter speed. For street photography, your shutter speed has to be fast enough to freeze motion in people. During the day, I typically try to have a shutter speed at 1/250th or faster. At night, I will be happy to go down to 1/125th or 1/80th or faster. At these shutter speeds, there might still be a little blur, but the people should still be sharp enough. Just make sure to keep checking your settings to make sure that the shutter does not go below an 80th.
Slower than 1/80th of a second with a moving subject and there will definitely be blur, but this may be the type of look you are looking for.
Best Lenses for Night Street Photography
A fast 35mm or 50mm (full-frame equivalent) is the key here. You will need a lens that can shoot at F2.8 or F2 and you can typically find affordable versions of both.
Night street photography is hard, and using a light prime lens that you can grow with and get used to will speed you up significantly. It’s a huge key for this type of spontaneous photography. Besides, these lenses typically have great autofocusing capabilities at low light, which can solve a big issue for you.
Wide-angle lenses will also offset your handheld camera shake and be easier to hold, so you will find less handheld blur in your photographs.
Night Cityscape Photography Tips
1. Turn off your image stabilization, which can often interfere with tripod use and add blur to your photographs.
2. Focus your camera on the nearest light source. Focusing is difficult at night and so look for something shiny to lock your focus into.
3. For scenes with a foreground, middle ground, and background, place your focus point around 1/3rd of the way into the image.
4. Bring a flashlight or use your camera flashlight to help in very dark situations.
5. Use a remote shutter or a 5-second timer to take the photograph so you will not be touching the camera while the image is being taken. This can add some blur.
6. Dress warm!
7. For a star effect on light sources, depending on your lens, the smaller the aperture (i.e. F11 or F16) will create more of this effect.
8. When printing, a night image will appear much brighter on a backlit screen than in a print. Often, you will have to do a final round of brightening and will need to test the print under different light sources to get the exposure correct.
Night Street Photography Tips
1. Seek out light sources and place yourself in between the light source and your subject so the light is hitting them directly. If you don’t seek out light sources and stay near them, you cannot do handheld street photography at night.
2. Wait in a location with great light for something to happen. The same amount of moments will happen whether you are walking or waiting, so why not wait in an area with great lighting.
3. Add purposeful blur to your photography. People don’t have to be tack sharp, your focus doesn’t have to be spot on. Night is the perfect time to experiment with mistakes.
4. Imperfection – to further this point, street photography celebrates imperfection, so try to not get caught up in mistakes that occur. The most important aspect is that the photograph is interesting and that it feels like a real moment. Mistakes can help the moment feel real and unplanned.
5. Use a light, small camera and lens for maximum flexibility and to be very inconspicuous.
6. Dress in darker clothing.
7. Take a step back sometimes. It is harder to capture well-focused images at night, so if you are used to trying to capture photos at 6-8 feet, instead, try for your subject to be 8-10 feet away.
8. Use a flash for night street photography. A flash will allow you to create a variety of creative effects and will allow you to shoot with settings that you would otherwise not be able to use. It will help the foreground subjects to stand out from the background and to often create a surreal look. But keep in mind that this can scare the subject and get you into a confrontation.
In addition to just shooting at night, I highly recommend to also shoot in rain or snowstorms in the evening. ‘Bad’ weather will only enhance the beauty of the scene. It will make the situation a lot harder to photograph in and you will need to bring a camera covering and towels and to be much more careful about how you shoot. But the results will be spectacular.
Tripod Recommendation for Night Photography
I use a Gitzo Mountaineer Carbon Fiber Tripod and highly recommend it. Gitzo is one of the best brands and it is not cheap, and there are a few keys to why I recommend it.
First, it will last forever. If you purchase a $250-$300 tripod, the odds are that it will start breaking within 5 years. I’ve had that happen to me multiple times. It is a good financial decision to buy a tripod that you will never have to worry about again.
I prefer tripods that are large enough to use with big lenses but also incredibly light and can fold up compactly. The carbon fiber helps with this and the Gitzo Mountaineer is the perfect balance for me. You do not want a tripod that is so large or heavy that you will leave it at home.
Finally, I highly recommend a ball-head as the attachment for the tripod as I find those to be the quickest and most intuitive to use, which is particularly helpful at night.
As a photographer and certified tour guide, I can take you around to some of the most beautiful locations to photograph New York at night.
Read more about my private photo tours and street photography workshops.