Long exposure night photography

Taking photos at night poses many technical problems to the photographer, Some of which are easy to work out and others less so. I will cover some points of consideration for long exposures at night. These should help you not only with the technical aspects of shooting in the dark but also to increase your confidence in shooting these types of exposures. Once you have seen your first night photo successfully turn out you will be hooked on night shooting, Depending on your style shooting at night gives beautiful soft or vividly sharp colours, smooth shots or high contrast. It’s ultimately up to you. First I suggest looking at some images on Flickr and deciding what sort of look you want to go for. Also what is around you that will make a good photo at night? A brightly lit cityscape brimming with colourful lights? or a dark canyon with starfield framed above.
To begin, here are just some of the problems you will encounter when you first step foot outside at night armed with a good camera and film.

  • Exposure time is hard to measure as there is often little or no light.
  • Metering under street lighting can pose white balance issues.
  • Camera steadiness becomes a problem due to the long exposures.
  • Underexposed film will look muddy and is often unusable.
  • Lets break these down.


“But I have a light meter” I hear you say. Most light meters will meter down to EV0 or EV-3. Some of the shots you’ll be taking will require very long exposures so your light meter is fairly useless in these situations. The only exception to this is if you are spot metering a highlight and using that data to calculate your average for the scene. Note: some of you may be asking, WTF is EV? Ev stands for “Exposure value” here is a chart of f/stop and shutter speed combinations matched to EV’s
You’ll need to print out a copy of the below chart. This will give you some base exposure values that you can use for given circumstances. EV

Of course not everything is simply a number in a chart, note that these charts are based on iso100 film. You’ll need to calculate different times for faster or slower film. In the end it all comes down to practice practice practice. You will get a feel for how long an exposure needs to be over time, at this point i’d just like to point out just how important it can be to bracket exposures. Sometimes bracketing is difficult if you are shooting 2hr exposures but it’s important to mention never the less.

Below is a star trails photo taken in my back yard. Nearby street lights have slowly painted the trees in the frame with light over the length of the exposure. Technical details below.

Star Trails

1hr20min Exposure at f/5.6 on YashicaMAT 124G. This was using iso100 Fuji Superia.

In the example above, 20mins wouldn’t have made that much difference, probably only contributing to the brightness of the sky. It’s all up to you how you want the shot to come out. I should mention though that at the time of exposure I had no idea what it would come out like and that is what can be so alluring about shooting at night.

Tripods are obviously essential items, the sturdier the better. Wind blows and even the slightest movement can cost you sharpness on the final print. Make sure to setup your tripod in a sturdy area and don’t extend the centre pole as that can reduce stability.

White balance can also be an issue while shooting at night. Shooting under street lamps or other flood lights can send some weird colour casts through your photo’s. Make sure you know what colour light you are shooting under before you get out there. Then research what filters you will need to correct it. I should mention that when shooting b&w film it is less of an issue. For more information on using filters with B&W film check out our article here.


Ok. I’m going to do it. I’m going to mention digital cameras. Yes you can take long exposures on some digital cameras. If you are going to do it then make sure you know what your camera can do and what it can’t. Some digital SLR’s are known for getting thermal noise and hot pixels during long exposures. Also make sure you know how long your battery can last holding the shutter open. If in doubt then just do it properly on a full-manual film camera, you won’t regret it.

Digital cameras can be great for brightly lit city scapes at night, the newer DSLR’s can crank iso’s up to insane numbers with reasonable results but they just don’t compare to medium format film for the ability to resolve insanely fine details.
Here is a city scape shot on a Kodak DX6490 pro-sumer DSC. Gregory St headland

So now hopefully with a little more info under your belt you should feel more at ease about getting out there and getting some long exposures at night. If you have any questions or comments feel free to Tweet me or Contact us

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