Night Street Photography: The definitive guide

Night street photography is like the kryptonite to many photographers who want to do street photography when the sun goes down. Many hang up their cameras when it's dark. It poses a lot of technical challenges compared to regular street photography that this guide will clear things up for you. Let's jump right in…

Night Street Photography Guide

Since we want to shoot at night, let's first ask the question…

What makes night street photography different than day street shooting?

Street photography at night is pretty much the same as during the day. The same street photography tips, composition principles and more all apply. The key difference is simply the light and the kind of subjects you will find in the streets. At night you will find:

  • People dressed for a night out
  • Even less people when it's even later
  • Man-made light sources
  • Unique creative shots you'll only find at night
  • And most importantly…a serious lack of light

With that being said, here's how to make best of each night shooting out…

Make yourself like a fly

Just like a painter can;t paint without his colors, so can't a photographer make any photos while it is dark. It's impossible because making images requires LIGHT (photography means painting with light after all!). So when darkness falls upon the land, the photographer sticks to where there is light just like a fly. This is as simple and straightforward as it sounds.

Look for street lights, vendor stalls, neon lights and signs, etc. There are a lot of minor headaches attached to doing street photography at night (like not going past certain settings, focusing), all of these are non issues if you simply stick to the light wherever you can find it. Keep where there is some so that your camera can function as well as the day.

If you want to shoot anywhere at night, then read on. However, be warned it's practically impossible to get into night street photography, or low light street photography without going technical. Because when it come to low light, we usually are stretching the camera to it's limit and something's got to be given up when exposing your shot.

Get a night street photography lens

A 2.8 lens is the absolute bare minimum. f/1.8 and up is recommended


Without going too much into details, you need a fast lens. At night there is less light, and that makes having a fast lens (at least 2.8 and preferably 1.8 and up) crucial.  Your lens is the primary limiting factor when it comes to shooting at night. If you have a slow lens, you can probably forget about shooting anywhere because you will have to use such high ISO and slow shutter speed that you will end up with an unusable image.  If your lens is too slow, and for night street photography it's anything below 2.8 …it's by and large game over before you even start because you will need way too much light to make a picture.

Figure out your maximum shutter speed

So, before even heading out at night to do some street photography, you need to figure out a number first. Take your camera out and shoot a wall, leaves or grass (doesn't matter) at various shutter speeds starting at 1/125, and shoot slower and slower. Every time you shoot, look at the picture in the back of your camera. You are not trying to make any pictures, but trying to see the maximum shutter speed you can shoot at without shake.

There is no universal number. Not only each person can hold different cameras steady at different speeds (because of weight), but also newer cameras have stabilisation allowing each person to hold steadier than they could without stabilization.

Once you have your maximum shutter speed (with my large camera, I'm good til 1/30th second) you can either set up your camera never to cross that line, or you can make a mental note never to go over that shutter speed. This is to ensure your images don't get blurry.

Ramp up your ISO Dial

You will also need to know another number for night street photography. Your maximum ISO. At night or in the dark, shoot at various ISOs and see what ISO is your maximum. This has to do with taste and sensor sizes. The smaller the sensor the grainier the image will be, and only you can determine if something is too grainy for your taste.
On average, modern large sensor cameras are absolutely FINE at ISO3200. Some still do great at ISO6400, for above it depends on the camera.
Once you have this number, either set up your camera to never go over it with maximum shutter speed, or make a mental note not to cross that line. With your maximum shutter speed and high ISO number, you are putting guardrails against blurry images.
Once you know your camera's limits you can just look at a scene and determine if you can make a shot there.

Night Street Photography Settings

Here are the recommended street photography settings:

ISO3200/6400
Aperture1.8/2.8
Shutter Speed1/30th

This of course varies from situation to situation, but these settings will get you up to speed quickly. First you want to set up your ISO to as much you can tolerate, most modern street photography cameras are ok up to ISo 3200/6400. You can set up auto ISO so that it never goes above that value.

Then you want to lock in your aperture at maximum opening, because except if you are somewhere there will be light, you will need the maximum opening to make the most of the situation.

Lastly, you want to keep your shutter speed open as a variable. If you are stable and have reasonably steady hands, you'll be able to shoot at a maximum of 1/30th of a second or whatever setting you determined with the exercise above.

Figure out if you camera sees in the dark

Next up, go to really dark room without any or very little light coming in. Try to shoot a few frames. If your camera is struggling to find where you are shooting or misses it, you will probably have to work around that.

Also, most cameras at night have a light they flash out in order to “see” where they are focusing. Only you can decide if this is good or not. Why? Imagine you are outside at night, trying to get a shot. The flashlight from your camera is going to scare your subject like a guinea pig that just saw a hawk. You might scare em' away.

So. What to do if your flashlight is unacceptable or your focus isn't that great? That is when you go manual focus. Most recent-ish cameras have a feature called “focus peaking”, where it shows you the edges of what is in focus.
Turn on your camera's focus peaking and practice in the dark, to get the hang of it.

Trust in RAW files

If you want to make street photography at night, shoot RAW. Why? Because it captures more information than JPGs and you can recover some shadow data by playing around in Lightroom. This is useful if your camera isn't well suited for low light street photography.

Nothing destroys a JPG more than a shot at night. If you shoot RAW, you have some wiggle room when you max out your settings and underexpose. Expose the best you can and recover it in Lightroom. That's the biggest reason for using RAW.

Embrace the grain

For this night street shot, all I had was my phone. I take grainy photos over no photos at all


What if you don't want to underexpose or your images don't end up looking well in Lightroom? When given the choice between shutter speed and grain, give up on the grain. Because nothing can fix a blurry image, but anybody can get past heavy grain if the image is there.
So if you can't or won't underexpose, give up on the grain and go one or two steps above with your maximum grain. It won't sit well with you, but a grainy image is better than no image at all, and grain can be diminished to a certain degree in Lightroom (but your mileage may vary)

Use a monopod

You can get a LOT more slower shutter speed if you use a monopod. It just stabilizes the camera well enough so that you can get the shot. Shure, you could use a tripod but this is not recommended while doing street photography. Why? Because a tripod makes it hard to move around. Can you imagine walking down the streets having to drag a tripod everywhere?

Or maximize your enviroment

What if you don't have or don't want to use a monopod (like me?). Assuming you are not shooting while walking, use the environment to stabilize your camera. Look for fences, benches and also walls. Put a side of your camera on the wall and use your hand to hold it from the bottom. The main support will come from the wall and your hand will simply help out.
This is really where you can get creative, you can use trees, chairs, wherever you can put your camera.

Embrace the blur

Even at 2.8 the shot resulted in a blurry shot

If you want to keep your ISO relatively low and get a cleaner shot, shutter speed is what needs to go. Sometimes it's almost impossible to get a straight shot, even if you are trying hard to stabilize the camera. In that case, try your best to incorporate the blur within your image. When something is blurry it immediately creates visual interest in the image

 Get a better camera

If you want to do street photography at night, except if you want to stick to available light wherever you can find it or flash,  you will need a good camera.  You will have to be careful that this is not gear aquisition syndrome talking and your camera indeed needs an upgrade.  If your camera is too old, or is a small sensor, street photography at night will be hard if not impossible. Small sensors don't do well at night at all, they get grainy very fast, and newer cameras have better ISO handling than older cameras.

Don't go jump into a new camera just like that however. Try to make it work with your current camera (see the tips above), but if the problem seems to be that your camera simply can't handle low light, then consider a new camera. Most modern APSC sensors have acceptable quality in high ISOs but if you are REALLY dedicated, the Sony A7r II is the one to get. It goes to insane ISOs (up to 409600!) and still have a clean image. This camera sees in the dark and a must have if you are really serious about low light street photography. Check out this video demo:

Make slow shutter speed images

This is a bit different then embracing the blur. When you embrace the blur, it's more a matter of necessity, and the image ends up blurry no matter what. When you do slow shutter speed images, it's a conscious choice. In the image above there was enough light for my fast lens, so I could have some parts of my image sharp, and had a slow enough shutter speed to make the passerby blurry. Don't be afraid to use this to your advantage, it creates an immediate interest point in your images.

Find contrasting light

Night Street Photography Example


You know that big ball of light we call the sun? It only gives one light color at a time when it warms us up. This is out of the window when it comes to night street photography. When it's at night, many colors conflict and that's GREAT visually. You've got the drugstore that emits a green light, and the supermarket that emits a blue light. This creates contrast and makes for great images. Look for the different kinds of light when shooting at night, different light colors, man made light vs natural light. Patches of light vs the complete dark, etc.

Make nightscapes

Making most of the urban landscape at night in Japan


Depending on where you are, you can make some pretty nice shots at night without people. Where the subject is either the light or the urban landscape you are shooting.  This comes from being attentive and paying attention to the light quality that is around you.

Look for beams of light


This is a bit tricky, but you can use car lights or whatver beam-type light to make some pretty killer street photography. You will just have to position yourself in such a way to anticipate where the car lights are going to be. If you position yourself where the car is coming straight at you, anyone that passes in front will be illuminated.

Again, this is tricky and reserved for more advanced shooters, but if you pay attention to the traffic you might be able to get some unique shots with the light coming in.

Scoot on inside

Inside a mall in Japan at night

If you can't get light outside, one way to get great shots is to take shelter from the darkness INSIDE. That means malls, stores and more. You'll want to be careful however because now you would be in private property and street photography might not always be 100% legal in these situations. Check the laws for your country before shooting inside.

Simply Use flash


If you don't want to use the available light , simply use a flash. Having a flash solves the lack of light problem, but not the focusing problem. So if you wanted to do a  “surprise flash”, you probably won't be able to because the camera will have a flashlight turned on so that it can try to focus. This will of course tell any subject of yours that you are ready to shoot.

The trick to make amazing portraits at night

Street Portrait at night

While many like to make their street portraits during the day, there is something about doing them at night that is magical. What thing am I talking about? Light of course. The bigger the light source, the softer the light and absolutely nothing can make your portraits light up beautifully than posing your subject with your back to a well lit storefront.

This light is so amazing, I've used it to get me out of tricky situations while shooting an article for a newspaper when they needed an unplanned head-shot. Heck, I even used it many times to light stunning wedding portraits when I used to work weddings. Coupled with some of the tips above you can really mix and match to pull of some killer portraits like the above that mixes a convenience storefront light and a car light.

Inside Public transportation

Public transportation provides the ultimate in terms of light. Forget about busses, I'm talking about good old trains here, the overhead light usually provides for a large soruce of ligtht. Not only does that mean enough light for your camera to shoot comfortably, it also means beautiful, soft light, perfect for flattering whomever happens to be in your images.

Conclusion

Mysterious. Blurry. Grainy

One of the times I was in Japan, I made the shot above. I tried to make myself invisible while trying to get a good shot. The guy was walking, I was walking, there was no light. I didn't want to alert him so I resorted to manual focus and made the shot above when I finally saw a bit of light. It's blurry, it's grainy…and it pretty much sums up the philosophy behind night street photography: It's really about embracing the imperfect.

Sure, you can get a top of the line camera with blazing fast lens or use a flash, but unless you have those or want to use them, night street photography is messy. That is what makes it fun. You never know as you are walking down a street with a patch of light if the person coming right in front of you will pass exactly where you want them to…and if your camera can make a sharp-ish picture with your current maximum settings.

It's thrilling and frustrating at the same time, and it's part of the fun if you ask me. If you really want to upgrade your street photography to the next level, check out this course. While this guide gets you up and running in night street photography, my absolute best is revealed in there.

Enjoy your night shooting! Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.

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