Long Exposure, Night Photography

Long Exposure, Night Photography

The new and exciting world of night photography opened up to me in the 1980’s when I took a College Photography course. Since photography is all about light, the possibilities are endless even at night, whether you’re interested in capturing cityscapes, fireworks or trying out artistic ideas with traffic or any swirling lights.

The difference between day and night photography is the amount of time the shutter is left open. In order for night photography to be possible, the camera shutter needs to be opened for a longer time than it is for day photography.


Consumer point and shoot cameras of the past did not have a feature that would allow the shutter to stay open longer, but many of the newer ones have a night option. The problem is that when you select this feature with a point and shoot camera, the shutter does stay open longer, but not necessarily long enough for dramatic photographs. You also don’t have control over the length of time that the shutter stays open.

For this reason, a DSLR camera is recommended. The “limitless possibilities” feature on the DSLR camera is called “bulb.” In order to use the bulb feature on a DSLR, a tripod is highly recommended. The longer the camera shutter is left open, the more the need for a tripod to steady the camera because any movement will show camera shake in the final image, though sometimes people want camera shake like this when their goal is unusual, artistic, colorful, streaking light designs. Try it out sometime on passing vehicles with their headlights, tail-lights, brake lights, etc. going down the highway at night. Just for practice, set your camera to bulb, or a very slow shutter speed, and try to photograph any moving traffic lights. You’ll see interesting streaks of light, and I’m sure that at that point, the “bug” will hit you and you’ll want to explore this option more.

To take landscapes, cityscapes, Christmas lights, decorated Christmas trees, fireworks, etc., you will need a tripod to keep the camera steady. A camera remote shutter release is highly recommended as well because if you try to depress the shutter by hand, you may shake the camera even just a little and ruin the photograph.

The now considered “vintage” cameras used to have a remote shutter cable release that screwed into the shutter button, but now with the digital cameras there are two options. One is a remote without a cord, and the other is with the cord. The one without the cord did not work for me because it is designed for taking a photograph of yourself or yourself with your family because you need to be in front of the camera to use it. The one with the cord is recommended because you can use it standing behind the camera. For the D300s, when looking at the camera from the front, there is a place to press the prongs of the remote cable into place.

Lens for night photography

Any landscape lens would be fine for night photography because it depends on what you want to capture or crop in the scene. Mine is a 20mm lens which becomes a 30mm on my camera, and I found that to be plenty for the Philadelphia skyline. However, when I was standing on the Camden side, I wished I had at least tried my 300mm to capture a closer shot of some of the lighted buildings. Another factor is the aperture of the lens. My 20mm is a 2.8, so it lets in more light, so I would leave my shutter open perhaps a few seconds shorter then say a 3.5-5.6 lens.

Camera settings

As far as camera settings are concerned, for landscape photographs you can set the camera from f/8 to f/22, with f/22 having a wider depth of field. You can study your lens, though too because some lenses are sharper at different f stops. I’ve read that my 20mm is sharper at f/18, so I set mine to that and was very happy with it and the depth of field was very nice.

I have my camera white balance set to Auto which works fine for me, but you can try the evening white balance settings if you wish depending on the effect that you are after, whether it be a cool or warm feel to the scene, since the white balance can always be changed in post-processing.

Once the camera is on the tripod, you can turn on the grid option in the camera viewfinder and you can line the grid lines up with the landscape to help to keep landscapes straight. When you’re ready, press and hold the shutter release and keep the button depressed for as long as you desire to capture the light onto the sensor. Through practice you will begin to notice that just before the sun sets, 2 seconds may be sufficient, but then after it sets, at least 10 seconds will be required and then longer as it gets darker. The closer Philadelphia Cityscape photograph that I took was taken many hours after the sun had gone down and I had to hold the shutter open approximately 30 seconds.

Now that the camera is ready, you can begin testing the timing of photographs once the sun begins to set. How long you keep the shutter open depends on what your goal is. If you are capturing traffic lights, the most exciting photographs are the ones where the colorful car lights are streaking, especially in traffic ramp turns and twists.

Your camera probably even came with a cover for the viewfinder. This would come in handy if there are bright, distracting lights interfering with the exposure. I personally didn’t use it for my photographs.

Sky color

The color of the sky will depend on how long it has been since the sun has set. Immediately after sunset, some blue will probably still show up in the photograph. Later in the evening, the sky will more than likely show up as black, which is still nice.


Finding a safe and legal place to stand is imperative when trying to capture car lights. I was stopped by a policeman once when my husband and I were standing on the side of a bridge at night photographing car lights below. I explained what I was doing and he was satisfied and left, but please be very careful where you stand.

Exposure Time

You will find that there will be an acceptable range of time to leave the shutter open. 10 seconds may give you dim, distant lights, and 35-40 seconds may blow closer, stronger lights and ruin the effect, but keep experimenting until you find the proper exposure time.

I also noticed that the LCD screen can be somewhat deceiving on any camera. Usually the exposure looks fine on the LCD screen, but after I upload the photographs I see that they are darker than I thought they were and that I should have left the shutter open longer.

There will be situations where a portion of the scene you are capturing has dimmer lights and another portion, lets say the lights on a building on the right side of your scene may have a brighter light which requires less exposure. In this case, you can leave the shutter open only long enough not to blow the brighter lights.

Have fun with night photography, and let me know what experiences you encountered!