Night photography

The night sky, photographed facing north at 6,600 feet (2,000 m) in the Mount Hood National Forest
A London taxi turning outside the railway station at Sutton, London
The skyline of Singapore as viewed at night

Night photography refers to photographs taken outdoors between dusk and dawn. Night photographers generally have a choice between using artificial light and using a long exposure, exposing the scene for seconds, minutes, and even hours in order to give the film or digital sensor enough time to capture a usable image. With the progress of high-speed films, higher-sensitivity digital image sensors, wide-aperture lenses, and the ever-greater power of urban lights, night photography is increasingly possible using available light.


In the early 1900s, a few notable photographers, Alfred Stieglitz and William Fraser, began working at night. The first known female night photographer is Jessie Tarbox Beals. The first photographers known to have produced large bodies of work at night were Brassai and Bill Brandt. In 1932, Brassai published Paris de Nuit, a book of black-and-white photographs of the streets of Paris at night. During World War II, British photographer Brandt took advantage of the black-out conditions to photograph the streets of London by moonlight.

Photography at night found several new practitioners in the 1970s, beginning with the black and white photographs that Richard Misrach made of desert flora (1975–77). Joel Meyerowitz made luminous large format color studies of Cape Cod at nightfall which were published in his influential book, Cape Light (1979). .Jan Staller’s twilight color photographs (1977–84) of abandoned and derelict parts of New York City captured uncanny visions of the urban landscape lit by the glare of sodium vapor street lights.

By the 1990s, British-born photographer Michael Kenna had established himself as the most commercially successful night photographer. His black-and-white landscapes were most often set between dusk and dawn in locations that included San Francisco, Japan, France, and England. Some of his most memorable projects depict the Ford Motor Company's Rouge River plant, the Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station in the East Midlands in England, and many of the Nazi concentration camps scattered across Germany, France, Belgium, Poland and Austria.

During the beginning of the 21st century, the popularity of digital cameras made it much easier for beginning photographers to understand the complexities of photographing at night. Today, there are hundreds of websites dedicated to night photography.


Technique and equipment

The length of a night exposure causes the lights on moving cars to streak across the image

The following techniques and equipment are generally used in night photography.

Long exposures and multiple flashes

The long exposure multiple flash technique is a method of night or low light photography which use a mobile flash unit to expose various parts of a building or interior using a long exposure.

This technique is often combined with using coloured gels in front of the flash unit to provide different colours in order to illuminate the subject in different ways. It is also common to flash the unit several times during the exposure while swapping the colours of the gels around to mix colours on the final photo. This requires some skill and a lot of imagination since it is not possible to see how the effects will turn out until the exposure is complete. By using this technique, the photographer can illuminate specific parts of the subject in different colours creating shadows in ways which would not normally be possible.

Painting with light

See also: Light painting

When the correct equipment is used such as a tripod and shutter release cable, the photographer can use long exposures to photograph images of light. For example, when photographing a subject try switching the exposure to manual and selecting the bulb setting on the camera. Once this is achieved trip the shutter and photograph your subject moving a flashlight or any small light in various patterns. Experiment with this outcome to produce artistic results. Multiple attempts are usually needed to produce a desired result.

High ISO

Advanced imaging sensors along with sophisticated software processing makes low-light photography with High ISO possible without tripod or long exposure. Digital SLRs have high end APS-C and full-frame digital SLR sensors which have a very large dynamic range and high sensitivity, making them capable of night photography. These large sensor cameras are able to collect more light than smaller sensors due to the size of the imaging area. Combined with large aperture lenses and other equipment and techniques, this allows for photography with high quality in very dark locations.

BSI-CMOS is another type of CMOS sensor that is gradually entering the compact camera segment which is superior to the traditional CCD sensors. Cameras with small sensors such as: Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100, Nikon 1 J2 and Canon PowerShot G1X give good images up to ISO 400.[1]

Moonlight photography

Moonlight photography (taking pictures of the surface of the Earth as illuminated by moonlight) is very different from lunar photography (taking pictures of the surface of the Moon as illuminated by sunlight). The Moon has an effective albedo of approximately 0.12, comparable to fresh asphalt. Since it is essentially a dark rock in full sunlight, photographing its surface needs an exposure comparable to what a photographer would use for ordinary mid-brightness surfaces (buildings, trees, faces, etc.) with an overcast sky.

The sunlight reflected by the full moon onto the Earth is about 250,000 times dimmer than the light we get directly from the Sun in the daytime. Since log2(250,000) = 17.93..., full-moon photography requires 18 stops more exposure than sunlight photography, for which the sunny 16 rule is a commonly used guideline.[2]

Reciprocity failure

Imagine a full daylight exposure of 1/100 second at ISO 100 and f/16 (the baseline of sunny 16). Adding 18 stops to convert from the Sun to the Moon could result in a shutter speed of 8 seconds at ISO 400 and f/2 (+10 stops of time, +2 stops of ISO, +6 stops of aperture). However, on most chemical film, such an exposure would turn out too dark. This is because film does not expose in linear proportion to the light it absorbs, an effect called reciprocity failure. At light levels as dim as moonlight, it needs more light than a linear extrapolation of daylight values would suggest.

For example, testing shows that Kodak Portra needs 1 extra stop for a nominal 8 second exposure, so in this case it would need 16 seconds.[3]

In practice, moonlight photography often uses exposures of several minutes. Digital cameras generally have less reciprocity failure, but do show image noise in low light.


Published night photographers

This section includes significant night photographers who have published books dedicated to night photography, and some of their selected works.

See also


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