Ambient Light Night Photography

I’ve had a lot of people recently asking me how I achieve clean photos at night with ambient light.  Because of this I am starting a blog and every Thursday I will cover a different technique in the photography world. Anything from lighting, programming a camera, theory, color, editing, and lighting. 
So to start this out I want to make sure we are all on the same page, so I am going to get technical for a minute. I promise this will be worth it!



Ok so this is called the exposure triangle, I imagine a good number of you are familiar with it. If you aren’t take a moment. Memorize it, tatto it on your arm, stick it on your wall. This is everything, and the core foundation of what you need to understand your camera and how to program it. 
So one of the biggest things we are going to talk about today is exposure and ISO. Simply put ISO is the sensitivity of the sensor in your camera. It’s how sensitive your sensor is to light. The higher it is the brighter your exposure is. This comes at a cost though. ISO should always be kept as low as possible, a sensitive sensor generates grain or noise in your image. This creates issues that can render an image unusable. 
One of the biggest problems we run into shooting at night is not having availability of light. Because of this we have to shoot with a high ISO and that leads to images that don’t look as good as they should. A lot of photographers get very frustrated and end up avoiding night photography in general. 
So when we look at night photography we have to approach it in a completely different way. With portraits and ambient light at night we don’t have the luxury of using a long shutter speed on a tripod as our subject will become blurred. 
My primary goal when shooting at night is let in as much light to the camera sensor as possible. This means I am usually shooting with an aperture of 1.4-1.8. And my shutter as low as i can get it without inducing blur. My goal is to expose with the ISO low enough to just barely have details in the shadows and to underexposed my highlights. One of the advantages of digital photography that is frequently overlooked is the ability to lift shadows in post processing due to dynamic range. Some cameras have more dynamic range than others. See below for a raw photo and an after photo. (If you are not shooting in RAW you need to be. We can save that for another blog post of it’s own though).


Representation of what your underexposed image should look like


Final image after lifting shadows and exposure in adobe camera raw

So in summary when shooting at night is important to keep ISO low. Shoot in manual and make sure your aperture and shutter speed are as low as they can be. (Without introducing blur). Shoot for the edit, I almost always underexpose in any situation. I prefer to lift shadows then lose details in blown out highlights during the day. And in low light its a life saver. 
It takes a little bit of getting used to. The idea of purposely under exposing a shot can seem like a strange thing to do. But when your final image is infinitely cleaner, you will be glad you did!
Let me know what you thought, and hopefully this helps explain some of the questions I have been receiving.

As always feel free to email me about anything you want to talk about.

Happy shooting!