But it does not have to be.
Because there are a few simple tricks you can use…
…that will ensure you get great long exposures, consistently.
And that is what this article is all about. I am going to give you 12 easy tips for long exposure night photos. Specifically, I will tell you:
- Every piece of gear you need for pro-level night photography.
- The simple secrets for keeping your long exposure shots sharp.
- The best time of day to capture long exposure night photos (hint: It is not at all what you would expect!)
Plus, a whole lot more.
Are you are ready to become a master of long exposure night photography?
Let’s get started.
Most photographers think that scouting is overkill.
But here is the thing:
Knowing where the best locations are for night photography ahead of time can pay huge dividends.
It means you will not have to work out where to set up when you arrive.
(And setting up is stressful if you cannot find a spot and the sun is sinking rapidly!)
If you can, scout your location at the same time of day you plan on shooting. This will give you a good idea of what lighting to expect.
Have a good look around the area. And ask yourself:
Will there be any trees or obstacles blocking my view? Are there any lights in the vicinity – such as streetlights or floodlights – that will affect my images?
When choosing your location, also look for sources of movement, including:
- Crowds of people.
- Cars that create dramatic light trails.
- Boats skimming across the water.
Because movement is great for long exposure photos
In this photo, both lights and people are creating a sense of movement.
If you are not able to scout a location beforehand, consider your options.
For instance, you can turn up an hour or two before sunset to find the best location.
Or you can research the location by looking through social media. This will give you ideas for potential locations – including what they look like at night.
2. Consider taking multiple shots
Once you have determined your shooting location, here’s what to think about next:
Whether you will move your camera and tripod around on the shoot (changing locations, capturing different compositions, and/or using different focal lengths), or whether you will take a series of images that are exactly the same.
If you have decided on the latter, it can be worth taking a second camera and tripod with you; that way, you can take additional shots and make the most of your trip.
3. Use a checklist to pack your gear
Night photography requires a lot of equipment.
So before you go out to shoot, I highly recommend you create a checklist for packing your kit.
This is a great memory aid and will ensure that you do not forget anything. Here are some of the things I have on my gear checklist:
- Cameras and lenses
- Fully-charged camera battery. If you are capturing multiple images of the same scene to blend in Photoshop, you will have a very hard time lining them all up later on if you have to move your camera to change batteries.
- Spare batteries
- One or two tripods
- Tripod base plates (these small rectangular bits of kit can be the difference between a successful shoot and a disaster!)
- SD cards. Make sure you have a formatted card in your camera ready to go, as well as spares.
- Water and snacks
- Wireless headphones. Often, I will be in the same location taking images for several hours. If there is not a fellow photographer to chat with, I listen to podcasts or music.
4. Set up early and be mindful of others
Try to arrive early so you can set up and be prepared at your preferred location.
When you set up your camera and tripod, be mindful of pedestrians, cyclists, and traffic in the area. Do not place your gear where it will obstruct paths or where people could trip over it.
Always make sure your gear is not in the way of others during a night shoot in a busy area.
5. Shoot during blue hour for the best skies
If you want to create the most striking long exposure night photography, then I highly recommend you shoot during blue hour.
Specifically, start capturing images as the sun is setting, and keep photographing until all the colour has drained from the sky.
That is how you’ll get images with drama, like the one below:
The best time to take night photos is when there is still colour in the sky!
6. Use a tripod
You must use a tripod for sharp long exposure night photography.
Otherwise, your photos will be full of blur.
Use strong tripod, and it is still going strong!
Owning several tripod quick release plates is also a good idea. That way, you can detach your camera from the tripod whenever you need (and stick it back on quickly, as well!).
A good-quality tripod is a solid investment for long exposure night photographers.
7. Turn on your camera’s electronic level
Most cameras have a built-in guide or electronic level.
If your camera has one, then turn it on.
Why is an electronic level useful?
It will let you know if your camera is crooked, just like an old-fashioned spirit level. And you can adjust your camera so that every single image comes back straight.
(On my Fujifilm X cameras, this is a horizontal line across the screen that turns green when the camera is level.)
Of course, you can always straighten the horizon in a program such as Lightroom or Photoshop.
But this can get annoying, especially if it is a frequent problem.
So find the electronic level, and make sure it’s active before you start shooting.
8. Use a remote release
When taking long exposures, you must minimize any movement of the camera during an exposure.
Which means that you cannot press the shutter button.
No matter how careful you are, when you tap the shutter, you may create camera shake. And end up with blurry images.
One way to avoid camera shake is to use a remote release. These are small accessories that plug into a socket on the side of your camera, allowing you to trigger the shutter without pressing the shutter button.
Many camera companies also have a smartphone app you can use to activate the shutter of your camera.
You can trigger many cameras via an app.
9. Use the self-timer feature
Here is a second way for you to minimize camera movement during an exposure:
Use your camera’s self-timer feature. I actually prefer this method of hitting the shutter button for two reasons:
1. I usually take two cameras on shoots, so using a smartphone app is not an option since it can only connect to one camera at a time.
2. The two cameras I take use different types of remote releases, and I would rather not have to remember to bring both of those accessories.
Instead, I recommend you set up a two-second self-timer delay in advance. That way, you can hit the shutter button, wait for any vibrations to fade, then get a tack-sharp shot.
(Just remember to deactivate the self-timer feature after the shoot is over!)
The self-timer feature is a great way to minimize camera shake.
10. Try interval shooting for great results
Do you want to capture the beauty of a scene over a long period of time?
Try interval shooting.
With interval shooting, you can fire off photos with a set time interval (so you capture one photo every two minutes, for example).
I set my camera to take a photo every two minutes during the early part of my shoots, then – when the light starts to get interesting and the city lights come on – I set my camera to take a photo ever 20 or 30 seconds.
You can also set this feature to stop after a certain number of exposures.
Interval shooting essentially sets your camera on autopilot, leaving you free to take images with a second camera.
Just be careful not to bump or move your main camera when adjusting settings during your shoot.
11. Turn off image stabilization
If you want sharp long exposure photos, you must turn off camera and lens image stabilization.
Now, you’re probably thinking:
What? Image stabilization makes photos sharper, not blurry!
And you are right…
You should always use a tripod for long exposure night photography.
And when image stabilization meets a tripod, it causes problems. You see, your tripod should be completely still, yet your image stabilization technology will often move your camera and/or lens slightly – resulting in unwanted blur.
Some newer lenses can sense when a camera is mounted on a tripod and turn off image stabilization automatically.
But I recommend you check, just to be sure.
12. Always stay safe!
This is of paramount importance when taking photos at night.
Always be aware of your surroundings and pay attention to who is nearby. I usually have my bag always zipped up and next to me.
Often, I put one of my bag straps around my leg so no one can try to run off with my kit.
And while I take wireless headphones, I would only ever use them in busy locations where I feel safe.
Always be aware of your surroundings when shooting in remote places or late at night.
Long exposure night photography: Final words
I hope you have enjoyed this guide to long exposure night photography.
While shooting at night may seem difficult, with some extra thought and planning, you will capture some stunning images!
Of course, the best way to improve your photography is to get out there and practice as much as you can.