8 ways to get sharp photos at night

As the nights draw in and we have less daylight available before and after work, nighttime photography is a great way to scratch your photographic itch. Follow our 8-step plan to get sharp shots in the dark.

1. Use a tripod
Okay so let’s kick-off with the basics. If you’re shooting at night you’re likely to be using exposures that are measured in minutes, so you need to use a tripod.

And not just any old tripod, you need a good solid one that’s going to hold your camera and lens rock-steady.

No drooping head, slipping quick release plate or flimsy legs please. If your tripod has bolts that allow you to adjust the tightness of the leg locks (most good ones do) make sure that you check these on a regular basis and tighten as necessary.

Check that the quick release plate is fixed securely on your camera and if necessary use a coin to tighten the bolt. This is especially important when you’re shooting in upright format with a long lens because the camera is more likely to slip on the plate.

Extend the legs in preference to the centre column to get your camera at the right height and extend the upper (thicker) leg sections in preference to the lower thinner ones.

The more solid you make the tripod, the better it will hold your camera. Once you’ve composed the image, make sure that the tripod head is locked tightly.

2. Put on some weight

Many tripods have a hook at the end of the centre column to allow you to hang a weight to help keep the camera steady. If yours doesn’t have one you can hang something over the collar – your camera bag is often a good choice.

Take care though, if the weight is knocked or caught by the wind it can introduce some movement. The ideal situation is for the weight to be just touching the ground so it can’t move but still applies some downward force.

A beanbag over the camera or lens can also help dampen out vibrations caused by wind and touching the camera.

3. Take shelter

Whether you’re out in the wilds shooting star trails or in the centre of a city photographing car lights you should try to find a sheltered shooting position, out of a strong wind or away from the buffeting caused by speeding traffic.

Shooting next to a tree, hedge wall, or ‘phone box can make a big difference to your final image.

4. Turn the stabilisation off

Sensor-shifting and lens-based stabilisation systems are designed to compensate for the movements that occur when hand-holding a camera. If you use it when shooting with the camera on a tripod it can move unnecessarily and introduce image blur, so turn it off.

5. Find a light

Focusing can be a problem at night. If you’ve followed the rule book and turned up early, set-up the camera, composed the image and focused the lens before sunset then you’ve got nothing to worry about, but that’s often not practical.

Most modern compact system and SLR cameras have very sensitive autofocus (AF) systems, but they need some light to operate.

If you’re lucky there may be some light in your scene that you can use to give the AF system a fighting chance, but don’t just focus on a light because it’s there, it needs to be the right distance from the camera to ensure that the main subject is sharp and that the depth of field is where you need it to be.

If there’s no light in the scene a torch (flashlight to those in the US) may provide enough light to illuminate your subject and enable your camera to focus the lens.

6. Back-button focusing

By default cameras focus the lens when the shutter release is depressed. That’s fine in many situations, but when you’re shooting at night and focusing is tricky, it’s often advisable to split the focusing and shutter activation across two buttons.

If you use the back button to focus the lens, the camera won’t attempt to adjust focus when you press the shutter release to take the shot.

7. Focus manually

Manual focusing is often the only option when you’re shooting in very dark conditions, but just like the camera’s AF system, your eyes need some light to be able to assess when the subject is sharp.

In some cases activating an SLR’s live view (CSCs operate in live view full time) will make the process much easier because the camera will show you the image as it will be captured and make the scene look brighter than it appears to your eye.

Alternatively, if your lens has a distance scale you can use this to set the focus to the correct point.

8. Use a remote release and mirror lock-up

To get the sharpest possible results you need to avoid opening the shutter while the camera is vibrating following the shutter release being pressed or the mirror lifting. That means using a remote release and exposure delay or mirror lock-up.

If you’re making an exposure of several minutes, the first few seconds are pretty significant so you can usually get away with ignoring this rule.

However, it doesn’t hurt to be in the habit of using these modes and it will ensure you get every scrap of detail possible.