Night street photography is always thrilling and surprising. It gives you a complete different opportunity to capture stories. The street at night has different life, mode, light and atmosphere. Even peoples are different at night, some are going out with fancy dress, some are returning home tired, etc. It’s like another perspective at the same place. Therefore, you have to think differently than daylight strategy.
In the day time, the condition of light can change randomly and frequently, and we need to change our camera setting time to time but at night you won’t face such shifting of light. Everywhere is lightened with the lampposts, neon signs and few fixed condition that make you less focus on camera settings time to time. One more advantage at night is, you can stay unnoticed more than daytime and that gives you more opportunity to capture candid moments.
I love night street photography a lot because of the dramatic atmosphere and the mystery of the darkness. Night has a whole new dimension of life, mystery and surreal beauty of human spirit.
I don’t say night street photography is easy, of course, it’s challenging to get used to with the different modes of the street. Therefore, I must recommend every street photographer to go out at night and try once. Although there are some safety issues in some places but it worth a try. Ok, enough talking, lets jump to the tips. So, here are my 10 tips that instantly improve your next night street photography walk.
1. What Camera and Lenses you should pick
Of course, pick the perfect/right camera and lenses are the most confusing part among all photographers and with street photography, especially in the night, it becomes harder to choose. With good equipment your performance will improve significantly, there is no doubt about that.
Therefore, in the street at night, you will need a fast lens and of course a body, that light weight and capable to perform well in high ISO. Kit lens will not give you the good result in that situation, you will need something more robust performance. Like:
I talked about choosing the best camera for street photography in this article but in the night there is another point you need to consider. That is ISO performance. Without having a good camera that perform well with high ISO (produce less noise) you might not get best result. Noises are good, I like it very much but not in every photograph I took. So, you need to choose small, lightweight camera that also can perform good low light.
There are many good brand out there nowadays and they have produce pretty damn good body. Brand are totally individual preferences, but I recommend Leica (too expensive), Sony or Fujifilm mirrorless. All are decent and perfect for street photography. You can also use other brand, It’s completely fine but, using full frame will give you pretty good ISO performance.
Once you figure out camera body, now it’s time to choose the perfect lens. As you intent to shoot low light, your lens should be fast enough to catch the low light quickly. Therefore, you need to use large aperture (like f/2.8 to f/3.5) also. One of the reasons I mention to choose full frame camera body earlier is crop sensor will not give you enough freedom going to a wide aperture like full frame. For example, f/2.8 in full frame will actually raise with crop ratio of the crop sensor camera body and that impact with lens speed. Not ideal at all.
The most uses and my favorite lens is 35mm prime. There are also other lenses out there like 24-35mm, 28mm, 50mm but 35mm is perfect in my opinion because of its size (like pancake), excellent focal length and its super-fast in low light. For me, 28mm seems too wide and 50mm is too close in the street.
Many street photographers prefer wide focal length like 24mm or 28mm, and some prefer to use 85mm for street portrait, you can choose whatever the focal length you like, but I recommend to stick with one lens for some time (at least 6 months), because frequently changing lens will impact on your composition in street and you might miss the moment you want to capture.
2. Camera settings
Ok, we have selected the equipment’s we need, now it’s time to setting the camera. First of all, I would like to talk about basic stuff like Aperture, Shutter speed and ISO settings:
Aperture: Go for a large aperture (example: f/2.8 to f/5.6) depending on the available light you have. Generally, in the street at night, you will have few common light source like lamppost, window or neon sing from stores. So, with those light sources you need to go for a large aperture. Many photographers use f/8 also in the street but usually large aperture perform perfect in those light condition and also you can have some bokeh if you want to in your frame.
Shutter speed: Now, that’s the tricky part. Think what you want, freeze the moment or moment with motion. In most case every street photographer wants to freeze the moment, so they need high shutter speed so that camera shake will not effect. With 35mm or 50mm lenses, you can capture with 1/50 in hand held easily. Going for higher than 1/50 depends on the available light you have at the time.
ISO: High ISO create noise and sometime street photographer like grainy feel in their photograph. I like grain in my photo, but you might not. However, full frame camera body has excellent ISO performance in low light condition. There is another way to reduce ISO in the post-processing stage. Usually, a full frame camera body will give you good noiseless (moreover) photo up to 3200. In the street at night, I prefer to stay within 1600 to 3200.
Now, Lets talk about ‘Focus’. Usually in the daytime ‘Autofocus’ used by many street photographers but at night, autofocus is kind of useless. The technology of autofocus is still slow and sometimes even worst in low light condition. I recommend use manual focus mode and set the camera for zone focus (which I already discussed in another article). With that setting you will have enough freedom and opportunity to capture your desire photograph.
3. Search for light source
Night is beautiful for its unique and artistic light condition. The way lights are illuminates, and shadows are play, it makes a magical atmosphere and that is the specialty of night street photography.
As night is dark, you definitely look for the light source and use that light to compose your frame. You can also use shadow to create more depth and drama in the frame. You can even try silhouettes.
The easiest technique most street photographer’s use at night is fishing technique. They select a light source, make their composition and wait for the subject to pass by and they click at the perfect moment. With this technique you can add more drama in your photograph. I will talk a bit more on this later, keep reading 🙂
One thing you should keep in mind while shooting street at night is the background. Unless you capture a silhouette, try to choose dark background which will help your subject popped up properly. You can also use a large aperture to create bokeh in the background that will make your photograph more interesting.
4. Capturing Motion
Rather than capture a tack sharp image, creating some motion could also make your photograph fantastic. Motion is energy, live and realistic if you use it wisely. You don’t need to freeze the moment always to make a good photograph. Motion could also create mystery and drama in your photograph.
In the night street, capturing photos with motion is a bit tricky because motion will not keep the light always. Therefore, you might need to choose a perfect background so that your motion is clearly visible.
Capturing motion at night, best camera settings you need to setup is lower shutter speed. It should be in between 1/10 – 1/30, for this, you need to lower your ISO (100-200) as well as. A hand held shoot with this setting might be a bit hard if your hand are shaky, but after some practice, I’m sure you can do it easily.
Another way to use motion in light trail, using long exposure. Set the shutter speed to 10 sec – 30 sec and you will need tripod for doing this. Bringing tripod in the street is not always a good idea for a street photographer but you can try once and there are a lot of great photographs are taken by long exposure.
5. Capture night life/stories
A Story makes photograph live, without story your photo will be forgotten. Evert street photographers always strives for moment that can illustrate the story what they want to tell or the viewer make by their own. A photograph could tell much bigger story than the frame. It’s all depends on the photographer who took the photograph. Therefore, the story/moment is like the oxygen of your photograph.
In the street at night, you have to work with completely different lifestyle, different moment, expression and mood. You cannot expect moment like daytime at night. People are returning home tired or hangouts with fancy dress, party, etc. and more the night gets running, street is becoming calm and serene.
There are many street photographer walks whole night to discover the unseen life of the street. While we are sleeping on our bed, the street is still alive with so many stories that we can’t even imagine. Try to discover those stories.
Initially, you may be uncomfortable at night but I recommend don’t give up if you fail to capture good photograph at the beginning. Keep trying. It needs some time to get used to it because we are much comfortable with daytime.
6. Window stories
One of the most interesting elements of night street photography is the window and reflection of window glass. Reflection always help you to create multiple layers in the photograph and give you more depth in the story/moment your capture.
At night every street shop, restaurant shopping mall lighten up with so many colorful lights. Those lights create interesting ambience, sometimes it looks so dreamy. Using those light condition in your subject could create mystery.
Especially when you pass by glass window, you can use the reflection and create layers. Best practice is, try to search glass that have people at the other side and capture their expression with the reflection of the street at the glass. You can make different perspective with the light of the street and other side of the glass too. That could lead multiple stories and creating relation in those stories make could make your photograph great.
Eneade, Photographer from France, capture some incredible night street photo, you can watch those works at flickr.
7. Neon sign
Nowadays, neon sign in the street are most commonly found. There are so many colorful signs we can see in the street at night. Using those lights as a background or illuminate in the subjects could makes more vibrant picture.
But, using neon signs in the photo sometimes distract the moment because of the brightness and color. Therefore, you need to more be careful while using those signs. Try to play with opposite color, and that will resolve this kind of situation most of the time. Or you can change your position to achieve different perspective.
Another useful element you can make by neon sign is to create bokeh. Try large aperture to shallow your depth of field and create bokeh as a background. Neon signs are looks great in bokeh also. Try it…
Also, you can use the ambience of neon light to illuminate the subject, especially in the face with some expression will create more drama and your photograph will be good to better. For this, try a dark background that will pop up the subject much better.
8. Use Flash
There are so many debate on using flash in the street, especially at night. Some photographers have raised ethical perspective to use flash while shooting street for disturbing the subject. The debate seems like never ending due to its fascinating outcomes.
Apart from the debate, using flash in the street at night is very interesting because of its dramatic outcome. Flash will give you more contrast, dynamism in the photo. Also, flash will separate your subject from the background and your subject will be sharp and focus.
Another benefit of using flash in the street at nigh is flash can be a great light source where you cannot find available light source. Sometimes it happens that we are in the middle of too low light situation and we can’t find enough light source nearby to expose properly. You can even change the direction of light source as you want. That is a huge freedom in the street at night. Try off-camera flash to and use it from different side like left/right, or even from up/down to create excellent combination with light and shadow and your photo will be more dramatic and live. Even you can use rear curtain flash mode to produce interesting motion/light trail also.
Like benefits of using flash, there are also some misconception. Flash can be shocked for the subject, sometimes the subject gets scared when flash fired. But in my opinion, this is not true. See, when you if you got flash fire in you at the street, are you scared? I guess no, you will wonder and find where the flash came from. But sometimes people got annoyed when flash fire on them, that’s inevitable. On the other hand you might get some unwanted, surprising expression which could be interesting.
Grain is a beautiful thing. I love grain. Digital cameras have improved a lot nowadays in terms of noise reduction, but still sometime we end up with a blurry image due to avoiding grain by lower the ISO value. Having some grain is better than blurry image.
In low light situation if you want to avoid blur image, you have to increase ISO value for raising the shutter speed up. That creates some noise. Nowadays, we have so many post-processing tools like Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop where we can reduce (or you can also increase) that noise easily. So, don’t hesitate to increase ISO value. You can bump up the ISO to 1600 easily, and you can reduce the noise in the post processing period if you want to. Just keep in mind that, you need fast shutter speed to get sharp and in focused image and for this, you can increase your ISO as up as you need. In general, if you stay in between 1600-3200, you will get enough shutter speed for sharp image.
Also, there are many street photographers increase the noise (like me 😉 ) It looks more classic and gives you film look. In black and white photo noise works very well if you use it wisely.
I love grainy image a lot. It looks like more realistic to me. While shooting low light situation like nighttime, I often increase noise instead of, reducing it. I can feel much better with grainy street image rather than a smooth image. I often bump up my ISO to 3200 for achieving 1. More grain and 2. Avoid blur. For me, noise gives me more depth and emotion than smooth image. That does not mean, I like grain in each of my photograph. Actually, in my opinion the story/moment itself tells me whether it needs the grain or not. It’s all about how you feel the story.
10. Think Differently
Photography is a creative field and street photography is more challenging because of its unpredictable and infinity moment happens every second around us. Capturing cliché image is not you want I guess. Therefore, you need to be more creative and have more patience in the street, especially at night. I talked earlier that street at daytime is not the same as at nighttime.
Night has different atmosphere and mode. While shooting night street photography don’t only think about the moment you want to capture. Use the environment as much as you can with less distraction.
As the night is dark/low light, you can use that darkness and compose the frame differently.
Low key: Low key is very common in night street environment. Use available light you have or use flash on your subject and keep the background dark.
Minimalism: I love minimalism. It gives me to fell the moment without having other thoughts. At night minimalism is another technique you can use, just simplify your moment/story with minimum elements.
Fishing Technique: I talked about this in detail in my another article (Fishing technique). When you are in nighttime, find an interesting background and light, and wait for the subject pass by and click. This is a most common and easy technique among all street photographer including night time. With this technique you could capture Juxtaposition also.
Apart from those commonly used techniques, think more creatively and work on the perspective. Going for extreme close to the subject or shot from down to upwards or any perspective you think best suits at the moment. Don’t think straight what we already used to watch all the time. Try to see the moment differently and present differently. That does not mean, you cannot shoot straight, the decision will be based on the story/moment you capture.
Don’t be afraid to break your comfort zone. Initially, it might need some time and practice to get used to, but once you break your boundary and shoot what you cannot shoot will now, you will start getting the fun. Trust me 🙂
Street photography at night is a bit risky task for some places, there are chance to getting mugged or hijack the camera. Many street photographers are concern about this issue and try to avoid night street photography. Of course this is a valid concern for some places but not for all places in my opinion. If you feel any risk to go out for street photography at night, you can go with someone to support you or bring another street photographer mite rather than going alone, and also keep light equipments with you. Being afraid in Night Street is completely psychological. Don’t let your fear stop you to discover another world of wonder.
Street photography is a challenging genre and it became even more challenging at night just because of, we still don’t get used to. For getting good photograph you always strive for more and use various strategies to capture the compelling story. In this article I tried to share some thoughts of mine about night street photography with you, if you have more strategies or tips, you can share in the comments box below. Happy clicking 🙂