London - Big Ben at night

The high ISO ranges of modern EOS cameras has made shooting at night much easier. In fact, a tripod is no longer a necessity and, unless you want to use a slower shutter speed to create light trails or smooth the surface of water, most shots can in fact be taken by handholding the camera. 

Coupled with the superior image processing system within the EOS cameras that gives even better noise reduction this has revolutionised how we can take photographs in low light conditions.

"I still do use a tripod for some shots, if I want light trails, to shoot HDR or to get ultimate quality, or importantly if I am allowed to use a tripod in that location. But, I also get a lot of shots without one that would have been impossible just 4 or 5 years ago, which I find very exciting.”  Nina Bailey, Senior Tutor

Quality of light
Low light photography isn’t a fair-weather friend, it can be enjoyed throughout the winter months when we have shorter days and longer evenings and it, therefore, fills in one of the big gaps in the photographic season. In fact, natural light in the winter months can appear dull and grey, but at night the world comes to life with colourful lights and reflections.
Having said that, the weather conditions can be rather influential on how good the finished image actually is, so understanding the conditions that work and appreciating when good images can be taken, is key to getting the best results and avoiding problems with shooting.

Techniques to use

When taking low-level light images you will be faced with making a decision straight away of whether you want to use a higher ISO to allow you to handhold the camera using a shutter speed that you can still keep steady or use a tripod if you want to take a long exposure and allow some movement into the photograph. The following images of the Houses of Parliament were all taken at different times of the year using different set-ups to show a comparison of techniques.

Houses of Parliament SilhouetteThe Golden Houris a commonly used phrase referring to the time just after sunrise or just before sunset when the sun emits a warm golden glow and is said by photographers to be the best light of the day, even in the winter. It can, however, be tricky to get really striking results.

The good news is that as you are shooting the lighting effect rather than the scenery in the foreground most shots can be handheld, but to get a good sunrise or sunset image you will need to have a very strong focal point to the image and that has to be something that looks good as a silhouette. So either it has to be tall or you have to get low enough to silhouette it against the sky. A flat horizon will simply not give enough interest to the shot.
The Houses of Parliment and Big Ben, taken on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II handheld at f/13 1/750 ISO 250 at 5.25 pm on a March evening.

Houses of Parliament

This next shot is a similar time of day, but this time in January with the focus on the building in the foreground rather than on the effect in the sky.

Shot on a Canon EOS 400D, 1/60 second at f1.8, ISO 800, again handheld.

London night 02There is still light in the sky at this time of year and the shutter speed chosen has allowed this to come through but not smoothed out the ripples in the water.

Shot on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II, 1/25 second at f2.8, ISO 640 handheld at 9pm in May. 
The slow shutter speed has intensified the colour of the sky and smoothed out the ripples of the water. London night 2sec exposure
 Shot on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II, 2 seconds at f8, ISO 100, 7pm in March. 
Night-time events to photographBlackpool  5D Mark III
Blackpool is a traditional summer resort on the west coast of England but whilst other English resort towns close down at the end of summer Blackpool carries on attracting the visitors with the world-famous Blackpool Illuminations. This is an annual event that takes place from the end of summer through to the beginning of November, it covers approximately 10km in length with over a million bulbs used in the display.
It is possible to handhold the camera in most situations; however, better quality images are likely to be produced if a tripod is used. Pick a clear night as the sky colour will be better. Start shooting whilst it is getting dark as sometimes the images are better with some light in the sky.
aurora borealis 02
The Aurora Borealis ( Northern Lights) is a natural light display that occurs in the northern hemisphere, named after the Roman Goddess of the dawn. It is a magical sight that attracts photographers from all over the world with its photographic possibilities. The southern version, the Aurora Australis, is only really visible over the Antarctic in the middle of winter, somewhere only the most hardened of researchers would venture.
The best months for viewing the Aurora Borealis tend to be between October and April when the sky gets dark enough for the light to be seen clearly. Also, try to avoid times when the moon is visible as this will wash out some of the colour.

Generally wider lenses will give you the better results as most of the show happens in the sky. A wider lens also allows some foreground interest to be included.
Shot on a Canon EOS-1D Mark II, 30 seconds at f3.2, ISO 400. Taken at 1am in the middle of September.
Hints and tips to get the most out of your night photographyXmas lights
  • Check the weather report. Don't scoff, the sky colour on a clear night will be entirely different to a cloudy one.
  • Wet weather can add a whole new dimension to your images with reflections on pavements and water droplets.
  • Don't wait until it gets dark! Dusk can be a very interesting time photographically as you will still have some light left in the sky.
  • Live View is a great help when photographing at night, especially when using a tripod, to help you see your shot.
  • Bulb (B) mode allows you to hold the shutter open for as long as you want but you would need a sturdy tripod and a remote release to avoid any camera shake during exposure. This set up would be perfect for light trails of traffic or even your first experiments with astrophotography and the night sky.
  • If you don't have a tripod and want to try some slightly longer exposures a bean bag to rest the lens or camera on can be ideal.
  • If you are photographing a light festival or a busy shopping street try for the middle of the week rather than the weekend when you may get a lot of unwanted attention or just people getting in the way.
  • Try not to keep popping inside to warm up as it is the quickest way to mist up the lens as soon as you go out again. It will clear eventually but you will probably have missed the best shot of the night.
  • Have a spare battery and keep it warm in your pocket. Batteries run down much faster in the cold and using Live View will also eat up the power.

Our Night Photography courses run in London, Liverpool and at Syon House are aimed at those experienced with the basic settings of their EOS camera and are designed to help you understand how to set up your camera's system for the results you want to get when shooting at night. This is a small group practical, so you get hands-on with your tutor by your side.

For those wanting to read more detailed advice from Nina The Beginners Guide to Lowlight and Night Photography eBook is also a great starting point - it is a no-nonsense, jargon-free guide to low-light and interior photography, specifically with Canon EOS cameras.