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How to Photograph People at Night – Without Flash

Why Not, Use a Flash?

Photographing people at night without using a flash is a great way to get some exciting photos. Many people feel that once it gets dark you have to use a flash in order to like your subject.  By using natural lighting provided by signs, streetlights, interior lighting, and other sources, you can add a great deal of interest to your night people photos. The advantage of using natural lighting is that it will add information on where they are, gives a sense of natural not posed photos, eliminates redeye problems, and makes for a much more interesting photo.  There also may be times when using a flash, will not be permitted or would be a distraction.

There are basically two types of people photography, portraiture and candid photos. For night portraits your subject will be posing which provides control over the movement of the subject.  Control of the lighting is done by placement of the subject. For candid photos you do not have the control over the subject so you must adjust your camera settings and control the lighting to get a fast enough shutter speed to avoid unwanted blur.

We will look at the techniques used for both of these types of night people photography in this article.

Night portraits

For shooting portraits and night, you will need a sturdy tripod and a cable release to avoid movement of the camera while taking a long exposure.  You can shoot in extremely low light by keeping the shutter open for times of up to several seconds.

For this night portrait the model was holding very still. Aperture f:4.0, ISO 1600, shutter speed 1/5 second.

The key to taking sharp long exposures is to have your camera firmly mounted on a steady tripod, and use a cable release so as not to bump the camera during the exposure. This will prevent blur from camera movement. By having your subject hold very still you can avoid motion blur from a moving subject.  For this type of night photography you can use most any lens, and use a normal or low ISO setting.

Night Candids

To shoot candid people pictures at night is more difficult. Since you cannot control the subject’s movement, you must be able to shoot at a high enough shutter speed to stop the movement of your subject. To accomplish this, you’ll need to use a very high ISO, and a fast lens. The ISO on a camera adjusts the sensors sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO the less light is needed. The problem with a high ISO is that it creates more noise or loss of quality in the image. A fast lens, is a lens with a large maximum aperture such as F1 .4. The larger the aperture the greater amount of light passes through the shutter during the time it is open.

For this candid shot a shutter speed of 1/160 second at ISO 800 was use at an aperture of f:2.8.

The shutter speed required to capture an image of a person at rest with very little movement will be approximately 1/15 of a second. A person moving slightly may require up to 1/60 of one second, while a person walking may require up to one 1/125 second, and a person jogging will require up to 1/500 of a second.

Metering

To achieve good results, it is best to set your camera to a manual or semi-automatic mode. Using your cameras meter is a great starting place, but will seldom produce optimal results when shooting at night.

The goal of the metering system in modern cameras is to meter for an evenly exposed composition throughout the frame. When shooting at night you may have extremely large areas of very dark zones, which will cause the camera to overexpose your subject. To work around this, you can manually set your camera to the shutter speed and aperture required for a good exposure, or you can use the exposure compensation on your camera, setting it to underexpose leaving the dark areas dark.

This image was exposed for the brightest areas of the photo, letting the background go completely dark. aperture f:4.0, ISO 3200, shutter speed 1/40 second.

For night photography there is not a “perfect” or “correct” exposure, different levels of exposure will produce different photos, your goal is to choose which you like best.

Motion Blur

Motion blur is a result of the subject moving during the time of the exposure. Most of the time, this is a situation which we try to avoid. In some cases however, some motion blur, will add a sense of life to your photos.

Motion blur adds to the impact of the image. Aperture f:4.0, ISO 3200, .3 second shutter speed.

Painting With Light

A technique to supplement the available light in only a portion of the image is called “painting with light”.  This is most commonly done with a small flashlight which is directed at the subject during the exposure, adding a fill light only where needed.

Image with only available light. Aperture f:4.0, ISO 1600, shutter speed 1/5 second.

 

Image with "light painting" from a small flashlight. Aperture f:4.0, ISO 1600, shutter speed 1/8 second.

 

White Balance

The most common type of light at night is the standard incandescent light bulb, which will produce a very warm yellow tone to your image.  Fluorescent lights will produce a green color while lights of other types will produce a rainbow of colors.  For some photos this color shift is a major part of the mood of the photo and can be left uncorrected.  However there are other times when it just makes the image look off color, and should be corrected by adjusting the white balance to the type of lighting.  For the most control over the white balance, you should shoot in the RAW file format and adjust the white balance during post processing.

The important thing about shooting people at night without a flash, is to use the available light to make a stronger composition and enhance the mood and place of the image.  This can be more difficult to do than simply lighting the scene with a flash, but with some practice can make for some great images.

3 Comments
  1. Hi – Great article and awesome advise and setting for getting the most out of night photography without the use of a flash. I love the color and mood this type of photography gives. I have had issues in the past with blur and shutter speeds but this article helps to eliminate these issues.

    Thank you for a great read…can with to delve into your other pages and see some other posts.

    Cheers

    James

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Greg Disch
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Fort Smith, Arkansas 72904
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