I love to do street photography at night. The city is lit with a myriad of interesting and colorful light sources, such as lampposts, neon signs, store windows, car lights, and bare bulbs. People walk around in their favorite outfits. Scenes that seem bland by day turn ominous and fascinating after dark.
But capturing beautiful night street photography can be hard. You have to choose the right settings, contend with camera shake, find the perfect subjects, and more. It’s enough to give anyone a headache!
Fortunately, I’ve been doing street photography at night for many years. And over time, I’ve picked up plenty of tips, tricks, and nuggets of wisdom that’ll improve anyone’s street night shooting. I’ve tested different settings, I’ve determined how to handle nighttime lighting, and I’ve learned how to stay safe.
So to discover my top street night photography tips – and to learn how to capture gorgeous images even in the darkness – read on!
What is night street photography?
Night street photography is the practice of photographing the everyday landscape – generally featuring people in a city – after dusk.
Photographing at night comes with a variety of challenges, yet street photographers have been shooting at night for around a century. The pioneering modernist photographer Andre Kertesz captured beautiful nighttime street shots in Paris in the 1920s – and he inspired another skillful Parisian photographer, Brassai, to create breathtaking night street shots in the 1930s.
Nighttime street photographers don’t have the luxury of strong sunlight, so they’re forced to use a variety of different approaches to compensate. These include technical and equipment-based techniques such as long shutter speeds, high ISOs, flashes, and fast lenses, as well as visual techniques, such as adjusted aesthetics that embrace blur and grain.
Night street photography tends to be wonderfully atmospheric, and it’s proven itself to be very popular in the 21st century, especially as low-light camera technology continues to improve.
The benefits and drawbacks of photographing the streets at night
Nighttime street photography comes with several major benefits – in other words, there’s a reason for its popularity!
For one, the streets tend to be emptier at night, allowing you to isolate a subject or two without difficulty – this can make for more powerful minimalistic shots.
Photographing at nighttime with streetlights also adds a different mood to images, giving a sense of mystery, nostalgia, drama, and even horror, depending on how you approach your shots.
And budding street photographers – and even more accomplished shooters – sometimes struggle with fear or discomfort when photographing strangers. Working at night, however, lends a sense of distance and anonymity that makes for less anxiety.
Of course, night street photography comes with several significant challenges. Cameras rely on light to capture sharp, well-exposed images, and nighttime – as you are undoubtedly aware! – doesn’t offer much light. To address this, it’s important to have a real technical mastery of the camera; otherwise, you’ll end up with images that are blurry, grainy, or dark (or a combination of the three).
And while I do talk about this in greater depth at the end of the article, photographing at night in certain areas can be genuinely dangerous. Obviously, this depends on the location, and it also depends on the approach you take. Below, I offer tips for taking proper safety precautions at night, but it really is important to keep this in mind so you don’t go in unprepared.
The best camera settings for night street photos
Capturing sharp street photos is mostly about the shutter speed, so that’s where I’d like to start. To freeze motion during the day, I prefer to use a shutter speed of 1/320s (with 1/160s as my lower threshold). But at night, this changes. In the brightest areas – lit by streetlights or car headlights – you can comfortably photograph at 1/250s, but most of the time, you’ll need to use a shutter speed between 1/160s and 1/60s. Otherwise, you’ll be forced to boost your ISO to ridiculous heights, and you’ll risk ruining your images with noise.
Note that when your shutter speed is set to 1/60s, you’ll need steady hands. (A lens or camera with image stabilization can help, too!) In fact, to photograph handheld at 1/60s, you need to stop your own motion completely. Fortunately, with some practice, this can be done.
As for your aperture setting: The wider the aperture, the faster you can make your shutter speed (or the lower you can drop your ISO). It’s possible to shoot at f/4 in brighter areas at night, but if you can shoot at f/2.8, f/2, or even f/1.8, you’ll have a much easier time. In other words, the wider your aperture for night street photography, the better.
Finally, you’ll need to raise your ISO to 1600, 3200, or even 6400. With modern digital cameras, you can photograph at high ISOs and come away with decent images, and while it’s always best to keep the ISO as low as possible, you just won’t manage to get well-exposed shots at night otherwise. (I personally shoot at ISO 3200, and I sometimes go to ISO 6400 in especially dark areas or when I’m photographing fast-moving subjects.)
What camera mode should you use? If you’re doing fast-paced shooting in a variety of different lighting scenarios (i.e., moving in and out of the street lights), Aperture Priority can work well – just set your camera to your widest aperture and highest tolerable ISO, then let it choose the shutter speed for you. (If the shutter speed drops below 1/60s, then you’ll either need to accept some blurriness or boost that ISO further.)
And as for your method of focusing: Normally, zone focusing is a great method for street photography, but when using an ultra-wide aperture at night, you’ll end up missing a lot of images. You can try using manual focus to prefocus in a certain area if you can anticipate a shot in advance, but working with continuous AF and one of your camera’s tracking modes might be the better option, depending on your camera’s capability. (If you’re not sure what will work best, try to do some experimentation!)
Essential gear for nighttime street photography
The best nighttime street photography gear is broadly similar to daytime street photography gear in that you want your equipment to be lightweight, compact, and inconspicuous. That said, there are a few things to keep in mind when purchasing new equipment for those nighttime adventures:
Pick a camera with good high-ISO capabilities
Since you’ll often be shooting at ISO 3200, ISO 6400, and even beyond, it’s essential that you use a street photography camera that won’t ruin your shots with an explosion of noise. Consider investing in a compact full-frame camera or a top-notch APS-C model, and try to keep the megapixel count on the lower side, as ultra-high MP cameras tend to actually perform worse when shooting at high ISOs compared to the lower MP siblings (assuming the technology is from the same generation).
Low-light focusing capabilities are also very handy – many cameras struggle to acquire focus in the dark, while others are high performers in this area. If your camera can’t focus in near darkness, that’s not an absolute dealbreaker – you can focus manually or shoot in the streetlights – but it’ll certainly limit your flexibility.
Pick a lens with a wide maximum aperture
As I mentioned above, you’ll want to make sure you pick a compact lens for shooting the streets at night. But while most daytime street photography is shot at an aperture of around f/8, nighttime is a whole different ball game. You’ll need to widen your lens’s aperture to its maximum, which means that the wider the maximum aperture that’s offered by the lens, the better.
Therefore, I’d recommend grabbing a lens with a maximum aperture of at least f/2.8 (and f/1.8 or f/1.4 can be even better, assuming the models are still relatively compact).
It can also help to grab a slightly wider prime than you might be inclined to use otherwise, such as a 35mm, 28mm, or – if you’re interested in a more unique look – 24mm. Wider lenses are less prone to camera shake, and they’re also easier to use at night since the darkness and lack of activity results in fewer distractions throughout a broader scene.
Of course, you can still use a standard 50mm lens for nighttime street photography – a 50mm f/1.8, for instance, is great in nearly every street-photography scenario – but if you have the opportunity to go wide, I’d recommend at least testing it out!
10 tips for night street photography
Now that you understand the best settings and equipment for photographing the streets at night, let’s take a look at a few tips – for both beginners and advanced street shooters – to enhance your results.
1. Seek out light sources
Always pay attention to the main light sources in a scene. This is true no matter where or when you are photographing, but it becomes even more important at night. So instead of hunting for subjects, start by finding a beautiful light source or an area with good lighting, then wait around for something to happen.
Note that night street photography lighting can be anything: car headlights, streetlights, neon signs, window lighting, or even smartphone light. Simply look for noticeable illumination, then pay careful attention to how these light sources hit potential subjects. Adjust your angle until you get the lighting effect you want, then shoot away!
When I was photographing the streets of New York City, I found a beautiful restaurant with bright windows. I used the restaurant lighting to bring out detail in the passersby:
2. Take plenty of shots
Sometimes, street photographers like to use a more deliberate approach, capturing only a couple of images of each subject. This works fine during the day, especially if you can confidently nail the focus and exposure – but at night, it’s a recipe for a lot of failed images.
So instead of just taking one or two images of each subject or scene, when you’re out at night, push things a bit. Don’t be afraid to capture 5-10 shots of the same subject, and if you’re willing to sort through all the shots later, you might even consider using your camera’s burst mode to fire off dozens of shots in a few seconds.
The idea here is to simply maximize your chances of success. The more you shoot, the more likely you are to hit on that moment when your subject is moving slowly enough to stay sharp, even at 1/60s – and the more likely are you to nail the focus even with a razor-thin depth of field.
3. Photograph nightlife
Certain parts of the city – such as the business district – can empty out at night; they’ll make for a poor night street photography experience. Other areas, however, will get busier after sunset, and they’ll offer plenty of opportunities.
So seek out the nightlife and shoot it! You might consider doing some internet searches for bars and clubs in your area, then make sure you head on over as the night begins. Alternatively, if you’re after more formal-looking subjects, go for a walk near some upscale restaurants and see what you can find!
And don’t feel like you’re restricted to photographing people on the street outside clubs and restaurants. You can capture all sorts of stunning effects by shooting through windows (plus, if you’re feeling a bit nervous about photographing people, the window can act as a barrier and reduce your anxiety).
4. Alternate between getting close and stepping back
I’m a big proponent of Robert Capa’s advice that “if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” However, I often violate this rule at night.
You see, while I do try to get close to many of my subjects – and I encourage you to do the same – I also try to create compositions where the subjects are small aspects of the overall scene. At night, backgrounds can be much more beautiful than during the day, so it often pays to have people become the secondary element in the scene, rather than the primary focus.
This approach comes with a technical advantage: When your subjects are off in the distance, you won’t need to use a fast shutter speed to capture their motion. A nearby subject can be frozen at 1/125s or faster; a distant subject can often be photographed at 1/60s and turn out sharp, even if it’s on the move.
5. Experiment with a tripod for creative effects
When doing street night photography, it’s usually best to go handheld. After all, you never know what interesting things are about to happen, and you want to be able to react fast.
That said, it can be useful to bring along a tripod, especially if you’re interested in capturing some long-exposure street photography.
The idea here is to find a busy area, mount your camera on a tripod, then use a slow shutter speed to capture people in motion. You’ll need to experiment with different shutter speeds (1/8s is a good starting point), and you’ll need to shoot a lot of photos, but you’ll eventually end up with some gorgeous motion blur effects:
It took me a long time to capture the image displayed above; I wanted the people spread throughout the entire scene, and I also wanted an interesting foreground subject (in the end, I was satisfied by the pose of the woman in the street and the man looking at her).
6. Try working with a flash
Some street photographers love using a flash, while others hate it. Whether you decide to try flash at night is up to you; on the one hand, it’ll provide extra illumination so you can use a faster shutter speed, a narrower aperture, and a lower ISO. On the other hand, it’ll give a very intense deer-in-the-headlights look, plus it can lead to confrontation (people don’t like being flashed, especially in the dark!).
Personally, I prefer to work with the constraints of natural light, and I also get uncomfortable flashing strangers in dark settings. But if you feel confident enough to shoot with flash, then by all means, try it and see what you think. It can give a fantastic look when done well.
Note that you can have the flash do all the work lighting the scene (so that the foreground area turns out lit and the background is completely dark). But you can also set your camera to slightly underexpose the scene, then use the flash to add some fill light to your main subjects in the foreground.
7. Be careful when boosting the exposure
When photographing with a high ISO, it’s important to nail the exposure; that way, you’re not forced to increase the brightness when editing, which will exaggerate unpleasant noise effects.
That being said, you’ll occasionally run into situations where you accidentally underexpose a shot. And when this happens, you’ll have no choice but to raise the exposure when editing. Just make sure you do it carefully.
Here’s my recommendation: First, ignore the noise and get the exposure and look correct. If you have to raise the exposure a significant amount, the noise will be terrible, so you’ll need to apply some noise reduction.
There are many excellent noise reduction programs, but I like Lightroom’s built-in noise reduction. If the noise is still bad after applying the noise reduction algorithm, try bringing the image into Photoshop to add a very slight Gaussian blur.
At that point, I often use Lightroom’s grain settings to add texture back into the photo. The result looks much more pleasing to the eye than extreme digital noise, and it can hide some of the technical deficiencies of underexposed images. The photo will not look perfectly sharp, but it can still be beautiful.
8. Don’t be afraid of blur and imperfection
Most street photographers aim to get their photos as sharp as possible. Sharpness certainly isn’t a bad thing – but know that a photo can still look fantastic even if it isn’t incredibly crisp.
You see, when photographing at night, you don’t need to freeze motion perfectly to get a stunning result. Personally, I hold my day images to a higher standard than my night images. My day images need to look sharp, while my night photos simply need to be interesting and look good, even if they’re a little blurry in places.
Also, at shutter speeds from around 1/60s to 1/30s, it can be fun to shoot handheld. Your subjects will turn out somewhat sharp, yet there will be a little motion, too. It’s a great way to add a sense of energy to your compositions.
9. Let your night street photos look dark
In my view, night shots should look like they were taken at night. They should be dark, with deep shadows and areas that are hard to see. When you look at the histogram of a night image, it should be skewed toward the far left, especially relative to your day images.
But when you point your camera toward a street scene at night, it’ll often overexpose the photo. The resulting file will look bright and you’ll be able to see plenty of detail, but the scene just won’t feel real. (You’ll also end up with blown-out streetlights and store windows.) In such cases, you’ll want to lower the exposure compensation on your camera slightly or – if you’re shooting in Manual mode – boost the shutter speed, narrow the aperture, or widen the ISO.
I do think that bright night images can look good. But dark, realistic night images are generally better, so carefully monitor the histogram and don’t be afraid to drop that exposure compensation as needed.
10. Be careful
Depending on where you live, heading out at night with a camera is not always the safest idea. Travel light, keep your equipment to a minimum, and be careful about where you go. Make sure you pay attention to your surroundings, and if you start to feel uncomfortable, head in the other direction.
If you’re not sure whether you can safely photograph on the streets at night, do some research. I’d recommend messaging veteran street shooters in the area, though you can also look at general articles and statistics covering city crime rates.
Use your best judgment regarding who to photograph, and think about bringing a friend along. Don’t stay in one place for too long, and avoid putting down your gear to change lenses. Finally, if you desire greater peace of mind, insure your gear before you head out!
Tips for night street photography: final words
Well, there you have it:
Everything you need to know for stunning night street shots.
Getting beautiful street photos at night isn’t always easy. But if you remember these tips and you practice frequently, you’re bound to get some great images!
Do you have any street night photography tips you’d like to add? Which tip do you plan to follow first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Nighttime street photography FAQ
That really depends on the location and your approach. Nighttime street photography can be relatively safe, but there’s always a risk, so it pays to be cautious and take proper precautions.
I think so! The streets can look pretty magical at night and allow for a whole new type of image.
I’d recommend pushing your ISO as high as it can go without causing a ridiculous level of noise. You need a high ISO to achieve a reasonably fast shutter speed, plus noise doesn’t look that bad in nighttime shots.
Compact, lightweight cameras with larger sensors tend to work well for street shots at night.
The 50mm focal length is a street photography classic, but because the streets tend to be emptier at night, it’s often easy to shoot at 35mm or wider to achieve more unusual shots.