Photojojo’s Ultimate Guide to Taking Portraits at Night
Nights on the Riviera…
Costume balls in Cancun…
Dancing until dawn in the glittering palaces of Monaco…
Life at Photojojo is one mad whirl of unbridled hedonism.
What? It totally is. Mad, we tell you. Whirly.
Okay, fine, we didn’t really think you’d buy that. But if we did lead lives like that, you better believe we’d have some great photos to show for it.
If there’s one thing we know, it’s how to take an awesome portrait at night. Use a tripod, moderate your flash… oh heck, just keep reading. Everything you need to know is in here.
Photo credit: sgoralnick.
Why’s It Cool?
Being able to take a great portrait at night will get you invited to all the best parties. Once you learn how to take dramatic, unusual, fun pictures after the sun sets, everybody will want you hanging around to document their events. Seriously. Just you wait and see.
Most cameras have a “night portrait” setting that combines a flash with a long exposure. The flash freezes the person being photographed, and the long exposure fills in the background.
Night portrait mode is the best place to start experimenting.
Usually the flash fires first, but some cameras have the option for rear-sync flash as well (firing the flash at the end of the exposure). Play around and see what you like best.
For film users, this means using 800 or 1600 speed film instead of your usual 100 or 200. For digital users, it means adjusting your camera to use a higher ISO setting (the numbers correspond to film ISO numbers).
The problem with high ISOs is “noise”: speckly or grainy-looking photos, especially noticeable in areas of smooth color. Sometimes graininess looks great, sometimes it looks awful- it depends on the mood and style of the photo.
You can test your camera’s performance at high ISO settings by taking the same picture at each different ISO number and comparing the results. Then decide what level of graininess is acceptable, and at what point you go ahead and use flash.
Using the Flash
If your camera has a built-in flash, dial the intensity down 1 or 2 stops. If you can’t change the intensity, cover it with a translucent piece of paper (wax paper or gum wrappers work well) or use a flash diffuser.
If you have a separate flash unit, point it skywards and use a bounce card to cast a more flattering light on your subject.
Ambient light is much more effective than flash alone, and if you have enough of it, you can forgo the flash altogether.
Use a wide aperture (4.5 or lower) to blur the area behind your subject. Soft, indistinct colored lights make for great backgrounds. Make sure they’re blurry enough that they don’t draw attention away from the person.
And hey, don’t forget composition! Just because it’s dark out doesn’t mean you have to revert to the standard head-on portrait pose. Use the background, change your angle, move around until you see something really great.
Keeping the camera steady is a big part of night photography. Use a tripod or rest the camera on a stable object, like a table. Even bracing yourself against a wall while hand-holding the camera makes a difference.
Have your subject hold still too. You’ll find that people tend to relax or move after the flash fires. But if you’re in night portrait mode, the exposure may still be going. Ask the person to freeze until the shutter clicks closed.
Don’t Hold Still
You can get surprisingly great results in night portrait mode by snapping a picture and continuing to move while the exposure finishes. Light trails, ghostly people, random patterns of color: it’s pretty great.
Try moving the camera while the person holds still, then try holding the camera still while they move. See what results you like better. This technique works particularly well when there are streetlights or neon signs in the background.
Hold Sort of Still
- Set the camera up on a tripod.
- Have the person pose before pressing the shutter button.
- As soon as the flash fires, have the person change position and freeze for the rest of the exposure.
Try giving the person two heads, or four arms, or whatever else you can think of. Create your own sideshow!
Play with your camera’s white balance. The tungsten setting will give you a blue cast outdoors, and the daylight setting will give you a yellow cast indoors.
If you want to play with it even more, use image editing software to emphasize or add color casts, or even make the image look cross-processed.
A quirk of physics dictates that unfocused points of light in a photograph take on the shape of the aperture. You can make a lens hood with a specially-shaped aperture (a heart, for example) and turn all the points of light into that shape.
It’s really easy, super cheap, and lends an unexpected “how-did-you-do-that?” touch to night photos. Make any shape you want: stars, ghosts, butterflies. You can even buy specially-shaped hole punches at craft stores.