The Ultimate Night Photography Settings Guide For Optimal Image Quality!

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Over the last few years, night photography has seen a huge increase in its popularity with more and more beginner, intermediate, and professional level photographers starting to put more and more time into capturing their photographs at night. Although there are a large number of different popular sub-niches within night photography, we feel that its popularity is only going to increase more and more over the coming years.

Due to this, we constantly see a large number of people reaching out each day and asking questions like “What are the best settings for night photography?” as well as a number of other very similar questions. Due to this, we have decided to publish this article to try and help as many of our readers as possible get to grips with what settings on their camera body they should be tweaking for the best possible image quality for their night photography sessions.

Now, that said, some specific cameras will have options dedicated to night photography and although some of them are decent, some of them are very bad. We have tried to ensure that this article will be able to offer advice on night photography settings for Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Fuji, and Pentax camera bodies no matter if you are a beginner photographer or a professional photographer.

We are fully aware that a large number of our readers are entry-level photographers though so if this is the case for you, we would light to quickly point out that all of our readers are able to claim a no-obligation trial of Skillshare Premium. This means that you are able to take advantage of this and enroll in one of, if not the best night photography course ever created to ensure you are getting the most out of your night photography sessions without having to spend a cent.

Although we will be going into this in much more detail in the article below, the three main things that we recommend all photographers pay the most attention to for their camera setup settings for night photography are:-

  • Shutter Speed
  • ISO
  • Aperture

We have our table of contents below for anyone who is wanting to quickly and easily navigate to any of the specific sections that we are covering in our article. As we touched on above, we know we have readers with a wide range of experience when it comes to photography so some of our settings suggestions may already be known to you and can be safely skipped.

How Do I Set My Camera For Night Photography?

This is a very common question that we see asked on a regular basis when it comes to optimizing your camera settings for night photography. Unfortunately, each camera brand and often, each specific range of cameras from that brand will have different menu settings and navigation paths making it very difficult to offer exact settings for each camera.

That said though, be it a Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Fuji or Pentax camera body that you use for your night photography sessions, we are confident that our advice below will be helpful once you get into your camera settings. If you do end up running into any problems with finding any specific settings on your camera then a quick Google search for your specific camera model and the setting you need to tweak should be able to explain the required navigation path.

What Is The Best Shutter Speed For Night Photography?

Without a doubt, one of, if not the most important camera setting for night photography that you have to tweak is the shutter speed that your camera will be using. The vast majority of night photography niches will do better with a longer shutter speed on your camera due to the lack of available light for your camera sensor.

Although the exact shutter speed that you need for optimal image quality will depend on exactly what you are doing, most people use between two and ten seconds and adjust accordingly. This is why taking some test photographs when you get to your location is so important as you will have to test and adjust until you know the settings that are best for your camera setup for your night photography sessions.

If you are planning on doing night sky photography and wanting to optimise your settings for that then the longer the shutter speed the better. Most people will use a shutter speed of seven seconds or more with a large number of photographers going for as long as ten seconds. On the flipside of this though, if you are doing urban night photography or something with more available light for your camera, you may get away with a two second shutter speed but something around five seconds might be ideal.

There are even more specialist night photography niches such as trying to capture star trails where you will often use an even longer shutter speed in your camera settings. That said though, this is not a guide for star trail photography so we won’t be going into that in any great detail. The point we are trying to make is that even with benchmark night photography settings, you should always test and adjust.

One thing that we do want to say, the longer the shutter speed you are using with your camera, the more of an effect on your photograph even the slightest movement will make. This is why we don’t recommend that you use handheld photography for your night sessions and always use a tripod. As we touched on above, we know many of our readers are beginner photography and don’t use a tripod for their night photography sessions.

Although you will ideally want to be using something like the Manfrotto MT055CXPRO3 if you are looking to make a career out of photography as it is an outstanding tripod for the price, there is no need to break the bank if you are on a budget. The Zomei Z699c is a great, budget-friendly tripod that offers excellent image stabilization and will prevent any issues with using a longer shutter speed in your night photography camera settings.

What Is The Best ISO For Night Photography?

Although we do feel that adjusting your shutter speed in your camera settings for your night photography is marginally more important for some night photography niches, your ISO setting is a close second in those niches while also coming out just ahead for others. This is why you should test and adjust your ISO settings when you get on location and know the quality of lighting that you will have to work with.

When it comes to your ISO, there is an absolute ton of maneuverability in your camera settings and as lighting conditions change due to the position of the moon changing or car headlights coming and going, you may have to adjust multiple times per session. We usually recommend that you start with an ISO around the 800 mark and then work your way up depending on the specific sub-niche and lighting conditions.

The trade off when it comes to your ISO for your night photography settings is that the higher you go, the more noise you will end up having in your photographs. Although you can usually get rid of a decent amount of this in post production, you should definitely take it into consideration during your test and adjust phase prior to taking your working photographs.

We usually see people setting their night photography settings between ISO 800 and ISO 1600 for the best image quality but you may have to go much higher than this depending on the sub-niche. The specific camera body you are using as well as the lens and zoom level that you are using all come into effect too so if you change the lens you are using mid session then you may have to adjust your ISO settings too.

ISO For Long Exposure At Night

Although the ISO 800 to ISO 1600 setting recommendations above will serve you well for many night photography sub-niches, if you are in a sub-niche such as astrophotography and using long exposures you will have to crank your ISO right up. Depending on what you are doing exactly as well as the light you have available, you may be going as high as an ISO 5000 or even ISO 10,000 setting.

As we touched on above, this can drastically increase the noise in your photography but proper aperture adjustment can off-set this and the leftover noise can usually be dealt with in post-production with ease. Again though, test and adjust your camera settings as much as possible in your long exposure night photography.

What Is The Best Aperture For Night Photography?

Although this is not strictly an option in your camera settings, the aperture on your lens is going to have a huge effect on your night photography image quality. Thankfully though, no matter what camera body you are using for your photography sessions, there are plenty of nice lenses available with a fast aperture to allow you to pick up a suitable night photography lens without having to break the bank if you are on a budget.

That said though, the best aperture setting on your lens for night photography is definitely something that is debated on a regular basis. In our opinion, something like an f/1.4 will be the best overall option for the majority of night photography work. That said though, the f/1.4 lenses can often come with a higher price tag so we often recommend anything up to an f/2.8 depending on your budget as you still get some solid image quality.

Now, there are some people who do say that you can get away with an f/4 aperture for your night photography sessions and although this is technically possible, the image quality will definitely suffer so we don’t recommend it. If you do have to go with an f/4 aperture then no matter what night photography settings you use on your camera, you really should be using a decent, cheap tripod as a minimum to get as much image stabilization as possible.

Which Camera Mode Is Best For Night Photography?

Theres no competition for this one for the vast majority of the popular camera bodies on the market right now, the answer is manual mode. Even then, some of the newer camera bodies on the market do have a “night mode” in the camera settings but it is usually very general and you will usually get better image quality by tweaking the settings.

We know that there are some camera bodies on the market that do not offer full manual mode anymore but they do often offer something very close to it. We would highly recommend that you switch your camera to the “M” setting on your settings control dial for your night photography sessions as the performance of your camera will almost always going to be better.

The main advantage with using the manual setting mode on your camera is that the camera will just stick to the custom ISO, shutter speed, and any other settings that you specifically set for your night photography sessions. If you do use auto or semi-auto mode or any other other branded modes on your camera, it may try to switch up the camera settings to “improve” image quality but it often ends up making your photographs worse.

Now, this is going to depend on the exact task at hand as something like capturing photographs of the night sky or nightscapes will do better in manual mode as the camera is in one position for a longer period of time. That said though, if you are doing any type of run and gun photography work then you might want to try an automatic mode.

The constantly changing lighting conditions and shadows when doing fast paced run and gun work is usually the only time you will wanting to be switching over to the automatic settings for night photography. It allows the camera to better adapt to the constantly and rapidly changing situations as you move to try and get you the best images possible. That said though, if you do have the time to switch to manual mode and customise the settings you will almost always get a better photograph.

What Is The Best White Balance For Night Photography?

As you can probably guess from what we have touched on above multiple times, the white balance (sometimes known as colour temperature) for optimal image quality is going to depend. Again, you should be testing and adjusting your night photography sessions when you get on location to play around and workout what is optimal for your needs.

Your white balance comes into play for colour replication and helps to minimize any unrealistic shades in your image to produce a better overall image quality for your photograph. For example, say you take a photograph of a sheet of white paper, it may have a yellow tint to it in your photograph and this will be due to your white balance settings.

When it comes to the white balance options in your camera settings, you have a few options and in all honesty, with modern cameras, we do often just recommend that you use a pre-set. They are often able to get the job done and save you a large amount of time as setting your white balance manually needs you to take the colour temperature of the available light sources into account and it can become a lengthy process.

Additionally, if you do make a mistake or if your white balance pre-set is slightly off, correcting your white balance in post-production is one of the easiest post-production tasks available. You can often fix any white balance issues in your night photography at the press of a button in many popular editing tools and be done with it.

That said though, if you are wanting to do it manually, then switching your white balance camera settings to a white balance of 3200-4800K is often good for most night photography situations. There are a handful of night photography sub-niches where you may have to stick within the 3400-3900K range though.

What Is The Best Night Photography Exposure Settings?

We often see large numbers of people reaching out and asking what night photography settings they should use for their exposure but in all honesty, it’s going to depend. The exposure setting that is necessary for your situation is going to depend on a whole bunch of different things so we usually recommend that our readers do a specific Google search for recommended exposure settings for what they are planning for their next photography session.

In addition to this, the camera meter that is usually used in prepping your cameras exposure settings can struggle to actually workout the optimal settings at night due to the lack of available light for your camera body. The majority of cameras released after 2018 will have a variant of the average tone exposure system that can save you a bunch of time and offers an easy solution.

Most of the major camera brands on the market right now are regularly updating the system as it is relatively new technology so always keep your camera firmware up to date. The system is usually quick and easy to use as it works out the average tone available in the frame to try and optimize your camera’s settings for your night photography session. We would recommend that you check your camera user manual for more information on the systems available as each system works and performs a little differently.

Should I Shoot In RAW Or JPEG For Night Photography?

This on is actually going to depend in all honesty and it is usually not as important as the other night photography settings that we have covered above. Both RAW and JPEG can result in some excellent image quality for your photographs while also both having their own, unique advantages and disadvantages.

The advantage of JPEG is that the file size is much smaller than RAW and it usually looks much better right out of the camera and in preview mode. Going into your camera settings and telling it to save your work as JPEG can end up saving you a large amount of space allowing you to take more photographs with decent image quality.

The advantage of RAW is that it stores almost all of the available data allowing you to heavily edit your photograph in post production and still ensure that the image will look great. The drawback is that RAW files are huge when compared to JPEG and quickly take up the available space.

That said though, memory cards have came down in price drastically over the last give years or so while their storage capacities have also increased exponentially. This does kind of negate the downside of you using RAW as your file type for your night photography sessions. Additionally, due to the low light conditions for most night photography niches, many people will be doing some post production work on their photographs to improve their quality so RAW pulls out ahead of JPEG.

Most modern cameras will have an option in your camera settings allowing you to store both RAW and JPEG at the same time and get the best of both worlds though. This offers you the advantages of both file types allowing you to preview the JPEG image on your camera and then edit the RAW version later. This is becoming more and more common due to the prices of memory cards coming down so much and is actually what we recommend if you have the storage space available.

Camera Settings For Night Photography Without Flash Units

We see people reaching out to ask for recommended camera settings for night photography without flash units on a regular basis. Although this may sound like a little bit of a cop out, again, its going to depend on the lighting available to you when on location so you are going to have to test and adjust within the recommended settings suggested above.

Although some people do prefer to use a flash unit with their camera body for their night photography sessions, we would highly recommend that you play around without one. We prefer the feel of the image when a flash unit is not used and you take advantage of the available light on scene to ensure that you are getting a more natural image.