It took me some trial-and-error to figure out, so I want to share my method and tips for shooting good, high-quality photos at night time in a city like Tokyo that is dominated by bright neon lights. Other similar cities where this is helpful would be places like Hong Kong, Seoul, Osaka, etc. Needless to say, a lot of it is gear-related, shooting night-time with a phone or kit lens in a city with that requires lots of dynamic range can be more of a challenge. But whatever gear you’re using, these tips will help your shots if you’re having some trouble.
Use the fastest lens and the best gear you have access to
Anything slower than f2 – f2.8 is going to leave you at a big disadvantage if shooting handheld. When it’s really dark, it’s a good idea to always shoot wide open to allow the max amount of light into your shots. A full frame camera is also going to be quite helpful at night, because you’ll be able to use much higher ISOs.
Now obviously if you’re doing long-exposures, none of this matters as much. This is more relevant in handheld street photography and portraits.
Here’s the best I could do at night handheld with an iPhone, just to give you an example of how much gear will make a difference.
A Lens-hood may help
Depending on your gear, you might want to consider using a lens hood to reduce flare from bright lights. The wider the angle you’re using, the more of a problem this tends to be.
Focus manually if necessary
All cameras and lenses have more trouble autofocusing if it’s darker. If you notice that your shots often turn out blurry, it’s a good idea to start using manual focus past a certain amount of light available. If you’re using a modern mirrorless camera, the focus peaking feature is very helpful, so be sure that you’ve turned it on in the settings!
Figure out the max ISO you’re comfortable with and adjust your settings
On my A7r ii, I almost always leave Auto-ISO on. However sometimes the max auto-ISO setting of your camera may be set just a bit too high for your tastes, so it’s a good idea to test the setting manually, determine what is good enough for your standards, and then adjust the max ISO you’ll allow your camera to use.
Figure out the minimum shutter speed you’re comfortable with
I usually leave my camera on full manual except with auto-ISO enabled, so that I can quickly adjust the settings based on the scene at hand. It’s a good idea to figure out what is the lowest shutter speed you can use for each particular scenario, and then use exactly that. For me on my Sony mirrorless, these are my reference points:
- General street shooting of people – 1/100s
- Cars passing – 1/200 to 1/500
- Scene from up high/wide angle and/or with not much movement – 1/20s
Under-expose dramatically to preserve highlights
The more neon-lights there are, or in other words, the higher dynamic ranger that I need, the more I will under-expose the shots. Usually, I have it set at -1 stops, adjusting from -0.7 to -2.0 as needed. It’s helpful if your camera has an exposure-compensation adjustment button built in the hardware, but this setting can otherwise found in the menu. Obviously, it can also be done completely manually, if you’re using full manual, including manual ISO.
If you’re shooting with a tripod, then the obvious solution is to take multiple exposures in the same spot, then blend them together so that you’ll preserve both the shadows and the highlights. As long as you don’t overdo it, no one will notice! It must be noted though that this is much more difficult to do for street shots, which is why I almost never do it.
Edit your images
Here you can see a fairly typical edit that I’ve done in lightroom. Notice how the image is under-exposed by about 2 stops. In the edit, the highlights have been brought further down, shadows lifted, and the exposure has been lifted back up to fix the intentional under-exposing. If I’d shot this image initially at the correct exposure, I would have lost most of the details in the highlights, meaning the neon signs in this image. Which could be fine for artistic purposes, but this way you have a choice in post.
It’s shot wide open (f1.8) at 55mm using the Sony 55mm prime lens on Sony a7r ii. The tone curves have been adjusted for artistic purposes to increase contrast and to lift the blacks by a bit, but that part is entirely optional. I’ve also added clarity and decreased vibrance, but these are up to personal preference as well.