Six Steps Into Taking Amazing Night Handheld Photographs

night scene photographed in a town street

Taking night handheld photographs is a bit tricky and may require you some skills to do it. Here are a few tips I want to share with you.

You have a walk outdoors during the evening, and the sky is dark. You have your DSLR camera with you, and you aim to take some fantastic night photographs.

But you don’t carry the bulky tripod with you. Therefore, you have to do it handheld.

Doing night photographs handheld is a bit tricky. You need to know the optimal settings to capture images under the right lighting conditions and, most importantly, be remarkably steady.

I want to expand on what to consider and the top six tips for capturing fantastic night photographs with your camera handheld.

The lens you use matters for handheld night photography

nikkor 50mm lens

By far, the most crucial part plays the lens you use. With wide-angle lenses (e.g. 18mm lens), it’s easier to capture photographs that reflect into using a slower shutter speed while capturing handheld. For example, it would be way easier to photograph a night street handheld with a 24mm lens than with a 70mm lens.

To put this in perspective, if you ever used binoculars, you definitely noticed that it is difficult to have a stable image while watching through it, in particular, if this has higher magnification.

Think about the magnification of your camera lens. Higher it is, more difficult to capture a steady image.

One special note: some more advanced lenses have image stabilization, which drastically helps you capture steadier photographs by stabilizing the image. More in that point later.

Moreover, if you aim for prime lenses, those have larger apertures; (the hole the light goes through your lens) — larger the aperture, the more light goes into your camera sensor. And with a smaller focal length, this makes a whole lot of contribution.

In most scenarios, I pretty much never have problems capturing night photographs handheld with a 50mm lens with an aperture of f/1.2. This is a rare lens, but the most common lens on the market is a 50mm lens with f/1.8, which still works like a charm on capturing night photographs handheld.

Therefore, to sum it up, the lens you have plays an essential part.

The exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed and ISO)

Exposure triangle

The exposure triangle is the bread and butter on having the correct settings to capture a night photograph handheld.

- Aperture

I would say for you to aim to capture in (A) Aperture mode because you will primarily benefit from your lens widest aperture to fasten your camera shutter speed and bring down the ISO value.

An excellent wide aperture would be something like f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2.8 or any around those values. The narrower the aperture is (higher the f-number is), the less light is getting through your lens; therefore, the shutter speed will slow down, and ISO will go up to compensate for a properly exposed image.

- Shutter speed

This all depends on the lens you have. As mentioned, with wide-angle lenses, you may be able to capture a photograph handheld during the night if you are steady with a shutter speed of 1/30s or even 1/15s (although it would be difficult) but always aiming at 1/50–1/60s is a good pick for a wide-angle or standard lens.
With my 105mm lens, I was barely able to capture at 1/100s.

Faster the shutter speed you want to be, the more light the scene should have (also, wider aperture and higher ISO).

But there is an exception I mentioned above. Suppose you have a lens with Image Stabilisation (the ability of the lens to stabilize your image when you capture images). In that case, you can capture steady and sharp images with a much slower shutter speed on the same scene. As an example, you can go as down as 1/4s (0.25sec) or even 1/2s (half sec) and still be able to capture a sharp picture. But you need to be steady! — scenes captured at 1/20s shutter speed would look like a breeze to capture with a lens with image stabilization.

But when you have one of those lenses, those don’t tend to have a very wide aperture; therefore, less light will get through the lens.

As a comparison and for better understanding, let’s take two lenses, same focal length (doesn’t matter) — both are prime lenses. One of them, without image stabilization, has an aperture of f/1.8, which is pretty wide and can capture much light in a short time. But a similar one with image stabilization may have an aperture of f/4.

Therefore. Just as random values on a specific scene, with the lens without image stabilization, you can have a shutter speed of 1/60sec, while with other lenses with image stabilization, the shutter speed would be 1/15sec.

It’s like with a two-way highway. Both come with advantages and disadvantages.

Okay… it seems I went a bit too much into the topic; now, let’s get back.

So, shutter speed, an average minimum I use for a standard lens is 1/60sec with the ability to get to 1/50sec if you are steady to take sharp pictures during the night handheld.

- The ISO

Now, to reflect the ISO (your camera sensor sensitivity to light), you will not be able to capture night handheld photographs with a low ISO of 100 or similar. During the day is another story, but not during the night.

Therefore, you will have to raise your ISO depending on your camera capabilities.

The higher the ISO is, the more image noise will get into the photograph.

ISO CHART

For example, you may be able to take a pretty clear picture with ISO1600 while other cameras can go up to ISO3200 even ISO 6400 with little noise image that can be removed in post-processing. More on that later.

Therefore, not to stretch it too much, I found out that ISO values between 1600 and 4000 are the best to choose for night photographs handheld.

To underline this again, the higher the ISO, the more light your camera sensor can capture, and more noise will be introduced into the image.

ISO has direct value with the aperture and shutter speed.

DSLR camera settings for night photography handheld

Now let me give a few examples (always depending on the scenery you want to photograph) that I found okay to use when I take photographs during the night with my DSLR camera handheld.

f/1.8; 1/60s; ISO 3200
f/1.4; 1/60s; ISO 2000
f/1.2; 1/100s; ISO 2000.

Those are some values I observed I often get to use when photographing during the night with my camera handheld different sceneries around the city, on the street (street photography), or indoors with average lighting.

If your scene has poor lighting, I could reflect on the following values, as often met:

f/1.2; 1/50s; ISO 3200
f/1.4; 1/50s; ISO 4000

But if your night scenery has better lighting condition (is better illuminated), I often met these settings:

f/1.8; 1/100s; ISO 2000
f/2.8; 1/60s; ISO 3200
f/1.4; 1/60s; ISO 400

It always depends on the scenery and the lighting. Better illuminated scenery is = lower values you need to use for your camera.

bonfire and group of people photograph
Photograph taken by the author (LovelyScape // Gabriel Mihalcea) — 70mm focal length, f/3.5 and ISO 100 — The lens had image stabilisation and the bonfire lighting contributed to good camera settings.

Now, a quick reflection, I always found the most helpful to use the Aperture mode of your camera and often go for the largest or second-largest aperture setting for my lens and set my ISO value accordingly for the shutter speed to fall into the values mentioned above (without going with the ISO higher than 4000). If the scene is well illuminated, I tend to lower the ISO before modifying the aperture or higher shutter speed values.

Your camera

DSLR CAMERA

Another part that can play an important role when trying to capture night photographs handheld is your camera capabilities. Although the camera is not a core reason to impact your settings, it does play an important role.

For example, let’s reflect on two cameras with different sensors: APC-S (crop sensor) and full-frame sensor.

The full-frame camera sensor is much larger than the APS-C, allowing more light to come into your camera sensor; therefore, without any doubt, it performs much better for night photography and is way more sensitive to light than a crop sensor.

A good example is Nikon D5300 (APS-C) and Nikon D750 (full-frame) — with the same lens, Nikon D750 will perform much better than the D5300 on low light conditions.

Another part reflects on more expensive cameras (let’s go with full-frame cameras), where you may be able to raise the ISO to a higher value and have less noise image. E.g. you can use ISO6400 or even higher with little noise to your image, making you able to capture less illuminated sceneries during the night handheld.

The scene you want to photograph

night street photograph with camera handheld

Yes, this is a category I don’t want to spend too much time on because I broadly spoke about it through the rows of this story.
The scene plays an important role as well. No matter what camera you have or lens, you will never be able to capture handheld photographs in a non-illuminated scene.

For a successful night photograph captured with your camera handheld, make sure you have a least a source of light and use the photography rules (such as rules of thirds) for better composition. Appeal to the artist inside you because, no matter how good the settings are, you have to be creative to capture amazing photographs.

Your steadiness

This doesn’t come as a surprise. Even with fast shutter speed and well-illuminated scenes, you need to be very steady during the night if you want to take any pictures with your DSLR handheld. It would be best to control your breath when you capture it as stable as possible and don’t rush the photos.

It is a good practice to attempt to capture multiple photos of the same scene because you will get to capture motion a lot, and some of the images are not going to be as sharp, although they look fine on the camera.

Post-processing

night street photography

When we reflect on post-processing, we glance at the ability to modify those photographs in programs such as Lightroom. You will be able to change colours, boost contrast, correct the lighting and exposure, and most importantly, remove some of the noise.

I will not get too much into the details of post-processing as this could be a complex side, but always shoot in RAW to be able to further post-process your images and (in Lightroom) — you can use the slide to reduce image noise and then increase sharpness until you have a better version of your photo with less image noise and same sharpness level.

In conclusion

To capture night photographs handheld with your DSLR is not a complicated process, but you must understand the basic settings, the exposure triangle and how this works and have a decent lens for better results.

Thank you for reading this article. If you managed to read until the end, you are a star, and I hope you found it insightful. Take care for now and stay safe!