Low light portraits can be challenging but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it. Here’s how to shoot great portraits at night with or without flash.
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published in July 2019. It’s been freshened up with new pictures and commentary on December 3, 2019.
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Portraits at night
Although daytime photography is great, don’t limit yourself. Learning how to photograph portraits in different lighting situations will help you grow as a photographer and become more creative.
Shooting portraits at night isn’t easy, especially if you don’t do it often. The key is to have the right gear and understand what you need to capture stunning portraits at night.
The goal when you’re photographing low light portraits is to capture well-lit and blur-free images.
Best gear for low light portraits
Having the right gear will lead to beautiful portraits at night. Here’s what to look for in photography gear when you want to shoot low light photos.
For low light photography, you’ll want a camera that has more megapixels which will capture more details and great low light capabilities.
When you’re comparing cameras, look for less grain at higher ISO levels because at night, you’ll likely have to increase your ISO.
The following are 5 great low light cameras:
The lens you use plays a big role in the quality of your portraits at night. At night, use a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or lower.
The lower your f-stop, the wider your aperture can open. This results in the ability to allow more light into the camera.
Remember, when you use a lower f-stop, the depth of field will become more shallow. A shallow depth of field is great for portraits at night because you’ll capture nice bokeh.
When you’re looking for a lens that has a maximum aperture that’s less than f/2.8, you’ll end up with prime lenses that can go down to f/1.2.
The only downside to a prime lens is that you have to physically move to change the look of the photo instead of zooming in and out.
Best lenses for night portraits:
- 24-70 f/2.8
- 35mm f/1.4
- 50mm f/1.4
- 85mm f/1.2
Another great solution for low light portrait photography is to use artificial light. Artificial light is optional, but here’s what you’ll need if you want to use it.
The most common option is an off-camera flash. Many cameras have a flash but it’s limited in its capabilities. Therefore, utilizing an off-camera flash is the best option.
The off-camera flash attaches to the hot shoe at the top of your camera. You can also diffuse the flash to create a softer light.
Aside from using off-camera flash, you can use battery-powered LED lights. The downside to LED lights is that you have to carry it around with you and space can be limited.
How to shoot portraits at night
Now that you know the tools you need to photography low light portraits, here are tips to help you shoot beautiful photos with limited light.
1. Search for light
When shooting at night, you don’t get as much light as you would during the day and that’s expected. The key is to find a light source.
You can easily use an off-camera flash or battery-powered LED. However, here’s how you can find a light source without artificial light equipment.
When shooting portraits at night, you want your subject’s face to be illuminated so that the viewer is able to see their features.
A great way to achieve this type of portrait is to have your subject stand near a window. If you walk through your city, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find a window with light.
With your subject facing the window, you’ll be able to snap a few portraits of them.
Another type of light that you will find in the city are neon lights. These are great for portraits that are more creative, where you want to use a certain color to evoke emotion from the portrait.
2. Use a large aperture
The aperture determines how much light enters your camera. A large aperture means that you’ll be able to capture more light through your lens.
This is important when you’re shooting portraits at night because of the low light situation you’re in. The point is to get as much light in as possible.
A large aperture will help you shoot awesome portraits at night without compromising the other two pillars of exposure – ISO and shutter speed.
Using a large aperture allows you to keep a lower ISO and faster shutter speed. When you slow down your shutter speed, you’re risking movement blur from the subject or your hands.
Using a higher ISO can cause grain and noise in the image. By shooting wide open, you’re allowing yourself to shoot a high-quality portrait without blur.
A shallow depth of field will create a smooth and appealing blur. More specifically, we’re talking about bokeh which is created when lights are out of focus.
An easy way to achieve bokeh is to get closer to your subject and create more distance between your subject and the background.
Make sure there are lights in the background because that is what will create beautiful bokeh.
4. Nail your focus
At night, you and your camera may have a hard time focusing. Therefore, it’s a good idea to turn off autofocus and use manual focus to ensure your subject is sharp.
Aside from a clear image, nailing your focus is important because it’ll separate the subject from the background. A sharp focus will draw a viewer’s eyes to the photo and create a connection.
Post-processing can be a great way to touch-up the photo and make it look even better.
When you’re post-processing night portraits, you can reduce the amount of noise in the photo to make it appear sharper. You can also make adjustments to the exposure and tweak the lighting.
Tips for editing low light portraits:
- Slightly boost the highlights or whites to brighten your subject
- Adjust the color temperature (night portraits can easily be too warm or cold)
- Use the brush tool to brighten or darken a specific part of the portrait
Photographing portraits at night is a great way to grow as a photographer and get creative with your images. With these tips, you’ll be able to take stunning portraits at night.
- How to shoot a silhouette portrait
- How to take urban portraits
- Guide to black and white portraits
- How to shoot senior photos
Featured photo by David Em/Portraits Refined.