Updated: Aug 26, 2018
So you wanna shoot at night huh? Are you intimidated? Don't be! Although shooting at night differs drastically from shooting during the day, the concept is still essentially the same. People ask me all the time how do I get my night photos to look the way they do, and honestly, my answer is pure luck! LOL, however, I do have a basic setup that I rely on when shooting portraits at night and I'm going to share them with you right now, so get comfortable, because I'm going to get you the pointers on how to shoot amazing portraits at night! (*Disclaimer, these tips are solely based on my experiences in the field during my photo sessions. There is no one way to achieve great results as everyphotographers' shooting style varies. With that said, don't think that this is the sure fire way to pull it off)
Lenses - The best lenses to use are the ones that can get you a really wide fixed aperture (somewhere around f/1.4 - f/2.8) I prefer to use a 50mm 1.8 prime because they are inexpensive and they yield really amazing and sharp results. You'll want a wide aperture so that you can allow more light to reach your sensor in the naturally dark settings that the night creates. Other recommends lenses include 35mm prime, 85mm prime or 24-70mm 2.8 zoom lenses.
Lights - You always want to make sure you have good lighting equipment with you at all times. You're definitely going to need it. I generally like to bring dimmable LED panels/ and or an off camera flash with me on my shoots simply because they're portable, cheaper and they do just enough to get the job done. I currently use 2 Neewer CN-160 LED's when I go out, you can find them on eBay for about $20-$30 a pop. I also recommend a really good speed light if you're a flash fanatic. You'll also want to make sure you have some sort of diffusers for your lights so that lighting will look flattering and natural without the harsh shadowing that an unfiltered light could create. There are tons of ways you could get diffusion; one of the more popular solutions are softboxes and you can find them anywhere! However, if you wanna be more cost-effective, then there are several DIY projects that you could do to get great diffusion for a fraction of what it would cost in retail. Just Google it or find them on Youtube. If you can't afford any of these items, rely on natural ambient lights around you.
Aperture - So as stated earlier, you'll almost always need a wider aperture for night portraits. It's going to be dark out there so you'll need as much light as you can get. I generally keep my aperture around f/1.8 -f /2.8; for one, it allows enough light so that my subject will not be too underexposed, and also, it allows for some good bokeh action due to this setting's shallow depth of field.
Shutter Speed - This one's tricky, I always believe that a slower shutter is better to give the light enough time to hit the sensor to expose beautifully. In a perfect world, I usually try to keep my shutter speed equal to that of the focal length (i.e. 50mm = 1/50s) You may have to adjust a few stops here or there but this method usually works for me.
ISO - So, of course, the "rule" is to keep your ISO as low as possible, and this is true....to an extent. Although you want to keep it low, the night is going to demand that you boost it up a bit, and that's ok. Most photographers are afraid of going up on ISO (I was one of them), but there's no need to be afraid of it. Now I generally try not to go over an ISO of about 800, but I find myself going up to 2000 in more extreme situations. Yea I know, higher ISO introduces noise, but just know that this situation varies from camera to camera, lens to lens, so adjust accordingly.
When looking for a good location to place your subject there are several things to look for to help bring your night portraits to life. I'll go into a few details now.
Natural Lighting - Don't be afraid of using the ambient lighting in the area where you'll be shooting your subject. This is what creates the mood and aesthetic of your shot. I love shooting in the city, so I like to use areas where there are crazy amounts of light that bring a certain kind of vibrancy to my shots. But you may want something dark like an alleyway, so you'd want to you the street lights nearby. This is where your creativity begins to shine. So use those luscious lights all around to you get the shot you want.
Natural Reflectors - Along with using natural light, keep an eye out for natural reflectors. Natural reflectors? Whatever do you mean Tony? I'll tell you what it means. So any surface that is bright in color is naturally going to reflect light in your portraits. Use sidewalks, wall, windows, water, whatever you're close to. This only helps bring your shot to another level. Once again, this is when you get to show your creativity. Certain combinations of Natural Lighting and Natural Reflectors may even not require you to use your lighting equipment (depending on your location)
Slow Traffic - This applies to portraits in general. You never want to have too much happening in the background when shooting your portraits at night. It can be an eyesore when random people are walking around in your shot, it's very distracting (*There are some exceptions if you are purposely doing this with a vision in mind, this is art after all, and art is subjective)
As I said before, these are my go-to steps to create night portraits the way I do. I'm no guru, I'm far from technical and I shoot purely as an artist and from the heart. So look at these more like a guideline, if you will and then develop your style from there. But just to put the icing on the cake, here are a few extra pointers that may help you out.
Practice - Get out there and shoot any chance you get. You'll never transcend your skill level if you don't go out and do it! Use social media to find models who are willing to get out and shoot with you so that you can improve your craft regularly.
Be Creative - Try out several combinations using your ISO, aperture and shutters speed, along with your light setup to see what you may come up with. You never know what you can get if you don't try. Most of my shots are flukes, but it's because of the flukes, that I learn how to set things up and play off of it on my future shoots.
Don't Be Afraid to Screw Up - Even the best take bad shots, once again, use them as a learning tool so that you can know NOT what to do.
Invest in Good Photo Editing Software - Even if Your shot looks good straight out of the camera, you still may need to go back and make little fixes here and there using great photo editing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.
Use Props - Bring a prism or extra lights to add a fantasy type mood to your shots. Yea it requires a little more practice and patient, but the results are rewarding.
Be Professional at All Times - Pretty simple and straightforward, it's dark out there and when working with someone you don't know, you must always keep them comfortable. there are a lot of strange people out there, so the subject is kind of depending on you know that you know what you are doing and that the both of you are safe.
Have Fun - Don't be too serious. Have fun! Night shots are meant to be bold, sexy and EYEGASMIC! Be sure to let that reflect in your work. Communicate with your subject to break the ice and give them direction when needed. The more they are at ease, the more likely you are to get beautifully exposed images in the darkness of the night.
Be Safe - Last but not least, just to piggyback on the step before last. Always be aware of your surroundings. This actually could apply when shooting at any time of the day, but as we all know, the night is when strange people are likely to be most active. So once again stay alert, and never shoot alone; I like to keep at least three people within my sessions just to have more awareness within the group. Also try to shoot in areas that are well lit where there are more active crowds (Not too active, so that we don't conflict with the "Slow Traffic" tip), but enough people to lower your chances of putting you or your party at risk.
And there you have it! This is how I shoot portraits at night. Now keep in mind that all cameras, lenses and other equipment aren't exactly the same, so don't be afraid to make adjustment where necessary. Hopefully, this helps you in the process! If you happen to apply these tips on your next night shoot, tag @differentminddesigns on Instagram and use hashtag #EYEGASMS and we'll definitely be happy to check out what you were able to come up with. Alright, peeps! Hope you enjoyed this read! Happy Shooting! Peace and Blessings!