Four ways to shoot night portraits

Oh, what a night it was. The stars were twinkling, the owls were hooting, and your date looked marvelous. Too bad your photos of the evening look like you are snowmen in a blackout.

Night portraiture is tricky because there are a lot of things to think about—exposure, flash, camera shake, and color balance are just the tip of the underexposed iceberg.

Most modern cameras have settings to help you take great nighttime photos, so why do some photos turn out great while others look like blurry or bright garbage? To help understand what is going on inside the camera in the dark of the night, I took my Nikon D-90 and my friend Peter Cochrane to San Francisco’s City Hall to try to take the best night portrait shots possible.

Here are four possible scenarios that you can try for yourself. Though I used my Nikon D90 with a 28mm, f/2.8 lens, all DSLRs will have analogous settings to the ones I used below.

Day-time exposure settings with the flash on

This is popularly known as the “oops” setting. The settings you were using all day were great, but at night they will underexpose your frame. The obvious solution is to turn on the flash. In manual mode, when you turn on the flash, it will go off for every shot, regardless of whether it is needed in the frame. TTL—meaning “through the lens”— is the default flash setting for most cameras. It examines the scene before deciding how strong the flash should be. This usually means that your foreground will be properly lit, but the lighting of the background will still rely on your previous exposure settings. The results are not optimal because though the subject is nice and bright, the background is completely obscured.

This photo was taken in the manual setting on a Nikon D90 with a 28mm, f/2.8 lens. It was taken at ISO 320, f/2.8 with a shutter speed of 1/200. The flash was on TTL.
Daytime Exposure with Flash: This photo was taken in the manual setting at ISO 320, f/2.8 with a shutter speed of 1/200. The flash was on TTL.

Auto mode

Auto mode wants you to take a clean, clear photo of your subject but doesn’t care what the background looks like. While it may take data from the whole scene, its priority is to expose for the point of focus. Auto Mode works fine when the subject and background are in the same light or in a nighttime party situation when the point of focus is everything that is important in the frame, but for a nighttime portrait in front of a landmark, Auto Mode misses the mark.

This photo was taken in the auto setting on a Nikon D90 with a 28mm f/2.8 lens. It was taken at ISO 800, f/2.8 with a shutter speed of 1/60. The flash was on Auto.
Auto Flash: This photo was taken in the auto setting at ISO 800, f/2.8 with a shutter speed of 1/60. The flash was on Auto.

Night Portrait Mode

The Night Setting on your camera will slow down the shutter speed drastically and set the flash to Auto + Slow Sync—a setting that tells your camera that you are taking a slow-exposure photo with flash. The idea behind these settings is that, though the shutter speed is very slow, the burst of the flash will freeze the subject. While this photo does correctly expose both the background and the subject, the color balance is far too warm and the shutter speed is so slow that if Peter was moving even slightly there would have been ghosting. Another possible problem with this shot is the starbursts coming from the streetlights—a by-product of the slow shutter speed.

This photo was taken in the night time setting on a Nikon D90 with a 28mm, f/2.8 lens. It was taken at ISO 800, f/2.8 with a shutter speed of 1/10. The flash was on Auto-Slow.
Night Setting: This photo was taken in the night time setting at ISO 800, f/2.8 with a shutter speed of 1/10. The flash was on Auto-Slow.

Manual

A good rule of thumb for Manual flash photography is to expose for the background, set your flash for TTL, and then make the shutter speed faster by two stops. In this case, I made my ISO lower, but it achieved the same goal of allowing enough light into the frame to expose the background, but not enough to blow-out the foreground. Because my shutter speed was slightly higher than the Night Portrait Mode, I was able to avoid starbursts and my lower ISO minimized noise.

This photo was taken in the manual setting on a Nikon D90 with a 28mm, f/2.8 lens. It was taken at ISO 320, f/2.8 with a shutter speed of 1/20. The flash was on TTL.
All Manual: This photo was taken in the manual setting at ISO 320, f/2.8 with a shutter speed of 1/20. The flash was on TTL.

[Lauren Crabbe is a Macworld intern.]

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