Night Photography: set up your camera to shoot anything

Night Photography Tips: best camera settings for any subject

Master white balance in your night photography

Night Photography: how to avoid bad color casts

How do I avoid ugly color casts?

Most of the time, your DSLR is quite capable of capturing accurate colours whatever the lighting. It’s the job of the camera’s white balance system to adjust the colour of the image, replicating the way our eyes see the scene (check out our in-depth guide to common white balance problems – and how to solve them).

The standard Auto White Balance (AWB) setting, however, is much better at getting the colours right in daylight than after dark. Shots taken of floodlit buildings or in your living room, for example, can have a slight but unpleasant orange-yellow colour cast.

This is a sure sign that the white balance is wrong, and this discolouration can be easily corrected in Photoshop, particularly if you shoot using the RAW quality setting.

Best white balance settings for night photography: fixing bad colour casts

An overly orange color cast

Best white balance settings for night photography: custom white balance

Make a custom setting using a white object

Best white balance settings for night photography: better colour rendition

A custom setting offers better color rendition

However, it’s simple enough to get the colours right at the time you’re shooting. 
All you have to do is set a Custom White Balance. If you’re taking a sequence of shots of the same building, or in the same lighting, this is especially effective. The standard technique is to use a white or grey object and use this to set the white balance.

Is there a simpler way to avoid colour casts?

Even if you set the white balance manually, the colours of some areas of your night shots can still look wrong. The problem here is that a building may be lit by several different light sources, each with a different colour signature.

White balance settings at night: convert to black and white

You can adjust the white balance for one, but adjusting it for them all is a much less straightforward task. A simple solution is to convert these troublesome images to black and white.

White balance settings at night: convert to black and white

Shoot in colour, and then convert them to monochrome using your photo-editing software; this gives you the best control over the contrast and tonal range 
of the image. It’s a good technique to use on your party portraits, too!

Night photography ideas – how to light paint your subject over ultra-long exposures

How do I set manual white balance?

All digital SLRs enable you to set the white balance precisely, using a reference shot you’ve already taken. The following steps show the steps for doing this with a Canon DSLR, the exact procedure may vary if using other brands…

  1. You know when it’s time to act when your pictures start to look orange.
  2. Take a picture of something white or grey. Choose the Menu button and select the Custom WB option. Ensure the reference shot is on screen, then press Set.
  3. Now change your White Balance from AWB to the Custom option (denoted by a black rectangle above two triangles). Subsequent pictures will have no colour cast. Remember to recalibrate the white balance setting when you shoot a different scene.

An alternative method
The traditional method is to use a sheet of white paper or a grey card for your reference picture when setting a custom white balance. But you can get away with just using a picture of the subject itself.

An alternative method to setting white balance: Augot WB

Auto WB

This shot of Krakow Castle is much too orange. We then used this image as the reference for a Custom White Balance setting.

An alternative method to setting white balance: Custom WB

Custom WB

Using this lesser-known method results in a much better final image.

 SEE MORE: How to take photos at twilight

Creative flash effects at night

Night Photography Tips: best camera settings for any subject

When should I use flash?

Flash shots can often prove disappointing because the flash itself tends to kill the atmosphere, making the subject too bright and the background too dark. For this reason, it’s often  best to switch the ISO setting to a higher value.

However, when increasing the ISO still doesn’t give you a fast enough shutter speed or a narrow enough aperture to capture the subject sharply, your camera’s flash can come in handy.

Flash is often essential for low-light portraits, for instance, because a live subject can’t be captured sharply with an exposure measured in whole seconds.

The secret is to try to make the fact that you’ve used flash less obvious. A great way of doing this is to combine a burst of flash with a long shutter speed.

The advantage of this so-called ‘slow-sync’ flash technique is that it’s easy to set up on your DSLR and it works remarkably well with the camera’s built-in flash unit.

When should I use a bounce flash technique?

Bounce flash is another great way of getting natural looking pictures in low light. It works particularly well with portraits, giving a soft-lit approach that disguises the fact that you’ve even used a flashgun.

How to use bounce flash - straight flash

Straight flash

The flash is diffused and weakened as it bounces off a nearby wall or low ceiling, so you lose the harsh shadows caused by direct flash.

How to use bounce flash

Bounce flash

Unfortunately, you can’t use the camera’s built-in flash, so you’ll need an accessory gun with a tiltable head that fits on to your camera’s hotshoe.

How do I set my camera’s slow-sync flash function?

With slow-sync flash, the camera sets a long enough exposure for the background to be fully exposed while simultaneously firing the flash to light up the subject in the foreground.

Using slow-sync flash at night: example with no flash

No flash

Using slow-sync flash at night: example with flash

With flash

Using slow-sync flash at night: example with slow-sync flash

Slow-sync flash

The subject is caught sharply thanks to the short burst of flash, while the background is not the under-exposed black expanse of a normal flash shot.

To activate slow-sync flash on a Nikon DSLR, you set the flash mode to Slow. On Canon SLRs, all you have to do is set the main mode dial to Av and flip up the flash. For other brands, check your manual.

Unless you’re using a tripod, you’ll need to use the thumbwheel behind the shutter-release button to set an aperture so that the accompanying shutter speed isn’t so slow the background becomes blurred.


Master your camera’s autofocus – which AF points to use (and when to use them)
Conquer underexposure: how to rescue shadow detail and how to deal with noise
Manual Focus: what you need to know to get sharp images
Download free photography cheat sheets

  • Don DeMaio

    How could you shoot aerial fireworks with a 20-second exposure? Most fireworks don’t even last for 20 seconds?

  • Chupacabra

    That’s the point Don – a longer exposure allows several of the aerials to be captured