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How to take night photographs handheld with your DSLR

How to take night photographs handheld with your DSLR
Street night photography taken handheld

In order to be able to take night photographs with your DSLR camera, you need a tripod in most of the cases but this may not always be possible. Taking handheld night photographs with your DSLR is another story.

In principle, the idea which resolute the usage of a DSLR camera to take night photographs handheld is reflected by the increasing technology and the sensitivity of new camera sensor released about every year.

How to take night photographs with your DSLR handheld? You need to have a wide aperture lens or with image stabilization in order to allow more light into the camera sensor when photographing with your DSLR handheld. The ISO has to be increased to a value reflecting your DSLR performance before to get any image noise, where the shutter speed remains at least 1/50sec for a standard lens and 1/4sec for image stabilization lens.

There is a lot more to be discussed the above-mentioned values which can differ from each DSLR camera, lens, photographer and to give consideration to the scene, subject, and lighting available.

How to take evening handheld photographs with your DSLR

How to take night photographs handheld with your DSLR

During the evening is a whole other story. To take handheld photographs with your DSLR during the evening you may benefit the after-sunset skylight before this becomes completely dark, the street lights if the photos are taken on the street/illuminated area. etc.

The lighting requirements can be more adequate than photographing during the night. Because of the sky’s additional fainting source of light, you may be able to take those evening photographs handheld without a drastic change in camera settings and the lenses you are using.

Of course, this all depends on what stage the evening is, how visible is the light emanated by the evening sky, what are the additional lighting available, the lens aperture, focal length and your DSL performance to capture in low-light scenarios, the scene, etc.

But remember, your fading sky is your friend right now and many times, you will be able to capture the scene handheld with some other minimum artificial lighting (a good example would be the photo above)

Camera and lenses

It is known that a full-frame camera would benefit in front of a DX camera due to larger sensor sizes which allow more light to be captured under the same lighting available, but because we are talking during the evening, even a DX camera can face the challenge.

In terms of lenses, I do recommend once the sun hides behind the horizon, to use a wide aperture prime lens (f/1.4, f/1.8) in order to allow more light to be captured with lower ISO. Keep in mind that the focal length plays a very important role in capturing evening photographs.

As an instance, you will find less difficult capturing with an 18mm prime lens with an aperture of f/1.4 or f/1.8 than with a 105mm lens same apertures, because wider the lens, more light it can capture from the surrounding scene and less would be noticeable camera movement and shake induced on slower shutter speeds.

At the beginning of the post, I mentioned that you would be able to use a lens without image stabilization and capture a sharp image with a shutter speed of 1/50sec. This given or taken with a 50mm lens. If you would have a 105mm lens, it would be difficult to capture an image with the same shutter speed and you probably will have to increase it. By increasing it, you increase the ISO and your image will have more noise.

In the case, let’s say, your lens is 14mm wide, which is considered to be a very wide lens, you would probably be able to capture a sharp image handheld with 1/20sec or even a slower shutter speed.

Therefore, keep in mind that in special when doing evening photography, not only the aperture matter but the focal length among all-above mentioned scenarios.

Settings to use

The settings you are going to use would be different for each camera, lens, scene, and lighting available, but there are a few things to peak and help you take better evening photographs handheld.

  • Use aperture mode.

Using the aperture mode of your camera will allow you to set the aperture to its widest in order to allow as much light to capture without increasing too much the ISO.

  • ISO, your friend or your enemy.

There is a whole topic to talk about ISO and remember, when you increase your camera ISO settings you will increase the sensitivity to light, allowing you to capture darker scenes with a faster shutter speed, but in the same time the sacrifice would be inducing image noise, which will be increased among with higher ISO settings.

Knowing your camera would be beneficial for you because you have to know at what point your ISO starts to a decade and create more image noise than it should. Keep your settings under those values. As an instance, my Nikon D750 is okay with the image noise even with an ISO of 6400, where my old Nikon D3400 would fail beyond ISO 3200.

You don’t have to shoot always to those higher values. Setting your camera on aperture mode and the ISO on auto with the upper limit equivalent to ‘below-maximum’ ISO number where image noise is noticeable. A good example would be that although I can capture relatively good images with ISO 6400 on my Nikon D750 camera, I keep my maximum values on ISO 4000.

By doing this you avoid for your camera to gasp for as much light as possible and to take those values beyond anything usable. Remember, you are taking evening photographs handheld and not during the night. This should not be as big as a problem.

How to take night handheld photographs with your DSLR

street night photograph handheld

We got to the point where the whole post is centered about: How to take night handheld photographs with your DSLR? This can be a bigger challenge than taking evening photographs due to the fact that here, we remove the fading skylight and we replace it with a pitch-black one.

In this situation, all the light sources we have are the artificial lighting available in the area or scene you are photographing, and I may have a little guess, street photography.

The lighting requirements are more drastically in order to perform this, and here the technology and performance of the camera will play a very important role.

You have to keep in mind that no matter the equipment you have if the lighting is not adequate, you will not be able to take at all any night photographs handheld with your DSLR. A tripod would play a very important role there, and in general, I would recommend it, but the topic focuses on taking photos handheld.

Camera and lenses

During the evening photography taken handheld, you were able to take even with a DX camera. Now, taking handheld photographs during the night with a DX would be more difficult than the FX, therefore, I would strongly recommend having an FX (full-frame camera) in order to allow more light to capture without sacrificing the image quality from high ISO values.

It is not impossible though to capture night photographs handheld with a DX (crop-sensor) camera in special where the lighting is adequate on the streets/area you are photographing if you have a wide aperture lens or with image stabilization. Moreover, if your camera sensor would be good enough to capture photographs on higher ISO values (as Nikon D500), capturing with this type of camera sensor would be fine enough.

In general, an FX sensor camera is the one I recommend with an FX prime lens attached, wide aperture (f/1.2 to f/1.8) or with image stabilization. Do you remember when I mentioned earlier that with an image stabilization lens you are able to capture even with a shutter speed of 1/4sec? Well, during the night is all possible that you will reach those low values, where without an image stabilization lens, it would be impossible to capture.

But image stabilization lenses would have a narrower aperture such as f/2.8, f/3.2, etc. which allows less light to be captured, where a prime lens without image stabilization would have an aperture of f/1.8, f/1.4 or even f/1.2.

If you would ask me what I would recommend between a narrower prime lens but with image stabilization and a wide aperture lens without image stabilization, I will opt for the wide aperture lens, because with an appropriate ISO values and apertures wide as f/1.2 (a good example would be my Nikkor 50mm f/1.2), you can capture outstanding photographs during the night handheld.

Settings to use

Forget taking photographs with a low ISO number. At least not handheld. This will not work. I hope by now that you know the upper ISO limit of your camera where you are able to capture photographs and still not suffer from too much image noise. You will need to set and increase that limit to it’s maximum, and reflecting what I mentioned earlier about my Nikon D750 and to use ISO 4000 although my camera can capture well on ISO 6400, this time, I have to set the ISO to 6400 as the upper limit.

Keep in mind that this won’t always be the case and as in the photo above, in many other cases there would be enough street light available to capture on lower ISO’s. But not always. Setting an inferior ISO can drop the shutter speed to a point where you won’t be able to capture handheld if your lens does not have image stabilization.

Aperture mode (at least) is mandatory to keep your lens at widest aperture settings in order to capture as much light as possible. Shutter mode is not as bad as it looks, although we are able to select a shutter speed of 1/50sec (example) to be able to capture handheld photographs, therefore, aperture and ISO will auto-adjust to give us these shutter values.

But you have to keep in mind that if there is not enough light available, the shutter speed will not be able to slow down in the above case, therefore, with insufficient light, your camera will capture underexposed images.

As another alternative would be okay to use the manual mode, where you are able to set the aperture at widest settings and the shutter speed on the nominal values to be able to capture handheld photographs (e.g. the same 1/50sec). The only adjustable setting would be the ISO set on auto-mode. which would fluctuate to give you a properly exposed image.

Same as with shutter mode, if there is not enough light and ISO will go to its upper set limits, the image would look underexposed, but same will happen if there is too much light (on the streets you are photographing) and your ISO would go to its lower limits (e.g. ISO 100) the image would appear over-exposed, as shutter speed and aperture will not auto-adjust.

Tips to improve your handheld night photography

How to take night photographs handheld with your DSLR

Among the tips given and settings you can use around for night handheld photography, there could be a few tips to help you improve this.

  1. Take your time. Be steady. Hold your breath.

You don’t have to rush, and try to capture steady and carefully to reduce as much possible from any shake induced from photographing handheld in low lighting scenarios. Holding your breath for a couple of seconds would drastically reduce the wobbling and shake induced when you capture handheld.

  1. Know your focus point.

You don’t want to shoot with group focus or auto but with a single focus point. If the scene you are capturing has a source (or sources) of light and darker underexposed parts, which often will happen on night photography, knowing where to focus would be crucial.

As an instance, if you focus on the source of light, the settings will attempt to adjust the light to it’s nominal exposed values, underexposing the rest of the photo while increasing the shutter speed and lowering the ISO, where if you focus on an underexposed part of your scene, your camera will try to boost the ISO and other settings to properly expose that part, making any sources of lights over-exposed.

Therefore, it is crucial to know where to focus, such as in your scene, on a point which is neither a source of light nor an underexposed section. Additionally, you can use the exposure values to increase or decrease the exposure of a scene.

  1. Use your surroundings for your benefits.

Being creative in this way will make your work easier when capturing night photographs handheld. I will give you a good example, lining your camera along to a pillar or a surface will drastically reduce any shakes induced, therefore, you are able to capture at lower ISO values and shutter speeds.

Reflecting to this, if you have a table tiny tripod attached to your DSLR, you can use any surfaces to place your camera, therefore, you can capture with values as similar as you shoot with your camera on a tripod.

  1. A monopod is gold!

A monopod is easy to carry and use, occupy little space and will give you incredible stability when shooting handheld.

  1. Try to use manual focus

One of the biggest challenges when capturing with your camera handheld during the night (even on a tripod) is to be able to focus on a point. Most of the time, your camera and lens may fail to autofocus on the selected point. Why not learn and shoot with manual focus? This will be an extremely valuable point where your lens or camera may fail to focus in difficult lighting scenarios.

I have a full guide to manual focus photography if you are interested in.

The Final Conclusion

Capturing night photographs handheld with your DSLR is not an easy task and in the end, there is a balance between your gear and you as a photographer. Gear has an importance in this case but the most important part is you and how dedicated you are to learn and practice.

It is a challenge that you will have to overcome as a photographer. I hope that our tips helped you to improve this type of photography. Please stay tuned for more posts and I hope to see you around.

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In order to be able to take night photographs with your DSLR camera, you need a tripod in most of the cases but this may not always be possible. Taking handheld night photographs with your DSLR is another story. 

In principle, the idea which resolute the usage of a DSLR camera to take night photographs handheld is reflected by the increasing technology and the sensitivity of new camera sensor released about every year.