Capturing a great street photograph during the day is hard enough, let alone at night.
The scenes don’t slow down or stop moving, but the light can be so low that we have to compromise our camera settings and focusing can be much more difficult. This just adds another few obstacles to a genre that is already littered with obstacles to getting a great shot.
That being said, many photographs look much more beautiful at night, so when you do get that great photograph and everything works out, it can be magical. And luckily, there are many strategies that can make shooting at night much easier.
There is the saying that you can do street photography well with any camera, and that is true, but man does it help to have a camera that can shoot well at ISOs of 3200 or 6400, which thankfully many cameras can do these days. I strictly shoot between ISO 1600 and 6400 at night depending on the amount of artificial light.
Being able to shoot this high will allow you to still have a fast enough shutter speed to freeze motion in subjects. While for the day, I try to stay above 1/250s, at night I try to not go below 1/125s, although I’m okay shooting at 1/80s if needed.
I primarily shoot in either Shutter Priority or Manual depending on how consistent the light is for night shooting, and if I am in Shutter Priority, I will usually turn my exposure compensation to -1 to make sure the camera makes the scene look like a real night shot.
Imperfection (Don’t Worry as Much About Sharpness)
It’s important to know how to get your photographs as sharp as possible, while at the same time embracing the imperfections. Sometimes they will ruin a street photo, but just as often they will make it that much better. Street photography is about capturing slices of imperfect reality, and so imperfections can make a special moment feel that much more real.
So while you take all the other tips here into account, don’t become too obsessive. Street photography at night is tough, and it’s okay that many of the photographs will not come out technically perfect. They can and will still be beautiful and fascinating.
Wait and Stand Between a Light Source and Your Subject
Waiting is very important for night street photography. By picking a good location with a strong enough light source, you will turn the odds in your favor. Just by standing there and looking around, your attention will be focused on your subjects, which is important for street photography in general, but especially with the difficulties of night shooting.
The key here though is to seek out light sources and place yourself in between them and the subject, so the side of the subject that you capture will be illuminated. This will allow some gorgeous light to hit your subjects and will make your photos stand out. It will also remove a few of the obstacles in night shooting, such as tough focusing and needing to use a slow shutter speed.
Embrace a little motion. Not every street shot has to be perfectly frozen. You can create some wonderful looks with a longer exposure or even just adding a little blur by turning your shutter speed to somewhere around 1/40s. This can create some wonderful effects at night.
Which Lens to Use?
Because street photography is so difficult and fast-paced, and night photography makes it that much tougher, I think using a prime wide-angle or normal lens is ideal. The light lens and prime focal length will allow you to be quicker and more spontaneous with the camera, which will help you out significantly in the tough environment. The wide-angle will also allow for sharper shots in general.
Zoom lenses will give you more flexibility in some ways, but they are heavier, and the act of zooming before taking a shot will slow you down in an environment where your speed is the most important factor.
Try Manual Focus (Zone Focusing)
I go back and forth between using autofocus and manual focus and both can work well depending on the situation. I particularly use manual focusing in very dark situations where the camera has trouble focusing.
To zone focus, turn your camera to manual focus and pick a distance such as 8 or 10 feet away. Then wait for your subjects to enter that general distance from your camera before you take the shot. This takes a little practice, but it will allow you to get very sharp shots in very tough conditions. At the same time, you will also screw up your focus sometimes, no matter how good you get, so keep that in mind.
Should I Use a Flash?
A flash will help for night street photography and create some incredible looks for your photographs. It will allow your subjects to pop and the general effects you can create with it can be very unique. It can also allow you to shoot anywhere at night — no longer do you have to strictly seek out the light sources.
But it can be an aggressive form of shooting, particularly at night. Imagine having a flash suddenly put in your face by a stranger on the street. This is the reason that I don’t use flash for candid street photography, but I love the look and many photographers do it very well.
The final tip is to mix night photography with bad weather. Shooting in the rain or snow at night will just enhance that incredible feeling of shooting at night. Streets will glisten, the colors will be enhanced, and the reflected light will be gorgeous, while snow will make everything feel more magical.
But talk about tough working conditions. Adding the constraints of night photography with the constraints of tough weather and it takes a lot of practice to get good. You will screw up so many photographs, but when you get a great one, it will be amazing and worth the wait.