Night Photography: Nighttime Portraits With Scenic Backgrounds

Brief Directions

Sometimes, capturing the background of a nighttime portrait as just as important as capturing the subject itself.


Sometimes, capturing the background of a nighttime portrait as just as important as capturing the subject itself. Long ago, in a distant place, a camera designer made the decision to set the shutter speed to 1/60 of a second when the flash is activated. I don't know exactly when this happened, but that's the way it's been ever since I can remember. The problem with 1/60 of a second is that it often creates night flash shots with muddy o nonexistent backgrounds. To prove my point, find a vibrant night scene, such as a street composition in New Orleans's French Quarter, turn off your flash, and take a meter reading. I doubt that the shutter speed will be 1/60 of a second. Most likely, you will get a reading of 1/30, 1/15, or slower. Brightly lit night scenes usually require that the shutter stay open longer than in brightly lit daytime scenes. Have you noticed that your daytime fill-flash shots look better than your nighttime flash shots? It all comes down to shutter speed. When it comes to flash photography at night, shutter speed controls the appearance of the background and aperture controls the exposure of the subject within flash range. If the background doesn't look the way you want, change the shutter speed. If the subject within flash range doesn't look right, change the aperture. If you leave your camera in auto-everything mode, it sets the shutter to 1/60 of a second when you turn on the flash. This is a safe shutter speed that provides acceptable images in a variety of lighting situations, both daytime and nighttime. But if you're in New Orleans having the time of your life, acceptable isn't going to cut it. Here's what you have to do: slow down the shutter speed when the flash is on. Almost every camera gives you some way to do this. Here's what to look for: Nighttime Flash mode Cycle through your flash settings and look for the icon of a subject with a star overhead. If you have this icon, kiss your camera and the person who bought it for you. Under this setting, the camera will read the background, choose the right shutter speed, and add enough flash for the subject. When it works right, both the background and subject are nicely exposed. Shutter Priority mode Typically, this setting is reserved for more advanced cameras. Often, Shutter Priority mode is indicated by an S. Other times, it's indicated by TV, for Time Value. Either way, you get to set the shutter speed, and the camera then automatically adjusts the aperture and adds the right amount of flash. Long Shutter mode If your camera doesn't have Shutter Priority mode, it might have an abbreviated version called Long Shutter. This mode allows the user to slow down the shutter speed for situations such as night photography. The camera will do its best to add the right amount of flash and set the correct aperture. Manual mode You'll see this setting more often on advanced cameras. Manual mode enables you to set both the shutter speed and the aperture. The camera adds the right amount of flash. Source: O’Reiley | Portfolio Website for Photographers

Date Added
March 15, 2011
Date Taken
March 15, 2011

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