Light Fantastic

Exploring the world at night with your camera opens up many fun opportunities to play with exposure. Chasing light outside is an excellent way to learn more about your camera settings while creating artistic images. Long exposures, bokeh effects and painting with light are just a few ways to get creative, learn some new techniques and reinvent how you see your nighttime world.

If I let the world guide me, I find it leads my eyes to different photographic styles and new-to-me techniques, often inspired by season. I’m intrigued with nighttime photography during the season change that brings short days and long nights. Working within the boundaries provided, the lack of light encourages me to play with whatever light I find. There’s a taste of exhilaration that comes from being out in the world while most people are asleep.

Through the process of trying something new every week or weekend, I learn more about photography in bits and pieces that are easy for me to digest and process. I don’t have the desire to compete with those more technically savvy than me. I let curiosity be my guide. I’ve given myself the permission not to know everything, and not to have the superhuman ability to learn it all at once, either. With that permission slip in hand, I’ve given myself the freedom to open up to new experiences and explore art through trial and error. Learning just for the sake of learning. Creating just for the sake of creating. When you stretch your art, you stretch your mind.

This nighttime curiosity first led me to explore painting with light, because I could practice in the backyard while my son was asleep inside. This certainly isn’t the first time painting with light has ever been done, but that’s not what mattered to me. A 30-second exposure, low ISO and fun with invisible penmanship performed with a flashlight were the things that interested me. There’s a sense of freedom that comes after dark. My interest in nighttime photography grew from this love of nighttime play.

So, pay attention to your curiosities. For me, it’s catching the energy of the night. Counting breaths, counting seconds, counting minutes. It’s through this new curiosity that I learned the Zen of exposure at night. It’s cold, but not too cold, so I take my time and think about the view from the top of the trail, count cars across the bridge, listen to the sounds of the city or experiment with light painting. The shutter releases and I feel giddy, like a kid again. Two hours of walking around the city at night makes me feel strangely alive. Slinging my camera and my tripod, I set out with no destination in mind. I keep walking, knowing at some point I’ll find exactly what I had come looking for: Light.


Light trails from busy car headlights create an eye-catching result. Shooting light trails is a great way to experiment with different camera settings, and you’ll end up learning a lot more about your camera through the process. Shooting in full manual mode or shutter priority is mandatory; a digital camera will allow you to see instant results and provide feedback for composition. A tripod is also mandatory, as you want your camera to be as still as possible. Using a cable release or wireless remote will aid in this stillness, as well, so the camera isn’t touched at the time the shutter opens or closes. Any slight wobble will affect the final image.

1. Find a spot to set up where you’ll see busy cars.

2. Curves in the road are especially nice for creative composition.

3. Aperture and shutter speed differ for every location, depending on the amount of cars/light coming into the shot. Allow yourself time to experiment!

4. Start with a mid-range aperture of ƒ/8, and shooting at a shutter speed of about 10 to 20 seconds allows cars to move through your frame.

5. View your image and make adjustments as necessary, based on whether your shots are under- or overexposed.

6. If your shots are overexposed, stop down your aperture (increase the ƒ-stop number; if your shot is underexposed, open up your aperture (decrease the ƒ-stop number).

7. Try a different perspective. For a different take, get down low or shoot from above; this change in perspective adds to the creativity of your shot.

8. Rather than setting up a stationary camera on a tripod, create light trails from moving your camera. This seems to break all the rules! I used the sunroof of a car to steady my camera, which caught light trails from the road while a friend was driving. This method creates a dizzying (sometimes electric) feeling of movement through the night.


• Remember that your aperture affects depth of field, too.

• I typically shoot with manual focus; especially at night, I’ve found that autofocus hunts for correct focus. Once you find your sweet spot, leave it and leave the camera undisturbed.

• Many cameras have a “Bulb” mode that allows you to leave the shutter open as long as you want. Using this setting gives you more control over well-placed headlights or taillights.

• If you use the “Bulb” setting, you must use a remote to stop all camera movement while the shutter is open.

• In my night shots of the city, streetlights appear like “stars,” which is an effect I rather like.

• Stopping down the aperture (ƒ/22) creates starbursts, if you prefer this look, as well.


You don’t need much to experiment with this type of photography. A creative mind and a simple flashlight will suffice (and good penmanship certainly helps if you’re writing love notes). You’ll need a camera capable of doing long exposures (I use the “Bulb” setting on a digital camera, which allows me ample time to “paint”) and a tripod to keep your camera still. With a flashlight in hand and a dark environment, you’re on your way.

1. Decide what type of image you’d like to create. Painting light onto a subject will make it “pop” in the dark (illuminating a parked car on a dark street), or using your flashlight to graffiti the night (scribbles on a fence, swirls and decorations to a willing and standing-still subject) will result in some fun shots.

2. Begin by taking a shot to make sure the composition is how you like it. To send my love note, I stood facing the camera so my light was shining toward the camera lens and then practiced writing backward (or forward and do a simple flip of the image in postprocessing).

3. If you’re painting onto an object in your scene, use the flashlight or multiple lights to scribble light on objects such as houses, cars or people.

4. Be sure to click the flashlight off at the end of the word (or “painted” object); this allows the light to stay where you intended it.

5. View the image and make any necessary adjustments, and try again.

6. Take more than one image!


• The strength of your flashlight affects the final photograph. Can it be dimmed? Does the flashlight have a hot spot?

• Keep in mind that long exposures create noise in your image; adjust your settings accordingly.

• Remember, it’s okay to walk into your scene; your camera will only record light, so if you wear dark clothing and stay out of direct light, you’ll remain invisible.

• All typical night photography techniques apply: mirror lock-up, long-exposure noise reduction and a cable release or wireless remote.


In photography, bokeh means “blur” or “haze” (pronounced “boh-kay,” from the Japanese boke or boke-aji). Bokeh has been defined as “the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light.” It’s a beautiful way to create a sense of magic in your images. This intentional blur of light can be especially mesmerizing at night. Differences in lens and aperture shape cause some lens designs to blur the image in very different and pleasing ways. Use the dark of night to your advantage, and make your bokeh really pop by seeking out strong contrasts.

1. Composition is key when creating nighttime bokeh images.

2. A tripod and cable release or wireless remote help minimize shake.

3. Use your imagination to place light around your subject in a way that complements your composition.

4. Try filling your entire frame with light to create abstract images.

5. Shooting with a fast lens is best for creating beautiful bokeh.

6. A prime lens such as a 50mm ƒ/1.4 or ƒ/1.8 or ƒ/2.8 is preferred.

7. If you only have your kit lens (18-55mm), go ahead and zoom your lens all the way and shoot at ƒ/5.6. Putting distance between your subject and the background helps create bokeh with a kit lens. Adding bokeh to the background of your subject gives an artistic effect to any portrait.


• Streets are the best locations to catch bokeh, because there’s a variety of light and color of light found in headlights, stoplights and store signs. For this reason, colored Christmas lights are fun!

• Remember that the larger the ƒ-number, the larger the aperture, the larger the bokeh. This is why fast lenses are a bit more fun.

• Shooting bokeh alone in the frame can create intrigue and magic without a subject in the frame at all, resulting in wonderfully abstract images.

Meredith Winn is a writer, photographer and Associate Editor of Taproot Magazine. She’s a contributor to Shutter Sisters, featured in our Point of Focus column. You can see more of her photography at

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