Shooting night portraits

7 min read
Night portrait of a young man in front of a neon sign

How to shoot night portraits

Night-time photography may be a niche you’ve been thinking of exploring, or it could be something you dread. Due to the additional complexity involved in taking photos in low light, photographers of all levels shy away from it.

Nevertheless, what may seem difficult often produces results that are impossible to attain otherwise. In this article, we explore everything you need to know about night-time photography, with a particular focus on portraits at night; and using artificial light and off-camera flashes. With the help of this article, night-time photography will become your new favorite niche.

Photo of a young woman cupping fairy lights in her hands

The right camera settings

Any photographer who shoots at night knows the importance of a slow shutter speed for good low-light performance. You may, however, notice more camera shake and blurry images when you use a slower shutter speed.

The first thing you need is a quality tripod, which will let you slow down your shutter speed. For portraits at night, the thumb rule is to use the following settings - set your ISO to 800 or higher; and open your aperture to f/2.8 or higher. Lastly, using your tripod set your shutter speed to as slow as possible to get a sharp, clear image.

Manual Focus

It's better to use manual focus in dark/low-light situations. It is difficult for even the latest cameras and lenses to focus in low light. Focus manually on your subject's face and place your focus box over their eye for the desired look. Taking time to focus properly here will ensure a sharp photo later.

AV Mode

Make sure your camera is set to manual or AV (Aperture Priority). Professional photographers usually shoot in manual mode for maximum control over their lighting. If you are not comfortable shooting fully manual yet, try the AV mode, which will automatically set the shutter speed and ISO for you.

Photo of a young woman making faces

Shoot in RAW

With night portrait photography, you will probably have to do a bit more editing. Colors may seem off, the focus may seem off, or there may be a touch of camera shake in your image. Shooting in RAW allows you to adjust all of these parameters and more, resulting in images that look more natural.

Long Exposures

Experiment with long-exposure photos at night to create an artistic look. Start by setting up your camera on a tripod and slowing down the shutter speed. After that, ask your subject to move around while staying in the frame.

It’s fun to see what results from this type of shutter speed when taken at night. You can also have your subject stand in front of a city skyline or busy highway. As the cars move or the ambient lighting changes, you will see movement in your capture.

Photo of a man at a subway station

Lighting your subject

To avoid blurry photos, use a fast shutter speed and a strong light source near your subject's face. Make sure you play around with the direction of your light sources until you get the effect you want. It is also important not to place the lights right in front of the subject's eyes to prevent them from squinting.

Off-camera flash

If you want to avoid blurry photos, use an external flash or an off-camera flash. Use a low-flash power setup that connects to your camera's hot shoe and emits just enough light to illuminate your subject. To avoid having to worry about finding an electric outlet outside, choose an off-camera flash that runs on common/rechargeable batteries.

Color temperature

When shooting at night, pay attention to the color temperature. Multi-light sources can cause your subject's face to appear oddly colored and not look very natural. It is better to shoot your subject's portrait using mainly ambient lighting and then correct any color issues in post-production.

Gear to use

Choosing the right gear and lenses for night photography can be a challenge for many photographers. Let's explore some options for gear best suited to night portraits.

Which camera is best

For night-time photos, choose a camera with a higher megapixel count. Consider the crop factor to make sure your lens will work with the camera.

Most cameras nowadays come with a high ISO and megapixel count. Check which flash works best with the camera though. Additionally, check how high you can set the ISO before you see a lot of noise.

Which lenses to use

Night-time portrait photography requires fast lenses. The lower the maximum aperture setting is, the more light will pass through your lens to your camera. This is why we’d highly recommend investing in a fast prime lens for night portrait photography.

You need as much light as possible when taking portraits at night, and a prime lens will give you the best results. Make sure you choose a fast prime lens with an aperture of at least f/2.8.

Photo of a 50mm camera lens

LED panels

LED panels are easy to find today and can add more light to your scene. The wonderful thing about LED panels is that they are lightweight, inexpensive, and easy to carry around.

Taking photos without flash

We believe you do not need to use a flash to take night photos. Locate ambient sources of lighting, such as street lamps, buildings, or even car lights. Using ambient light tends to result in more natural-looking photos.

Post-processing night portraits

Adobe Lightroom is the application we use at Pyx for all of our post-processing needs. You can use Lightroom's editing tools to reduce noise and blur in your photos, and it is very user-friendly.

Spend time adjusting each photo in Lightroom, and save your settings for the next shoot. This will significantly reduce the time taken to get optimal results while processing images.

Background ideas and examples

Here are a few backdrop ideas and examples to get your night-time portraits rolling.


Photo of a silhouette of a man

You can create an eye-catching silhouette by putting a light source behind your subject. Consider using a street lamp for backlighting or bringing your own LED panel or off-camera flash.

Off-camera flash with rain

Photo of a man standing in the rain by the road

If you can, photograph your subject in the rain using an off-camera flash. It will make for stunning portraits.

Street lights

Photo of a young woman standing in front of street lights

Streetlights make beautiful backgrounds, particularly when shot wide-open (to achieve blurry backgrounds/ bokeh). Place your subject in front of a street light while maintaining a wide aperture (f/2.8 or wider). You’ll notice how this extra light provides an interesting shallow depth of field to the background.


Photo of a young woman moving sparklers in front of her face

With Diwali around the corner, you can’t miss out on shooting portraits with your subject moving sparklers around. As the shutter speed slows down, the lighting becomes blurrier, resulting in interesting shots.


Photo of a young girl looking at fireworks

Fireworks make for striking backgrounds during a night-time shoot. Whether it’s Diwali, New Year’s Eve, or a wedding, try having your subject stand in front of the sky as fireworks go off.

Fairy lights

Photo of a Sikh man holding fairy lights in his hands

Fairy lights are an inexpensive and easily available means to add an interesting look to any night-time shoot. To create a surreal scene, have your subject wrap the light around them or hold it in their hands. Try it out today!


I hope you enjoyed this article on the fundamentals of night-time portrait photography. With these easy-to-follow tips and tricks, you should be taking amazing nighttime photos in no time.

If you want to learn more about photography or explore paid opportunities for photoshoots, check out our blog and join our photographer community.

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