Street Photography – After Dark

There are a few similarities between street photography after dark and landscape photography after dark, but there are some stark differences too.  For instance, you won’t find many street photographers toting around a tripod as they work their way up and down bustling streets in the city.  Alternatively, you’re not likely to find many landscape photographers with an ISO above one or two hundred (because they will be toting that tripod around and be able to use longer exposures without worrying about camera shake).

0714_untitled_031Street photography at night is made possible by the letters because most cities are full of lights.  In fact, night street photography is when you’ll find some of the most interesting characters.

Shooting after the sun goes down, without a tripod, presents some interesting challenges…  First of which, how to take a photograph without it looking blurry from camera shake or dark from under exposure.  Both challenges are overcome by increasing your ISO well above what you may normally shoot with and using a fast lens (a lens capable of f/2 or wider).

Manual, Auto, Or Shutter Priority

If you want to be sure you don’t botch a once in a life time shot then I’d suggest shooting in shutter priority mode, this enables you to set a minimum shutter speed (faster than the numerical value of your focal length).  I love aperture priority and manual mode but shutter priority is the fastest and safest way I’ve found to ensure sharp images in variable lighting situations.

You’ll likely find me shooting with shutter priority in the middle of the afternoon if I’m in the city, the buildings cast strong shadows and I’ve found times when my shutter speed would dip below what’s needed for a sharp image in the varying light.  Shutter priority mode eliminates the chance that you’ll miss a great shot due to walking into the shadow of a tall building.


Having a fast lens and shooting in shutter priority mode all but eliminate the challenges of capturing a sharp photograph after the sun has gone down.  All of the images in this article were shot with the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens with shutter priority set to 1/125 or faster.



The same compositional elements work for street photography, specifically street photography at night, that work for most other types of photography.  Leading lines, reflections, framing, and the rule of thirds are all powerful tools you can use to create dynamic photography.  Street photography at night adds a couple additional elements that help create interesting photographs.


You can achieve beautiful bokeh in just about any lighting, especially if you’ve got a lens with a wide aperture like f/1.8.  At night, in the city, your backgrounds will have lovely bokeh made up of various color lights from buildings, cars, and signal lights (to name a few) that will enhance your photographs.


Take Advantage Of Street Lights

One of the great advantage of shooting in the city after dark is the abundance of street lights.  You can position yourself around subjects so a nearby light works with your photograph rather than against it.  For the photograph below I wanted to use the light on the side of the building as a sort of back light, almost like the sun would have looked.  The result was exactly what I was looking for (that rarely happens).


Taking advantage of street lights could be as simple as finding a section of the sidewalk where the lighting looks really cool on people as they walk past and then simply waiting for an interesting character to pass by.

Why No Tripod?

This is one of those rare times you’ll hear me tell you to leave the tripod at home.  Could you take one?  Sure, if your idea of good street photography involves capturing people with a scowl on their face or the look of “that guy/girl with a tripod looks like an idiot”…  Great street photography captures people in their element, without reaction to the camera.  Besides, most people don’t take tripods with them half the time they should… Why start now?

If you’re worried you’ll miss an opportunity to take a long exposure shot along the river or at an intersection, you could invest in the GorillaPod Focus and drop it in your camera bag (it’s light, works great, and small enough to stow in a bag not specifically built to carry a tripod).

You may have noticed some of the photographs in this article are in my recent review of the Nikon 85mm f/1.8G and wondered “why is he reusing the same images?”… Good question!  In 99.9% of the articles I write (100% of the articles guest writers write they use their own photography) I use my own photography.  I take a lot of photographs but I’m not superhuman, sometimes I write faster than I click the shutter.  I knew you’d understand.

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3 replies on “Street Photography – After Dark”
  1. says: Harvey Fish

    A very interesting article as I love night street photography. My camera is a Nikon D5100 and the lense I usually use is a Nikon 50mm f1.8 what ISO range would you usually set.

    1. says: John Barbiaux

      Hey Harvey,

      1600 ISO is my go to but it really depends on the amount of ambient lighting and the shutter speed I want to obtain (I use shutter priority when moving around the city (day or night) bc of the huge degree of variation of light from place to place. A lot of the decision about ISO is preference too, how grainy are your images at ISO 3200? Is that acceptable to you? I don’t mind shooting at ISO 6400 on the Nikon Df but would not do that on my Olympus EM1 because I’m not satisfied with the amount of detail lost (it’s a very subjective analysis).

      Without getting technical, a wider lens at the same aperture (f/1.8, same as what I was shooting with the 85mm) should let more light in so if I were you I’d start at ISO 800 and try to keep the shutter speed at 1/125 or faster. Hope that helps, thanks for reading!

  2. says: Harvey Fish

    As I love night street photography I really enjoyed this excellent blog. Just one thing I would like to know is the ISO range you would recommend. I have a Nikon D5100 and usually use the Nikon 50mm f1.8.

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