How to Photograph Gorgeous Night Portraits

low-light portrait photography tips
Night Portrait - Jim Harmer

I spend a significant amount of time just enjoying beautiful photography.  I look at great photos on flickr, on the websites of other photographers, and I always look at the websites of people who comment on the blog and include a link to their site.  In seeing all these photos, I am frequently surprised at how many photographers miss out on the opportunity to shoot night portraits.  Perhaps it is because you (1) aren't sure how to take a night portrait, or (2) haven't thought of it before.  Either way, let's learn…

The key to a good night portrait isn't the foreground at all, it's the background.  If the background is simply the darkness of light, the photo will look dull.  In the photo featured on this page, I took this couple to a downtown area where I knew there were lots of beautiful lights to use as a background.  To create a large light burst from each of the little lights in the background, I used a low aperture of f/2.8 and zoomed in to 200mm.

After finding a killer background, you'll need to use flash to light the foreground.  In this photo, I used a cheap $80 flash, a $10 shoot-through umbrella, and a $20 flash trigger.  The light was placed 5 feet to the left of the couple and I had the couple look into the light for a dramatic effect.

This is just one example of how you can take beautiful portraits at night.  Like this example, the set-up doesn't need to be elaborate and the lighting gear need not be expensive.  In fact, if I had brought expensive octaboxes, monlights, battery packs, and assistants on this shoot… it would have turned out almost identical to this shot which was done with the cheap gear that I had in my trunk at the time.

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6 thoughts on “How to Photograph Gorgeous Night Portraits”

  1. Another key to good night portraits, in my opinion, is setting your light meter properly. I find that setting my Camera to spot metering, and placing the meter on the peoples faces gives me much better photos than metering the entire frame.

  2. I took delivery of a YN560 flash earlier this week (1 month shipping, awesome.). Pretty happy with it so far, and have noticed you rate it quite highly on this website! So cool 🙂
    I’m just learning about using flashes properly!

  3. That is the problem with night photos, I am not keen on the artificial look of flash, especially unnatural cast shadows. I always Love how someone looks in very limited available light in evening or night situations, only to not be able to ever capture what I see unless with a tripod or a flash. Since it isn’t a photo shoot situation ever for me, it is impossible to capture what i see though I love what I see, in many night condition portrait possibilities I run into with friends, acquaintances and family..

  4. RoseysExposures

    Simple is simply beautiful. I have been using an 1/4 orange filter behind the folddown defuser on a Canon 580EX and it makes the color and shadows blend beautifully

  5. Keith R. Starkey

    Of course, having a lens that is really good in low light helps, too, especially if flash is a problem and your camera isn’t on the better end for ISO use. My D3200 doesn’t do well as I would like above 400 ISO. But with my 35mm 1.8, I can really get into some low-light settings, like shots of pool halls or bars with neon lights.

    Still haven’t gotten a flash unit, though, so I’m glad to hear there are some models out there that don’t require surgery of my other arm…my only arm left…and then there’s part of my leg that had to go for some that lens I wanted. Sheesh!

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