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How to Shoot a Portrait at Night

Learn how to shoot a portrait at night from professional photographer Joe Sinnott in this Howcast photography tutorial.


Hi, I'm Joe. I teach photography at the Visual School of Photography in New York. We're going to talk about shooting portraits at night.

The way I usually do this is to use a flash and whatever the ambient light is, whatever is there when you show up. The street lights, whatever they happen to be. And I use a technique called driving the shutter or slow sync.

And the idea is for your flash to be your main light, your brightest light, and that's what exposes your subject, and then the ambient light, whatever happens to be there when you show up, that's going to be your fill light.

And you're going to drag the shutter. You're going to use a long shutter speed so that those background lights have a chance to fill in your background and prevent it from being black which is what usually happens when you use a flash.

So what you do. You set whatever F-stop you want to shoot at, 4 or 5.6, something that's appropriate to a portrait, and you set up your flash to deliver a correct exposure for that F-stop. Different cameras are going to do that different ways. But if you're using the pop-up flash on your camera, pretty much all you have to do is set your F-stop.

Use the camera in manual mode so you can control your F-stop and your shutter speed and set them yourself.

And while you're looking through the view finder, you're going to start dropping your shutter speed. You're going to start adjusting your shutter speed while you're watching the light speed indicator in your view finder. And you're going to drop that shutter speed until it gets down to about -1. -1 is what you want it to be. You don't want your ambient light to be giving you the same amount of light as your flash where you're going to get an overexposure.

If you're doing it at night, you're using street lights or something, you're probably going to wind up at a pretty long shutter speed. It could be 1/15, 1/8, or 1/4 or even a full second long.

And normally a shutter speed like that isn't one what you'd be able to hand-hold your camera at. Just the motion of your hands and your heartbeat and your breathing would be enough to create a lot of blur.

But fortunately the flash is going to solve part of that problem for you. The flash duration is so fast, and it winks on and off so quickly, that it's going to freeze your subject and if there's any motion blur, most of that motion blur is going to be in the background of that picture which is still better than a black background.

You're going to shoot a couple of frames and check the back of your camera and make sure that you've got a good balance and that your subject looks right and that your background is filling in nicely. And then once you do that, just keep shooting and shooting and shooting. Give your flash enough time to recycle between frames.

And that is a very, very simple way to shoot portraits at night.

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