Seeing your way in the dark: tips for lights for night photography

by Jul 7, 2024Photography

Calling To The Light

Lights of almost all kinds can be very intrusive on night photography adventures. Here is my advice on what to use and how to not ruin night photos.

At night, people want to turn on lights. It’s natural in today’s modern, brightly illuminated world. Yet, if you are out for night photography – especially with others – lights can be very intrusive and detrimental if not used correctly.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been blinded by somebody wearing a headlamp. And don’t ask about the number of photos I’ve taken with glaring streaks of annoying light from some oblivious person walking around. Then, there are the images I’ve carefully aligned, only to find a red glow afterward because somebody thought red was good and couldn’t be seen.

Punta Nati Headlamps

Not photographers, but passers-by at a lighthouse in Menorca after sunset wearing wide, bright headlamps.

And the more you turn on bright lights, red lights, or any light at all, the less your eyes will adapt so you can see and not need light in the dark of night. And the less you will truly enjoy the darkness.

Sometimes, even leaders of travel photography groups don’t spend the time they should explaining light etiquette when out for night photography. Sure, I’ve heard some say, no worries, you can always get rid of errant lights in post-processing. But if you can avoid it, why make more work for yourself? When you are learning night photography, it’s not necessarily obvious what kind of light you should use, so let’s take a look at some smart etiquette for using personal lights for night photography:

Forget headlamps.

There is only one use for headlamps (on low) for night photography – when moving to or from a location that might entail some rough terrain—safety first, of course. Moving to a location in the dark also means your eyes are likely not fully adjusted to the dark, so you will need some light to find sure footing. After that, headlamps and even red lights are bad news. Every time you turn your head or look up, the light blares around errantly, marring a scene for others, blinding somebody next to you, or ruining the night vision adaptation somebody else has carefully groomed for themselves. And as much as you think you won’t do that, you will.

Bad Red Light Menorca Night Photography

In Menorca, Spain, a photographer wearing a headlamp looked up at the subject, only to completely blow it out. Notice also the red light seeping into the photo on the bottom left — from another who thought red was good.

Once at a location, remove the headlamp and stash it away – unless you can put it on very low and hold it in your hand to maneuver settings or find things in a bag. And about that red (or green or blue) setting? Read on…

Dump the red light. Or any other color for that matter.

Although it is true to some degree that a red light doesn’t dilate your pupils as much as pure white and thus won’t totally destroy night vision, red remains a pervasive, very intrusive light. I have done photo setups and only afterward found red glows on the base of a lighthouse or in a scene from somebody else’s light. Or even from a seemingly faraway Wi-Fi or electric tower!

Kyiv Underground Red Lights

In the Kyiv underground a few years ago, headlamps were required due to the deep water and carrying gear. Notice how the light reflects everywhere. Photo by Anton Lebedev.

Even a red blinking light from an autofocus function or on a remote can intrude into a photo, so turn off the focus assist function in your camera or put black gaffers tape over the light. (I learned only recently that although I turned off that function, the red blinking light on the timer mode cannot be turned off on my Sony mirrorless, so black tape is a must). Although colored lights are espoused by some, beware: All colors affect your depth perception, so using them on rough or unfamiliar terrain can be more dangerous.

Red Camera Lights Alabama Hills

Two photographers at Alabama Hills weren’t disturbing anybody, but notice the red lights on the tripods? That is a pretty tiny light on a remote intervalometer — and it can feel pretty bright if you are near or around it.

Use handheld flashlights at the lowest brightness you can handle.

Even as a night runner prior to my night photography passion, I preferred handheld flashlights. I could direct the light where I needed it. The same applies to using personal lights to see during night photography. When it’s on your head, it shines where you look in a mostly narrower field. A handheld light can be directed precisely where you need it – e.g., finding a new battery in your bag or a small setting button on your camera. I have a small battalion of flashlights I use at different times and for different purposes: A small, very low power one stays in my pocket so I can use it intermittently after my eyes have adjusted to the dark. I also have a small, slightly brighter one I might use if I’m in a very rough situation or under a new moon.

Flashlights Coast Lights Night Photography

My collection of flashlights (actually, a couple are missing!). The bottom one is pretty bright, and I pretty much never use it. The tiny one second from right is my go-to for seeing things (see below). The others all have their own purposes when light painting.

No light is best.

Don’t be afraid of the dark! Most people today go into auto mode when it’s dark and turn on lights. Unless you have very poor vision, poor balance, or other ailments that limit your mobility or vision, try letting your eyes adjust to the dark and going sans light. Really, it’s pretty remarkable what our bodies can adjust to! Officially, it takes close to 45 minutes for your eyes to adapt to darkness fully, but after about 15 minutes or so you’ll be able to see pretty well. Let that progression happen so you can go light-less in the dark for night photography. And enjoy the dark as it is meant to be!

Light Streaks Bodie Lighthouse

I was photographing the Bodie lighthouse in the Outer Banks when a group of photographers showed up, blaring lights everywhere.

Be considerate of night photography companions.

When you are with a group, realize that any light you turn on may affect others and their compositions. Some time ago, after I had turned off the autofocus light, I didn’t realize the light was still blinking in timer mode! What??!! I looked everywhere and then emailed with brand support – only to find that the red blinkie light canNOT be turned off in that mode. The timer light allows you or your subject to know when the photo is about to be taken or has been taken when on the other side of the lens. Camera designers didn’t seem to realize that a timer is also used to take a photo of a static scene if you are not using a remote. Black tape to the rescue! Put a slice over the obnoxious light, and you are good to go.

Intervalometer Lights Night Photography

Here is a closeup of the remotes in the photo above. Note the black gaffers tape over the light on the one on the left. Note, also, how tiny that light really is on the one on the right.

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Talk to your companions if you want to turn on a light.

If you need to put a light on a subject to perhaps focus, or you need to move to a different place and want to turn on a light to see (by now, I hope not, but …), ask them if it’s ok. And if lights are a must, keep them very dim so as not to ruin their night vision, use the light as quickly as possible, and you don’t want to be close to others.

Red Blue Green Lights Acadia

Here on a shoot in Acadia National Park, I was with a group at Jordan Pond, and everybody spread out around the lake. A couple of them thought green or blue lights were good. See all those spots of red, white, green and blue lights on the right? yup, photographers with lights.

Use a closed hand cupped around the head of a flashlight to shield the light and minimize its spread or glow.

If you cup your hand around the end of a flashlight so your palm is, in effect, “extending” the flashlight, much like a lens hood, that will keep it from spilling everywhere. So, if you need to check something on the back of your camera, you can direct a very dim light right where you need it. It’s the same with searching for something in your camera bag – the light is directed with precision. And you can use your hand to even further dim a light.

Red Tower Light Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Here, at Cape Hatteras in the Outer Banks, a photographer is looking for things in a bag. Note how far the light spreads. And the red on the tower? That came from blinking red lights from a transmission tower very far away.

DIY dimming for your light.

I still use a flashlight that I was given at my first night photography workshop many years ago. The leaders had us screw off the end, pull out the lightbulb and reflector, and stuff in a small piece of, yes, TP or Kleenex, then screw it all back together. Later, I added a small piece of warmer gel to tone down the whiteness, too. That light has stayed with me and is my best companion – it’s so small it gets tucked into my travel photography light bag. With it, I don’t disturb others when taking photos at night. Granted, some modern flashlights can’t be dismantled this way, but one could always jury-rig something over the end.

Flashlights Coast Dim Light Night Photography

This is my tiny light shown dismantled with TP and gel over the bulb.

Next time you head out into the darkness to shoot some night or astro photos, consider your lighting needs. Then, challenge yourself to push the envelope of your perceived comfort level outdoors at night.

And if I’m with you, and you shine a light in my face or photo, I’ll beg forgiveness now for getting a little worked up.

See Therese Iknoian’s photos here — just enjoy, or purchase for yourself or as gifts.

Cover photo by Cindy Radich

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