How to Shoot Amazing Night Photos And Retouch Them in Adobe Lightroom

Have you ever wondered how do some people get those amazing night time photos which are full of color, amazing streaks, beautiful flares and amazing detail? In this article I'll show you how.

The night time is the right time! Greetings everyone and Buenos noches for everyone who speaks Spanish (and that means good night for those of you who don’t). Recently I was invited to go take some photos down in the land of sweet margaritas and beautiful senoritas where the #1 rule is drink the tequila, not the water. Yes, that’s right, I am talking about Mexico City!

So in this article I’m going to share my tricks for taking great night shots that make people go WOW! That make women swoon and politicians dance. Ok, well at least make people go WOW! Yes, with an exclamation point. Moving on.

If you want the RAW files for this tutorial and all my other free presets and goodies, just subscribe to my newsletter here. You can also follow along on my video tutorial for this lesson here

A lot of monuments are well lit for night time viewing and shooting them during the night can give you a different look than when most people are taking photographs during day hours.

SERGE PHOTOGRAPHY TIP: This isn’t necessarily uniquely related to how to do night photography but more on photography in general. When you are going to do photographs of a national monument, search online to see what the most common photography clichés are for these monuments and then take some time to ask yourself these questions:

A. How can I take a photo of this monument that presents it in a new and interesting way?

B. How can I take a photo that stands out from the hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of other photos out there?

C. How can I take a photo that is distinctly “my style?”

You’ll find yourself imagining new and unusual angles, different times of day and thinking like a professional photographer which is what my hope for you is: that you take professional photos you are proud of and which you can share and sell.

All that being said, let’s get to it! Here is the photo that I took of the Palacio De Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) in downtown Mexico City. I went high up in a nearby skyscraper and pointed the camera down so that I would have the city lights and the building in my frame but no pitch-black sky:

Photo Technique Note: Shoot night shots at f16. Why you ask? Well since you asked so nicely here’s why, shooting at f16 gives the points of light a starburst similar to how it appears when shot with a star filter and this looks much nicer than just a blob of light.

Photo Technique Note. For long night time exposures, shoot with a tripod at the lowest ISO possible. I set my ISO as low as possible when I am doing very long exposures so with this camera it was at ISO 100. I had a tripod as well because even the subtlest of handheld movement will blur your photos, especially at 13 seconds of exposure. With 13 seconds of exposure you will get very nice cars trails, which can look amazing when done right. You might have to play with your exposure time to get the exact look you want, but once you do, women will swoon and politicians will dance. To all you female readers hold onto something before you look at the photo. (Of course I’m not exaggerating!)

Okay we’ve got a good photo! So let’s head over to Adobe Lightroom and let me show you how to retouch it to add the wow factor!

Step 1. I open up the shadows and bring down the highlights. For anyone who has been watching or reading my tutorials for some time now, you know I almost always do this as part of really getting the most out of my images. But it also makes the image look quite “HDR’y.” You can get a more complete statement on why I do this in almost all my photographs by reading this how to article here.

Step 2. Open up the whites. Next what I do is really push my whites by holding down the alt key while I move the cursor to the right until I have a small amount of white points appearing on the screen.

Step 3. Open up the blacks. Now I do the same thing with the blacks. I press the alt key and move the cursor to the left just until some of the white starts to have other colors show up because my photo is already very dark.

You can get a more complete statement on why I do this with my whites and blacks in all my photographs by reading this how to article here.

Step 4. Set White Balance. One of the great things about RAW is the ability to manipulate White Balance in post because sometimes a different white balance might actually give you a better look than what you shot it at especially when you are in heavily mixed lighting scenarios, (like a disco!), or not. For the white balance I tried several different ones but I settled with Fluorescent which gives a little bit of a blue effect as you can see here.

Step 5. Adding Magenta and Boosting Exposure.

Anyone who knows me, knows I love my magenta. Why? I could give you a lot of different explanations, some involving tequila, but in the end I just like it what it does to the photo a lot of the time. Experiment on your own, with magenta, not tequila. Once I’ve added a little magenta I go ahead and boost the exposure to help the night lights really pop.

Step 6. Add Clarity and Vibrance.

Now if there is one setting in Lightroom that is often abused, it is clarity. I mean some people pour clarity on photos like they were putting sunscreen on a supermodel at the beach. At a certain point, you’re gonna get slapped. That being said, for this shot I’m going to add a fair amount of clarity and A LOT of vibrance to help really bring out all the colors. I add clarity and vibrance which works very well on night shots.

Step 7. Play with Camera Calibration Settings. In the Lightroom Camera Calibration tab, open up the drop down menu and choose Adobe landscape. While you are here, experiment with different profiles to see how it affects the photo.

Step 8. Experiment with Profile Correction. Go down into the Lightroom “Lens Correction” tab and select Enable Profile Correction and select the remove chromatic aberration setting. (Now if you are sitting there and scratching your head going “Chromatic what???” then you are in the right place because I am now going to go into a ten page scientific explanation to ensure you really understand this. But actually no. Chromatic Aberration is simply a problem caused by a failure of the lens to focus all the colors at the same exact point and you end up getting a sort of fringe of magenta or purple.)

Step 9. Pump up the contrast. Pump it up, pump pump pump it up. If you’re under 30, you probably didn’t get that. It was a song from the 80s where…never mind. So go ahead and add some contrast to make it pop more.


Step 10. Add Sharpening.

For the sharpening I put the amount to 91, the noise to 10 and the masking to 52. The masking just ensures the black areas don’t get sharpening applied to it or in other words, only areas which have details are sharpened.

Let's see where we are at now. Here was the initial photo:

And this is where we are:

So now you’re thinking to yourself, Serge save me! I took a bunch of photos at the same time, do I have to retouch them all step by step like this? Serge and Adobe Lightroom to the rescue!!!

Step 11. Apply these settings to any other photos shot at the same time. I took another shot of the monument and I want to retouch it the same way. I can do this in pressing command C and then selecting the photo which had the same settings, just a different composition.

Here is the before photo:

And now I command V and VOILA!!!! Instant tequila. Here you can see the after photo with all the retouching settings that we have done on the other photo. We’ll need to do a little tweaking but it’s done a lot of the work for us.

Step 12. Warp the walking gardens bigger to balance the composition.To finish the retouch on the first photo, I am going to go into Photoshop because I want to make the garden on the photo look bigger. So after I’ve opened it, First I press Command J to create the photo on its own layer. Then I right click on the photo and select warp.

And what I am trying to do here is make the square of the park bigger to accentuate it and improve the composition. So I just tweak this around, not too much or it will really look like someone had too much tequila.

So this is before the warp has been applied.

And this is after the warp retouching:

There you have it. From the land of sweet margaritas and beautiful senoritas, a night time monument shot that has really been retouched to take advantage of the power of RAW photography.

I hope that you enjoyed this tutorial and learned how to do something new in Adobe Lightroom with this article to make your night time photos amazing! If you liked it please share it and remember to subscribe to the newsletter to get all the updates, goodies and new tutorials as they come along.

Thank you for your support as always and au revoir!

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