How to shoot video at night

How to make the most of available light to capture memories after dark.
A photographer films two people in winter clothing, huddled together as they toast marshmallows on an open fire. The scene is lit solely by the fire and a string of fairy lights in the background.

Once you know how to operate a camera, the most important lesson to learn in both photography and videography is how to work with light. At night, light sources are limited, but there are still many moments you'll want to record, from celebratory cheer to deep conversations around a campfire. Video is particularly good at capturing the little special moments – the way people move, talk and laugh that can't be caught in a photograph – but it can be difficult to know how to approach filming when there's not much light around.

Using a higher ISO will increase your camera's sensitivity to light, and selecting a wider aperture and slower shutter speed can increase the amount of light that hits the sensor, but without understanding how to control these settings in relation to your environment, you are likely to end up with grainy or blurry footage. With a little bit of knowledge, though, you can overcome these obstacles and achieve finished videos to cherish for years, as well as progressing your filmmaking skills.

Here, Ellis Reed, a content creator and photographer/videographer based in Bath, UK, shares his top tips for shooting video at night.

Control your settings

A pair of hands can be seen adjusting the ISO settings on a Canon camera. The surrounding background is completely dark indicating that it is night.

When shooting video at night, Manual mode will give you the best results. Familiarise yourself with your camera's settings before heading out to shoot, and experiment with ISO, shutter speed and aperture to achieve the look you want.

When selecting camera settings for night-time shooting, you can use your Canon camera's Scene Intelligent Auto Mode to apply the settings it thinks will work best. However, using Manual mode will give you more control.

If you're shooting on a Canon EOS R System camera such as the EOS R6 Mark II, the electronic viewfinder will show you the impact that changing each setting has on exposure in real time, which will help build your confidence when switching to Manual.

It can be helpful to change focus mode to Manual too. The Dual Pixel CMOS AF II system in the EOS R6 Mark II and other cameras such as the Canon EOS R7 and Canon EOS R8 is very good at detecting subjects in low light, but if you're working in almost total darkness, you may need to focus manually. Use a torch to illuminate the subject you're trying to focus on, and zoom in on your viewfinder while you adjust the focus ring on your lens until it appears sharp. This method is also very useful for astrophotography, when you're relying on almost total darkness but want to focus on something in the foreground while still capturing the sky.

Choose a wide aperture

When filming in low-light conditions, it's important to let as much light hit the sensor as possible. One way to achieve this is to open your aperture as wide as it will go, which means setting your f-stop to the lowest possible f-number value. While a zoom lens might be a good, versatile option for shooting well-lit scenes during the day, it can be worth switching to a prime lens such as the Canon RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM or Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM to benefit from a wider aperture.

Select frame rate and shutter speed

A pair of hands hold a Canon EOS R6 Mark II, with the vari-angle touchscreen folded out and to the side, showing an image of a wooden cabin in a forest.

Choosing a shutter speed of double your frame rate helps give a natural, aesthetically pleasing amount of motion blur in your video.

First, choose your frame rate. 24 frames per second (fps) is the movie industry standard, because it creates the most natural-looking footage with just a touch of motion blur. Higher frame rates, such as 60fps and 120fps, are used for slow-motion filming that is deliberately intended to look unnatural.

The Canon EOS R6 Mark II enables you to shoot 4K footage at up to 60fps and 1080p footage at up to 180fps, which allows you to slow things down even further.

Once you've chosen your frame rate, simply double the number to select your shutter speed. For example, shooting at 25fps would mean selecting a shutter speed of 1/50 sec to prevent motion blur. This is considered best practice, but there are times when you might want to adjust this, as Ellis explains. "If you want to intentionally add motion blur, for example if you're walking through a fairground at night and want to create a hectic, busy feel with light trails, then slowing the shutter speed down to less than double your frame rate will help you achieve this."

A wide-angle lens such as the Canon RF 16mm F2.8 STM will allow you to capture as much of the environment as possible, adding to the fast-paced feel. This lightweight, super-compact prime is also ideal for handheld vlogging, but as it doesn't feature in-lens image stabilisation, make sure you use Movie Digital IS if you're shooting handheld. This feature, available on all Canon EOS R System cameras, stabilises footage electronically within the camera.

Check your ISO

A couple chat while sitting and holding hot drinks, and are being filmed by a man holding a Canon EOS R6 Mark II.

With outstanding ISO performance, the Canon EOS R6 Mark II is very well suited to capturing content in low light, particularly when paired with fast prime lenses such as the Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM or the Canon RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM.

The ISO setting on your camera allows you to control how sensitive it is to light. When shooting outdoors on a sunny day, you might choose ISO 100 to reduce sensitivity as much as possible. When it's cloudy, you might shoot at ISO 400, and when shooting at night you might want to experiment with ISO 800 and above, up to around ISO 3200 (depending on your camera's capabilities). The Canon EOS R6 Mark II allows shooting up to ISO 102,400 (expandable up to ISO 204,800), but the higher you go, the more noise you will introduce into your footage.

Look for the light

A man hangs a string of fairy lights on a large wooden beam.

Look for options to introduce light into your scene in ways that suit the mood of what you're shooting. A string of fairy lights enhances the cosy feel of this campfire scene, while also providing soft background illumination.

"It's nicer to think of darkness as a clean slate rather than a challenge," Ellis says. "Finding ways to use available light, or introduce artificial light, can help to create dramatic, cinematic footage."

When filming at night, don't try to illuminate the whole scene. Rather, look for pools of light that highlight your subject and tell a story. Campfires, shop windows, street lights and car headlights can all be used to create pools of light, helping to separate your subject from the background.

Bringing in artificial light is another option. Like many content creators, Ellis carries a portable LED lightbox around with him. Pocket-sized, but powerful enough to illuminate a subject when shooting close-up, a small lightbox can make a huge difference to the quality of your footage. Just remember, if you're shooting a well-lit subject at night, you should expose for the subject rather than the background.

Set your white balance

A man leans down with a Canon EOS R6 Mark II camera, shooting across the top of a campfire. A couple sitting beside the fire can be seen on the camera touchscreen.

Subjects sitting around a campfire will be illuminated by warm light that intensifies and softens as the flames flicker. Selecting a custom white balance of 6000K or above will enhance the warmth of the fire within your footage.

When introducing artificial light, it's always good to check your white balance for the purposes of consistency. You can set a custom white balance by using a white balance card or a piece of white paper. Take a photo of the card or paper in the scene you're about to shoot, then select Custom White Balance in your camera menu and select this picture as the reference. Your white balance will now be set and the colours in your scene will be accurately captured.

Custom white balances can also help to achieve particular looks. If you want to create a warmer scene, such as when filming a campfire, you might want to select a white balance of around 6000K. If you'd rather highlight the bluer, cooler tones in a scene, select something in the region of 2000K. Remember, if you shoot in RAW or Canon Log, it can be easier to alter white balance in post-processing software.

Shoot at the highest possible resolution

A photographer crouches down to film a young couple in winter clothing as they sit chatting on a wooden deck. The scene is lit by small lamps.

When introducing light into your night-time scenes, you aren't aiming for blanket illumination. Rather, you're looking to use light selectively to highlight your subjects.

"When shooting for social media, I like to shoot at 4K and export to 1080p," explains Ellis, "because it helps with visual noise in low-light footage and makes my details extra sharp."

The Canon EOS R6 Mark II shoots 4K up to 60fps, oversampling from the sensor's 6K output to give even better clarity and further reduced noise compared to native 4K. Simply put, higher resolutions mean more data is stored in each file, which gives sharper images, better colour reproduction and greater flexibility when post-processing. When you're working in low-light conditions, the more data you have in each file, the easier it is to clean up any grain that may be present.

Remember the audio

A man fits a microphone to the Multi-function shoe on top of a Canon EOS R6 Mark II camera.

The Canon Directional stereo microphone DM-E1D attaches to the Multi-function shoe on top of your camera, and draws its power directly from the camera through the shoe – no cables or chargers required.

One feature of video that becomes even more important in the dark is sound, since our sense of hearing feels heightened as our sight is dimmed. Your camera should have a built-in microphone, but to really capture every whispered giggle and campfire crackle, invest in an external microphone such as the Canon Directional stereo microphone DM-E1D, which attaches to the camera's Multi-function shoe.

Experiment with the microphone's different directional modes to pick up different amounts of speech and ambient noise, to capture the atmosphere of the event you're recording. You may also want to record ambient noise separately from the main video recording – for example, in the campfire shoot shown here, you could record the noise of the fire and play this over the establishing distance shots.

Get creative

In otherwise pitch blackness, a single light shows the frame of a photographer crouching down.

Shooting at night offers lots of creative freedom, especially if, like Ellis, you see the darkness as a "clean slate on which to build".

Once you understand how to capture natural-looking footage, you can start to get creative with confidence. Whether you're shooting a night vlog, music video or short film, work with what you have around you. Streetlights are a good place to start. As Ellis says, "Streetlights make good key lights [primary sources of illumination] and backlights, depending on where you position your subject. And you can experiment with harsh bright light by positioning your subject close to the streetlight, or more diffused light by asking them to move slightly further away."

Another tip from Ellis is to use car headlights to backlight your subject and create a dramatic silhouette, which can be even further enhanced by mist or fog that diffuses the light and allows you to separate your subject even further away from the background. Use a short telephoto lens, such as the Canon RF 85mm F2 MACRO IS STM, to crop into your subject and cut the car out completely to add mystery to the scene, or a wide angle lens such as the Canon RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM to include the car as part of the story.

If you're used to shooting videos during the day, it takes only a few adjustments to master shooting video at night. And once you have the basics, you open up a whole new world of creativity.

Matthew Bowen

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