When taking a photo at night, you are going to have to make some compromises. You’re also going to have to commit to some real gear. Your iPhone won’t really cut it in most cases here, but if you can figure that one out then more power to ya. If you nail it, you will have a dramatic action shot of a crisp well defined scene and rider.

Light Source

For this segment were are going to assume two things: one, you have a DSLR; and two, you have a light source. The light can come from anything really but most effective are obviously flashes. Strobes, speedlights and built in flashes will all have a variety of performance and cost. Making sure your flash is synced up with your camera is important. Also when testing the flash you can take the chance to dial in your focus as that is hard to do at night as well.

Rider: Will Mayo. Photo: Alex Cole. In this photo Alex mixes light from the wall, light from shop lights and a flash. All this happening on 4 different exposures to capture the line the rider was taking.

Sometimes your lightsource isn’t a flash: a shop light, a street lamp, or even a bonfire could substitute. You definitely want to experiment here, you know, like back in college. Whatever you have to light your subject, the brighter it is the better chance you’re going to have of catching the right moment in camera.  


This is a similar exercise to when you were shooting a daytime photo. You’re going to want your light source to at least partially light your subject at the bare minimum. If you want to see the entire subject try moving your light to somewhere in between your camera and the rider, while facing the rider.

Here the lighting is off to the right, passed the edge of the frame. This creates some shadows on the rider, Alex Cole, but he is lit in the right places… and this trick is just plain LIT. Photo: Will Mayo

If your light is directly in line with your lens and rider it could remove some of the dramatic effect of shooting at night. So try moving your light off to the side or somewhere away from the camera completely. This will create more shadows and negative space that generally will make your photo more interesting. If you’re going for a silhouette then get your rider right in between you and the lightsource.


For a night action shot your shutter speed is going to be the tricky part. Too fast and you won’t get enough light, too slow and your rider will blur. 1/200 sec is a good starting point if you are unsure. If your light is not a flash you can probably go faster. Try 1/250 or 1/500 or even 1/1000 if the lights are exceptionally bright.  

Rider: Will Mayo Photo: MacKenzie Hennessey. Here MacKenzie lights for video being recorded at the same time, the lights were enough for her to get a faster shutter speed and avoid motion blur.

However If your light is a flash, you’re probably going to be stuck with 1/200 or something similar as that will give you a crisp rider and it’s about as fast as most flashes can work. Any faster and you will start to see the shutter in your pictures. Some camera/flash combos are fast enough to do a higher SS but not many.

Alternately you can go slower with flashes too. With a slower shutter speed you can create photos with streaks from other light sources that last the duration of the exposure. Then you can expose a certain point of the frame really well by popping the flash near the end at the beginning or in the middle.

Alex Cole got hung up on the rail. But Randy Williams, the photographer here, had a slower shutter and then fired a flash at the moment of impact.

Aperture, typically will be dependant on what you can get out of your lightsource. Start as low as you can go and then go up from there on the F-stop. Similarly, the ISO setting is dependant on how the light looks and should be adjusted last. Don’t kid yourself, if you’re shooting with nothing but the light of a fire then you are going to need to jack up the ISO setting. But be careful of going to high with this one the grain can be overwhelming.

Put it All Together For the Perfect Photo

Now you can combine all of your knowledge and push your equipment to the edge. Try shooting just after dusk when there’s still some ambient light. Try long exposures and popping a flash right when the rider is in the right spot. The beauty of shooting at night is you have full control of the light so if you take advantage of that then you will be able to do some interesting things.

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