Using Flash To Change Your Photo From Day Into Night

Using Flash To Change Your Photo From Day Into Night

If you like shooting your muse in a night-like environment, you might run into some difficulties. With flash, it is also possible to create the night during daylight. This way, it becomes much easier to shoot your muse, without all the difficulties you encounter while shooting in the dark. On top of that, it isn’t difficult at all.

I like moody photos. That’s why I got the idea to shoot a model in a dark forest. I took my model, Lisa, into a nearby forest just before evening twilight, and we started shooting until it was completely dark. It soon became clear how difficult this kind of photography could be.

Of course, I used a flash for this shoot. Because I used a simple flash without a model light, focusing became nearly impossible. It was too dark for my camera, and I had to rely on my assistant to light the model Lisa with a simple torch. Still, it was very difficult and time-consuming to shoot under these situations.

In the darkness of night, using autofocus will become nearly impossible. But capturing something of the surrounding is also difficult.

On a second occasion, I took my children out into the forest during Halloween. Again, with nothing more than a tripod and an off-camera flash, I ran into the same problems. The autofocus had a hard time acquiring focus if it was possible at all. Also, this time, my girlfriend, came to the rescue with a flash torch.

During another shoot, this time with my son on Halloween, I began to think of a simple solution for shooting a night photo.

But there was another annoying problem with the exposure to the dark forest. There is almost no light, so I needed a long exposure to see the forest in the photo or a ridiculously high ISO level. Or both.

How Exposure Works With Flash

Of course, I used a flashlight to light my muse during these photoshoots. As you may know, when using flash, the exposure of the camera has to be set for the ambient light. The flash is then used to get the correct exposure for the subject.

This basic knowledge of flash use was the answer to the difficulties that I encountered during my photoshoots. No rule states that the exposure of the ambient light has to be correct. The ambient light can also be underexposed without losing the correct exposure of the subject.

When I set my exposure for the ambient light during weddings, I tend to underexpose between one and two stops. It brings a good balance between the exposure of the surroundings and the wedding couple. But why not go further and underexpose the ambient light three, four, or even more stops? This way, it would become possible to imitate night, even during daylight.

Changing Day Into Night With Flash Light

It sounds ridiculous to use a flash for changing the day into the night. But the separation of ambient exposure and flash exposure make this possible. The funny thing is, during my first night photo session with Lisa, I already did something similar.

I underexposed the ambient light a few stops and used a flash to get the correct exposure for my model, Lisa. I also used a tungsten white balance to get a moody blue color tone. To avoid blue light on my model, I used a CTO gel.

I shot a couple of portraits just before twilight kicked in. For this, I used a Lastolite softbox for my flashgun and even used a CTO gel to make the flashlight warmer. By changing the white balance of my camera to tungsten, the CTO gel was corrected, but at the same time, the ambient light became a cold blue that matched the evening light. With the ambient light underexposed almost three stops, the result was a dark twilight forest.

The Benefit of This Technique

Since I became aware of this technique, I used it on multiple occasions. There was no need for shooting in darkness anymore. Therefore, I went out during daylight and changed it to night with nothing more than a flash.

Even during a sunny day, it becomes possible to imitate a dark forest. Just use flash to get the correct exposure on your subject.

Shooting during daylight instead of the darkness of night brought a lot of benefits. Forests are often off-limits after sunset in the Netherlands, where I live. But it’s also easier working with daylight. You have light available to see what you’re doing, to set up equipment, and to see any unwanted elements in the frame. And the autofocus will work, making it easy to get a good and sharp photo.

Another benefit I noticed was the ability to get more than one style of the image during one photoshoot. If you’ve traveled to a great location, you don’t have to go back. It saves you time. In the image below, you see the ambient light setting and the result by adding two off-camera flashguns. The time of this shoot was during daylight.

The use of flash gives you the ability to light the scenery just as you like. This is the strength of flash light, it brings a lot of flexibility to manipulate the atmosphere of your image. Use flash to bring night into the day or something in between. It can also give a better quality light when the ambient light is less flattering. Adding gels to your flash allows you to play with the overall image color by adjusting the white balance accordingly. 

It's not always necessary to underexpose the ambient light when using flash during daylight, of course. With a correct ambient exposure, a flash can also be used to lift shadows. Just a kiss of light can be enough to give a better quality of light. An off-camera flash would be preferable, but if necessary, an on-camera flash can help also. 

For the best effects when going to extremes, as I explained in this article, the flash should be placed off-camera. Perhaps even a secondary light can help you to give the backdrop more interest. After all, only darkness is not that attractive. Just start with one flash, and go from there. 

One Small Downside

There is only one small downside to this technique. There are often lights at night and during daylight, these are turned off. Especially when shooting in a location where there is a lot of artificial light, this technique won’t produce a realistic photo. In that case, you need to go out at night when the lights are on.

This image of Teska can't be produced during daylight. You need the lights of the surrounding buildings; otherwise, it's not realistic.

But if there is a lot of artificial light, it will be much easier to shoot at night. After all, it’s not completely dark. Autofocus will work on most occasions, and there is enough light to see what you’re doing. Still, it’s possible to use the ambient exposure to determine how bright the background will appear in the frame or how dark.

Wendy in the city of Utrecht, the Netherlands. There was enough ambient light to shoot at night. But I used an off-camera flash to separate the ambient exposure and the exposure on Wendy. 

Bring a Tripod with You

Placing a flashgun inside the photo frame is sometimes unavoidable, especially if you use a less powerful flashgun. In that case, a tripod can help. Take one image with the flashgun in the frame and a second one without the flashgun. These two images can be combined in Photoshop or similar photo-editing software to remove the flashgun. The tripod will help you to keep the same framing. I have a before and after example below of a water nymph theme photoshoot.

Have you ever used these techniques to shoot night scenery during the day? In that case, I invite you to share your image in the comments below. If you have additional tips or tricks, please share these as well.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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Thanks Nando - a very concise and useful article, that opens up a whole new way of looking at the management of light. Particularly pertinent as I just acquired two Lastolite softboxes and a couple of Speedlights and Pocket Wizards. So I'm ready to go into that not so dark night!

Gavin Hoey(Adorama) did a very good video on this very thing a couple of years ago.

That's a very interesting technique!


I'll be considering this in future!

I spent a frustrating few hours trying to do this a few weeks ago in Joshua Tree National Park. This simply doesnt work in a bright environment because you need to increase shutter speed too much to darken the background. I was at f18 and 1/8000th. This then requires high speed sync which isn't an issue. But, high speed sync reduces the flash output power to a pitifully low level and does not generate enough light for the subject. I was using 3 Godox 865 flash units and they have quite a high guide number. I think if I tried with 12 flash units I may have a chance.

You should try to use an ND filter to increase the exposure time. This way you can keep the shutterspeed within the flash sync limitation.

Thanks, i will give that a try