Night photography issues: My photo looks great in the camera, but it's dark on my computer

Night photography issues: My photo looks great in the camera, but it’s dark on my computer

You are out in the field. After taking a picture, look at the back screen of your camera. This will put a smile on your face – it looks pretty good.

At home, however, it’s a different story. When you start processing it on your home computer, the same photo will look dark and less vibrant. What is going on here?

What do I see?

If you look at the back screen of your camera, you’ll see a JPEG preview of your RAW image, even if you’re shooting in RAW. The camera interprets the RAW data for playback purposes. This is not necessarily the raw file you see later on your computer.

Moreover, if you have not adjusted the brightness of your camera’s screen, it will appear rather bright to your eyes because it is very dark outside.

Three things you can do with your camera to help you in the field

Most seasoned night photographers can make several simple adjustments to their cameras in the field.

1. Lower the brightness of the camera screen

Many night photographers lower it almost all the way. Why? Because it’s mostly set for daytime shooting, which is too bright. This gives you the illusion that you have a brighter picture than what it actually could be when you look at it at night.

Lower the brightness significantly. I usually lower mine to at least -3 or -4. This will help you get a more accurate picture of what you have.

2. Adjust your white balance manually

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In the dark of the night, lowering the brightness of your camera screen and adjusting the white balance manually can help make the images you capture more accurate. And don’t we all want that?

Adjusting the white balance to your desired look can help give a more accurate representation of what you see on your LED screen. Depending on the situation, I manually adjust my White Balance using Kelvin. I prefer a white balance between 3750–4000°K. Your mileage may vary.

Sometimes I hear people argue against this and say, “Why does it matter? In post-processing, I can adjust the white balance of my RAW image to my liking.” And this is absolutely true. However, I have two reasons why I strongly prefer to fix my white balance in-camera.

The first reason is that I can get the best approximation of how my image will look on my computer so that I can get it as close to what I want.

The second reason is that it affects the histogram when I view that on my camera’s screen.

This brings us to the third point.

3. Read your histogram

I always look at the histogram of an image. Why? Because despite the two adjustments above, the image I’m looking at on my camera can still be deceiving. I want to make sure I have a well-exposed photo.

After all, the histogram is a graphical representation of measurable data, showing the tonal range in our image. And it helps us know what tonal range we’re capturing in each image.

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This is a histogram of this photo, with fairly good exposure. While most of the tones in this image are dark, they aren’t crushed against the left side, providing plenty of information and detail even in the dark shadow areas. This example of a histogram comes from Photoshop, but is similar to how your camera can create a histogram.

Read the histogram

Reading the histogram is easy. The information is displayed graphically. They look like mountains. Blacks are on the left. All the way to the left means it’s so dark we can’t see any detail. Shadows are also dark but have some details. Midtones, of course, are in the middle. High tones or bright colors have less detail and less contrast. And white pixels are so bright that we can’t make out details or colors. There is essentially no information at either end. There is no detail left.

I mainly check whether I have enough information in the lighting. Look at the histogram and try to see if your image is properly exposed.

Is the information completely crushed against the left side? This probably indicates that you have a seriously underexposed photo. Conversely, if you have something very bright or overexposed with light, it’s possible that some elements are pushed hard against the right side, indicating that little or no information is available and that this part of the image is overexposed.

For night photography, of course, we’re more concerned about whether we have enough exposure for the dark elements. Of course, sometimes you can get more detail out of an underexposed photo in post. However, you will also likely get more noise and a lack of detail and contrast.

View your image on your computer

If you follow these three suggestions above, you should have an image that more closely resembles what you see in the camera when viewed on your computer screen or tablet. Either way, you should have a RAW image that contains enough information so you can continue post-processing without worrying about getting the exposure right.

Also remember that your image will still not look exactly like the image on your camera’s screen. Why? Because your camera interprets the RAW data in the way it deems appropriate, making many “decisions” for you.

However, when you post-process a RAW file, you’re the one making the decisions. You choose the exact white balance, contrast, sharpening, noise reduction, color adjustments and much more – not the camera. And here’s where you can really bring your photo to life and shine, just as if you were a film photographer making a print from a negative.