Converting A Photo From Day To Night (In Lightroom)

Night photography can be difficult.  

Sometimes, there are areas of the photo that are just so dark that in order to expose them correctly, you end up blowing out any bright spots like lights.

Sometimes, you may just not be in the location when it is dark out.  

Occasionally, my solution is converting a photo from day to night.

One of my favorite methods to get a great looking nighttime photo…is to shoot it during the day.  I am certainly by no means the first person to do this, but I wanted to create this tutorial for anyone that wanted to try it.  

1. Expose for the Editing Process

This is the most important part.  If you expose this shot in camera the same way you would expose a normal daytime shot, then you are going to make it very difficult to edit it into a nighttime photo.  Also, you probably have to be shooting in the raw format in order to make this look good.  If you are still shooting in JPEG then you are only using a fraction of your camera’s technology.  There are really only a few times when shooting in JPEG is a good idea and landscape photography is certainly not one of them.  

The best time to do this is late or early in the day.  This will give you more interesting light and also make it easier to balance out the exposure between the dark and bright parts of the image.  That being said, the image here was shot at about 1 PM, so it can be done at any time.  

Along these same lines, try to avoid taking up too much of the frame with the sky (or avoid getting any sky in the frame at all).  Even on overcast days, the sky will generally be too bright to be able to make it look like night time.  

If you can’t avoid including the sky, you may be able to get around this by taking extra shots at much darker exposures and masking them in with Photoshop later.  But that is a little off-topic for the current topic.  

Next, you will need to underexpose the image slightly (without clipping big portions of shadow).  The best way to get this right is by using the histogram in your camera.  You want to get the histogram as far to the left as possible without having it go off the left side.  

This may be contrary to other advice you heard encouraging you to do the opposite (also known as “expose to the right”).  Remember, we want the final image to be darker than reality, so in this particular case, you want that histogram favoring the left side considerably.  

Taking these things into consideration while capturing the image will put you in a good position to edit it properly.  

2. Basic Lightroom Editing

I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom as my raw editor, however, other raw editing programs will have many similar functions and allow you to get the same results.  It is important to do as much of the editing as possible in a raw editor to avoid losing quality. The first part of editing in Lightroom is the global adjustments. 

First, and probably obvious, is lower the overall exposure a few stops and lower the highlights until the brightest parts of the image look dark enough to pass for night time.  Then you can raise up the shadows slider a bit until you have just enough detail in the darkest parts of the image.  

I also like to make some small adjustments to the Blacks and Whites sliders depending on the image just to make sure all the detail in the darker parts of the image are discernible.  

The goal here is to maintain the detail in the darker parts of the image while darkening everything else. 

3. Turn on the Lights

This is the step that makes this whole process look realistic. It is also the part that takes the most practice.

Remember when we darkened down the whole image?  Well, all that brighter data is still inside this raw file that we are working on. So we need to selectively turn on the lights. The radial filter in Lightroom is a great tool for this because you can feather it to the point where it looks like real-life light falloff that would occur from a light source at night. 

The first thing I do is pick a relatively prominent light source and create a small radial filter that is about as large as the directly visible part of that light source.  For example, you can see in this image there are two lantern-style lights on the side of the building.  The first radial filter I created was about the size of the visible bulb within those lights.  

Click the little checkbox to invert the filter and then move the exposure slider for this filter up about 1 stop.  Also, you need to adjust the white balance within this filter to match the light source.  Here, the lights were quite yellow so I warmed up the filter.  So after some small adjustments to get this looking right, the light has been turned on!  

We now have a dark scene with a bright light bulb.  Since we were working with a raw file that had some brightness, to begin with, there should be plenty of detail remaining in that light bulb.  Duplicate this filter and add it to all the other bulbs in the scene, adjusting the size if necessary.

BUT, light bulbs give off light and illuminate things around them.  So duplicate that filter again and increase the size.  Here, I created a second filter about the size of the entire light fixture.  You will need to use some judgment and creativity here to make it look realistic.  

I find that as I go larger, I slightly decrease the exposure to mimic the way a light source spreads and becomes less intense as objects lit by tit get farther away.  At this point, I simply repeat the process as needed, making larger and less intense radial filters to try and recreate the way light would spread from the bulb.  

You may need to go in and erase some parts of the filter if it falls on areas that wouldn’t really be illuminated by the light.  You also will likely need to go in with an adjustment brush set to similar settings to throw some light on areas outside the radial filters.  You also may need to go back and lower the exposure of the smaller filters as each filter on top of it will build up the exposure.  

Finally, I added some light to the sign (even though there was no visible light source on it) because, well, it was the name of the pub and should be lit.  We are turning a daytime photo into the night so a little artistic liberty is ok as far as I am concerned.  Besides, we can just assume there was a spotlight off to the side illuminating the sign.  

This step is time-consuming, but really the key to making a nighttime photo in the middle of the day.  This is also why it works best with buildings and towns or cities…rural landscapes don’t really have lights to turn on.  

4. Finish off the Photo

At this point, you should have the photo looking very much like a nighttime image.  So here is where you can resort to your normal editing process, but I’ll share some of my favorite things to do.  I always finish off a photo in Photoshop because it gives me a lot more control. I’ll mention some “finishing moves” that work well in this kind of image. 

Adding an Orton effect can give this image a bit of a dreamy glow.  There is no shortage of Orton effect tutorials on the internet, so I won’t go into it here.  However, I will give two tips.  It works best when used subtly and it is generally helpful to only apply it to the highlights.  If you are using Photoshop, you can limit this to the highlights only by using the “blend if” function.  

In almost every image I create, I use a luminosity mask to add contrast only in the mid-tones.  This prevents the darks from getting too dark and the brights from getting too bright while at the same time adding some nice contrast to the image.  

Finally, in any dark image, you can add some real depth to the image by brightening up the brighter parts of the dark areas.  In this image, for example, I made sure the brighter spots on the flowers in front of the building were given a little boost.  This adds contrast and depth without darkening the areas around the leaves even more.  

These are just some of the finishing touches you can put on an image like this to take it to the next level.  Of course, don’t forget the sharpening.  I like to add sharpening in Photoshop but Lightroom works great too.  


So there you go, you can now change day to night.  But use your power wisely.  The key to editing an image like this is to only do enough to accomplish your goal and not go too far.  This, of course, was a very drastic change in the image, but you can still make it look realistic.  

This is a great example of editing a photo to capture the feeling of the subject more than a strict capture of what it looked like at the time of the accident. This old pub had a very old-time feel to it and it just looked like the kind of place that would always have a light on outside for a thirsty traveler.  

Thanks so much for checking out my website.  As you can see this is the first tutorial I have written so it would be awesome if you used the social media buttons below to share it with anyone else who may find it interesting.  I also would love to hear from you in the comments. Let me know if you liked it, hated it, or if you have any suggestions for future tutorials or questions about this one. 

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