Photographing the Night
Ah, night photography. Camping out under the open sky, recording trails as the stars creep across the heavens, exposing the glorious Milky Way as only a camera can see it...
Nope, that's not happening in the city!
A Persistent Love
One of my favorite kinds of photography to both create and view is nighttime exposures of urban light. I have always felt such an affinity for the nighttime. By nature, I've always been a bit nocturnal, at my best after sun down. For this reason, nighttime urban photography exists within a deep affection that I may never let go of. Prowling around when the sun has hung up his hat for the night, the light and shadow begins to play in an artificial dance under the street lamps. Photographs made of the night hold such mystery and magic for me. Shadows become distorted, colors become surreal, static scenes whisper a different story than the one they assert in daytime.
Below are two examples of daytime versions using some of my favorite nighttime photographs as guides.
Looking at these comparisons, the daytime counterparts don’t hold the ambience and clandestine personality I seek. The stark atmosphere and deep darks of the evening versions call for my investigation. The photos in daylight just seem more still and obvious in their existence to my eyes.
My Trusty Steed
During the night, one of the most important pieces of equipment for me is a solid, yet packable tripod. A good tripod is integral to my style of photograph creation at night, as most of my nighttime exposures are from 15 seconds through 4 minutes. I tried many models of tripod before finally discovering my beloved 3 Legged Thing. This is a really gorgeous and understated tripod. It remains versatile, while being just enough unlike other tripods to feel like it is more than only a utilitarian item. On that note, I'll stop making verbal love to my tripod here, and save the review for later.
The two most important aspects of this tripod choice are that it is carbon fiber and only about 16.5" folded. Carbon fiber is important because it resists transmitting vibrations up through the camera while remaining much lighter than other materials. The solid foundation stops speeding traffic from causing shake to my longer exposures. Carbon fiber is also ceases vibration faster than metal, so wind and camera shutter slap is more easily damped. The small size and weight means that it can fit inside my backpack, allowing me to carry only one bag which makes those long treks through the sub-urban jungle more bearable.
Another piece of equipment you will find in my bag is actually the one you won’t find. I almost never use flash in my night exposures, preferring to work with the conditions as I find them.
In The Best Light of the Light
When creating photographs that include light sources, one of the most essential aspects to me is rendering the visual character of the light as I see it in my minds eye. For this reason I choose to almost always stay within the aperture ranges f/5.6-7.1 despite loss of depth of field and complete sharpness throughout. While this exact setting can vary dependent on the lens's construction, this is what is true of the lenses I am currently using. However, what remains always true is: the smaller the aperture (higher number, ex f/11) the sharper the light appears when it enters the lens; and the larger the aperture (smaller numbers, ex f/1.4) the more hazy the light, as it has a larger opening through which to enter.
As shown in this picture, the top two examples at f/5.6 and f/7.1 are the kind of light source flare that I am simply in love with. It just barely begins to form a star while remaining slightly ethereal and equivocal. In the example for f/1.4, the light source has no personality; it just sits there and adds nothing of itself beyond the light in the scene. In the f/11 example, the star effect feels too abrasive; too sharp and defined, it begins to call all attention to itself as its shape geometrically contradicts all other forms in the photo.
A Few Tidbits To Remember
Having my ideal aesthetic and foundation in mind, there are a few more pieces of advice that are essential to a night of photographic urban safari. Below is a list of things to consider when setting out with a camera after sundown.
Do use a tripod and remote, or the camera’s self-timer.
Touching the camera while activating the shutter button can cause unwanted blur.
Do be aware of surroundings and never be in the way.
Sometimes photographing empty areas at night can be a bit of a risk, be aware of who is around you and evaluate potential risks. The sad truth is there are people out there that might take the opportunity to run away with your gear! On the other side of the equation, be aware that when deploying your tripod, you don’t want to hinder vehicle or walking traffic around you, or cause people to trip on your tripod. It’s best to find an unobtrusive area you can hang out in, thus allowing you to concentrate on capture.
Do look at the way the light changes the subject.
You don't have to have use street lamps necessarily, but interesting lighting conditions are optimal studies for the conditions that are only available at night.
Don't expose for the subject, but rather the quality of light.
The object here is to do the most justice to the light itself, with the exposure of the subject being complementary to the light.
Don't be afraid of the mundane, sometimes the simplicity of the light is all that's needed.
At times, simplicity wins; all of the interesting angles and perspectives can’t compete with good old fashion geometry. Don’t be afraid to try the obvious approach.
Don’t be temped into high ISO settings.
The lowest ISO and long shutter speeds will maintain subtle gradients and dark tonalities. As noise or grain in the media increases, details can become mushy and unique nighttime tonalities can be lost. Don’t be afraid to open the shutter for several minutes or more.
Into the Night
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my approach to stalking around in the dark. As you can see, not all photo adventures need to take place in waking at 6am, and some of the real jewels only become apparent in the evening. Our modern days are so busy, and full of running from here to there, that we often forget to enjoy this world of artificial light we have created for ourselves. Of course with it, all the stars of the heavens are missing in action as more sprawl brings more light pollution. Finding stars for photographs means venturing ever farther away from home for many. However, rediscovering the uniqueness of the world of man, as seen at night, means adventures can also be found in just a few steps outside.
Well, what're you waiting for? Get out there and lose some sleep to the glory of night photography!