For many of us, night signals the end of our primary activities, work, school, and even “play.” We generally come home, prepare and eat dinner, wind down, and go to sleep.
When night comes, we often think it is time to pack up our gear, and go home
Photographers often take the same approach. Much attention (rightfully) is focused on the “golden” hours in the early morning and again in the early evening. Events are often either during the day, or in well-lit settings. And, after all, the word photography roughly means: “painting with light.” So when darkness comes, we often think it is time to pack up our gear, and go home.
But we really shouldn’t. Because if we do, we are missing out on a significant venue for photography. It really pays to take your camera out and explore the night. My “Into The Night” Gallery on my photo website contains my “low light” imagery.
The subject matter will most likely be different. Except in unique and limited circumstances, traditional landscape and nature photography will not work well at night. It is difficult enough to photograph wildlife in the low light conditions when they are active. It would be mostly impossible to do much with them after dark. Most “grand landscape” scenes and the elements used to frame a good photograph” will go dark to black and detail – less.
A notable exception to my “landscape” exclusion is shooting the night skies. That is an area I have not yet made the time and effort to pursue. I have two very talented friends who have spent a lot of time shooting the night sky – mainly the milky way. I encourage you to visit the of Al Utzig’s “After Dark” Portfolio, and Margy Meath’s “Night Sky” Gallery, to see their excellent night sky photography.
My own night shooting has mostly been in and around cities, or areas with substantial architectural details. There need to be some strong graphic elements in most cases.
Artificial light also makes up an important part of night shooting. There are opportunities, and there are challenges. One opportunity is to show movement creatively. Moving vehicles, for example, show streaks of light (usually the red-colored tail lights give the best result). There are often many different colored lights, which present great opportunities for photographs. The shot of Tokyo Tower, with its colorful night time lighting is a great example, I think.
Nightime lighting can also create great reflection opportunities. The Port of Barcelona and the Bay Bridge images are good examples of reflected light and in the case of the port, color.
There are “challenges.” The most obvious is the lack of light; lilght being the very thing that creates a photographic image, either by reflecting off a photosensor, or if you are “old school,” off of an unexposed silvery halide film emulsion. Back in 1980 when I shot the monuments my ISO rating was 25! If you wanted something “faster” (meaning less light needed to make the exposure), you were basically relegated to B&W. And 400 was blazing fast back then (sometimes you could push it to 800, but with a sacrifice in quality). When digital came along, it offered faster ISO speeds (and the ability to vary the ISO from shot to shot). But it took many years from the time the first digital cameras hit the market until we had any real gain in that area. The primary problem with higher ISO sensors was something called “noise.” Borrowed from the radio/electronics industry, the term “noise” refers to random electronic signals generated in the camera’s electronics. There are numerous culprits, including sensor size and density and heat. But day after day, the technical design and manufacturing just gets better.
Current sensors give us the ability to go more than 200 times higher ISO than my Kodachrome 25. The Grand Canal image, for example, was made at 6400 ISO. This allowed for an f6.3 aperture at 1/30 of a second. There is evidence of noise in that image, but it is certainly not unpleasant. and at slower ISO, or larger sensors visible noise has been severely reduced, if not eliminated. The Tokyo Tower shot was a 4 second exposure with no noticeable noise.
Of course, the other way to deal with lack of light would be to affix your camera to something stationary – most often a sturdy tripod – and make longer exposures. Remember, the Grand Canal image was made handheld (I didn’t have a tripod with me, but I made the best use of the camera I had with me – the important point being I had the camera with me). Obviously the ability to shoot high ISO speeds is giving us more flexibility and versatility than in years past.
And, longer exposures bring with them another set of challenges. Historically, there has been a direct corellation between length of exposure and noise. Although similar to grain in film, it is really a technically very different phenomena and a new concept to work with for photographers. Noise can show up looking like grain. It can also show up as “color” noise which gives the image a kind of blotchy, red/green/blue look. In the past we have had to work with it by watching both ISO and exposure length, and often depending on post-processing “denoise” software. There is still occasion to use such software, but it is much less often necessary. And did I say the sensor technology has gotten better? Again, current sensors all very high ISO performance, and create less heat, rendering relatively noise-free low light images. There is still not much doubt, though, that my full frame sensor gives “cleaner” results than my Sony RX100.
Even before noise was an issue, there were circumstances that made longer exposures problematic. The biggest ones? Wind and subject movement. Neither, of course, is solely a night issue. But it makes things you may not have thought about now an issue. In 2016, I was in Rhode Island and took some night shots of a lighted bridge with boats in the foreground. It was windy and I just couldn’t get an image I liked, of the lights strung along the structural cables. The wind made it impossible to shoot at a shutter speed that would capture them as sharp.
Another challenge to this kind of shooting environment is, ironically, the light. As I noted in one of the post-processing blogs recently, color – to photographers and viewers – is largely a matter of perception. Having said that, it is also the case that there are limits to our variation in perception. For most of us, there will come a time where color just won’t seem “true” anymore. One of the most difficult areas to control has historically been when shooting with artificial light. We are geared to sunny daylight in our judgement of color. These days, LED lighting technology has made it possible to mimic daylight. Just a short few years ago, that wasn’t the case. Regular incandescant light tended to give color a yellow (“warm”) cast. Those ubiquitous flourescent tubes (think offices, kitchens, garages and basements) gave off an ugly greenish cast. Outdoor (mercury vapor) lighting was yellow or orange. Of course, many of these light sources still abound – especially outdoors at night. And they definitely make colors – interesting. 🙂 The Saginaw Waterworks image has such a mix of light sources and colors that it was virtually impossible to recreate what my own eyes “saw” (our eyes and brain work together to “color correct” in these situation when you are on site. But viewing a photograph shows us what was really captured and/or presented. Sometimes, I think these color inconsistencies make for good photography. Nobody would say the “night sky” in the waterworks picture looks “natural.” And the “reds” and “greens” aren’t exactly red or green. But it certainly makes for a colorful holiday image.
Before the digital “age,” films were “color-balanced” to a certain standard. Most were “daylight” balanced. Some specialty films (Kodak had a “tungsten” slide film, for example) were purposely balanced to produce “truer” color under artificial light. Digital gives us the ability to adjust the color balance for each image. To me that is a spectacular advantage to digital processing. For those who only shoot jpegs, color balance needs to be set on the camera, and adjusted for the condition. Most cameras refer to this a the “white balance” setting. In most cases, if you shoot raw, you can color balance in post-processing, which is what I personally prefer. Unless I am shooting jpegs for some reason, I don’t worry about the white balance setting.
One other things probably deserves mention here. I am writing about “night shooting.” Perhaps a definition of night is needed? I don’t know. For me, night is any time after sundown and before sunrise. I have done an awful lot of shooting during the beginning and end of the day period known as twilight. What I have learned is that sometimes the “show” really isn’t the sunrise or sunset at all. Sometimes the real image is before things start up and after the sun has passed well below the horizon. The Newport Bridge, Bay Bridge, Goat Island Light and Pete’s Lake images are examples. The Pete’s Lake image also demonstrates one of those exceptions to my “traditional landscape” shooting comment earlier.