Photographing in the Dark

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How to take photographs at night....



PHOTOGRAPHING AT NIGHT YOUR GUIDE STEVE BAVISTER Steve is a photographic journalist and freelance photographer. He is editor of The Photographer, a leading magazine for pro photographers, and author of ten books on photography including Digital Photography and Take Better Family Photos

[email protected]


How to photograph in the dark The short days and dull conditions of winter may seem to limit your photography but, in fact, Steve Bavister says they provide a great opportunity to try out some different techniques and subjects




ne of the challenges of taking pictures this time of year is the light – or, more accurately, the lack of it. When you get up in the morning it’s dark; by the time you get home from work it’s dark again. And during the few precious hours in between, the sky is all too often a bland, Tupperware grey, with correspondingly low levels of illumination. No wonder, then, that many photographers mothball their gear for the winter months, and hibernate in front of the TV until spring comes round again. But if, instead of regarding the relative lack of light as a problem, you start thinking of it as an opportunity to try something new, your picture-taking will get a much-needed boost, and you’ll feel motivated to keep on shooting. If you’re prepared to wrap up warm, it’s a really great time to capture some cracking urban landscapes and country scenes (see this month’s Getup&go section for

some ideas). While those who like their creature comforts can crank up the central heating and improvise a studio at home suitable for everything from portraits to still-life. Other ideal subjects include historic buildings such as castles and cathedrals, and neon-signed nightlife such as clubs and bars – with streets you wouldn’t look at twice during the day suddenly coming to life as floodlights and illuminations are switched on. The term ‘night photography’, though, is misleading. The best time to take pictures of street scenes and buildings is actually at dusk, just after the sun’s gone down and while there’s still plenty of blue in the sky. If you leave it any later


Lack of haze at dusk means crisp, sharp images Slow shutter speeds capture a variety of light sources

Reflections on water add interest to overall composition

The best time to take pictures of street scenes and buildings is at dusk, when there’s still plenty of blue in the sky DIGITAL CAMERA MAGAZINE





When capturing what looks like a well-lit area against a vast expanse of night sky, you are likely to end up with a small splash of light in a black background. Instead, zoom in on the areas of light so they dominate the final image. Most neon lights shine at the same intensity, so try a standard exposure of 1/15sec at f/5.6, ISO 100. This amusement park ride required a longer exposure though to get the blurring – about 1sec.

What makes night photography so appealing are the bright, vivid lights the sky will come out a dense black with the lights as burnt out highlights. As a rule of thumb, an hour before it gets dark is when you should begin shooting for the best results. In the days of film, shooting at night was, well, a nightmare – the enormous contrast range meant getting the exposure right was tricky and unpredictable, and it wasn’t until you picked up the prints you found out whether you’d been successful or, more commonly, not. Working digitally means you see the results immediately, and on many cameras can fine-tune the exposure to get the balance right. And you can obviously tweak images on the computer later to improve matters further. What makes night photography appealing are the bright, vivid lights, and you need to



make sure the camera’s white balance system doesn’t compensate for them – or the pictures will be flat and uninspiring. If you have a choice, set the controls for daylight balance, and you’ll capture the vibrant warmth which mercury-vapour and tungsten illumination gives to subjects.

Getting the exposures right In bright street lighting you might just get away with hand-holding, especially if you increase the ISO setting, but the risk of camera-shake is always present. Bracing yourself against a lamppost or resting the camera on a wall can help, but if you’re serious about nighttime shooting a tripod is virtually essential. Overall, a tripod is one of the most useful accessories you can have and we’ll be looking at other ways you might benefit from owning one in a moment. If you have a ‘compact’ digital camera you don’t need a particularly heavy or sturdy tripod. As long it has stable legs, isn’t flimsy, and features an adjustable head it

should do just fine. Those fortunate enough to have a digital SLR and longer, heavier lenses should consider investing in something a little more robust. Most digital cameras feature shutter speeds down to at least 1/2 second or 1 second, while many go down to 4, 8, 15 or even 30 seconds – which, as our table shows at the end of this feature, is more than adequate for the vast majority of nocturnal activity. Only a handful of models feature a ‘B’ setting that enables you to hold the shutter open for as long as you like, but this is far from essential unless you really get bitten by the night photography bug. If you want to add animation to your low-light shots, try including moving cars, whose front and rear lights will streak across the picture during long exposures. In fact, you can make this the whole point of wonderful special effects picture by finding a good vantage point on a flyover and looking down on a busy road and shooting as traffic passes below – see overleaf. A tripod on its own won’t protect you from shake. If

a you jab the shutter as you take the picture you’ll jar the camera and get blurring. A gentle, steady squeeze is what’s required. Unfortunately, few digital cameras allow you to take the picture using a cable release, though some do offer remote firing via an optional remote control, and it can be worth getting one if you plan to shoot in low light a lot. A simple alternative that’s available on most cameras is to use the self-timer designed to enable you to include yourself in the picture. During the gap between you pressing the release and the shutter actually firing, which is typically 10-12 seconds, any movement will have ceased with the result that pictures are pin-sharp.

Shoot the moon Winter nights are often exceptionally clear, which makes it a great time to photograph the moon. While it looks big when viewed by the human eye, once you point a camera at it you’ll realise how little of the frame it fills. So a decent zoom lens is essential, plus a little cropping and enlargement using your image manipulation program. To get the best results, shoot when the moon is full and from a location where there’s the minimum of ambient lighting. If you must shoot from an urban area, try doing so after midnight, when most people have gone to bed and switched their lights off. For something completely different you can also take pictures by the light of the moon. With their lack of colour and unusual lighting, moon images of this kind give the appearance of a totally alien landscape. One thing you won’t want to do when photographing the moon is use flash. Though you do often see people at concerts trying to illuminate stars from the 83rd row back, their efforts are futile. In fact, the range of most built-in flashguns is about four metres at standard ISO settings. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be used outside at night. On the contrary, by using flash to illuminate a subject, such as a person or group, in the foreground and allowing a long exposure to register a nighttime scene, such as a city skyline, you get a wonderful threedimensional effect. And the good news is that many digital cameras feature special Night Portrait mode that works it all out for you. Position yourself around two metres from your subject, either brace yourself or use a tripod, and fire away. Take a look at the result and adjust your distance accordingly. The important thing to be aware of when using flash outdoors is that the range isn’t as great as indoors, because there are no walls or ceiling for it to bounce off.

Country pursuits Twilight is a great time to head off to the country and capture some great images as the sun goes down. While the landscape in winter lacks much of the foliage and colours that make it appealing in summer, the stark shapes of trees and of the texture of the land itself more than make amends. Shadows can play a big part in creating a sense of depth in photographs, and in winter you can take pictures when shadows are at their longest and most photogenic on almost any bright day, as the sun never rises very high above the horizon. The secret is to find a vantage point such as a hill where you

can get an aerial view of the shadows striding out purposefully across the landscape. Another option worth considering if you want pictures with bags of impact is to have a go at creating some silhouettes. This couldn’t be easier. All you have to do is find a scene in which the background is much brighter than the main subject – shooting into a setting sun is a sure-fire way of achieving that – but do take care to avoid flare. What’s important is that your main subject has a strong graphic shape – such as the human body, a leafless tree, a derelict machine or a statue. Some silhouettes can be a bit bland, and adding a coloured background in the computer can be an effective way of adding interest.

If you have a digital SLR with a separate flashgun there many effects you can try. Tilting or twisting the head of the gun so it bounces off a wall or ceiling indoors will give you illumination that’s more appealing. You may also be able to take it off the camera completely, and connect it by means of cord – to give you the choice of lighting the subject from the side or above.

2 FILL-IN FLASH AND CREATIVE LIGHTING Most cameras have a variety of flash modes. Fill-in flash works by softening otherwise harsh shadows cast by other light sources. Most cameras calculate the best flash-toexternal light ratio automatically. Using the fill-in flash option can produce much more attractive results. For instance, use it to give a low-powered burst, rather than the full monty, so the subject is still illuminated but other lights are also captured.

Frost and fog It’s not just the extremes of the day when the light can be photogenic – or frustrating low in intensity. Fog cuts light levels dramatically, but changes the landscape completely, with only objects close to the camera clear, and those behind receding to the distance. Frost, too, brings plants to life, giving you the chance to capture interesting details of foliage that would look dull without the dusting of white. Flash storms, meanwhile, come and go in an instant, but if you can be ready for the moment when sub breaks through after a shower, you’ll encounter some of the most dramatic lighting around. There’s more about this is this month’s Getup&go section, towards the back of the magazine. Also worth photographing when light levels are low are waterfalls, and if you have one near you it’s worth checking it out on an overcast day. If you want to produce stunning pictures of a waterfall you need to blur the movement of the water to an atmospheric froth, and to do that you need a longish shutter speed, typically between 1/15sec and 1/2sec. Such speeds are much easier to achieve when there’s not so much illumination, and the lower contrast you get on a dull, dank, dark day helps maintain maximum detail too. If you have direct control over your shutter speed try different settings, because the results are never predictable. Check the first shot for the accuracy of exposure as well, because the highly reflective nature of the water can cause in-camera meters to under-expose.

Using the flash indoors Not everyone, though, is a fan of the great outdoors, but happily there are many indoor projects that can be tackled this time of year. Why not have a go at shooting some serious pictures of people? This is a good time to experiment with the flash, to find out when it works well and when less so. Discover what happens when you vary the lens setting and how far you are from the subject, and note what seems to be the optimum combination for the future. Check out the effectiveness of your camera’s red-eye reduction system – if it has one. Not all work successfully in every situation, so try it out so you understand its limitations and can work around them. Most cameras have a number of flash modes, one of which is usually called flash-off or flash-cancel. As the name indicates, this prevents the flash from firing. The



SILHOUETTES Capturing silhouettes is easy – all you need is a strong light source behind your subject, and a subject with an interesting shape



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YOU AND YOUR TRIPOD Most photographers have a love/hate relationship with their tripods. While the benefits of using one are enormous, having to lug it around is a pain. But you know what they say: no pain, no gain, and if you want to tackle those subjects effectively you really have no choice.

STABILITY Spread the legs wide to give the tripod a low centre of gravity, this will improve stability

PREVENT SLIPPAGE Make sure the locks on the legs are fully tightened, so there's no slippage

STOP THE SHAKE Only extend the central column if you have to – it increases the risk of camera-shake

HANDS OFF Don’t hold onto the tripod as you're likely to cause vibration rather than stop it

NIGHT EXPOSURE GUIDE The difficulty with taking pictures at night is calculating the exposure. So to help you we've put together a guide to some of the more common subjects you'll want to tackle. Please note that these are only suggestions, and that it's always sensible to bracket widely when taking pictures at night. All figures assume that you're using an ISO 100 film setting. Buildings with blue still in the sky 1/15 sec at f/5.6 Buildings against dark sky 4 sec at f/5.6 Funfairs/amusement parks 1/4 sec at f/5.6 Brightly-lit buildings 1/4sec to 1/15sec at f/4 Floodlit buildings and monuments 1 sec at f/4 Neon signs 1/4 sec f/4 Illuminations 1 sec f/5.6 Traffic trails 8 sec at f/8 Fireworks/lightning 8 sec at f/11

exposure is made entirely on the basis of the light in the room, which is often a lot more interesting and appealing than the frontal blast of a flashgun, which all too often results in unflattering lighting of the subject and ugly shadows behind. The best place to start is by using window light, preferably in a room that has the largest expanse of glass. Find yourself a willing subject, and experiment with placing them in different positions in relation to where the light is coming from. If they are facing the door or window, the light will be even and soft. If they’re sideways-on to it one half of the face will be dark and the other well lit. Holding up a piece of white paper on the shaded side will give more attractive and balanced illumination. If you put the person in front of the window you will tend to get a silhouette. To counteract what will almost certainly be low light levels, try increasing the ISO rating of your camera. Up to ISO 400 the quality is usually okay, but beyond that noise and other problems can sometimes be excessive. Then take some trial pictures and examine the results. If there’s any blurring or other signs of unsharpness you will need to support the camera in some way, using a tripod or, if not, a table or a stack of books.

If you have direct control over selecting shutter speeds on your camera, try a range when photographing moving subjects – the faster, the less blurry. If you have a digital SLR, you can produce a dramatic effect by zooming the lens during the exposure. With the right subject, the centre of the picture seems to ‘explode’ out to the edges

2 SLOW SHUTTER EFFECTS Once your camera is firmly anchored on a tripod you can open up a new and exciting world of picture-taking creativity. Because the shutter is open for longer than normal, any part of the subject that moves will blur. This works particularly well with moving lights which will streak – cars, stars in the sky. Try these settings: for stars, keep your shutter open several hours (if your camera can handle it); for moving cars, try 8-10 seconds.

Framing and composition Using a tripod when photographing people has the added advantage of allowing you to frame and compose the shot and then lift your head away from the camera so you can chat away to them so as to get the best possible expression. One of the great advantages digital has over film is that it can compensate for different lighting sources, which means you can take pictures using normal household lighting. Avoid, though, shooting when the illumination is coming from a bulb and shade on the ceiling. Table lamps and stand lamps are much better, and you can move then around to get the best results. A couple of table lamps placed one each side of the subject at the same height as their head and a metre or so away gives a flattering result. Most flexible of all, though, is an anglepoise lamp, which you can put exactly where you want. Place it so it’s just above the person’s head and angled down, with a sheet of white card at waist height to bounce light back up, and you are replicating a classic fashion lighting setup.

Going further If you’re serious about portraiture and have some cash to spend, you can buy inexpensive tungsten studio lights that work well with digital cameras because they’re a continuous light source. Whatever you photograph this time of year, and wherever you photograph it, take great care with your focusing. Low light levels mean depth of field (the zone of the picture that will appear sharp in the finished image) is more limited, because the camera will be setting large apertures. So, if in doubt, use your focus lock to ensure the important part of the subject is kept sharp. Our table opposite has some recommended settings – give them a try and send us the results to [email protected]!



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