Photographing in the Dark

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  • 8/8/2019 Photographing in the Dark





    Steve is a photographic journalist and freelance photographer. He is editor of ThePhotographer, a leading magazine for pro photographers, and author of ten bookson photography including Digital Photography and Take Better Family Photos



    How to photographin the darkThe 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

  • 8/8/2019 Photographing in the Dark


    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 its dark;

    by the time you get home from work its dark again. And

    during the few precious hours in between, the sky is all too

    often a bland, Tupperware grey, with correspondingly lowlevels 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 youll feel motivated to keep on shooting.

    If youre prepared to wrap up warm, its a really great

    time to capture some cracking urban landscapes and

    country scenes (see this months 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 wouldnt look at twiceduring 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 suns gone down and while

    theres still plenty of blue in the sky. If you leave it any later



    The best time to take pictures of street scenes and buildingsis at dusk, when theres still plenty of blue in the sky

    Lack of haze at dusk meanscrisp, sharp images

    Slow shutter speeds capturea variety of light sources

    Reflections on water add interestto overall composition



  • 8/8/2019 Photographing in the Dark





    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 thebest 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

    wasnt until you picked up the prints you found out

    whether youd 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 cameras white balance system doesnt

    compensate for them or the pictures will be flat and

    uninspiring. If you have a choice, set the controls for

    daylight balance, and youll capture the vibrant warmth

    which mercury-vapour and tungsten illumination gives

    to subjects.

    Getting the exposures rightIn bright street lighting you might just get away withhand-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 youre serious about nighttime

    shooting a tripod is virtually essential.

    Overall, a tripod is one of the most useful accessories

    you can have and well be looking at other ways you

    might benefit from owning one in a moment.

    If you have a compact digital camera you dont need

    a particularly heavy or sturdy tripod. As long it has stable

    legs, isnt 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, t ry 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 wont protect you from shake. If

    What makes night photography soappealing are the bright, vivid lights

    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, sotry 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.


  • 8/8/2019 Photographing in the Dark


    you jab the shutter as you take the picture youll jar the

    camera and get blurring. A gentle, steady squeeze is

    whats 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 thats 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 makesit a great time to photograph the moon. While it

    looks big when viewed by the human eye, once you

    point a camera at it youll 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

    theres 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 takepictures 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 wont 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 doesnt mean they cant be used outside at

    night. On the contrary, by using flash to illuminate a

    subject, such as a person or group, in the foregroundand allowing a long exposure to register a nighttime

    scene, such as a city skyline, you get a wonderful three-

    dimensional 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 isnt as great as indoors,

    because there are no walls or ceiling for it to bounce off.

    Country pursuitsTwilight 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