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YOUR GUIDE STEVE BAVISTER
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
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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
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
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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
WHYWE CHOSETHIS PICTURE
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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
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
Getting the exposures rightIn bright street lighting you might
just get away withhand-holding, especially if you increase the ISO
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
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.
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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
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
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
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 somesilhouettes.
This couldnt 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. Whats 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.
Frost and fogIts not just the extremes of the day when the light
canbe 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, youll encounter some of
the most dramatic lighting around. Theres more aboutthis is this
months 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 its 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
theres not so much illumination, and the lower contrast
you get on a dull, dank, dark day helps maintainmaximum 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 indoorsNot 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 picturesof 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 cameras 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
If you have a digital SLR with a separate flashgun there many
effects you can try. Tilting ortwisting the head of the gun so it
bounces off a wall or ceiling indoors will give you
illuminationthats more appealing. You may also be able to take it
off the camera completely, and connect itby means of cord to give
you the choice of lighting the subject from the side or above.
Most cameras have a variety of flash modes. Fill-in flash works
by softening otherwiseharsh shadows cast by other light sources.
Most cameras calculate the best flash-to-
external 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
FILL-INFLASH ANDCREATIVE LIGHTING2
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SILHOUETTESCapturing 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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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 subjectand
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
theyre 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 willtend to get
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
theres 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.
Framing and composition
Using a tripod when photographing people has theadded 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 thesubject 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
its just above the persons 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
Going furtherIf youre serious about portraiture and have some
to spend, you can buy inexpensive tungsten studiolights that
work well with digital cameras because
theyre 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
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If you have direct control over selecting shutter speeds on your
camera, try a range whenphotographing moving subjects the faster,
the less blurry. If you have a digital SLR, you canproduce a
dramatic effect by zooming the lens during the exposure. With the
right subject, thecentre of the picture seems to explode out to the
Spread the legs wide to
give the tripod a low
centre of gravity, this will
YOU AND YOUR TRIPOD2Most photographers have alove/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.
Make sure the locks on
the legs are fully
tightened, so there's
STOP THE SHAKE
Only extend the central
column if you have to it increases the risk of
Dont hold onto the
tripod as you're likely tocause 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
Once your camera is firmly anchored on a tripod you can open up
a new and excitingworld 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.
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