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

    [email protected]



    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



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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 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.


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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

    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 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 also captured.


  • 8/8/2019 Photographing in the Dark


    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 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

    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

    lighting setup.

    Going furtherIf youre serious about portraiture and have some cash

    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

    [email protected]!


    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 edges



    Spread the legs wide to

    give the tripod a low

    centre of gravity, this will

    improve stability

    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

    no slippage


    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


    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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