Over the last year I’ve become more and more enamored with night photography and the depth of colours offered by it. Today I’d like to share a few things I’ve learned with you and hear your thoughts on this diverse and fascinating style of photography.
What are our tools in night photography?
- Tripod. While not always necessary (see further on for how to cheat on this), a tripod will give you the greatest flexibility to get the angles you need while keeping your camera steady for those long exposures.
- Wide-angle lenses. This is a personal preference, but I love the way they work in night photography. I use Canon’s 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 ($700), but if you can afford it I’d get the Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II ($1300). If both of these are out of your price range – don’t worry! Try it out with whatever you’ve got as the only thing that will limit you is your imagination.
- A lens hood. To minimize lens flares from light entering at angles outside of your frame.
- A flashlight. Sometimes you’ll want to draw attention to or simply lighten up an important part of the foreground which is too dark.
- Our imagination. Tools lie all around us in everyday objects to help us make our work better in this; I’ve used bicycle lamps, lampposts and newspaper boxes to get it done.
The same composition rules that apply to day apply to night, except with night we have our long exposures to take advantage of. I’ve chosen a selection of my night work to illustrate some tricks of the trade:
Old World New World by Robin Ryan
The beautiful leading lines of Vancouver’s Public Library make it a photogenic building any time of day, but the diminishing light and soft cast at night makes it an even more attractive subject. Notice the green lens flare in the top corner – this may have been avoided by removing the filter or having a faster shutter speed. The jury’s out. This was a 30 second exposure at f/22.
Vancouver in the Night by Robin Ryan
Water is your friend in night work. It seeps up colour, softens it and adds a charming glow to your images. 10 seconds at f/11.
Lion’s Gate Bridge by Robin Ryan
Again, see how the water brings more light into our images, sections out negative space and can create gorgeous symmetry. Another delight of night work is the way lights will fracture into stars on their own – no special effects here, just time. 25 seconds at f/22.
The Twilight Runner by Robin Ryan
I found myself in front of this statue wondering how on earth I could add the slightest detail to a part not facing a light source. It was a freezing night and I was biking around the park, so I took the headlamp off my bike, cupped it in my hands to make sure it wouldn’t reach the lens, and pointed it at the throat and chest area of the statue. 30 seconds at f/22.
The Rock iii by Robin Ryan
Okay, finally… another thing I love about night photography is that the only people in my shots are those who I want in them. Want to keep a figure recognizable? Shoot at a fast speed; want to blur that crowd or lose them entirely? Get that shutter speed to 10-30 seconds and watch them blur into obscurity. In this shot, an otherwise drab crowd of skaters has turned into a blur of figures that adds movement and life to an otherwise still image. A 1 second exposure at f/8 allowed me to blur the skaters while keeping still the crowd in the background.
Times Square by Robin Ryan
Remember when I said that tripods weren’t always necessary? They aren’t. The world’s full of flat surfaces on which to perch or press your camera. Just make sure to use a timer (the jolt of your finger depressing the shutter can move your camera) and, if you are holding the camera against a vertical surface, keep the speed relatively quick (1/8 of a second to 2 seconds). This was 2.5 seconds at f/22.
The Rock ii by Robin Ryan
As always, look for unique angles. This shot of the Rockefeller Center in New York City catches just the top of it, showing off the interplay of light in the surrounding buildings. Tripodless, I turned on a 2-second timer, pressed my camera firmly against the base of a statue, and shot this one. 1/8 of a second at f/8.
Lastly, if shooting with a camera that has a form of Live View, use it! Live View is indispensable for nailing your focus, especially as you can do a digital zoom to manually adjust your focus. A tripod will be a big help for this. Simply turn on the live view, flick your lens to manual focus, and adjust your focus ring until you’ve got perfect focus.
I hope this article has encouraged you to get out tonight and see how beautifully-different our world is under the light of the moon and streetlamps. I’d love to hear your thoughts and techniques in the comments.