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Why You Should Make Dark Images

Image: Street scene

Street scene

One of the most unexplored aspects in digital photography is the dark image.

With digital, we have built-in light meters, histograms, incredible ISO capabilities, and processing programs, which make it much easier to expose our images brightly in all different lighting situations. This can have the effect of making photographers feel that they need to expose all of their images with a neutral histogram, where you can see the image perfectly well, with some information in the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows.

This is often what you want to do, but not always.

When you are using Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or the Automatic modes, your camera’s light meter has the aim of making whatever it is focusing on a neutral grey. Thus, it has the tendency to overly darken scenes with a lot of bright highlights or to overly brighten scenes with lots of dark tones.

Image: The Lake, Central Park – NYC

The Lake, Central Park – NYC

Because of this, when you photograph in dark situations your exposures can end up being bright as if they were taken during the day. It’s easy to think that this is okay, and often it is, but it also makes it easy to forget that sometimes a dark image is a good thing too. There is nothing wrong with making an image look like it was taken at night. There is nothing wrong with making the image tougher to see, like the scene was to your eye as you captured it.

For me, it was an experience when I started to look at older photography books and came across images that I couldn’t quite make out. ‘They should have been brighter”, I immediately thought, but then I realized that I liked them. I realized how natural and moody it made the images feel. I had to put in more effort to make out what was going on, and I liked that. It felt moody and real.

Image: This image could have been made brighter and still worked.

This image could have been made brighter and still worked.

Technically, to achieve this on Aperture or Shutter Priority, you need to lower your exposure compensation (+/-) setting when you are photographing subjects or areas with a lot of darker tones. I usually default to -2/3 or -1 stop, then tweak from there depending on the situation. You can even take it further by going into full Manual mode to override the camera’s light meter. Since the lighting is fairly consistent in many dark situations, this is often a great way to shoot.  I do this when shooting at night, in train stations, alleyways and many indoor situations. You can even shoot like this during the day by strongly underexposing your image.

If you notice, in the images in the article, the highlights are represented as middle grey tones. This is called exposing for the highlights and that is a key for making a dark image. Get used to seeing lots of deep blacks and mid greys. It can help to take a file into Lightroom and play around with the exposure to get a feel for how an image can look at different exposures. When shooting in dark situations, which means you will probably be using a very high ISO, you will want to make sure to get the image as close as possible to the prime exposure in the camera. But when you are learning it can only help to experiment in Lightroom to find the exposure that you like the best.

Image: Nightlife Street Scene, East Village, NYC.

Nightlife Street Scene, East Village, NYC.

But what is the purpose of making an image dark? There are a few reasons. The first is that in many situations it can feel more realistic. Night images that look dark feel more like the viewer is actually there. They feel accurate and that can go along way for the viewer. Dark images can feel moody, eerie, dangerous, quiet, romantic, scary, weird, or contemplative. Many backgrounds look more beautiful with the dark shadows and moody lighting at night.

In addition, dark images draw the viewer in. Often with photography, the devil is in the details and sometimes it can be hard to draw viewers in to really look around an image. Dark images do that. As the viewer tries to make out the details, they inadvertently start exploring the image in more depth.

So next time you are shooting at night or in a dark area, think about making that image a bit darker.

Image: Nightlife Street Scene, NYC.

Nightlife Street Scene, NYC.

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James Maher

James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the personalities and stories of the city. If you are planning a trip to NYC, he is offering his new guide free to DPS readers, titled The New York Photographer's Travel Guide. James also runs New York Photography Tours and Street Photography Workshops and is the author of the e-book, The Essentials of Street Photography.