Tips for Night Photos

by ralph

When the sun drops below the horizon, if you pack your gear and head for the diner you just may be missing the best shots of the day. This is especially the case when you are near cities or towns or other built up areas. Scenes that were a drab mix of gray buildings and blue sky often become a colorful composition of yellow-orange bright areas (where lit with tungsten lighting) against a saturated blue background with accents of color from neon lights, signs, etc.

Timing is important to get the best color and most pleasing effects. Nothing is less interesting than a city skyline taken against a black sky. You lose the shapes and outlines of buildings and wind up with a mass of black with some yellowish marks in it. I find that the sky becomes near-black (and therefore it's too late) around 40 to 45 minutes after the sun disappears although the western sky on a clear night might show a bit of blue for another 15 minutes. (At this latitude, the NE of the US - darkness comes faster near the equator and slower way up north). I personally feel that the window of best light goes from about 20 to 35 minutes after sundown with the most brilliant effects toward the end of that window. Even with experience it's easy to miss the best moment when a rich, deep blue sky outlines brightly shining, lit up buildings so I start shooting before I feel the moment has arrived and continue to near darkness. You will want to use a fairly long exposure to brighten the rather feeble city lights so the sky must be fairly dark.

For night shots, think tripod. Not only are exposures long but often "longer is better" because it enables you to do many special effects. I find that exposures vary from about f5.6 at ˝ for bright streets up to 4 to 12 seconds for not so bright, distant skylines, and this is based on using ISO 100 film. You can use your camera or accessory light meter for a starting point (if it manages to respond to the dim light) but your "on it" exposure is likely to be on the dark side so bracket your exposures mostly toward more - like up to two stops over. There are at least two reasons for this bias to underexposure. The first is reciprocity departure --the film actually slows down with long (dim) exposures. You lose roughly a stop of speed by the time you're down to the 1 to 10 second range and another stop if you run over a minute (which is likely to happen with the smaller f-stops in large cameras). The second reason is that the scene is generally dark and the meter is overly affected by the few bright lights.

At first blush you might think that night work needs faster film but this turns out to be the opposite of what really works. Once you're on a 'pod it hardly matters whether the exposure is 2 seconds on 100 film or ˝ second on 400 film but it seems that the faster films (slide films) have poor color and tone in the critical darker areas. Ditto for "pushing" films. Nothing is gained in the dark areas. Fast films work better in B&W. Most 400 films are fine and some, like the T-Max's and some Ilford films have hardly any reciprocity loss. In fact T-Max 400 seems phenomenally fast, I always wind up "frying" it.

There is some disagreement over whether to use Daylight or Tungsten film. Purists feel that tungsten is more accurate rendering that light neutrally, but that makes the scene a rather uninteresting mix of blue and white.. With daylight film, which I prefer, you still get deep blue skies but now all the tungsten street lighting is a contrasting orangey-yellow. Other lights like fluorescents and arcs are also warmed up. For color negatives just about all the off-the-shelf films will do nicely.

Why are long exposures good? You can fill up dark areas with headlight and taillight streaks, make your own light explosion by zooming during the exposure, or create downward light streaks by slowly and smoothly tilting the camera upward (or cranking down the lens if it's a "P
.") during the exposure. Since the area of the film that would go near black represents unexposed film you can also double expose into these areas with neon or other lights.

There might be some unlit but interesting object in the foreground like a gate, fountain, sign, statue or whatever that could add to the scene. Here again a long exposure is good. All you have to do is open the shutter, walk closer (but out of the frame) to the object with a flash unit, and light it with a "pop", then come back and close the shutter. You can add color to the scene with a colored gel over the flash. If the object is large and the flash inadequate just wait a moment and flash again for another stop of exposure. Unfortunatly it takes two more flashes to add another f-stop (a total of 4 "pops" doubles the distance the flash can carry - unfortunately it requires 12 pops to double it again). Old fashioned flash bulbs are great for an application like this because they put out a huge gob of light. The small peanuts would equal a 400 watt second flash and the big, household sized bulb would equal 1000 ws or more. That's why I keep a bagfull handy when I'm doing special night shots.

Star filters are at their best sparkling up the lights in night shots and multi prisms can also make great effects.

A few things you don't want to be without are; a small flashlight to read camera setting and just find stuff, tape to stick on gel filters, a black card or two to cover the lens when headlights suddenly swing into full blast or to shield the lens from out-of-frame bright lights and don't forget a watch for the long exposures. Bring along the flash even if you doubt that you will use it.

Finally, a note of caution. You really don't want to prowl around alone in remote areas at night with valuable equipment unless you're eager to test your insurance (medical too). Hopefully you can find well lit areas with plenty of people around, from which to operate. Better still bring along a friend to "watch your back". There's a great midtown New York night shot to be had from Central Park Lake. The last time I was there 15 years ago I felt that I was being watched by someone hiding behind a rock (paranoia or what?) I haven't been back since. But not all urban situations go from bad to worse. Over 20 years ago I remember how creepy the dark warehouse district around the base of the Brooklyn Bridge was when I took a Manhattan night view from there. On a more recent return I found that a popular restaurant opened nearby and the spot was turned into a promenade filled with tourists -- even at night.