In the context of photography, there is no better experience than capturing a photo at night. It’s the exciting task of being in the anonymity and calmness of dark, while manipulating a device to properly soak in whatever light is available. It breathes a new perspective into places we visit during the day, often giving us an abstract look at our relationship with light and where it travels. From the technical elements like balancing shutter duration and f/stop, while composing a shot in pitch black, to the sheer adventure of scouting locations and spending hours under stars, shooting at night is relaxing and rewarding.
My first attempt at capturing the evening, I walked out my front door and into downtown West Chester, sometime around 10p.m. on a Tuesday. It was the perfect time for foot and car traffic to be thin enough to not obstruct, yet just enough to capture something interesting. I fully pretended I knew what I was doing, and that attitude actually lent to a pretty successful trial and error session. I got to understand the camera more, that first time out, not thinking about what I was doing, but rather comparing the results with the settings after. Though I snagged a few shots I still enjoy today, the time I clocked in understanding the camera was the most valuable part.
My second time out brought me to a land preserve at 2 in the morning, sneaking along bridges made of stone, across creeks and into a wild that doesn’t exist during the day. A cream tone moon washed over the landscape in a menacing way, painting the scene so eerily it allowed my nerves to awaken, but its guidance was invaluable in paving the path. Shadows were cast in such a way that the contrast of objects appears subtle; the world has a soft cool feeling of middle grey, with color becoming apparent only after spending enough time for eyes to adjust. From gravel to grass, everything I stepped on had a new and dynamic sound. I was substantially less prepared this time around, yet the result has a whimsical quality that represents the night well. The shots are completely wrong in terms of clarity, exposure, stability . . . and I don’t care.
The most recent night odyssey I took was a combination of thrilling journey, outstanding perspective, and a weeee bit illegality. Sometime in mid-March we witnessed the conjunction of Venus and Jupiter. At the time, my mind was itching to sneak back into the night with camera in hand; this rare occurrence lighting up the sky was more than enough motivation to get me out. Properly packing the car with snacks, a light coat, and a flask, I set off to see if I could get an interesting view of the sky from a nearby dilapidated paper mill. Where I ended up was not at the mill, it was some 300 feet in the sky, atop an abandoned trestle bridge.
I’m quite familiar with the bridge during the day; I drive beneath it daily to work, and my weekly mountain bike rides typically trek across it. It’s massive, old, and sketchy as hell. And for some stupid reason, I found myself ditching the paper mill plans and climbing towards the top of the bridge. Getting to the bridge requires a 30 minute trip up an overgrown emergency access road in the woods, past tires, and around toppled trees. The bridge has been out of commission for quite some time, splintered railroad ties, debris, and broken safety fences are scattered about. When I wasn’t dodging gangrene infected shards of steel, I was looking for the multiple holes I knew were in the structure, so as not to find an expedited trip back to earth. But between potential trespassing charges and death, the view at night was completely worth it. The breeze crests across the top, charged from the wind tunnel effect of the valley below. The lights from homes mimic the pulse of stars above, and the sounds of cars fade fast as they woosh far below. Suspended in air, an invisible voyeur to the world below.
Here are some tips that will hopefully give you some guidance, if you decide to become a ninja of the night with your own camera.
- Dress and pack accordingly: If you are uncomfortable and cold, you’re gonna have a bad time. I always keep a backpack on me that includes a light sweater, light wool gloves, water, snacks, and booze. Dress for utility and purpose, no one gives a shit how cool you look at 2 am in a field or factory.
- Tripod: Take it a step further and invest in a wireless remote. Any movement is bad movement, and the less your hands are on the camera, the better your photos will be.
- Bulb Mode: Some cameras don’t have this feature, and if yours doesn’t, I’m sorry. Typically found on most DSLR’s (and possibly on more advanced point and shoots), bulb mode lets you drag that shutter indefinitely. The magic comes when you can properly balance your ISO and f/stop to achieve the look you want, while keeping the shutter open long enough to hit proper exposure. Tip: Some people experience burnt pixels in their shots if their shutter is open to long, you don’t want this as it will not only hurt your picture, but potentially your camera as well. I typically balance my other settings to allow the shutter to never go over 1 minute, and that’s worked for me.
- f/stop: Play with your aperture and you’ll find the look of light in your photos will change substantially. The lower your aperture (higher the f/number) the more detail and clarity you’ll see. I like to start around f/11 and adjust accordingly. This is how you get those great streaks from passing cars.
- ISO: Adjusting the sensitivity of your sensor is crucial in nailing a good mix of shutter duration and high f/stop for a proper exposure. Some DSLR’s can nail insanely high ISO numbers while maintaining a sharpness, but I find strength and perfection in anything lower than 800. With my night shots, I’ll typically toggle between 100 and 200, if it makes the difference in using the f/stop and shutter duration I want. If I still can’t get proper exposure, ISO is the first I sacrifice. If you’re shutter duration is creeping past 1 minute and your f/number is getting lower than 5.6, don’t be afraid to start cranking that ISO to get the look you want.
- Composition: When you first pick your shot, you’ll find it incredibly difficult to get a grasp for how the scene will look through the lens. Instead of toggling your settings and standing around for a few minutes, only to realize your shot is horribly composed, crank your ISO to max and snap a quickie. It will give you a fast and bright example of how your shot will balance once your settings are dialed in.
- Note book: Write down specific settings in relation to the photo you took. This will allow you to record what settings give you proper exposure, allowing you to have fun adjusting them from there, as well as reference to further your learning when you have everything on your computer in front of you.
There are far more technical details to get into, as well as elaborations to the tips I made, but hopefully this will give you a starting point to successfully tackle your first night out with the camera!