Change of venue to a walk around the docks in pleasant company, always interesting thing to photograph going on as it is now a social centre for the city. It being evening and ending after dark rather suggested that we take a look at night photography, both with and without a tripod.
On the face of it, night photography is defined by two of the absolute essentials of photography. Firstly contrast, you have to go and find it. It will either be very low, which can make things muddy and ill defined or very high, which can call into question shadow and or highlight detail, losing it mainly. Then there is the whole light thing, rather the relative lack of it and the effect that has on the exposure triangle, camera shake and sensor noise.
Situation is also key. This post is going to look at the urban setting as that is where we were, which sets a very different array of questions than say, photographing the milky way in the Brecon Beacons. Urban settings have more immediate and multiple hazards, multiple opportunities too. That is not to say that you should go prancing around the countryside with anything but due care, it is a far more dangerous place than townies think.
Whereas there is a joy in wondering around looking for photo-opportunities you are far more likely to find them if you know what you are looking for (planned serendipity). Let’s start with the golden hour. The Golden Hour isn’t exactly an hour, it is short hand for, in photographic terms, a quality of light that is a function of the relationship between the angle of the sun to the earth. During that time the colour temperature of the light is around 3500 Kelvin because of the greater depth of the atmosphere it has to travel through.
Now you say, being on the ball, that makes the light bluer than the standard daylight of around 5500 Kelvin and you would be right. That soft quality of light that makes for good portraits as well as land, urban and seascapes (we will ignore sun rise for the purposes of this piece but the golden hour is that which starts around dawn) is a product of the low angle of the sun to the horizon which scatters the blue wavelengths relative to the red/yellow wavelengths which, psychologically, look warmer to us. Think instant no cost tanning. That low angle means long shadows too that are also softer than you will experience later in the day.
The time it is available is limited so there is a time pressure (though no excuse for bad technique, of course). It’s all in the preparation (a point worth repeating). Cloud cover will need to be monitored and factored in too. Knowing when today’s golden hours are, or tomorrows etc, depends upon your planning window, is fairly easy to calculate. I feel almost obliged to mention The Photographers Ephemeris at this point. It also worth persisting throughout the hour because of the speed the light changes is so rapid. ISO’s are likely to be higher and/or apertures wider and the White Balance, which will try to correct to daylight if left on auto, should be set to cloudy to preserve the warmth in the light.
Not that the setting of the sun should stop you, the urban landscape presents a myriad of possibilities, some of these we have spent some time on club outings photographing. The first thing to remember is a piece of advice from Scott Kelby and that is the last thing you do is put the camera on the tripod. Make up your mind what you are photographing, “Working the scene” to determine the most productive angles. Then fix the static element around that rather than restricting yourself the other way round. Handheld is also an option, depending on vibration reduction/how steady your hand/availability of something solid to brace yourself against or set the camera. Another tip I have found very useful is, when holding everything steady as you can, is to shoot a sequence using the motor drive that is built into virtually every camera these days. Five will get you one steady shot more often than not, though there are, of course, limits to what you can achieve. Wide angle are a lot easier to get results with this way than telephoto lenses which, with exceptions, need a tripod.
The lights in the urban environment are both static and mobile. The very wide and the very narrow are both good for picking image subjects. Cityscape panoramas provide, usually, both static and mobile elements. Shop windows, street lights vehicle light trails. Getting high up, windows, multi storey car parks with a view, bridges and alike offer vantage points. Shop windows make for a great free soft box for street portraits. Neon light always sticks out and often uses reds and yellows which are particularly striking and blues can be arresting set on a dark background. Reflections in windows or water are worth paying attention too. The light sources in the scene really are the first thing you should weigh up These are, light trails aside, entirely static. Waiting for something or someone to come along and add interest to it is really quite logical.
Exposure is always going to be tricky at night as we discussed above, because of the high dynamic range that you will be dealing with. This is one situation where it really does make more sense to shoot in RAW than in JPEG (or, if you want your cake and eat it, both) unless your camera is using a version of HDR with a high ISO and a black frame to reduce the noise, which will be a built in function and therefore not one where you have the data format option, necessarily. Noise reduction in camera will slow down the write to card times by approximately the same length of time as the exposure so if you are going longer than a second or so and/or shooting sequences with long exposures it probably makes sense to turn it off and do your noise reduction in post.
Flash has it’s uses, but not if you are trying to be discrete. Nonetheless, meter for the highlights, shoot camera RAW, accept that post production is almost inevitable in these things. Dark images are not necessarily a bad thing, you are shooting at night after all, but the mood after dark is always different. The mood of some people is also rather different so make sure you play it safe. The tripod is a good idea, of course, especially if you are looking at longer exposures, when it becomes an essential, either because of the generally low light levels or because you want to include some blur in your subjects – also useful if you are putting in some zoom blur too – or you are looking to put some light trails in, as discussed above. And we haven’t even broached the subject of light painting.
All in all a great way to extend your photographic day and pretty much what e shall be doing at WSM this Thursday, with the added incentive of it being bike night. See you there.