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Darkness exposed

Craig Roberts disappears into the night to explore the wealth of opportunities that are available in night time photography.

Posted: 04/01/2011 - 15:50

The local cinema on the end of the main shopping centre looks a lot more impressive after dark.

The local cinema on the end of the main shopping centre looks a lot more impressive after dark.

As the sun sets below the horizon and day slips into night, all but the most dedicated photographers usually pack-up their gear and head for home. But boy, if you’re one of these you’re missing a treat, as under the cover of darkness a wealth of new photo opportunities unfolds as towns and cities begin to glow with a new, artificial light.

As day turns to night, a transformation happens. Office buildings that once looked quite bland in daylight, spring to life in a colourful spectacle and hundreds of street lamps bathe the streets in pools of sodium lighting. Neon signs flicker into life, flashing multi-coloured adverts and shop names for all to see, whilst pubs and shops radiate a warm glow with their interior lights, enticing passers-by inside.

Cars and buses light up the roads with their red and white beams, leaving trails of light as evidence of their journey.

All these new subjects are just crying out to be captured on film or CCD, so what techniques do we need to look at to capture these wonderful sights?

It’s dusk!

Well, first of all, even though we are talking about night photography here, the best time to actually start shooting these scenes is in the first hour after sunset when there’s still some colour left in the sky.

The deep blue hue of twilight is the perfect backdrop to the twinkling lights and looks a lot better than a pitch black sky.

There’s not long to shoot at this peak time however, as it only lasts around half an hour, so make the most of it and when the sky does turn black concentrate more on detail shots and avoid great expanses of blackness in your compositions.

Ideally, a camera with a B-setting is needed or one that has shutter speeds of two seconds or more, which includes practically every SLR camera in the Pentax range.

Even the Optio compacts have shutter speeds of either two or four seconds, which will still give some great results, especially if combined with a higher ISO rating, but an SLR is more versatile.
An SLR also makes it easier to fit a cable-release, which avoids touching the camera during the long exposures needed. Although, as an alternative, use the camera’s self timer to release the shutter instead, a feature even compacts now boast. Many Pentax cameras also have an infrared remote trigger using the optional Pentax Remote Control F.

Next, because of all these long exposures, some form of support to hold the camera is required and, ideally, this means a good, solid tripod. The heavier the tripod the better, to avoid it being blown in a breeze, but a lightweight model can be made sturdier by hanging a camera bag on it, to increase stability.

There are plenty of objects around that can be used as a temporary support for your camera if you don’t have a tripod. You could use a brick wall, some railings, a bench or seat of some kind or even balanced on top of a waste bin. It’s surprising how many objects, especially around town, can provide a quick support when needed.

A wide variety of lenses can be used for all the different subjects, but a basic kit is all that is really needed. This may just mean whatever focal lengths are covered by the zoom on your camera, but from wide to telephoto, and every setting in between, there will always be a subject suitable for each one.

A wide-angle lens helps to frame any large, floodlit buildings, but be careful to avoid converging verticals when using one. This occurs with these lenses, when you point them upwards, and gives the impression that the sides of the building are leaning inwards.
It’s better to switch to a standard 50mm lens and choose a more distant viewpoint. A telephoto is also useful, especially for picking out details in the scene, such as neon signs, as you can fill the frame with their bright colours.

As mentioned earlier, the ISO setting you use greatly depends on the camera. It’s best, where possible, to stick with a low setting of ISO100 or ISO200 rather than a high setting of ISO800 or more. As the camera will be on a tripod, camera shake is not be a problem and a lower ISO setting enables you to record the vibrant colours as there’s less grain (when using film) or less noise (with digital).

A low ISO setting results in longer shutter speeds which could be several seconds or more, but this is ideal for capturing plenty of detail in a night scene.

A collection of car trails. Below, a famous landmark looks even better at night and I made sure I postioned myself close to the road to capture the car trails as well.

A famous landmark looks even better at night and I made sure I postioned myself close to the road to capture the car trails as well.

This is the view from the multi-storey car park in my old home town. I timed this rush hour view with the sunset as well as a weekday evening, so that the office block would only be lit up.This is the view from the multi-storey car park in my old home town. I timed this rush hour view with the sunset as well as a weekday evening, so that the office block would only be lit up.

I found this bridge above a busy dual carriageway to try out a long exposure capturing the car light trails. 30 seconds was enough to capture this scene.I found this bridge above a busy dual carriageway to try out a long exposure capturing the car light trails. 30 seconds was enough to capture this scene.

Exposure

It’s best to bracket your exposures, even if shooting digital, so that you have a range of exposures to choose the best result from. To do this, first, take a meter reading off the brightest part of the building or subject, although not the floodlight itself. This is where a spot meter comes in useful if your camera has one. If not, take a reading with the long end of a telephoto lens. Taking a reading from the brightest spot is very useful for digital, as you don’t want your highlights to burn out.

Take a photo at this meter reading, then take another one stop above the reading and a third, one stop below. For example, if the initial reading is two seconds at f/8, take a second shot at four seconds and then a third at one second. You can do this quite easily on your camera’s manual exposure mode. If your camera has auto-exposure bracketing, put this feature to good use. Alternatively, the exposure compensation setting will do the same job.

If using film you need to allow an extra couple of stops for reciprocity failure when the exposures are into seconds. This is because film suffers a loss of speed due to the extra long exposure and needs compensating for. Luckily, digital doesn’t suffer this problem. As long as you bracket your exposures enough, it shouldn’t cause you any headaches.

One of the most exciting subjects to try out at night is capturing car light trails. You’ll first need to find a suitable vantage point. A footbridge over a busy dual-carriageway or a multi-storey car park over-looking a road are both perfect. Then, with the camera firmly on its tripod, set an aperture of about f/11 and vary the shutter speed from a few seconds to a whole minute, depending on how busy the traffic is.

If there is a break in the traffic at any point, hold the exposure by covering the front of the lens with a piece of black card. Once cars reappear, remove the card and continue with the exposure. The results can be amazing, but be prepared to take a lot of shots to get a perfect one.

I used the zoom technique on this neon sign to great effect.I used the zoom technique on this neon sign to great effect.

If you have an SLR with a zoom lens, there is another technique worth trying. Zooming during the exposure is a great technique that works well on buildings, as well as neon signs. It involves adjusting the lens from one end of its focal length to the other during the exposure, thus creating a 3D zooming effect with the lights bursting out of the picture.

To do this, mount the camera on a tripod and set an aperture that will give you a shutter speed of about one second. Then, as you press the shutter, zoom the lens from the shortest focal length setting all the way to the longest setting. Make sure you keep the action smooth, or you’ll get camera shake. Again, bracket your exposures at different shutter speeds to achieve the best results. Do a practice run first to determine the length of time you have to rotate the zoom from one extreme to the other.

As the night wears on, look for reflections in puddles, brightly lit cafes, traffic lights and road signs, floodlit bridges and, in the winter months, Christmas decorations.

When you think about it, there’s so much to photograph once the sun has gone down. So, wrap up warm, grab a tripod and head off into the night for the prospect of capturing some truly wonderful pictures.

Words and images by Craig Roberts.

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