Night Photography – History, Techniques and Examples
|April 18, 2011||Posted by admin under Photography|
Growing up in a small town in Canada, I can still remember the sun slowly disappearing into the distant horizon while the streets became completely dark. This was the time when I would run into the house, lock the door and sit on the living room sofa to look out the window into a dusk sky and wonder what was really happening out there. I never expected that my childhood curiosity would one day become a source of inspiration for my camera.
These days, I often sit in a coffee shop at dusk to experience the transformation process as the streetlights gradually illuminate the corner streets. Everything becomes so quiet as daylight slowly fades to twilight. The skin tones of pedestrians’ faces change into a warm color against the long shadows of cars’ headlights. The people on the sidewalk start to act differently in this new environment. Their footsteps are slow and less aggressive, their voices become soft and echo into the warm light. By ten o’clock, the crowded street corners become empty. The only sounds that vibrate in the silent night are the car engines. The dimly-lit streetlights cast shadows of me and my tripod against the backdrop of an urban landscape.
Unlike most people, who pack up their camera after sunset and head home by supper time, I begin my photographic journey. I seek out to capture the places that we all know but really “see” at night. I wander around the city at all hours of the night-sometimes until one or two o’clock in the morning – not because I cannot sleep, but because I want to see how familiar objects such as bridges and monuments transform themselves at night. I also seek to share the secrets of their beauty that are revealed to the creatures of the night.
There is something about night photography that is peaceful and beautiful. Is it the various shades of orange-colored light reflecting on the photographic subject? Or is it the surrounding deep-black backdrop, giving us a new way of seeing color and the use of light? The answer is not really important. Enjoyment of the photographs is the essence of it all.
It is very difficult to get clear detail in highlight areas at night because of the light source, such as a building window or a street lamp, which may dominate the dark background, and therefore produce a high-contrast image. Try using a double exposure so that you can create unique light effects.
Many early photographers were fascinated by the idea of photographing at night, but in the mid-nineteenth century a the slow emulsions in use and the lack of good sources of artificial light made this more or less impossible. Among early experimenters using primitive electric light sources were W H Fox Talbot himself and the great French portraitist, Nadar (Gaspar Felix Tournachon) who as well as using these in his studio, took them down into the sewers and catacombs below the streets of Paris. His exposures were still so long that he used carefully dressed mannequins to stand in for the underground workers.
Chemical sources of light – magnesium wire and magnesium flash powder – in use from the 1860′s – extended the range of night photography, although these were often dangerous to use both from risk of fire and also produced a dense white smoke which could be unpleasant and could take hours to settle.
Night Photography Lighting Techniques
Use very long exposures and a tripod to take photographs at night, or use a flash or studio lights. Learn how to light night photographs in this video on photography lighting techniques from a professional photographer.
Street lighting at the time was mainly by dim and flickering gas lamps, still a relatively novel introduction (the first street in London to be lit by them was Pall Mall in 1807) and brighter electric lights only replaced these very slowly. It was largely the improved speed of the dry plates that made night photography in urban streets feasible, and photographers in the 1890′s – including Alfred Stieglitz in New York and Paul Martin in London – were quick to show their possibilities.
One of the first photographers to be noted for his photography at night was Brassai, a Hungarian living in Paris. In the early 1930′s as well as street scenes using the available street lights he also photographed intimate scenes in the night clubs and bars of the urban underworld, replete with petty gangsters, pimps and prostitutes, for which he made use of the newly invented (1927) flash bulb with a hand-held 6×9 cm camera. His work achieved wide circulation in the book Paris de Nuit, published in 1933, at which time its voyeuristic approach would have seemed extremely risqué. It was this book that inspired Bill Brandt to produce his carefully scripted work A Night in London of 1938.
The Famous Weegee (as Arthur Fellig styled himself) in New York was at around the same time listening in to police radio and rushing to photograph incidents, using flash bulbs and a 4×5 press camera. His harshly lit scenes of crime, suicide, accidents and other sensational events were published in the book Naked City in 1936. Weegee’s style of photography and became a cliché for press photography at first through film and later television, one which has persisted as an anachronism into many films set in much more modern times.
Advances in film speed meant that photography by moonlight was also a possibility. The ‘blackout’ in London during the Second World War gave Bill Brandt the rare opportunity to photograph in a city lit by moonlight only. Fast films now make it relatively easy to work with a handheld camera in city streets at night, and often lengthy journeys into wilderness are needed to escape the light pollution of built up areas.
One spectacular user of flash was O Winston Link, who photographed the dying days of steam on the railways. Giant locomotives with dramatic clouds of steam travelling through the night were photographed in carefully chosen locations using often 10 or more carefully placed large flashbulbs linked by cables to the photographer. This was a tour de force both technically and in encapsulating the romance of an age that was rapidly departing.
There are a number of fine sites dealing with night photography on the web, including both pictures and some technical advice.
Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips and Techniques
Shooting in low light and at night is challenging, but it can result in stunning images, so don’t put that digital camera away after the sun goes down! Start capturing eerie and intriguing photographs at all levels of light with this information-packed guide from renowned photographer and author Harold Davis.
He provides pages of field-tested techniques to help you find the proper exposures, including the best settings for ISO, aperture, and shutter. Don’t miss the intriguing examples of his own work, including cityscapes, landscapes, and more.
Night Photography: Finding your way in the dark
Lance Keimig, one of the premier experts on night photography, has put together a comprehensive reference that will show you ways to capture images you never thought possible. If you have some experience with photography and have always wanted to try shooting at night, you’ll learn the basics for film or digital shooting. If you’re already a seasoned pro, you’ll learn to use sophisticated techniques such as light painting and drawing, stacking images to create long star trails, and more.
The New Complete Guide to Night and Low-light Digital Photography
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