The Special Nature of Night Photography

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The blizzard of 2016 is upon us. I am hoping the wind isn’t severe during the latter hours of the storm so that I can take some night shots of the blizzard before everyone steps all over the snow. Yes, I know. It’s insanity, but that’s how much I love night photography.

Most photography is about capturing the beauty of a moment or a scene. Light plays an essential role in magnifying that beauty. Night photography is much more than that to me.

Night is defined by the absence of the greatest light of all, sunlight. When you photograph outdoor images after the sun goes down, you attempt to capture the precious beauty usually hidden by night.

How many times have you walked outside in the night and needed to let your eyes adjust so that you can see your surroundings? When light appears it is stark, almost like a splash of paint in an empty negative space.

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Today’s digital cameras use sensors that are more sensitive and can better capture those details in the dim night. Many photographers use wide-open aperture settings to try and brighten the scene, often sacrificing detail in the foreground and background. But I think the real value of today’s full frame digital cameras are their ability to read deep amounts of light data across a nightscape at small apertures.

These long exposures can produce fantastic photos. If you have the patience to set up and sit by a tripod with a remote trigger for 1/2 second, eight seconds, 30 seconds or even longer, you can capture some amazing, stark, color-rich night shots.

You will see the subtle oranges of the not too distant day, the blues of an LED light, or the yellows of a tungsten bulb. Shadows dance across the scene hinting at deep colors of green or brown. Stars and planes twinkle in the night sky. Metal and glass reflect the scant light available creating mirror images. Streetlights and beacons in the distance proclaim the nearness of safe harbor if you can just traverse the nightscape before you.

It Takes More than a Smartphone

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The beauty of well-executed night photography is exceptional and rare. These pics stand out in a world filled with everyday black and white street photos in photo forums, grumpy cats on Facebook, and selfie shots proliferating Instagram. It is extremely difficult to capture a fantastic night image on a smartphone, at least with the current models (and here come the pics in my comments section).

Instead, a photographer must know her or his camera well, how the light impacts a landscape or an object, and the best ways to capture the essence of a night scene. Heck, in some cases you may even paint the scene with your own artificial light (flood or flash light, for example). Even then, you must know how to edit the RAW file produced by the camera and bring out the color, tone down light flares, and highlight details that may still be hidden in the shadows.

Night photography is truly an interpretation, a visual art form that cannot be minimized by popular technology. You have to have a vision of what you want to see, and you have to know how to shoot.

Here are thee tips beyond the usual (e.g. get a tripod and a remote trigger) for those who want to take their night photography a little further. I will warn you that one of these is unorthodox.

Spend the Time

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Serious enthusiasts and pros tend to shoot manual. And as most of them will tell you this requires a balance of light sensitivity (ISO), how far open your lens will shoot (aperture), and shutter speed (length of time it takes to capture your photograph).

In the most well lit situations you are photographing at 1/60th of a second or faster and at a relatively low light sensitivity. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO vary depending on how much depth of field a photographer wants to expose. These are the benefits of artistic choice in normal photography.

With night photography, to get a workable capture you need to make some sacrifices. You have to shoot with a very shallow depth of field. Or your need a high ISO, which can make your photo extremely grainy. Or you need a low shutter speed, which in turn can require a tripod and trigger release to avoid shake. You may need a combination of these things.

I almost always choose to make my sacrifice with time. I prefer an extremely deep field with lots of detail for landscapes, so sacrificing on aperture is a no-no. And I hate photos that are too grainy, so I prefer a lower ISO setting.

I usually ignore the advice of experts who say to shoot between f8-and f16 to maximize lens sharpness. Frankly, my camera sensors are good enough to make up the difference, and I want as detailed a nightscape as possible.

Most of my night pics take between 5 and 30 seconds. In some cases, long exposures at night can take two minutes or more. This gives me the most detailed RAW file possible for editing. And that in turn allows me to bring out the best in my nightscape photos, at least that’s what I currently believe.

Don’t Spend the Time

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There are always exceptions to the rule. In my case, as much as I love a well defined nightscape, if I am photographing the moon or an outdoor action scene, I don’t have the luxury to go for a long exposure. I will open the aperture to f9 or 11, and then try to make up the balance with the ISO setting.

The above photograph is a Super Moon shot from 2014. The photo was shot at f10 at 400 ISO over a half a second. I am certain the focus was on infinity as the shot was taken at 160 mm. I may have done myself a favor if had shot it for 1/4 a second or even faster, and upped the ISO accordingly. The detail in the moon would have been better.

Nevertheless, the focus was on capturing a moon shot that was detailed and yet not too bright. This is the primary issue with moon shots, overexposing the subject. It was a fine line, because I also had to capturing the much dimmer Washington Monument to give the photo context. This was an extremely hard shot, one that a long exposure would have simply ruined.

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Another example is when you want a shallow depth of field. The above Little Snowman pic is an example. I wanted the focus of the shot to be on the snowman and not the Jefferson Memorial. With this one I went for an extremely shallow depth of field (f1.4) and let the lens render the Memorial as a bokeh blurred background. CNN, HLN and local TV picked up the photo for their iReport, social media and broadcast properties, respectively.

When to Break the Rules

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Digital photographers rely on their histogram to tell them when a photograph is well exposed. Most schools and experienced photographers will tell you to shoot and correct to get a balanced histogram. Some would even tell you to overexpose in a dim situation and correct later. Be careful. Instead, I am going to tell you to make your own educated decision when it comes to night photos.

I have corrected and overexposed photos to meet the mantra and almost every time I am disappointed with the result. Usually, I get a night photo that looks like a day shot or a sunrise/sunset pic.

My point is that if you are taking a night shot, it should look like it was taken in the blue hour or at night. The above frozen river picture was a two minute and 12 second exposure. It was dark outside, really dark. The photo looks like it was dark, too, but you can clearly see that a sunrise was approaching on the horizon.

Below is the histogram.

Histogram

This chart makes sense to me. There really wasn’t a lot of bright things to balance the histogram. When I went to correct it, the scene looked like it was moments before the sun peaked. In reality it was a half hour before sunrise. Sometimes you just need to break the rules.

I believe this to be true even when things are white such as buildings or snow, like the previously mentioned snowman shot. It is my view that night shots should look natural as if they were taken at night with delicate, yet illuminating light. The histogram should be secondary in the editing process.

What do you think about night photography?

Choose Your Own Adventure

Susan Murphy wrote a post a couple of months ago called Choose Your Own Adventure. The post played off the children’s book series to discuss how social media really provides people the opportunity to opt-in or out of any particular group or conversation. But really social offers a larger Choose Your Own Adventure principle, which is break rules when you see fit and reap the benefits or the consequences.

Social media winners, at least during the pioneer stage, represent a group of entrepreneurial spirits who went out and broke away from established business norms to create their own voices. People like Arianna Huffington and Jack Dorsey.

D.J. Waldow and Jason Falls talk about breaking marketing best practice rules in their book The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing.

We live in a time when pundits dictate the way it should be, where best practices dominate conversations. From a business standpoint, the only rudder should be customers and a brand’s larger community.
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