Scared of the Dark?
Available light is the life blood of photography. But just because the sun starts going down, that doesn’t mean you have to put the camera away. There’s a whole world of creative image-making to be had when it gets dark. But a lot of photographers shy away from shooting in these later hours because of the dramatic shift in approach and a seemingly entirely new set of things to learn.
Every week I lead a night photography experience in Downtown Los Angeles and open people’s minds to the creativity of shooting during the last light of the day and then on into the night. We hit 4 or 5 different locations over three hours during which we discuss the principles of shooting low light and long exposure shots. We begin right at sunset so we can vary the kinds of shots we get, really exploring the effects of waning light on a photograph and how to make sure you maximize the manual settings on your camera to get the most out of what the light is giving you. Most people are pretty proficient within 30 minutes. And by the end of the night, everyone is making their own compositions and playing with light in unique ways. It’s not difficult, you just have to make the time to fumble through that darkness.
Here I’m going to take you through the major things I cover in the course, including not just settings but also how to focus your attention differently in different light, so you can get going on doing some night photography of your own, no matter where you are.
We’ll go hour by hour, starting of course with…
The Golden Hour
The first rule of shooting sunset, I always tell the group, is don’t shoot the sunset. Everyone has seen the sun going down over the horizon a few hundred thousand times and I’m afraid the world just doesn’t need one more shot of nice clouds in the sky, no matter how beautiful it felt to be there.
The most interesting shots of sunsets take full advantage of the warm, liquid-like evening light to do creative things to a subject other than the sun itself. See the way the yellow glow illuminates the side of the train coming over the First St. Bridge up above here? The sunset is a major contributor to this shot, but only by being a key player, not the main subject.
This “golden hour” of shooting comes and goes like a fast-moving train and the key to shooting here is understanding how this late day light affects background differently from foreground.
In general, this light starts to desaturate background elements, creating a hazy low contrast backdrop to set off your subject from. As you can see in the image here on First Street, those large buildings of downtown Los Angeles act as an impressive but subtle background element. That can help accentuate a subject in very nice ways.
This beautifying effect of high contrast subject in front of low contrast, hazy backdrops can be seen as far back as Renaissance paintings and is often described as sfumato. It’s a good bet that the Mona Lisa was painted over the course of a few 1503 golden hours. And as Leonardo will tell you, these minutes go by fast.
Golden Hour has a specific look — and one you’re probably quite familiar with. It’s such a specific kind of shooting and light that it probably doesn’t even really count as night photography, but it’s worth bringing up here if only to discuss the shift in photography mindset as you transition from day into night.
This golden time is great for photographing people and nearer subjects because, as described, they have more contrast than the background, so they tend to jump off the screen. Also, the low light gives you some very creative back lighting possibilities. But as we head out of Golden Hour and into Blue Hour, that all shifts. Suddenly, those background elements take a much more significant role.
The Blue Hour
This is the cinematographer’s dream time to shoot. It’s a special time of day where available light still allows you to shoot with a handheld camera, but the lights are coming on in the city, offering some dynamic images with high drama.
Notice in the image to the left, the background of the city does not fade away, but plays a crucial role in the image. I’m still shooting with a wide aperture (this will change quickly) and upped my ISO to 1000. This is starting to get the most out of your camera’s low light capabilities.
Shooting at this time allows you to get shots that feel cinematic and filled with drama and soul. And this is the time of day where the night really begins, so often the activity is interesting. People are dressed up, going places with friends and the promise of the night ahead.
Pay close attention to the lights as they come on and how you can use them. They add texture and detail to the shot becoming an integral part of your image’s narrative. In the shot above, this alluring side-lit building at the top becomes a kind of beacon of light for our lady in distress. But in the image below, with an approaching train and a well-framed street lamp (literally 180 degrees from the previous shot), you can see how sometimes light can tell a story all by itself.
At 1600 ISO, I’m getting about as far as I can with my camera before it gets too dark to take good photos holding it by hand. Time to break out the tripods.
There’s this moment, right before it goes totally dark. You can still pull color from the sky while using some long exposure techniques to create something very unique. This moment doesn’t last long, so best to prepare for it by having your camera on the sticks (tripod) and switching over to manual settings, if you haven’t already.
You’ll notice now the city’s lights have come on and, as promised, the skyline plays a much bigger role in the composition. That is really our focus here and, in fact, I’ll focus my camera (using manual focus) on the city itself and lock it to avoid having the camera hunting around for a focus point. This light only lasts a few precious minutes.
So, camera is secure on the tripod, you’ve got your camera locked in focus on the skyline and now it’s time to figure out how you want to use the car lights.
Tail and brake lights tend to create more interesting and better-defined lines than headlights for light trails, so keep that in mind while you compose your shot. And remember, these light trails are going to be long streaks in your image — thinking up how they might affect your image is where you need to start to use your imagination. Will they be leading lines that head up into the city, like above, or maybe something completely different, or abstract? The different lengths of exposure along with the actual physical movements of the cars will create different kinds of lines and that can all be used to create your masterpiece.
Long Exposure Settings
A little break in the action to talk about your camera’s setting in long exposure shots. The main idea of it is that you’re playing with a balance between how long the shutter is open and how big your aperture is. The longer you keep the shutter open, the longer the streak of the car, of course, so that length is part of your decision process. My technique is to count to myself how many seconds it takes for a car to get from the start point to the end point. Then I set my shutter speed to that. I’ll usually just put my f-stop to its smallest size (biggest number) and see how it looks from there, adjusting if need be. This smaller aperture size is a flip from where we were moments ago, when we wanted to have the camera let in as much light as possible with a wide open aperture. Now, the longer exposure times lets us stop down (smaller aperture), which keeps more elements in focus and produces sharper images.
Also, pull your ISO back down to something more reasonable, like 500 or slower. Eventually, you’d like to have it around 100 to 200, as it produces the highest fidelity images.
Okay, you’re ready to shoot. Notice how, with longer exposures, while your eye sees the sky as very dark, the camera still captures color up there. That’s particular to this last light time of day, as your camera can pick up things with these long exposures that your own eyes can’t. This reveal of sky is a real treat for shooters and an opportunity to create something very unique to night photography. You’ll only get a couple of these shots before that specific kind of light disappears for the night.
Last Light photography is a rare little bird where night and day overlap — the sky might look like day, but the buildings and cars signal night. Think about how you might use that little pocket of time to tell a story.
Now, as we head out into the night, your camera is already set-up for long exposure night photos, so your mission is to find locations that allow you to use those streaks of light in unique ways. Some things to keep in mind:
Some spots are purpose built to get you beautiful long exposure shots and now that you know your settings and have your camera ready to go, you can simply show up, set the tripod, re-focus and shoot away. The hard part is finding those incredible spots. Especially in the dark. The two easiest techniques for finding great locations are to search the feeds of local photographers on Instagram or simply do a Google search for “best locations for photography” in the place you’re visiting. Chances are you can find a list of scenic locations for just about anywhere you’re going these days. And these days, through AirBnB Experiences, you can find hosts like me who will gladly show you around.
Do a bit of pre-work before heading out into the night. I’ve learned the hard way — simply getting in your car and going off in search of spots will most likely get you lost and frustrated. Figure out exactly where you’re going and then head off like it’s an appointment.
An appointment with awesomeness.
As a rule, the further you are from the city, the longer the lens you want (longer lenses will get you those big building looks), switching out for wider as you get closer to the buildings. In most of the shots above, where I was fairly far from the city, I had either my 70–200 or 24–70. But for this one closer to downtown, I broke out my super wide 15–30mm. And on some occasions in this spot I’ll use my 14mm prime. As you can see, the composition completely changes here and it takes a wide lens to get to the tops of these buildings, while still getting the trails with the cars along the street.
The Importance of Clarity
In night photography, there is no forgiveness. Most of the time, buildings with lights are in your composition. If your camera moves even a teeny amount in those 6 seconds, you see it. If your focus is off, even a little bit, you see it. Also, unlike daytime shooting where you can usually bring up shadows and have a little leeway with your exposure, there’s little to play with in a final night shot. Very little of your dark areas can be brought up in any kind of appealing way — your shot really is your shot.
Also, in viewing a night shot, the clarity and detail of those little lights in the buildings are a major part of the image’s wow factor. So, proper focus and a still camera are essential here in every shot. In this photo here, you can see what happens when there’s the slightest movement of your camera during the exposure. All my settings where the same as the one above, just somewhere along the line something jiggled the camera — could have been me, could have been the wind, could have been a car. And I didn’t even see that it had happened until I got the images into my computer. This is why keeping your camera still is so important.
In the years of doing night photography, I almost always get a higher percentage of crisp, clear images with my smaller, lighter cameras. There’s a few different factors in this, but it all has to do with the camera’s size: bigger cameras have bigger parts — so that clack when the mirror flips up can cause a teeny bit of jiggle that you don’t notice in a fast daytime shot but is glaringly obvious in a long exposure at night (many DSLRs allow you to lock your mirror up, but if you’re running and gunning, it’s just not very fun way to shoot). Smaller mirrorless cameras, of course, don’t have this problem and so are just easier to manage your clarity with. Ditto the big lenses which can easily cause a drift, even on a good tripod and are also more susceptible to wind and vibrating roads.
Ironically, when you can get your big DSLR perfectly still, it will yield you better results than a smaller-sensor mirrorless camera, as they normally have bigger, better sensors and will handle those lights magnificently — it’s just harder to get them perfectly still. When possible, it’s actually better to put them on the ground and prop up the lens with your phone or something to ensure perfect stillness, though that doesn’t always work with your desired composition.
The Creativity of Lines
In no other kinds of photography do you paint with light this dramatically. As you head off to go try this on your own, you definitely want to get your settings right and your camera still, but that’s all background to your own creativity which should really be the main thing you’re thinking about. As you start to play around with light trails, think about all they can represent: travel, vibrancy, energy, speed, etc. These lines can lead you into a city, away from a city, around it, under it, etc. This is the exploration that will be the most rewarding to you when you get those images in and take a look at them because of just all the different ways these lines of light can help make an image dynamic, artistic and interesting.
As you’ll notice when you’re out there, little changes in height and location make huge differences in your final image. The last image in the series above was with the camera on the ground, so that the lights were as high as possible. In the fourth shot, where you see the light dip down and then back up, there’s only a few feet of space on that bridge where you can see that occur. Finding your spot, angle and position is the whole game of long exposure night photography.
As a final note, it’s important to know that these techniques are only the tip of the iceberg for night photography. While the light trails necessitate a bit of exactitude, it’s a very specific kind of shooting. There’s plenty of others. Just to get a bit deeper into it, here’s a few other kinds of photos to consider as you’re out exploring the night:
Lights can create moments for you at night that peek out of the darkness and paint a very different picture of people and their endeavors. These little fleeting moments mean you have to be on your toes and at the ready. I prefer manual focus in these times because I don’t want to wait for my camera to try to find the subject here. However, in many ways, finding your image is easier at night because it is often the only thing in the light. I particularly enjoy this while I’m traveling and many of my favorite captured moments abroad are after dark.
Try breaking out your nice 50mm with its large aperture settings and seeing how well it can pull images out of the dark.
You can also create the same look if you want to be more purposeful with your shot, by placing a speed light somewhere.
Often on our travels through Los Angeles at night I’ll see photographers with off-camera flash doing portraits in the same locations we are setting up our long exposure shots. A great background is a great background — bringing your own light to it opens up many possibilities.
You can also have your subjects play around with lights, too, and work that into your composition. The mobile device emits light that can be used and a number of companies make small lights that you can work into your image in any number of ways.
The Still Of The Night
And, lastly, one of my favorite kinds of night photos — the long exposure still life.
Sometimes you just want to capture the feel of the night. Nights have a special kind of stillness to them. A quiet. One of the most beautiful ways to capture that is simply to find a spot where you would do a long exposure and, using all the same techniques, take a shot where nothing is moving. In the image above, I placed my car on the road, somewhere around 1am and just got out and took a picture of it. This cinematic effect can be extremely alluring in that it feels like a still from a movie — so while you’ve got a long exposure, the moment is still frozen. I personally love the way a streetlight might illuminate nothing but a small section of road, where what’s really being highlighted is inactivity and the lonely quiet of the night.
I encourage you, as I do all the people I take around on the course, to consider what it is about the night that appeals to you — and never be afraid to go out and figure out how to capture it.
I sincerely hope this sheds some light on the dark art of night photography. Any questions, thoughts or other techniques you like to employ at night, please leave a comment.