Bright nights, big pictures

Are you an adventurous photographer? If so, why not consider capturing some of your local—or not–so–local—scenery after dark? You can get some remarkable images using only available light, and without too much difficulty either. If you use some forethought and follow a few simple rules you will amaze your friends with the images that you get.

One of the things that used to be of great importance is the speed of film that you used. Now, with digital, all you have to do is manually change the ISO speed of your camera.

If you are taking images that are lit with tungsten light, you must simply change the camera to that type of white balance, if your camera is equipped for such a change. If you are photographing a building with fluorescent lighting, the image will have a green cast unless you either put a 30 magenta filter over the lens or change the white balance to accomodate the type of light.

Another thing to take along on your photo nights is a good sturdy tripod. You will be shooting at some very low shutter speeds , so a device to keep the camera in position while the shutter is open is imperative.

If you are using a digital camera, take the scene at various exposures to see which one gives you the best image. If you don’t like it, just delete it. To check for the correct exposure, check out your camera’s histogram (if your camera shows you one). There are plenty of sites on the web that will teach you how to read an exposure histogram, if you don’t know already.

With the advent of metadata, you can look back over your photos once you’re finished your shoot and see what exposure you used for each photograph. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, metadata is an extensive list of settings that your digital camera records about each picture you take. Reading your camera manual will give you some more information on your camera’s particular metadata settings.

When taking your photographs, try to make sure that the verticals remain vertical. Nothing looks worse than a building with faulty perspective because you tilted the camera to get it all in. Back up if you have to, or use a wide–angle lens. If you’re trying your best and you still make a real mess of the verticals, there are some programs that will correct perspective, Photoshop chief among them. But it’s a lot cheaper just to get it right when you’re out shooting.

Do not worry about people walking through your image—if you use a small f–stop and a long exposure, the people will not usually register in the image. And always remember to set the camera on manual for night photography—that way you are in control of what the camera does.

And speaking of being in control, you definitely want to control bright lights, such as car headlights, coming into your picture; I carry a sheet of black cardboard in my case for such an occasion. I cover the lens with it temporarily if I see that headlights are coming into my image, as often happens when shooting street scenes. Of course, if you like the streaking effect of the headlights, feel free to just leave the cardboard in the case.

I used to use filters when shooting at night, but since digital cameras came into vogue I no longer need to. As I mentioned before, manual focus is key—otherwise the filter may react to the autofocus settings of your camera.

Another handy tool is a small flashlight to see what you are doing—particularly useful when going manual. I use a Maglite, but any small, strong flashlight will do. Make sure that the batteries are fresh before you head out!

Finally and most importantly, be aware of your surroundings when shooting at night. Your camera and equipment may look enticing to unsavoury characters, and it’s a lot harder to see what’s there and what’s missing at night.
Happy shooting!    

Alex B. Wright is a professional photographer.