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Vast photography experience is surely not required to trigger “long exposures” ideas when thinking about nighttime photography. But slow shutter speeds might not be the best way to go when doing street photos. Therefore, how can anyone embrace the darkness while still shooting fast? That exact question is why night street photography is usually seen as a conundrum for various photographers. And today we want to talk about it!
Here are some useful tips that will help you understand better the mechanics behind street photography under the darkest hours. But remember, it is only practice which will make you better at photography no matter the genre that you pursue.
1. Practical Lighting
This is a borrowed concept from the cinematographic world, particularly understood from the Kubrick and Alcott photographic view. It refers to the use of available lights in your images without the aid of any other source of controlled light. This could be natural or artificial of course, but since we are talking about nocturnal moments, then we’ll stick to the use of artificial sources of lights.
I knew about practical lighting but I recognised it’s true power while working with a photographer named Gabriela Tellez. She was working on a project about local bus drivers in my country, and one day she invited me to join her on the field. She loves to work at a particular time of the day in which the night is still young. She used any available light to work from the buses’ taillights to neon signs, from her mobile phone to close-by light poles. And I must say, it was a mind-blowing experience that changed my way of seeing photography forever.
When you think about it, cities tend to offer tons of interesting lights. From nicely lit shop-fronts to traffic lights; from neon signs to any kitchen’s fire inside a cramped market in your town. Almost everything could be a potential source of beautiful light!
2. Know your ISO
Yup, you’ll sometimes have to crank your ISO up whether you like or not. Personally speaking, street photography usually happens for me at two shutter speed scopes. And they both are quite classical since they correspond to the “sunny sixteen rule“, one ranges between 1/60 to 1/250 of a second, and the other one usually goes from 1/4 to 1/15 of a second. And that’s pretty much it for me.
I must confess that the majority of my shots happen between first (and faster) range. Shooting at those speeds require considerably high ISO values, like 1600 and even 3200 in some cases. The key is to know your camera’s limit and try not to surpass it.
On the contrary to earlier digital cameras, nowadays ones come with impressively powerful sensors; and shooting at ISO 1600 barely imposes a noise problem like in the best. Don’t worry about using high ISO levels as long as you don’t push your sensor too hard.
Since every camera model works in a particular way, it would be important for you to determine how much noise you are able to tolerate. The best way for pinpointing this out is by taking several shots of any dark thing close to you. Increase 1 (or 1/3 if you want) stop of light with each shot, you can cover the whole ISO array of your camera if you like. Then upload all those frames to your computer and decide at which point you start noticing that unacceptable amount of noise. And there you got it, that’s how you get to know the limit of your camera!
3. Generous Apertures
This is the obvious solution for low light situations, or at least the preferable one. But, it’s also the most expensive one to apply. Either way, if you are capable of using extremely fast apertures like f/1.4 or so, then you’ll have more room to play when it comes to fast shutter speeds and decent ISO values.
Some lenses are capable of delivering unbelievable amounts of light with huge aperture values like f/1.2 or even f/0.95. But there is one thing that you must remember about large apertures, it is highly difficult to control them while focusing. Even a small distance can create massive amounts of bokeh, so take that into account.
Although you might consider holding it down for a bit. After all we are doing street photography; and exaggerated amounts of bokeh isn’t exactly a favourite among street photographers worldwide. According to my setup, I’ve found that f/2.8 is the perfect aperture for street purposes during night hours, but I always mind the amounts of light around me in case a smaller value could be used.
4. The City in Motion
Perfectly frozen moments aren’t a must in street photography, sometimes motion delivers a more pleasant visual experience. And as expected, it could be achieved during the night without much trouble. Motion photos can be done in hand-held mode or not, the choice will depend on your taste and creative approach. A tripod could be used but consider that it isn’t the best idea for candid purposes.
Here I’m not talking about long exposures per se but a mid-range that spans from 1/15 of a second to even 1 or 2 seconds long depending on the expected results. Pedestrians and nightlife in general make a great subject for capturing any city’s frantic vibe, and subway stations are a classic of course!
Street photographer’s Pro Tip: Tables, benches and even sidewalks give phenomenal support for our cameras when shooting at slow shutter speeds. Pulling your strap down while shooting creates a very useful amount of tension, and learning to shoot between breathes is also a useful technique.
Light painting could be a creative move, but remember to always deliver a meaningful story with them. Otherwise you’ll just be mimicking the look of many photographs out there, and we need to surpass that situation already.
There are some photographers like Alexey Titarenko or Martin Roemers that have made motion their particular signature. Watch their work for some inspiration, but also read what they have to say about their exposure decisions. Photography is about telling stories and delivering messages with a uniquely universal language embedded within visual content.
5. Minding the Weather
Rain and fog usually give a nice storytelling layer, especially on the streets at night! Places are usually less crowded, offering cleaner scenes with highly interesting stuff going on. Rain tends to create nice ponds on the asphalt, concrete or stones, so keep your eyes wide open for those little mirrors at your feet!
A simple umbrella or a raincoat will be your best friend when shooting during rainy nights. Keeping your camera safe is always a wise call, but that doesn’t mean that you should skip all the fun. Various cameras and lenses nowadays come with weather sealing designs, so make sure if yours fit under this category as well.
If you are passionate enough, you can always rely on the recurrent hazy dawns. Beautiful things happen on the streets between 3:00 to 5:00 am, and you are invited to capture some of them from here on with your cameras. Be responsible though, get a nice sleep before doing this, and please avoid dangerous situations. No photograph is worth putting your life in danger.
6. Don’t be Afraid of Underexposures
The nice thing about nocturnal street photography is that it benefits from shadows, dark tones and blacks being deep and obvious. They are part of the story, and you shouldn’t avoid them. As we learned about photography and stuff, we constantly encounter correct exposure practices that result in balanced or slightly overexposed shots. Here, we could do exactly the opposite, and there’s nothing wrong with it.
7. Use Flashlights with Caution
Sure, practical or ambient lighting could be sufficient for many photographic situations, especially when looking for candid shots. However, there are some photographers that like using flashlights, and of course that’s a valid way to go. Just be careful since flashlights are way more noticeable (and even violent) during night times, so don’t expect to keep yourself in stealth mode while using it.
Some photographers like Philip-Lorca diCorcia have figured out some smart (and expensive) ways for dealing with this by shooting powerful flashes from really large distances on the streets. And even though, he’ve had some legal troubles in the past.
8. Look at Things Twice
Normally we are more used to our surroundings during daytime rather than the night, resulting in familiar places that we don’t fully understand yet. The exercise is quite odd because it will automatically make you look at all the known places with a new, fresh or at least secondary gaze. Allow yourself to be surprised by how different the quotidian looks during the night, and I guarantee you that you’ll enjoy street photography more than ever before.
First thing’s first, so walking is a must. Wander your streets with retentive eyes, explore each corner’s lighting behavior and understand how society flows away from the sun. Things will feel familiar, but they won’t behave in the same way. Even people will be less inhibited on the streets, bars and public transportation.
Some places tend to suffer absolute transformations at night. I’ve seen spots that are completely boring during the day, and they are bursting with life at the latest hours. And vice-versa. Doing a bit of research isn’t a bad idea, especially if you want to avoid massive crowds.
9. Stay Safe
It has to be said, streets could be more dangerous during night times as well. Therefore, try to always keep yourself within the boundaries of safeness. Going solo is nice, but is not always the safest call; consider hanging out with a couple of friends (photographers or not) in order to have a more pleasant experience on the streets.
Approaching the streets with an unobtrusive camera would be smart. Fancy gear is visible from miles away, use a jacket to keep your camera hidden while walking alone, and use a generic black strap without any distinctive logo in it. And as I always say, investing in some really comfortable walking shoes is always a wise street photography purchase too!
One Last Thing About the Post-production Stage
Since the birth of photography, the entire workflow includes post-production. This shouldn’t be confused with the editing phase which is oriented to selecting the best photos for your project. No, post-production refers to all the work that you’ll make to your digital file in order to achieve that mighty desired look. And one thing is certain, all photographers that perform this step have particular ways of doing it.
Although, there is one first step that you can consider before developing your raw file, and this is white balance. Just by adjusting your image’s overall temperature, you can efficiently achieve a particular mood that will help you out with the effort of triggering a particular aesthetic experience in your audiences. Oh, and remember to keep those shadows, dark tones and blacks within rich levels of darkness. Pulling them up too much will result in some odd looks!
Wrapping it up!
As street photographers, night moments give us the opportunity of experiencing an alternate world with almost no effort if compared to traveling and stuff (also we can’t travel that much these days either). It is almost like cheating time and space to some extent, and we have all the rights for taking advantage of it.
When going out during the night, always remember that you are a street photographer working with a very unique lighting condition. Therefore you won’t forget that you are not pursuing cliched light trails nor stars in the sky. Those are other genres and we have nothing against them, but today we are talking about street photography alone!
Keep yourselves safe and we are sure that we’ll start rebuilding a new normality in no time!