Night Shots

I’m always happy to run outings or learning sections by other accomplished photographers who wish to share their experiences with photography or traveling in the Asian theatre.  Tom Tweedel is a good friend with significant experience in China and has self-published several interesting volumes of his travels in China complete with many great images and informative narrative.  A few months ago he visited Thailand for the first time and I had a great time showing him around the area.  When Tom told me he’d like to share some of his work in this weekly I was both excited and grateful.  I hope you enjoy China through his lens as much as I have.  For those whose plans include extend to travel in China I’d recommend contacting Tom and inquiring into obtaining copies of his books.  Tom Tweedel is an Austin, TX based photographer and can be reached at tomsds@austin.rr.com

Intro

Shooting night shots can be one of the most interesting and rewarding ways of shooting the urban landscape. With a little bit of equipment and know how it’s not that difficult.

To do a night shot you're going to want a tripod and a head to hold your camera on the tripod. A good tripod setup should be part of every photographer’s arsenal of gear. Tripods vary tremendously in size, quality and price. If you’re serious about photography you should check out this article on how to select and buy the proper tripod. Better support will give you sharper pictures, but any tripod capable of supporting your gear without wobbling will do the job.

Remote Release

If at all possible you should use some type of remote release when doing long exposures. The smallest amount of vibration from pushing the shutter or even taking your hand off the camera during the exposure can ruin a picture. If a remote release is not available try using the time delay feature on your camera.

Settings

There are a few guidelines about settings that can be useful in night shots.

Shooting Mode

Shoot in manual mode. This will give you the best control over your exposure.  Shooting in aperture mode with exposure compensation dialed in can achieve the same result as your exposures become longer it gets harder to control.

Aperture

For the F-stop you should use the sharpest F-stop setting on your lens. For pro grade glass this is usually F5.6-F8. For consumer grade lenses it is F9-11. Those are fairly small apertures so you’ll have to extend your shutter speed to compensate.

ISO

For your ISO you’ll want to use the lowest, cleanest ISOs unless you absolutely need a shorter shutter speed or smaller F-stop.

Shutter Speed

In most cases the shutter speed is going to be the main way you control your exposures with. On a tripod long shutter speeds are not a problem. One time when they might be is if you’ve got moving objects in the scene. If your shutter speed is long moving objects that emit no light of their own (like people walking) won’t show up in the picture at all. Objects that emit light (like cars) will only show up as a streak of light. You may need to alter your shutter speed (and therefore your F-stop or ISO) to get the look you want.

Shorter speeds will give you more detail of those objects while longer speeds will yield less detail and streaks of motion.

Mirror Lock Up

If your camera has a mirror lockup feature use it. The vibrations from the mirror slap can degrade image quality in long exposures.

White Balance

Setting the white balance in a night shot can be a tricky thing. Many times there are multiple light sources in the scene. Sodium vapor street lights, neon signs, florescent office lights, headlights and more. You should probably experiment with different white balance settings to see what color set gives you the best results or just leave it at Auto. Chances are you're going to have to compromise on some sources to get others right.

Setting Your Exposure

One of the choices you have to make when doing night shots is what your exposure is going to be. Thinking about your exposure for night shots you can break the scene down into three types of lighting: Direct, Indirect and Ambient

Direct lighting

The light of the actual lights themselves. You might want expose for direct lighting when shooting neon signs, outdoor Christmas lights and other scenes were the color and pattern of the light is the emphasis.

Night Shot

When exposed for direct lighting the lights and strongly illuminated areas are clear and colorful. The reflection is very sharp. There isn’t much detail of the building other than the black space between the lights.

Indirect Lighting

Light directly reflected off buildings and surfaces and is usually significantly dimmer than the direct light. Your scene will be defined by glow of objects illuminated by that light.

Exposed for indirect light

When exposed for indirect lighting pulls up some of the detail of the building, gives a hint of the surroundings but at the cost of the color and detail of the strongly lit areas.

Ambient light is the background light on surfaces that are not directly lit. It is usually dimmer than indirect light. You might use this if you’re trying to show shape or texture of objects that don’t have any lights on them.

Exposed for ambient light

When exposed for ambient light you see the details on the building as well as what is along the edge of the canal. It even captures some of the glow created by the dust and smog ever present in most Asian cities. The lights and the signs are completely blown out as a consequence.

Bracketing

When shooting night shots it’s a very good idea to bracket your exposures. You may not know what the best exposure is going to be for a scene at the time. By shooting a 3 or 5 stop bracket you’re almost guaranteed to have whatever it is you’re looking for. You can also use the pictures to create a HDR image if you want.

HDR image of a night shot

HDR Image using a 5 shots, 1 stop apart in exposure.

The Best Time for Night Shots

When visiting foreign locations you may not have the luxury of planning when and where you can take your night shots. But if you do here are some things to keep in mind.

The Golden Hour

The best night shots are not actually taken at night. They are taken in the hour around sunset. Thirty minutes before to thirty minutes after is the rule of thumb. During this time period the level of ambient illumination is dropping below that of the city lights but is still enough to be a factor in the picture. It’s also the time when the sky tends to take on a nice pleasing blue glow regardless of the weather. You’ll get more dramatic scenes as a rule.

Golden Hour After Golden Hour

It’s not Asia but it illustrates the point. Two pictures of the same scene, during the golden hour, one after.

After the Rain

If it rained earlier during the day, especially in the late afternoon you’re in luck. A good rain will wash out some of the smog and haze that dominates the skyline in most Asian cities. You’ll get a clearer, crisper shot and if you're lucky some dramatic clouds.

If it just rained (or it’s raining on and off) you can make the most of it by looking for reflections of light on the slick streets and sidewalks.

After the rain

The lights of Quianmen street reflected off the rain slicked walkway.

A Cold, Clear Winter Day

If you’re doing cityscapes, winter is a good time to do them, especially when it’s cold. You’ve got a lot less heat being emitted by the cooling concrete and winter air tends to be dry and cold. As a result you should have less atmospheric distortion, shimmer and smog than at warmer times.

Thank you Tom!

Steve