Use the night

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The role of the camera is to present a perspective not otherwise visible; nowhere is this more obvious than night photography. Firstly, because we tend not to shoot much at night since most of us need to spend it sleeping to be functional for work the next day, resulting in both limited subject material and limited opportunity; secondly, because historically the results have always been lacking technically; and finally, because it requires us to train our minds to see in a different way than we normally do: what’s visible is made much more obvious by the ambient darkness, or what’s hidden. Yet shooting after the sun goes down is precisely the kind of thing that yields rich photographic results because it is less common, and therefore fewer images exist of activities that take place at night and are seen by fewer people. Beyond the subject matter itself, there’s the opportunity to present the same subject very differently: be it due to the change in ambient illumination color and direction, or integration long exposure and motion, or at a deeper level, reflecting the changes in ourselves and the way we observe and behave once the sun goes down.

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I think you’ll get little argument from anybody that one of the greatest advantages in photographic technology has been expansion of the handheld photography envelope to the point where there is little to no need for a tripod other than for increasingly specific applications. It’s all to do with the amount of light collected; for a given image quality (read: luminance and color dynamic range, lack of noise) level, we need a certain amount of light. The most obvious solution is either to use a larger aperture or a longer duration, or both. Sensors have also improved and continue to improve – albeit with somewhat diminishing returns as current CMOS technology matures – meaning that less light can get us the same or better results than the previous generation of hardware. There are also ways to cheat computationally. The place where I think very recent advances make themselves felt are not so much on the sensor side as computational photography, stability, and resolving power of lenses at extreme apertures – really a subset of computation given the very complex optical designs required are now far beyond anything that could previously have been done by hand.

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The ability to use a longer exposure with no sacrifice in acuity is probably the thing I’ve found most useful in extending my creative envelope: without having to sacrifice dynamic range, it’s possible to retain the same sort of tonal nuance as during daytime, and control precisely what is seen or hidden in the darker portions of the frame. Directly, a photographer can thus control the level of ambiguity or mystery or speculation and involvement required from the audience. Human nature is to guess at what we do not know; the darker, the more uncertain, the more open to interpretation the image, and the wider its potential impact. However, I digress somewhat: stability also allows us to have exposures long enough to integrate motion blur without having to resort to tripods and thus a much greater restrictions on perspective and reduced shooting fluidity. Whilst working with a tripod slows you down and forces you to be more careful and deliberate with composition, carrying one for extended periods of time is no longer an option to me thanks to a back injury. Fortunately, I’ve actually not needed one since my primary system (Nikon Z) brought stabilisation to every lens I own and use regularly.

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It is incredibly liberating to have the option of shooting at very slow shutter speeds handheld (as slow as 1s for some focal lengths) – not just for the obvious reason of curbing camera shake, or the ability to do long exposure work handheld, but also because practically – extremely fast lenses are no longer a requirement for working handheld in the dark. This brings several benefits: firstly, a significant reduction in weight since apertures and elements can be smaller; a saving in cost as optical designs simplify, and actually deliver higher overall quality. The best examples of this are the latest generation of ‘engineered to a price’ collapsible kit lenses: the optics aren’t where the cost savings are made, since the calculation requires the same amount of effort regardless of the price of the lens; it’s in the materials and quality control.

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However, since ironically the cheaper materials are binary – either a plastic is in tolerance to several microns of its mould or it’s cracked and completely broken/unusable – consistency across a batch tends to be better. And it seems camera companies are doing a much better job of setting up their batches these days; anybody who’s used Nikon’s plastic mount AF-P or Z series lenses will know exactly what I mean. Computational photography for noise reduction and multi-image handheld stacking open up this envelope even further; I can only imagine what kind of results we might be able to produce by coupling an iPhone’s software with a Z7’s sensor and optics: hhandheld astrophotography, anybody? More importantly, the optics are able to deal with the kind of light sources we tend to find at night: direct point, without distracting artefacts. On the subject of artificial light: because it must be consciously constructed, there tends to be a bit more variety and interest than ambient daylight that’s merely bounced around. I find that in developed places, this tends to be well done and deliberately creating an atmosphere that doesn’t otherwise exist; in undeveloped areas, the simplicity of the sources contrasting with what we’re normally used to says plenty in itself.

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Less weight, of course, means you’re more likely to shoot for longer and increase your chances of coming across something interesting. And the nature of how subject matter changes with time of day is also important: you effectively get a fresh set of eyes in your own backyard since the chances of you observing something consistently at night are fairly low; the normalcy filter is removed and it takes little effort to see something different (and thus produce an interesting image). Furthermore, the reciprocal chance of that image being different and interesting to your audience is high since they’re unlikely to have seen it too. It’s also a good way of making the most of jet lag in a foreign city – get up very early or very late and see the place in a completely different light to most visitors, though I admit it’s difficult to implement as one’s body is not very cooperative nor is one’s mind particularly active or facing the right direction. I admit this is something I need to do more of; I have been so used to trying to maximise my productive time (read: with other people) on the ground when travelling that I forget life doesn’t begin when the sun comes up.

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It’s entirely possible of course I am talking out of my behind as those of you (the majority?) live in countries that have seasons and a significant movement of sunrise and sunset times throughout the year; I do remember chasing ever faster lenses when I lived in London to take advantage of the night hours on the way home from work. Perhaps there isn’t anything so new about this idea for some of you, but I’d venture that few in urban locations are in a photographic mood before dawn (but remember to be vigilant especially if visiting less safe areas). Near the equator it’s 7.30 up and 7.30 down – so by the time it’s properly dark, most people have gone home and the cities are dead; there isn’t the same activity as during more normal hours. I think the next time I go out for dinner, I’ll deliberately park a few more blocks away – or take the long way there… MT

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Prints from this series are available on request.

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Comments

  1. Andrew Roman says:

    Maybe that’s another discussion, but why don’t we have an iPhone like software in a camera like Z7? BTW, you have no new plans for educational ventures? Thank you.

    • The cost of the hardware, for starters. Lack of resources for programming etc. Apple is much, much larger than any camera company; they probably have more people working on just iPhone camera software than the whole of say Olympus put together…

      No plans for any more education. I’ve done enough, said enough, and covered just about everything that can be covered in a video or a workshop – and the market seems to have disappeared anyway as people continue to obsess over hardware or drop out entirely.

      • Andrew Roman says:

        A pretty pessimistic view. But, look, we’re here. And you still share your art and experience. A reason to be positive. Anyway, you helped me heal my GAS. Now I can live with a phone, a compact and a Z7.

  2. Paul Richardson says:

    Venice at 4am a couple of hours before a sunrise, one of my happiest and most fruitful photographic experiences. Imagine Piazza San Marco deserted, streets empty and the light trails of boats traversing the lagoon. Uncleared cafe and bar tables telling a story of the Friday night before.

    I only regretted not taking my tripod, though there were quite a few improvisable camera supports available used in conjunction with a scrunched up sweatshirt to align the camera. The buildings are still lit up so the scenes look impressive even in the darkness. I got back to the hotel and went back to bed around 7am. When I awoke later for breakfast the whole episode felt like a dream….did it really happen?

    • Fully agree – I did the same thing about an hour later at 5.30am with an acqua alta; now that was magic!

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      You can do it anywhere – just be careful, though – as you say, the streets were empty – so if there were any “malavite” out there, you would have been easy prey for them.

  3. Ming,
    Great description of the increased shooting window with image stabilization. Hand held pianos are of particular interest to me as lugging a tripod around is just that, lugging a tripod around. Stabilization coupled with ISO performance really has me thinking about the next camera and lens that I buy. Add in image up sizing software and the questions, for me at least, grow.
    A lot of options out there.
    Thanks,
    Claude

    • I assume you mean handheld panos 😛

      Just be careful with the nodal point especially if using a wider lens, since you might have stitching errors otherwise. With panos with larger numbers of images, I’d be worried about coverage, having a row deviate etc. so would probably stick to the tripod. A few shots should with a moderate length lens should work out fine, though.

  4. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Thanks a million, Ming – I love night photography – I’ve loved doing it, now, for over half a century – 55 years, to be exact.

    And digital photography has opened new windows on it – new opportunities all over the place.

    At home, I still use tripods for some of my night photography – but never, when I am travelling. I do tend to treat it much the same way as street photographers do – a single fixed focal length lens, overall weight down, features (like ISO range, electronic shutter, maximum aperture, etc) up.

    There are opps that only work when you CAN access all your junk – like HDR, for instance, which requires a decent tripod – and some shots really only fire with something like a triple exposure/HDR, using an external meter (or trial and error – LOL). But I only do those within range of my home.

    • For me the tripod was more to force me to slow down than anything. With stabilizers and modern sensors and optics you really don’t need it anymore – for most night scenes, f1.4 at moderate focal lengths is handholdable even close to base ISO now. The Z7 (and even more so Z6) and F1.8 S primes have an amazingly large envelope of the kind we could only have dreamed of not even five years ago…

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