The Challenge of Night Photography

And – An Update of my Focus52 Week40 Challenge:

My on-going Focus52 challenge of shooting at least 1 or more shots, per week, for 52 weeks and posting them on my Flickr web-site is continuing. So far, I’ve only missed one week; #39 – Not because I didn’t go out and shoot something that week, I did, and came back with some Awesome Autumn shots. I just plain forgot to load the images to my computer and post photos that weekend. Good memory is not one of my virtues.

This weeks Prompt or theme was Shadow. Shooting with shadows as your prominent compositional feature is nothing new in photography, though it is one of the more challenging ones. Shadows can be an interesting part of your image. In fact, in a workshop a year or so ago, instead of working with light, we actually produced a photography workshop that was called “The Absence of Light” – Concentrate on the shadows & darkness, follow it, how do they work in your image?

This week, due to inclement weather most days (we are known for our gray skies & rain after-all), it’s a bit more difficult to shot with nice shadows unless I shot inside with lights. So, remembering that previous challenge, I went for scenes with an absences of light, but added an additional twist – Night photography.

There’s an amazing open market in downtown Seattle called Pike Place Market, which has a very long and interesting history dating back to 1907.  Over a century old now, Pike Place Market is internationally recognized as America’s premier farmers’ market and is home to more than 200 year-round commercial businesses; 190 craftspeople and approximately 100 farmers who rent table space by the day; 240 street performers and musicians; and more than 300 apartment units, most of which provide housing for low-income elderly people. “The Market,” as the locals affectionately say, attracts 10 million visitors a year, making it one of Washington state’s most frequently visited destinations.

Besides being a great shoppers experience, it is a photographers dream too. By day, there are so many colors to shoot, from farmers vegetables to gardeners flower arrangements. And for those that enjoy street photography, you’ll have a constant smile on your face, as there are always 100’s of colorful people to shoot all day long. But at night, it is a completely different challenge. Not only are there many unique things to see, beautiful neon lights, decorative street lights and yes, interesting people. There are also large areas with an absence of light as well (some of them a bit spooky too).

Two challenges were immediately apparent (well three actually, if you count trying to find a decent parking space, that wasn’t in a spooky unlit area) – The first was a need for long shutter speeds, which meant a tripod was required and 2nd, getting a proper exposure balance between neon lights and dark buildings. Oh yeah, trying to get the camera to focus in this low light. I guess that would be four challenges.

But wait, there’s more. Remember, it was a Saturday night, so all the night-life activities of an active downtown were in full swing and there was a “High school Home-coming” going on somewhere in the area, so lots of dressed-up teenage boys & girls were out and about too.

Wondering around with a tripod with a nice looking DSLR on it, trying not to trip anyone, set-up a unique shot, wait until there’s no one staggering in front of your camera, shoot!  – Ah, 13 sec exposure at f8 and 5 people walked by, slowly I might add – Agh!, do it again. A fun atmosphere to say the least.

Toss in the barely standing drunk who jumps (staggers actually) in front of my camera screaming “take my picture! I want to be famous!” And the inevitable question we all get, no matter where we’re standing, just because we have a camera on a tripod – “What are you shooting? I don’t see anything over there”.  I got it all that night.

OK, OK, back to the main reason for writing this – Shooting in the absence of light. Luckily we get to shoot digital now, which means we can review our shots right then. It’s kind of like reminiscing, but quicker.

My first issues were focus. Cameras like to have lots of light and a distinct contrast from which to determine a focus. A black sky, black buildings and neon lights in parts of the scene that the little focus points aren’t looking at, do not make make a camera (or photographer) happy. So, Plan B is to either change my camera’s focus point to one of the neon bulbs (most cameras can do this, just look in that manual you’ve left in the junk drawer of your kitchen), or, what I do most of the time – Focus and recompose.

What this involves is, loosening up my ball-head mount, moving the camera over so that the center focus point is over something I’d like to be in focus, hold the button half-way to lock the focus, then, while keeping the button held down, move the camera back to the composition I want, lock the ball-head back down and fire. It takes a bit of practice, but I’ve become very good at it. For me, it’s much faster than moving focus points around, as every shot’s going to have a different focus point. So again, compose your image, focus and recompose, then shoot.

Another advantage of the “Focus and recompose” trick – Your light-meter on most cameras, is on that center focus point too. So again, find you composition first (finding your composition is another whole post that I’ll get too soon), move your camera as needed to get the center focus point over the main object, hold the shutter button down half-way to allow your camera to focus and measure light. Continue to hold the button down as you recompose, lock your camera down if on a tripod and fire.

I know, I know. Most cameras have an “Exposure Lock” and a “Focus Lock” feature. These are great too. Dig out that manual and look them up, mine has it too. I’ve just never used them. I’ve gotten so adept at the focus and recompose routine, that that’s a much faster way for me to shoot. Try them both, and find out which one works best for you.

Now, even with the above techniques, it’s still not going to be perfect. Look at your images as you’re shooting. Are the lights blown out? Over exposed? Blurry? Try turning your Exposure Compensation down a notch or two and shoot again. Still blown out? Lower your compensation again and try again. Shooting at night is a lot harder than you may think. Those bright neon bulbs or shop and street lights will trick you camera’s meter into doing something that you may not agree with. So, either learn to shoot in Manual Mode, or shoot in Aperture Priority and use your Exposure Compensation. Often, depending on what you’ve metered off, your image may be too dark too. Just add some + Exposure Compensation, rinse, repeat as needed.

Another trick, which I had to do a couple times that night is to bracket your shoots. Simply put means to shoot multiple images and different exposures. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’ve got it exactly right when looking at the LCD panel on the back of your camera. So, to hedge you bets, take extra shoots and choose the best when you get home, throwing the rest away. Oh yeah, the 2nd best tool for a photographer, with a tripod being the first – Is a trash can. Immediately throw all your bad images away. Study what went wrong, then throw it away. Otherwise you’ll soon end up with a full hard-drive a no longer needed photos.

Shooting multiple, bracketed images also allows for HDR processing too, which is another great tool for scenes with extreme lighting ranges, like this one. But that, is another post.

Good night, and again – Thanks for coming by.

Tony D. Locke, MM

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About masterofmadness

Semi-pro photographer & musician. Co-own a photo gallery with a digital photo-lab in a small tourist town, on an island in the Pacific NW of USA. I also teach and ongoing series of workshops in photography, Photoshop and Apple computers. I shoot mostly landscapes, in the mountains - Giving me a great excuse to go climb them. I also do a lot of fine art, macros and abstracts.
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