Night Photography

First off, let me tell you that I don't know any secrets about Night Photography. I'm jotting down some of my ideas now because over the years I've been frequently asked for tips about Night Photography, and rather than replying over and over again, I thought I'd see what I know and what I don't know.

Well, having been a philosophy student once, I like to start with a definition. What is Night Photography? I'm not even sure of that. For instance, does it include 'the magic hour' that time when the sun is just below the horizon and the lights of the city are turned on? Or does it really mean that it is Night? Well, no matter, the ideas are the same so let's see what I know:

Consider this Part One - About Film. Some of it applies to digital and some doesn't.

1. A sturdy tripod. Obvious but worth stating. Many exposures are long, perhaps 30 seconds, perhaps two minutes. A slight breeze that can shake the lens at any time during the exposure will not be good.

2. If you are using an SLR with a mirror, it is nice if you can 'lock up' the mirror first. If your SLR doesn't have a mirror 'lock-up' you may be able to accomplish the same thing with the self timer, or by placing a card in front of the lens, opening the shutter with the 'B' setting, and then moving the card away.

3. The longer the lens, the more magnified any shaking will be. For example, a 300 mm lens on a 35mm camera, where the shutter is open for two minutes means that you had better not have wind shaking the lens.

4. Contrast. Night Photography tends to be contrasty, and this means that you may need to slightly over-expose and under-develop the film. In Zone System terminology this is N-1.

5. For long exposures, you need to imagine what anything that's moving will appear like during that two minutes exposure. A plane flying by in the background may appear as a streak of light. It may be nice, it may be distracting. People walking by in the picture may not appear at all. Night Bus and FDR at Night were really experiments with blurs.

6. I can only talk about black and white film. I have had the best results with 400 film at night. 100 film often leads to very long exposures, and in my experience (depending on developer) tends to be more contrasty. Lately, I've gone back to using Tri-x 400 for just about all my film shooting. I expose it @ 400 ASA and develop in Ilford DD-X. That's just my current personal preference.

7.You've got it on a tripod - use a cable release.

8. Take notes. Try and record your shutter speeds and aperature if you can so that when things turn out badly you know how to correct them next time.

9. If you can, use a spot meter. This is almost always true if you are working on a tripod with various tones. Take a look at the zone system, a big subject in itself.

10. Bracket like crazy, or at least bracket. In other words, if you think the proper exposure is 30 seconds at f4, then try it at 15 secs, and 60 secs, etc.

11. Remember the reciprocity factor. When you get into long exposures, the xposure doesn't always increase in ratio to how much light the film receives. For example, Kodak recommends that if the exposure for TMY is 100 seconds, you should give it one more stop. For ten seconds, you should increase exposure by 1/2 stop. This is all available on the kodak site.

12. And of course, all of these rules can be broken. If you have a nice fast lens and fast film, and a rangefinder, you can probably walk around and ignore many of these rules.

Last updated: 1-20-02

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