10 Insights from One Hour’s Street Photography at Night

I love looking at other people’s night photos but I rarely take them myself. The night does not fit the style of photography I’ve been using for the past few years.

However, if you bear with me, I think I can still shed some light on street photography at night. It’s not rocket science. Apart from the darkness it’s essentially the same as street photography during the day.

The idea for this one-hour project came to me suddenly. Yesterday, I was drinking a cup of coffee when I noticed the rain had stopped. I’d been writing for most of the day and suddenly felt in the mood to go out and get some shots. But darkness was falling and I am ill equipped for night photography.

The High Street of this ancient town is only three hundred yards away from my house, so getting there was no problem. The Christmas lights were still on and there were plenty of people on the street. I wondered, could I really get any decent shots with my relatively slow (f/2.8) lens in the single hour at my disposal before dinner-time?

Before I left home I set the camera to ISO 1000, which I think is as high as I care to go on my system without encountering too much noise. So that’s my first tip:

Insight One: Set the ISO as high as your camera can cope.

If I were to take up night photography in earnest I’d buy a suitable camera system for the purpose. My Canon 5D3 and 40mm lens are far from ideal for night shooting. At the end of 2016 (the time of writing) the best option would be the Sony a7SII with a Batis 25mm, although there are many other cameras and lenses that would be better than what I’m using.

Insight Two: If you can, use the right gear!

My first subject (above) is the composition I had in mind when I set out. I’d noticed that buses sometimes have a light in the driver’s cab when people get on board. If I could combine this with one or two passengers, a foreground object, the Town Hall in the background and some people walking towards me on the right of the frame then I’d have a good shot.

Yes, it would have been easier to get this shot with a Leica Q or the above-mentioned Sony, but I did my best — squatting down and resting my elbows on my knees to eliminate camera movement.

Insight Three: If possible, rest the camera on something steady.

I couldn’t avoid blowing a highlight in the Town Hall clock (it’s just been cleaned!) but I’m not entirely unhappy with the photo. I’m glad I caught the last vestiges of daylight disappearing in the western sky.

Insight Four: Shoot at dusk, don’t wait for full darkness.

Finding other subjects was more of a challenge. It was getting darker and there were fewer illuminations in the back streets of town.

I waited for these three young women to step into the small area lit by a shop window before pressing the shutter button.

Insight Five: Use all available lights, especially shop windows which tend to have the brightest side-lighting.

Looking at the image I’m now struck by the fact that at night-time the digital camera sees much more clearly than the photographer. I was only dimly aware of the gesture made by the person on the left. Was she telling her friends: “I think we’re being photographed?” They didn’t seem to mind if they were.

Insight Six: The photographer needs to get accustomed to working in deep shadow. It’s harder to see moving subjects.

As night progresses, colours all but disappear from the shadows, leaving the street photographer with colour only in pools of light from windows or directly from neon lighting. Because my town is not particularly well lit, owing to the council’s reluctance to spend tax-payers’ money (which it prefers to squander elsewhere) I had trouble finding places where I could use colour, without which I’m somewhat lost. I don’t see the world in black-and-white.

Rebelling against the lack of colour I sneaked a shot through the window of a “party store” where the proprietor seemed to be preparing for an onslaught of five-year-old artists. There were so many stickers on the window I had difficulty in taking a (fairly) clean shot, but I quite like the crazy effect of: “This is all getting on top of me.”

Insight Seven: If you want colour at night, you can still find it! (Note: this is not a serious photo. I’m just illustrating the point!)

I took much the same approach with this photo of a Turkish barber’s shop. Yes, I know many heads of the customers and the barbers are partially hidden — but my intention was to allow them their privacy rather than wait for them to show their faces.

Insight Eight: Brilliantly lit shops can offer glowing colours with good white balance; but be respectful. Shooting into shop windows is more intrusive at night.

In some ways I prefer this shot to the last one I’m showing, which is in black and white out of necessity rather than choice. I hasten to add that none of the shots, except possibly the first, would be ones that I’d normally place in an online gallery. I’m just using them as illustrations for this article.

Outside the closed Apple store I found a man selling hamburgers from a stall. The subject has little intrinsic interest, but one customer was turning her face in my direction without looking directly at the camera and so I took I took the shot.

It’s a curious composition, along a diagonal line from the little girl with the defiant stance on the left, through the face of the central figure to the stall-holder who is looking back in that direction. Unfortunately, there’s no corresponding diagonal from top left to bottom right, but at least the image has a little bit of coherence in black and white. It doesn’t work at all in colour.

Insight Nine: Night photography is tailor-made for black-and-white. Patches of light and deep shadow cry out for monochrome treatment.

So how can I summarise my one-hour experience of night shooting? In a word: enlightening! I think I gained enough insights (some of which I’ve shared with you) to take me further in this style of shooting.

Big cities, where I normally take street photos, are so intensely illuminated I don’t often encounter all the difficulties of shooting in semi-darkness. Coping with a new set of challenges was fun. With this in mind, here’s my final insight:

Insight Ten: Even if you’re happy with the style you’re gradually evolving, don’t be afraid to step away from it now and again. The experience may surprise you.

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