I Spotted a Werewolf with a Tripod: The Joy of Night Photography

I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.  ~Vincent Van Gogh

I cannot walk through the suburbs in the solitude of the night without thinking that the night pleases us because it suppresses idle details, just as our memory does.  ~Jorge Luis Borges

Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas.  ~J.K. Rowling, “The Egg and The Eye,” Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, 2000, spoken by the character Mad-Eye Moody

Learn to reverence night and to put away the vulgar fear of it, for, with the banishment of night from the experience of man, there vanishes as well a religious emotion, a poetic mood, which gives depth to the adventure of humanity.  ~Henry Beston

Moonlight is sculpture.  ~Nathaniel Hawthorne

O radiant Dark!  O darkly fostered ray!  Thou hast a joy too deep for shallow Day.  ~George Eliot, The Spanish Gypsy

Night is a world lit by itself.  ~Antonio Porchia, Voces, 1943, translated from Spanish by W.S. Merwin

There they stand, the innumerable stars, shining in order like a living hymn, written in light.  ~N.P. Willis

Night time is really the best time to work.  All the ideas are there to be yours because everyone else is asleep.  ~Catherine O’Hara

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I often think I was a Werewolf (with a camera) in another lifetime, because there is something about nocturnal photography that I find so intoxicating.  If photography is “writing with light,” then taking pictures at night is poetry.  For she is mysterious, evocative and so very alive.  And like poetry, what she doesn’t reveal to us often tells us more about her than what she does.  For the subtle truth of her humanity hides somewhere between the shadows and light.

At night, the world reveals itself to us in a completely different light—both figuratively and literally.  Subjects that we may take for granted during the day, often come alive during the night.  For example, what we see as just a beetle during the day, transforms itself into a firefly at dusk—magically illuminating the night sky like pixie dust.  Is this still a bug we ask?   Or has it become a metaphor for something more?   For what nostalgic stories does the firefly tell of our childhood; of those timeless moments when life stood still; of frolicking in an open field on a sweet smelling July night as the warm breezes passed through us like electricity.  For what does the night tell us of ourselves; our dreams; our curiosities; our fears?

Cabin in the Woods (West Virginia)
Cabin in the Woods (West Virginia)

Whether by moonlight, streetlight, candlelight or even flashlight, there are infinite opportunities for interpretive storytelling when the sun goes down.  Like Minor White’s theory of Equivalence, nighttime often gives us a unique opportunity to express our innermost feelings in a way that yields specific suggestive powers that can direct viewers of our photographs into a specific and known feeling, state or place within themselves.  And if revelation of self is the raw material of art, then the night is our creative muse–inspiring us with its majestic and illuminating resonance; allowing us to become totally enraptured by the passage of the experience itself; opening us up to the truth of the moment.

Harvest Moon Over Artist's Point (Yellowstone, WY)
Harvest Moon Over Artist’s Point (Yellowstone, WY)

For those of you who take a more mindful approach to your photography, nocturnal photography truly embodies the Zen Aesthetic, which is wabi, sabi, aware and yugen.

Wabi is a sense of solitude or tranquility–and in some cases deprivation, loneliness and quiet sadness.  At night, don’t we sometimes feel more detached, alone or vulnerable when we don’t have the comforts of the passing day to distract us? And sometimes, the night brings us a sense of quiet contemplation in which to reflect.

West End (Pittsburgh, PA)
West End (Pittsburgh, PA)

Sabi is the suchness of ordinary objects, the unmistakable uniqueness and simplicity of a thing in and of itself.  Like a black and white photograph, does the night not focus our attention on the very quintessence of the thing were are looking at?  For even a small light can be seen from miles away in darkness.

Aware is a feeling of nostalgia, a longing for the past.  For like the passing of the seasons, the night reminds us of the fleeting nature of our own existence.

Yugen is mystery, the hidden layers of reality.  For what is so obvious during the day, becomes even less so when cloaked in darkness.  Even the word “mystical” means, “neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence; beyond ordinary understanding; in communion with the ultimate reality or spiritual truth that transcends human understanding.”

Big Butler Fair (Western PA)
Big Butler Fair (Western PA)

As photographer sages, we hold the power within ourselves to reveal the mysteries of the night that often lie hidden under the banal surface of ordinary existence.  To hone this, we must maintain complete and open receptiveness to the world around us with our whole being; embracing the flow of the night without judgment or discrimination as it spontaneously unfolds before our eyes.

Epcot Celebration
Epcot Celebration

Maybe it’s the shadowy silhouette of a tree theatrically cast against the side of an old building; branches outstretched like human arms.  Or maybe it reveals itself looking through the dirty window of a diner at 2am as an old man slowly and purposefully sips on a hot cup of coffee.  Maybe it’s that ornate lamp enveloped in soft warm light that is peering out onto the street from an open second floor window, or the reflection from a neon sign in a puddle.  For some, it’s the interesting geometric shapes and forms all around them.  For others, it’s the graceful streaks of starlight painted against a darkened sky with the faint hint of a distant glowing city on the horizon.

Ferris Wheel at the Big Butler Fair
Ferris Wheel at the Big Butler Fair

For shooting during the day is only one half of life’s equation.  If photography is an extension of who we are, then aren’t we denying ourselves when we put our cameras away as the sun goes down?  For the night is filled with so much wonderment and adventure–and a visual treasure trove just waiting to be discovered by the werewolf in us all.

Outer Banks, NC
Outer Banks, NC

Addendum: So, what would any blog posting about night photography be without some good practical tips to get you started?  Here are 21 to chew on, arooooooooooooooo:

  1. Be safe.  Bring a friend or two.  Don’t travel into questionable areas (especially under a full moon, lol).  Take a cell phone.  Dress accordingly.  Shoot on a full stomach.
  2. A steady tripod is absolutely necessary unless you plan on shooting at ISO 1600 wide open using a fast lens.
  3. Try to avoid shooting on a windy night to avoid long exposure tripod shake.  Turn off lens VR when using on a tripod.
  4. If your camera has it, shoot at the highest bit rate possible (e.g. 14 bit).  You won’t need frames per second (FPS) speed at night.  Shoot using NEF/Raw if you have familiarity with this file format.  More data gives you more editing flexibility, and ultimately better quality images.
  5. While base white balance settings can sometimes be adjusted in post processing, it’s always a good idea to take a few pictures at different settings to see what look you get (and want).  Often, I will shoot using Sunny or Tungsten, unless the prevailing lighting is specifically different, such as fluorescent or incandescent, for example.  Many scenes contain mixed lighting.
  6. Cable or remote shutter release is recommended.  If you do use a remote shutter release, radio controlled versus infrared line-of-sight is preferred.  Use mirror lock up if you have it.  Use self timer when all else fails.
  7. Similar to day shooting, use the lowest ISO you can get away with. It’s all a trade off.  If a low ISO is going to result in an unusually long shutter time, you can consider boosting it, although more noise is always associated with higher ISOs.  Low ISO night shots can look remarkably sharp.  On the flipside, noise can add a certain grittiness and mood.
  8. If your camera has it, focus using Live View.  If shooting a landscape-type image, try and find a distant object to focus on (use digital zoom to fine tune).  Once focus has been achieved, switch camera and/or lens to manual focus so that the camera’s autofocus does not hunt in the dark.  A bright flashlight can always be used to help achieve focus in closer proximity scenes (e.g. shine it on a close tree line, for example).
  9. Regarding flashlights, I have one that also includes a red filter.  These are great, because you’ll be able to adjust settings without hurting your night vision.  Flashlights are fun for night painting too.  In a long exposure, try painting an object the last few seconds of your exposure.  Adjust timing as necessary.
  10. If shooting distant scenes with no reference focus point, you’ll have to manually set the lens to infinity focus (using the lens markings).  Infinity focus does not always ensure perfect focus (sometimes perfect focus is slightly before and/or after the infinity mark, rather than right in the middle).  Try this during the day and see where the perfect focus mark ends up.
  11. The rules of aperture are mostly similar to day photography.  If shooting a landscape scene, around F/11-F/16 is always a good place to start for good depth of field, although you may have to open up your aperture wider if the corresponding shutter time is too long.  If shooting using a short focal length/wide-angle lens, you can get away with shooting real wide open because the depth of field is naturally deeper.  If you’re looking for the starburst effect, F/19-F/22 works great, although there’s always the risk of blown highlights.  There really is no perfect aperture, as it depends entirely on what you’re shooting, your focal length/lens, and your goals.
  12. Use a lens hood to reduce extraneous light lens flare.  I would ditch the UV and/or clear protective filter too to minimize potential flare issues.
  13. People in your night shot?  No worries.  While you may not be able to freeze them in action, the longer shutter speeds will either make them disappear altogether, or will turn them into ghosts—which can add a lot of drama.  Adjust aperture to get the movement effect you’re seeking.
  14. High ISO Noise Reduction.  I keep this setting on low.  Usually this feature does not kick in until ISO 800.  Often, my ISO 800 shots look better than my ISO 400 shots for this reason, although in-camera NR can overly smooth out fine details.  Most of the time I’m shooting at ISO 100 or 200, so high ISO NR is not a factor.  Having it set to low allows me to conservatively add any additional NR during post processing.
  15. Long Exposure Noise Reduction (sometimes called dark frame subtraction).  The camera will take an additional identical exposure with the shutter closed and will subtract out the dark frame image. This basically is meant to eliminate hot pixels and other artifacts (but not noise).  In my experience, I haven’t found this to be particularly useful.  And having to wait double your exposure time can be a pain.
  16. Sometimes the best night images happen at dusk (as twilight changes to night), when the darkening night sky is nicely balanced with the foreground—and there’s still enough light left to provide some foreground and rich sky detail.  Extremely dark nights can sometimes be a challenge.
  17. Consider bracketing, especially if you’re interested in an HDR composite.  Bracketing allows you to cover all of your exposure bases–substantially increasing your likelihood of nailing the perfect shot.
  18. Compositionally, look for interesting lines, reflections, shapes, forms, shadows, colors, tones, rhythm, etc.  Watch how your photo is balanced—as overly dark areas in a photo create negative space, and you’ll need some brighter parts in the image to balance things out.  But most important, look for sublime and magical light to capture.
  19. Watch for highlight blowouts.  Use your histogram.  Because you’ll be shooting at night, it will inevitably lean to the left (towards shadows).  Some highlight blowouts may be unavoidable depending upon what you’re shooting.  This is ok so long as they don’t dominate the scene.  On a similar note, underexposing the scene too much can pull in noise.
  20. If you’re serious about night photography, check out one of my favorite expert websites (The Nocturnes):  http://www.thenocturnes.com/resources.html.  You’ll find some illuminating resources on this comprehensive website.
  21. OK, I should have ended at 20, but 21 is a lucky number.  Lastly and most important, have fun!  Turn off the damn TV and computer and get your butt off the couch.  CSI or Amazing Race can wait.  Facebook and Twitter can wait.  You’ve got some cool night pictures to take!

 

  1. Big Butler Fair (Western PA)
    Big Butler Fair (Western PA)

 

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