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Night Photography

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A ruined castle in the moonlight.

Contrary to popular belief, the most difficult aspect of night photography is actually removing yourself from the sofa and going outside, especially as many of the best shots are to be had on the colder or wetter nights.

Clear skies may provide you with a nice moody moonlit scene, but the sofa will probably be much warmer. A spot of rain can bring concrete and tarmac to life with reflections from shop windows, neon signs, traffic lights and street-lamps, but also makes that sofa all the more inviting. But unless you are heavily into pictures of your sofa at night you are going to have to be brave, wrap up warm and venture outside.


Shops with colourful neon signs or illuminated window displays, especially after a shower of rain because the reflections on the wet ground can be good subjects on their own. Industrial areas with lots of little lights dotted about can look like alien landscapes. Churches, cathedrals and castles are often illuminated at night and can make for excellent images. Remember that, as your exposures are going to be several minutes long, things like car headlights or tail-lamps will show up as streaks of light and any traffic lights in your shot will appear to show all three colours lit at once. An illuminated building next to water is good, any movement of the water will appear smoothed out by time. Fairgrounds and firework displays offer countless opportunities to experiment but so can your local high street.

Another widely held belief is that you are going to need lots of specialist equipment and knowledge, both of which can come in handy, but lacking both shouldn't stop you having a go. So what do you need?

  1. Camera (fairly obviously)
  2. Film (equally obvious)
  3. Night
  4. Tripod (you cannot hold the camera still enough for long enough without one)
  5. Cable Release (helps eliminate camera shake)
  6. Towel (explanation not necessary)
  7. Thermos flask of liquid almost, but not quite entirely unlike tea


Does not need to be anything spectacular, but make sure it has a 'b' setting (bulb on older cameras). This allows you to make exposures of anything from a few seconds to several minutes in length, rather than the fractions of a second you would normally use during daylight or flash photography.


Some may quite reasonably think that a high speed, ultra light-sensitive film is what is needed, but this is not necessarily the case. You might for example use a 200 ASA film and make an exposure of say ten minutes which, depending on the scene you're shooting might well look spectacular. On the other hand you might shoot the same scene on 3200 ASA film, use a shorter exposure time and get a much more grainy image, which may or may not be what you're after.

Don't expect your film to reproduce colours exactly as you saw them while shooting. Films are designed for use within set limits and most work well when you keep to those limits, but at night, you will not. The colour reproduction of most films will be fine when used under normal conditions such as daylight or flash, with exposure times of less than a second, but will become more unpredictable if you expose them for more than a minute or so. Bear in mind that at night you will be working with exposure times measured in minutes rather than fractions of a second.

Also worth considering here is whether you want slides or prints, especially if you are going to use a photo-lab to develop your film. You can get very good results from modern printers, but just as with the films themselves, the printers are designed to work within limits. Those limits usually include well-lit scenes with clearly defined frame edges, pictures of weddings, babies and your holidays. Your night-time shots will not always have such clear edges, will often include large areas of deep black nothingness with bright points of light, and very possibly a strange colour cast caused by the fluorescent, neon or tungsten lighting. Exactly the sort of shot those printers are designed to see as mistakes or rejects. Your prints are likely to be disappointing at best, but take a look at the negatives and you'll get a worse shock. The machine that cuts the film into neat little strips and stuffs it into plastic sleeves works by detecting the frame edges, which yours didn't have, so it just guessed where to make a cut and probably got it wrong. Just to add insult to injury, your prints are covered with stickers telling you how bad your pictures are.

When you hand over your film always explain that it includes night-time shots. They will usually have under the counter a big red sticker that says DO NOT CUT NEGATIVES, ask them to use one. Alternatively you might prefer to use slide film. This will give your chosen lab less to get wrong as there's no printing involved. Try both to see which you prefer.


Entirely up to you! Consider the shots you want and how cold/wet you are prepared to get. It's a good idea to do some reconnaissance and find some likely subjects in advance. Check out possible sites in both daylight and at night-time and be as well prepared as you can.


Almost indispensable. As a general rule, if you use an exposure time of anything longer than 1/60th of a second you need to be using some kind of support rather than holding your camera in your hands otherwise you will get 'camera shake'. As already noted, you will be working with times more in the region of ten or 20 minutes and more. You might get lucky and find a secure, dry place to stand your camera where it will be able to sit still for as long as you want it to, but not often. Best to have a good sturdy tripod with the feet set as far apart as they will go. You could hang your gadget bag from the centre column to give extra weight and stability if it's windy.

Cable Release

However sturdy your tripod, your camera is going to move a little as you press the exposure button. The click or clunk you hear when you take a picture is a little mirror which flips up when you press the button and down again when the exposure is complete. This combined with big clumsy fingers inevitably causes tiny vibrations which can spoil an otherwise good shot. A cable release screws into the exposure button and allows you to make the exposure without touching the camera. It should also have a thumb-screw or some such locking device to enable you to 'lock' the shutter open for as long as you require.


Hold a piece of black card in front of, but not touching the lens. Start the exposure with your cable release, lock it with the thumb-screw and gently let it hang down from the camera (you may want to secure this somehow if it's windy). Allow time for any vibrations to settle and then remove the black card from in front of the lens and step away without tripping over the tripod leg! Start counting and wait. Don't forget to use the black card again to cover the lens when you finish the exposure too!


Generally, if your subject can be seen from a public place then you are entitled to photograph it, but remember that photographers are much more aware of this than that security guard or policeman to whom you simply look suspicious! If you want to wander around the grounds of some factory or other site after dark with a camera it can hurt less if you get permission beforehand and could even earn you a commission. It can be a good idea to carry a few of your best shots with you as it makes explaining what you're up to much easier. Take someone with you, if you can, a lone photographer sat in the same place for a long time, possibly with very expensive equipment makes an easy target for those who really are up to no good.

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