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Street Photography at Night

by Alli Harper (follow)
Blog (395)      Articles (166)     
Beyond the Blue Hour

Sometimes our local haunts and landmarks are so familiar that we struggle to find different ways to shoot them. It’s easy to lose interest and inspiration.

However, shooting at night can give you an entirely different perspective. Just what does our familiar world look like after the sun goes down?

Digital photography has made it easier than ever to make great images in low light situations. If you are after a new photographic challenge, shooting at night might be just the thing to enable you to try a new approach and to experiment with some new techniques.

Indeed, many photographers have created whole bodies of work using night-time photography to explore this little known world. They have investigated themes of mystery, insomnia and intrigue, while the world is sleeping.

street photography night alli harper photoh
“The Secret” The venue’s bouncer wasn’t happy with me taking this shot. I was outside on the street and knew I’d done nothing illegal but I had my shot so I moved on. © Alli Harper Photographer

Choosing your subject matter

Anything that is lit up, like fountains, buildings, monuments and bridges work well. Skylines, especially if there is water to create a reflection, can look spectacular. Look for reflections and neon signs and play with light and shadow.

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Experimenting with Bokeh by purposefully not focussing © Alli Harper Photographer

Try capturing scenes through windows of shops or restaurants. Can you find a place that is normally busy during the day and portray it differently?

Other subjects that lend themselves well to night-time photography are fun fairs, ferris wheels and fireworks. Use a slow shutter speed to create light trails. Find a place where you can photograph passing traffic or public transport and experiment.

Think about the atmosphere you are trying to create. Are you are capturing things that appeal to you or creating a mood or telling a story?

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A dog with two lights on his collar running around in the park © Alli Harper Photographer

Getting the correct exposure

Lowering your shutter speed is one way to get more light into your camera, but if you are hand holding, there will be a limit to how low you can go before your image loses sharpness.

For stationary objects, it possible to hand hold at 1/60 of a second, and even 1/50 of a second if you breathe in and can hold the camera very still. However, if your object is moving, you will get blur which is also affected by the speed of the moving object. This can either be a nuisance or open up all sorts of creative opportunities.

If you photograph people at a very slow shutter speed they can look like eerie ghosts or disappear all together. This can be a good thing in crowded places where you can use this technique to make them “disappear”.

street photography night alli harper photoh
An example of “ghost figures” 2.5 seconds © Alli Harper Photographer

If you want a very slow shutter speed, and sharpness is important, using a tripod will enable you to decrease your shutter speeds as much as you like. Remember to turn off image stabilisation and to use a remote shutter release, or set the timer on the camera. Even though it doesn’t feel like it, just pressing the button can cause your camera to vibrate, reducing sharpness in your image.

street photography night alli harper photoh
If it’s really late it can be hard to find human figures but they do make a difference © Alli Harper Photographer

Lens choice
A wide-angle lens is probably preferable for night-time photography. Normally, to get a sharp shot, you need to choose a shutter speed at least equal to, or greater than, the focal length of your lens. For example, if you are using a 200 mm lens, your shutter speed should be 1/200, or faster, for a sharp shot.

You will have to adjust your aperture and ISO accordingly and you might not want to work within that range (losing depth of field, increasing grain). Conversely, with a 50mm lens, you can shoot upwards of 1/50 of a second.

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Foggy nights can look amazing. ISO 800, 35 mm lens © Alli Harper Photographer

Modern cameras allow you to use a much higher ISO. At a certain point, the final image will have get grainy but, overall, you will still get a good quality image.

Experiment with the acceptable limits of your camera and find out what level of grain you are willing to accept. You can reduce grain by using post-processing techniques. In Lightroom, for example, there is a “noise reduction” section and to increase luminance. Be careful not to go over board or your image will look unnaturally smooth and artificial.

street photography night alli harper photoh
This image would have benefitted from having a person crossing the road, you can put yourself in the frame if you have a tripod and it’s safe to leave your camera © Alli Harper Photographer

Last but not least…
With street photography, particularly at night, you may encounter people who are curious, or even suspicious about what you are doing. Know the rules that apply in the country or place where you are shooting. Remain friendly but move on if you feel unsafe. Make sure that someone knows where you are and carry a torch and /or fully charged phone.

Enjoy getting out there and trying something new.

street photography night alli harper photoh
Hand held at 1/40 second © Alli Harper Photographer

Alli Harper is a photography instructor for Photoh in Melbourne, and teaches the Teenage Photography Classes.

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