I love getting out at night as a photographer. I have long had these nocturnal preferences. Part of it is due to work; I work all day and therefore my nights are the time I have most free. Part of it how much quieter and less crowded things are at night. There are places I can go during the day that can be a zoo of humanity but wait 45 minutes after sunset and you will have it all to yourself. And part of it is the reminder I get by photographing at night that the day is composed of 24 hours and all of them can be used to make pictures.
Photographing at night can be both a challenge and an opportunity. In terms of the technical challenges (how do you expose or focus, for example) I think photographing at night is one of those things that seems harder to do when you are on the outside looking in, and once you do jump in you discover it actually isn't as tricky as you thought it would be. A good example is exposure, which can be tricky at night. First off, some meters aren't sensitive enough for low light and if you do have a meter that can read in the dark, meters tend to overcompensate night scenes because of the large areas of dark shadow. On the other hand I spent a year photographing the bridges of Portland at night and I never even carried a meter with me, I learned how to judge night scene exposure with just my eyes and memory. Here is how I did that. For that year I was using my Hasselblad 500C and whenever I went out at night I always took the same film with me: Kodak Tri-X. So in regard to exposure, by using the same film I was pinning down ISO at a constant 400. All my night photos for that year were done at ISO 400. Secondly I decided to always use the same aperture: f11 in this case. Why f11? Why not? It was a middle aperture, so toward the sharper side of lens performance, it gave good depth of field and as smaller apertures tend to do, it produced a nice star effect with street lights. But really my motive was to create a second constant and pin my aperture down on the same setting. With both ISO and aperture nailed down, my only variable was shutter speed and before too long I learned that almost every urban night scene I found myself in fell into two or three shutter speeds: 8, 15 or 30 seconds. It became much easier then to recognize a given scene as one of these three shutter speeds and when I did wander into a darker or lighter scene I could extrapolate based on experience. It simplified nighttime exposure vastly. Instead of trying to deduce if a scene was 30 seconds at ISO 100 and f5.6 or 4 seconds at ISO 400 and f8 I just had to remember the one number. Of course, the instant feedback of digital cameras makes this process even easier and many photographers have access to this tool and use it regularly, but wanted to do this project on film and that was how I approached it. To this day I still use that experience at night to gauge exposure by eye.
As for what opportunities night photography has to offer the most important I would suggest is the opportunity to see a place in a whole different light (pun not intended). Think about it, most of the places we go and see we do so during the day. By the time night falls we are often home or maybe out for dinner, or asleep. We sleep most of the night away so it stands to reason that most of the adventuring we do in the world is during the day. Now think of all those places you have seen during the day and make note of how many of them you have also seen at night. There is going to be some overlap, but there will also be a lot of gaps. I used to teach a class on creative photography and one of the lessons I gave was about recognizing patterns in our photographic behavior. I would have the class envision a photograph of Multnomah Falls and ask them to describe that image and all the choices at their disposal in terms of determining how that image would look. They often thought of the obvious options: focal length, color vs black and white, long shutter speed, vertical or horizontal, etc. It was rare though that someone would notice that the image everyone pictured of Multnomah Falls was a daytime image. So how many places can you think to photograph that you are only thinking in terms of day, and for each of those places wouldn't a nighttime setting offer a significantly different perspective?
One aspect of photographing at night that has begun to especially intrigue me of late is the notion of the camera as a "light sponge". So often we look at night scenes and think "dark". Of course we do because it often is dark. But our cameras can soak up light. With a long enough exposure we can make even the faintest illumination be as bright as the sun. I have seen some great photography over the years by photographers using long nighttime exposures to create images that at first glance look like they were made in the middle of the day. I am always fascinated by any photography that shows me something I cannot see with my eyes, so the ability to render dark, nighttime scenes much brighter than they are has been a topic of exploration for me of late. I have two images in particular I will share with you. The first is of a locally famous tree here in Portland, Oregon. I found myself in front of this tree on a recent snowy evening. It was full night by the time I arrived and the park was mostly quiet and empty. The scene was already bright due to the ambient light of the city reflected off the heavy overcast cloudy sky and the white snow blanketing the ground. I made an initial exposure of about 15 seconds but after that I thought, what if I really drag this out and overexpose it. So I fired off a second exposure that I let run for two or four minutes - three to four stops overexposed from my initial calculation. My hope was that I could overexpose the park and sky into a white field and set the tree off against this white backdrop so that it would be more isolated.
The second image I made while on a spring break vacation with my son up on Camano Island in northern Washington. We spent our days hanging out, playing games, talking and doing other father/son stuff and I tried to keep my photography to a minimum so that I could focus on the time with him. But as soon as he was in bed for the night that freed me up to go wander the beaches of the island. The week we were there alternated between cloudy and clear and on one particular night I had a patchy cloud cover that intermittently let through the light of a full moon. I set this exposure up not intending it to turn out as bright as it did. I think I underestimated how bright the moon would be and was following my own rule of thumb: "When in doubt, overexpose". The resulting image could easily be mistaken for a daytime photo but if you look closely at the sweeping clouds in the sky you can see the faint glimmer of star trails.
So where does this take us? In truth I could say a lot more about my experiences photographing at night, and I generally try to, I just do it via photographs I have made and share on one social media platform or another. And I try to also be sensitive to how long I have kept you sitting or standing here reading this. So in the interest of approaching a conclusion here I want to mention that I have a class coming up on September 8th and 9th at the Pacific Northwest Art School on Whidbey Island in Washington. The class will run from 5:30-10:30 each day (despite the hours currently posted on the website) so the first day will begin by covering the fundamentals of lowlight photography, the challenges and how to overcome them, inspiration and ideas followed by some time on location before it gets dark to get familiar with the area and then photographing well into the evening. The second day will start with a review of the previous day's images, feedback and critique and how to apply the learned experience to the second night of photography and back out we shall go. I have taught these nighttime classes before and it is a subject I really enjoy teaching, as is hopefully apparent from the mini-essay you have just read. So if are in the area, or want to travel to the area, and spend some time after dark with cameras and me hop over to PNAS' website to sign up.
In the meanwhile, I'll leave you with a couple more images to enjoy. Thanks for reading!