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Night photography (01/04/2004)
By Tom Hirsch

Night photography could be called Available Light Photography Outdoors After the Sun Goes Down, because that's what it is; but this gets pretty wordy, and we like to keep things as concise as possible.

Everything related to available light photography also applies to night picture taking, including fast film, natural appearance of the subjects, and all the challenges.

A wide variety of subject matter lends itself very well to night photography. Consider such things as fairs, carnivals, amusement parks, campfires, interesting store windows, floodlighted buildings, Fremont Street or The Strip in Las Vegas, lighted fountains, Christmas decorations outdoors at night, and sports events under the lights. For a different viewpoint after an evening rain, go downtown and aim your camera at a puddle of water to get the reflections of city lights.

In night photography, a common factor is lights. They illuminate the scene, and if included in pictures they can be very interesting, colorful, and unpredictable. Fluorescent and mercury vapor lamps produce a green cast, incandescent lights photograph yellow, automobile taillights provide a red glow, and headlights will show up as white or amber in a picture. Combining two or more of these colors can result in some striking effects.

Because of the unpredictability of exposure in night photography, take a shot using the camera's meter reading, then compensate by using the backlight button; or if you have an SLR, increase exposure one or two stops. With many compact cameras, this can be done with the Exposure Compensation Bar.

An alternative method of compensating for exposure with any camera is to use a substitute reading. Point the camera toward a subject of similar brightness, but with more subdued lighting. Press down part way on the shutter release to lock in the exposure, then, still pressing the shutter release, recompose the picture and finish making the exposure.

With the above method, find a substitute subject that is approximately the same distance from the camera as the intended subject because locking in the exposure also locks in the distance.

When photographing landscapes or distant cityscapes at twilight, start shooting well before the sky goes black. A good time to begin shooting is about ten minutes after sunset when the sky is still fairly bright. If you wait too long, you'll miss some nice highlights in the scene. Also, if the sky goes too dark, you lose separation between the scenery and sky. The result is a flat, two-dimensional image rather than a scene with depth. Consider the fact that our eyes quickly become accustomed to the darkness, but the film or memory card does not.

Shutter speeds are slower in night photography, so you'll want as much camera steadiness as possible. Night photography is an excellent way of getting used to using your tripod or monopod.

In spite of all the precautions and challenges presented in the last three articles, available light and night photography aren't difficult; they are just different from daytime or flash photography. They are also fun and rewarding, and for many subjects and events they're the best, if not the only, way of getting pictures. 


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