/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on August 12, 2010 at 11:56 pm
Filed under: classes, photography, top-feature

After Dark: Taking Great Night Photos with Shoot Experience

I recently attended Shoot Experience’s ‘After Dark’ workshop in London, focused on taking better night photos. Shoot Experience has been going for a while with its innovative photography treasure hunts, and it’s now built up a range of courses.

A deserted Spitalfields - no one about, except a dozen mad photographers

The first hour or so of the workshop is class based tuition, and to my surprise there was a fair amount of theory to learn. Everyone had brought their tripods and digital SLRs (no one was working with film), and it was quite interesting to see why people were there. Some people had just started out taking photos, some had been interested for a while but wanted to improve, and one guy said he only ever gets time to take photos on his way back from work so he needs to learn how to work with low light.

So; the rules. Or rather, the things we need to think about when we’re taking night photos; there are no ‘right answers’ but there are some wrong ones!

  • Use a good tripod. To reduce shake, either use a cable release, or use the two-second delay setting on your camera (which puts the mirror up two seconds before it activates the shutter – it’s the mirror in an SLR which makes the greatest impact as it’s a much heavier mechanism).
  • Use a prime lens rather than a zoom lens, for instance an 18mm lens for wide angle photography. Zoom lenses tend to pick up flare, while a prime lens will give you a better quality picture.
  • Make sure you’re not using a UV filter.
  • Use a lens hood and your pictures will come out much sharper.
  • Try, if you can, to use a smaller aperture; if you use f1.4 with a wide angle you’ll get fuzzy corners, whereas if you use a longer time and f5.6, you’ll get a much sharper image.
  • Take photos in RAW rather than JPEG, because then you can fix up the colour balance in Photoshop. (This led to a little discussion on the ethics of Photoshopping – apparently, fixing the colour balance of a RAW photo is regarded by many editors as acceptable, whereas changing the colours of a JPEG isn’t; it’s a difference between selecting from the original data, and actually changing the data in the photo.)
  • Wrap up warm! It can get surprisingly cold at night, even in summer.

I’d immediately broken rule number one for night photography: take a good tripod. Since I was just back from a trip to France, I hadn’t had time to go home and get my sturdy three-legged friend, so I’d borrowed one, which turned out to be rather spindly and wobbly.

Setting up our tripods in front of the Gherkin

During the talk we were all trying out these different techniques on our cameras. I certainly learned that although I thought I’d read through the manual and knew my camera pretty well, I hadn’t really used many of its functions.

We moved on to a very interesting discussion of how to check your images. Never use the LCD to check images; you can’t trust its brightness. Instead, use the histograms to check exposure. We looked at a number of different histograms and discussed what the picture would look like – again, there’s no ‘right’ answer, but if you know what a very contrasty picture looks like, for instance, you can ‘read’ the histogram to make sure you’ve taken the photo you want.

The LCD does have its uses of course; you can check your composition, and you can also zoom in to check that your photo is actually sharp. (That was something I had never realised my camera could do. It’s been very useful since!)

We also talked about the three different ways of adjusting the exposure. You can adjust either the time, or the aperture, or the ISO. There are always compromises. For instance, a higher ISO will give you more noise, but may let you use a smaller aperture making your picture sharper.

And then, at last, it was time to head out to the streets of London. We started off in Spitalfields, trying to take a photo that got the moody, empty atmosphere of the market after hours. Perhaps the first thing I learned, and that was reinforced throughout the night’s experience, is that night photography takes much longer to set up and get right than photography during the daytime. First of all, even in relatively well-lit London, it’s tricky to read the controls on the camera. Secondly, you have to get the tripod set up. And thirdly, you really do need to check and recheck the picture, as the light meter doesn’t do nearly such a good job as you think it does.

Shooting Spitalfield - the beginning of our trek through night time London

We moved on to the Gherkin, where the light shining out through the tinted glass gave us an interesting subject. We also played about with the concept of painting with light; if you take a long exposure, you can ‘paint’ parts of the scene with a torch, and they will stand out. There’s no need for professional lighting kit – even a small mag-lite or a red bike lamp will give you all the light you need. You can even create ‘ghosts’ by walking through the photo and ‘painting’ yourself in at different places.

The sky had still been a deep, dark velvety blue when we started out, and this came out in the earliest photos of the evening. But now it was fully dark, the sky was coming out orange in the photos – really quite a menacing colour. It’s surprising just how much light there is in night-time London, from street lights, illuminated windows, and neon signs – most of our exposures only needed to be a few seconds. (Our tutor told us he’s taken exposures of several hours – but it’s only that dark well away from the major cities.)

An intriguing experiment - portraits against a moving background

We ended up at London Bridge, where we experimented with different lengths of exposure for the same scene. This was one of the most interesting parts of the evening for me. The night sky changed completely as we lengthened the exposure – from drifting clouds to two highlight spots of cloud which looked like UFOs. I hadn’t expected the entire look of the photo to change in that way.

This was where I discovered rule number two of night photography: don’t drop your tripod in the River Thames. Next time you go over London Bridge, take a good look at the balustrade. See those little slots? I was just packing up the tripod when it slipped down and slid gently through the slot… I’m just glad it wasn’t my camera.

Fortunately, the guy I’d borrowed it from thinks that story is funny enough that he’s not really sore about losing the tripod!

The Gherkin with a touch of menace in London's orange after-dark glow

So what did I get out of the course? Did I learn to take classic night shots? No. It’s going to take a lot more to get to that stage, I reckon. But what I did learn was how to go about making my night shots less flaky. Instead of ‘sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t', I now know how to make them come out more often than not, and I know what are the trade-offs I need to make to ensure I get the best shot I can.

Was it fun? Yes – but it was also hard work. Particularly hard to remember that I was there to learn new techniques and not to take one of the many interesting photos that caught my eye… I’ll have to go back to the City soon for a night taking photos using what I learned with Shoot Experience.

And I really was quite impressed by the amount of knowledge we got compressed into a single evening, and particularly the practical knowledge and tips. Some photography courses are a bit vague and soft – this one was absolutely full of crunchy facts and useful techniques. Ten out of ten for Shoot Experience! And nil out of ten for my tripod…

One of the things that surprised me was how colourful the city is after dark

All pictures accompanying this article were taken by me on the Shoot Experience ‘After Dark’ workshop.

Tags: classes, photography, top-feature


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