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Photography by night

One of the most interesting techniques captured by the analog camera is the reaction of film during very low light conditions. Yes, you can get some interesting shots using flash, and flash is great for shooting friends or motion at night, but ditch the flash, get a tripod and you’ll begin to aprreciate some of the many interesting effects (many accidental) you can get from shooting at night.

During the daytime our mind and vision work together to create a very familiar view of the world. At night our vision and perceptions are less secure and become much more questionabale. At nighttime colour and contrats are very different from daytime. Sometimes they are the opposite of what we would generally expect. This allows us to see the world around us with alien-like eyes and sometimes creates amazing images.

Night photography is about mystery. Often your eyes are simple unable to see the interesting light effects that can happen outside at nightime because the levels of light a so low. But, with patience and a little bit of luck you can capture these ‘hidden gems’ quite easily.
There is so much you can experiment with shooting at night. Try shooting on transparency film and pushing the processing. Try different speed films, black and white (why not?) or even go for grain.

During the night you generally have to be aware of ‘mixed light’. Unlike the daytime, at night there can often be no primary light source and often in a scene there are two or more types of light. One might be fixed (moonlight, city lights) and another more variable (fireworks, car lights) The trick is to try and balance them. Balance rarely means equal - generally you want the exposure of one light to be roughly a third of the other.

Fireworks are a great way to burn film. Usually you’re looking at a 4 - 12 second exposure and it can often be hit and miss. A tripod os a must if you want clear, crisp images. If you dont have a tripod fix the camera of something solid. Get hold of a cable release too. Its a much safer way of pressing the shutter button without disturbing the camera. Having said that, if you want to experiment with movement and are looking for blurred light effects then you won’t need either a tripod or cable.

It’s probably a good idea to shoot a few rolls of film, rather than relying on one. As we said earlier, it can often be hit and miss so don’t assume you’ve got the shot you’re looking for, that’s part of the mystery and fun of shooting at night. If you’re using 200 speed film go for f11. 400 speed film use f16. If you get the aperture wrong, the fireworks will burn in too much or be too dim - you can’t compensate by longer or shorter time.

Shooting elements like stars or moonlight demands longer exposures. If you want to shoot stars get away from as much light pollution as possible and look at using f1.4 on 50 speed film. This should give you some interesting effects. You will be looking at a 300 second exposure or more depending on conditions and again, use a tripod.

Moonlight is pretty similar to shooting stars. 300 seconds plus 50 speed film on f4. You’ll find you’ll pick up all kinds of things that your eyes simple cannot see, so the effects are very often really surprising.

You can also try lighting a night subject. Place the camera on a tripod and go for a long 100 second plus exposure. When the shutter is open try lighting the subject with torchlight. Move the light around and see what kind of effects you get. This can be a really effective way of shooting static objects, like trees, or a building. If you were shooting a person just get then to stand or sit very still for the duration of the exposure.

All in all there is so much you can do with very limited levels of light. And in fact, the effects you can achieve will really surprise you. It’s fun, interesting and very rewarding. There is something exciting about not having a clear idea of what the end results will be like. Like anything, practice will improve your results so get out there and start experimenting. Have fun and share your results with us.