Life After Dark: Helpful Advice for Night Street Photography

To no one’s surprise, the topic of light is relatively common in Light Stalking; Browse the archives and you can easily find lots of helpful tips on shooting during the golden hour, shooting only with ambient light, shooting at night, working with long exposures, doing light painting, etc. Likewise, you can find helpful articles on street photography. So, what if there are loyal readers of Light Stalking who want to know about night photography and street photography? Together. Night street photography? Street night photography? Either way, it’s a thing and you’re shooting in ambient light without the aid of natural light.

Photo by Sascha Kohlmann

Night adds a new dimension to the “ordinary” street scene you’ll encounter during the day. This is true almost everywhere, but applies especially well to cities; In the city environment, colors and streetlights and colorful lights abound, radiating from neon signs, streetlights and lampposts, car headlights, storefronts, and even people with their cell phones. Speaking of people, they tend to dress very differently at night than they do during the day, another feature that will draw you and your camera into the amazing world of nighttime street photography.

Photo by J_P_D,

If street photography after dark is something that interests you, then the tips below are for you.

And be sure to thank Sheen Watkins, this was the idea; I just put the words on the page.

Gears and Settings

Perhaps the two most inevitable questions about night street photography have to do with which camera to use and camera settings such as how to set the exposure for this situation. Manual mode works fine but if you know the shutter speed you are going to use you can even use shutter priority mode or for the desired aperture value you can shoot in aperture priority mode. Always shoot raw.

Camera – The most practical and to-the-point answer is that it almost doesn’t matter what kind of camera you use. Use what you have. So many cameras available today — from mobile devices to full frame DSLRs — are capable of at least decent low light photography. Of course, the better the camera (bigger/better image sensor), the better it handles post-twilight street scenes. This doesn’t mean you have to use a DSLR. Convenient camera weight and size are important considerations when doing street photography and there are a number of high-performance cameras with small footprints out there.

Photo by Sigfrid Lundberg

Lens – If you are using an interchangeable lens camera body, equip it with the fastest lens you have. Many street night shooters consider f/2.8 the maximum; anything narrower than that can severely limit your shooting options. In terms of focal length, the ever-popular 50mm lens is perfect for street photography night shots, especially when it has a wider aperture. If you have a 28mm or 35mm lens, you can choose one over 50mm, as wide-angle lenses make it easier to take handheld shots at slower shutter speeds.

tripods – For me, a tripod is out of the question in this scenario and street photographers like to travel with the light. If you’re not doing long exposures, I recommend leaving the tripod at home. If you want your street photography to embody a sense of spontaneity, having to deal with a tripod all the time will kill the dream. That’s not to say that nobody has had success using a tripod in their style of street photography; it really can work especially for sharp images. If you’re ready to take a more careful approach and want to incorporate some creative effects into your work, use your tripod.

shutter speed – Trying to freeze motion at night can be challenging as frozen motion requires a fast shutter speed; faster shutter speeds and low light don’t mix well. This is where fast prime lenses (f/1.4, f/1.8, f/2) come in handy. A wider aperture will allow you to gather as much light as possible and, thus, use a faster shutter speed. Of course, the environment plays a large role in determining the shutter speed. You should have no problem shooting at 1/160 second. at night in a brightly lit place like Times Square. But what about more dimly lit areas? Is it still possible to freeze motion? Very. But you may want to make it 1/60 second. (give or take – you’ll have to experiment) the intersection of your shutter speeds, and it will be very important to practice good technique for handheld shooting to avoid camera shake.

ISO – Generally, you won’t be shooting at a low ISO like ISO 100 at night. But don’t worry about having to increase your ISO. With most digital cameras today, you can comfortably shoot at 1600 without worrying too much about excessive noise. Be sure to expose properly. Even a slightly underexposed shot, in this case, would dramatically emphasize the digital noise leading to a noisy image. However, how much noise is too much is up to you.

Focus – In short, get used to manual focus. Most likely your camera’s AF system will seek focus in such low light. You don’t have time for that. You might miss a shot when the camera has trouble locking focus on something. The best solution is to learn how to focus manually; with practice you will be able to do it quickly and accurately.

Image stabilization – Image stabilization may or may not be of much use to you, depending on your subject. While this can definitely help you achieve really slow shutter speeds, it doesn’t freeze motion. This is great if you are shooting a stationary subject or if you are want to motion blur in your shots; otherwise, for moving subjects, you’re better off relying on — again — fast glass.

Out and about

Lurking Light – The sky may be dark, but there are still plenty of available light sources around you, resulting in beautiful colors and interesting shadows. take advantage of this. Notice how the light hits people’s faces; photographing their silhouettes; use the shadow as the subject. Another tactic you can use is to find your way to a light source you find especially interesting and photograph the subject as they pass, briefly bathed in the light. But it doesn’t have to be all about people. Take a picture of the light itself, the building it shines on, the way it shines through a window or is reflected off the street.

explore – Take advantage of this opportunity to explore places you would not normally visit; photography gold may be waiting for you. Also, reinvent the places you used to visit only during the day, as seeing these places at night will give you a new appreciation for them.

Have Fun in the Dark – Trying to make your night shots look like they were taken during the day defeats the purpose of street photography at night, don’t you think? So leave your flash at home and don’t use automatic exposure settings (you’ll most likely end up with harsh overexposure); enjoy and catch all that the night has to offer. Yes, your night shots will be dark and, perhaps, have hard-to-see parts, but that’s part of the charm of stunning night street photography. Conveying the mood and atmosphere is more important than the perfect exposure.

Capture Movement – Yes, I know I’ve made more than one appeal to wide aperture, high ISO lenses as a means of achieving faster shutter speeds, thereby freezing motion. Well, if you really want to do something different, to add an extra visual dimension to your night images, then you should capture motion — embrace the blur because it’s different from other blurry images. Street photography can feel too static at times; if you want to convey the energy and dynamism of a street scene — people and cars going fast — don’t be afraid of motion blur.

Be careful – This goes without saying, but I will mention it anyway. Safety first! Do not put yourself in danger or recklessly venture into unfamiliar and remote areas. People you may meet in alleys may not be too keen to be photographed, so stay in open, populated areas. If you can, take a willing friend with you (especially if you insist on going to a scary place). And just like you do during the day, don’t be flashy: turn off all your camera beeping sounds, turn off the focus assist light, turn off the LCD screen. Stealth is important in street photography, vital in night street photography.

If you want a fun and exciting challenge, get out there and shoot life after dark. Not many street photographers do that!

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