Shooting Street at Night 5

As can be easily gleaned from my deviantArt gallery, 99% of my street photography is taken outdoors in broad daylight. The benefits to this are obvious: fast shutter speeds for exact moment-catching, smaller f-stops to get more of the environment in focus, lower EIs for more definition, and so on. Taking photos, especially street shots, after the sun goes down not only presents a different set of challenges then daytime shooting, but greater challenges. However, if confronted, the results can be visually distinct and unique.

What You Need
First off, toss the tripod. This is street photography. No bulb setting with a remote release. Go as light as you can. If you’re shooting digital a camera with decent high-ISO is nice, but not required. Musicians use the distortions in cheaper instruments as elements in their music (see Mayonnaise by the Smashing Pumpkins as a perfect example of this) if they can’t afford better instruments. The point is, if the problem is consistent then you can use it stylistically rather then give up and say something is not doable because of the problem. In terms of film, my favorite B&W choice has always been pushed Tri-X dev’d in weak HC-110. The best color choice for night photography for me has been either Fujicolor Pro 400H or 800Z.

One thing that’s hard not to have at night is a fast lens. I would say that my average exposure is about 1/15s@f2.8 with an ISO of 1600. F2.8 is as fast as my 17mm Olympus lens gets, but the E-P2 has in-body image stabilization (IS), which makes that 1/15s (and even slower) hand-holdable. If anyone wants to “donate” a Panasonic 20/1.7 lens to me, I’d appreciate it. ;-). Without IS, I suggest a lens & EI speed combination that can get you an average shutter speed of 1/30s.

Finally, make sure that you’re all caffinated and nicotine’d up enough that you can keep steady hands.

At night, florescent and neon artificial lighting rules. From a photographic standpoint, every scene is filled with high-key lighting separated by blacks. Because of this, matrix (or full-frame balanced/averaged) types of metering might fail to get things right and you’ll end up with a mix of blown highlights and grayish blacks. This is not true with all matrix metering systems, however. The matrix metering on some top-end dSLRs is “intelligent” enough to know what the visual interest is and bias the exposure toward that. If you’re not sure, experiment. And bracket. And shoot RAW if you’re using digital just in case. I actually prefer to use center-weighted (CW) metering at night. Most CW meters put 60-70% of the exposure calculation at the focus of the frame, which gives you control over what’s important to the image but doesn’t completely ignore the other elements in the composition.

Yes, flash is an option but is a very poor one for 2 specific reasons:

  1. The difference between the flash exposure and the ambient exposure will be great enough as to render everything but the subject completely underexposed. That nightlife atmosphere is gone.
  2. It’s difficult to get natural, candid photos once a flash goes off. You will get one photo and that’s it. Everyone in the area knows you’re there and that you are taking pictures.

The Scene
One of the most visually stunning aspects of street photography at night is the mood defined by the strong light elements. Florescent blues & greens mix with neon reds and the white of street lamps to provide a great atmosphere for any subject. Reflections are also something that’s exaggerated at night and would make for a great artistic element. Think: neon lights reflecting off wet pavement. Similar to the “use what you have” methodology I presented in the What You Need section above, try and use the slow shutter speeds to a stylistic advantage. Add visual interest my mixing motions. While 1/15s is too slow to freeze a speeding car, it is good enough to get a standing or sitting person sharply with the light trails left by speeding cars in the background.

Experiment, experiment, experiment. None of what I’ve written here is an absolute. It’s just how I see things and what works best for me. There are some difficult technical challenges to shooting street at night but creatively overcoming them leads to unique imagetry and something that will set your pictures apart from other photographer’s images. And that thing about tossing the tripod? Well, not all opportunities at night are street and taking one out every once-in-awhile isn’t a bad thing. :-)

About Brian

Brian Q. Webb is a photography enthusiast from Los Angeles, California who spends most of his time in Taipei, Taiwan. He is especially interested in street photography as well as large format portraiture and pinhole photography. He also likes to shoot lifestyle portraiture and occasionally acts as an agent for foreign newspapers wanting event coverage in Taipei. He was also on the staff of deviantArt and is co-founder of PhotoMalaysia, the largest photography community in that country.