On my Facebook fan page, I asked my readers what they wanted to have a blog post on. There were several of you who mentioned an article about how to shoot street photography at night. Van Gogh once famously said, “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.” I definitely feel that the same applies in street photography. I love shooting at night, because I feel that is when you can capture the true soul of the urban jungle–when street lights illuminate and people are on the prowl. Keep reading to see more tips on how to shoot street photography at night:
1. Bump up your ISO
Having a grainy photo is often better than having a blurry photo. Nowadays digital cameras have amazing high-ISO capabilities, so don’t be afraid to bump up your ISO. On modern-day DSLR’s, you shouldn’t have a problem shooting at ISO 1600. Even a lot of the modern point-and-shoots look great at ISO 800.
I like to embrace the grain and grittiness of high-ISO images. Although digital “noise” is not as refined as grain from film, when you convert your images to black and white they still look great. Grainy images look more raw and “real” than images that are much too clean. When shooting during the day, I often even add grain to my images to give it a more urban feel.
So don’t be afraid to bump up your ISO when shooting at night. You will need a much faster shutter speed if you want your images to be in-focus. However sometimes having blurry images at night adds to the feel of an image, which brings me to my next point…
2. Capture motion
Motion-blur can often add to the soul of an image by showing motion and energy. If you see the image above by Garry Winograd, he is able to beautifully capture an image of a man with a patch over his face, accompanied by his beautiful companion in his top-down convertible in Los Angeles. In the background, you can see another car whizzing by, which gives you a dynamic feel of the image. Without that motion blur, the image may have felt much too static and wouldn’t have had the same effect.
Very much so, you should try to capture motion in your night shots. There have even been times in which I accidentally captured motion at night due to a slower shutter speed–but much preferred the outcome. When shooting at night, try experimenting by using lower ISO’s or shutter speeds. If you shoot aperture-dependent mode or automatic mode, try using an ISO of 200-400 to capture motion. If you want to play around with shutter-priority mode, try shooting at 1/10th of a second or even slower.
3. Shoot with prime-lenses
If you are shooting with a lens that is slower than an aperture of 2.8 at night, you are screwed. The majority of prime lenses out there have an aperture of 2.8, 2, 1.8, or 1.4. This allows your camera to collect much more available light during the night, which will allow you to get quicker shutter speeds.
There is nothing more frustrating than using a zoom lens at night which has only a maximum aperture of 3.5 or so. This doesn’t allow you to be as flexible with your shots, as you won’t be able to capture sharp images. Sure you can shoot at night with a zoom lens with an aperture of 2.8, but zoom lenses like that are often too bulky and heavy to shoot street photography with anyways.
4. Ditch the tripod
I don’t think street photographers should ever shoot with a tripod at night. When first shooting street photography, I used a tripod at night a few times thinking that it would aid my night images. Wrong. It is too big and bulky, and just gets in the way of capturing my images. Not only that, but it slowed me down and prevented me from capturing the decisive moments I wanted to at night.
Rather than using a tripod at night, refer to point #1 and just bump up your ISO. Its better to have gritty images than looking silly with a tripod at night.
5. Focus manually
I think that auto-focus is the best thing that happened to photography since sliced bread. It makes focusing a hell of a lot easier and has helped me capture images in which I had only a split of a second to focus. However, I do not discount the merits of focusing manually when shooting street photography, especially when shooting from the hip. But when using auto-focus or using manual-focus are both options you have when shooting during the day (and light is plentiful).
However when shooting at night, autofocus is pretty much useless. Regardless of what type of autofocusing system your camera has, the technology is still much too slow and inaccurate. Switch your camera to focusing manually, and you will have far more control over focusing and will be able to focus much quicker in general.
6. Look for the light
Night lights are beautiful, and the illuminations they give off as well as the shadows they project truly make nighttime street photographs special. When shooting street photography at night, try to go to urban city-centers, where people are abundant and flashing lights are everywhere. Focus on shadows and trying to capture silhouettes. Shooting street photography at night allows for much more mysterious scenes and images than shooting during the day.
Not only that, but if you want to capture static images, shooting with illuminated lights will allow you to capture images with a much faster shutter speed. Look for the light, and the rest will be a piece of cake.
Many people are naturally afraid of shooting during the night, due to worries about getting mugged or having their camera stolen. Although these are valid concerns, they are mostly psychological. The crime rates in America are far lower than they have ever been, so disspell the myths that it used to be much safer “in the good old days.” Of course you want to use your common-sense and judgement (this means don’t shoot street photography at night alone in skid row) but don’t be afraid to explore or wander. If you are really scared, ask a friend or a fellow street photographer to come with you.
The best photo opportunities are taken on the road less traveled upon. Don’t take the approach of a tourist and take images in cliched angles and places. Take for example this great post on The Online Photographer in which Corinne Vionnet stacked hundreds of images of tourists who took photos in the same spot. Let your curiosity lead you and capture amazing images.
What are some other tips that you have for shooting street photography at night? Share your tips & techniques below by leaving a comment!