Without light, there is no photography. Even though the sensors of the digital cameras that are in market today have almost wizardly capabilities to 'see' in the darkness, this remains true. It is quite a technological marvel that makes it possible to look through an electronic viewfinder, and see how much escapes our normal night vision in what seems to be almost pitch black to the naked eye. We humans are not very well equipped to see in the dark, compared to some of our fellow animals. Modern cameras are opening a world to us that was largely hidden. There is a great series available on Netflix called 'Night on Earth', showing just what is possible with state of the art technology. It comes highly recommended. But as impressive as these new cameras are, we don't always need to illuminate the darkness fully. We can embrace it and make it the hero in our photos. I really like photography in the dark.
Perhaps more so than in some other aspects of photography, it does help to know the limits of your gear and play with that. I think there are basically two different approaches to working with the darkness in your photos. One is to keep a relatively fast shutter speed, usually helped by a faster aperture setting. Depending on your camera, the ISO level will have to play along and you'll see that in the amount of grain. But this approach freezes life as it is, allowing you to capture a scene with the people still moving through life in normal speed. Autofocus performance these days is remarkably good in the dark, but I like to manually focus these kind of scenes. Below is one example of people ordering French fries at a food truck at festival. There is a lantern that brings some light but the main source is the 'Fritez' sign on the food truck. Together with the silhouette of the truck and the few people in front of it, this tells the complete story for this scene. I purposely did not expose this to bring more light into the scene. The darkness is a key ingredient in this shot.
The other approach to shoot in the dark is to use longer shutters speeds. This allows for slower aperture, giving you options to increase your depth of field. With modern cameras, ISO settings are so good that the camera will adjust accordingly with relatively little impact on the picture if you leave it with the 'normal' setting (whatever that may be for you camera but usually having an upper usable limit of 6400 these days, and some cameras will push way beyond that). The picture below is a good example of the motion blur that will occur in this scenario. It is up to us as photographers to choose what we want to do with shutter speeds. In this example, I kind of like that the longer shutter speed used here shows the liveliness of a bar on the seaside. This was taken in the Croatian town of Rovinj, a beautiful gem on the Istrian coast.
The absence of light in a photo only highlights the parts where there is light. I took the photo below in the grand cathedral in Aachen. The heart of the Holy Roman Empire for centuries, this building has plenty of opportunity to play with darkness in photos. The stained glass window and the small candles are the highlights (pun intended) of this photo and it immediately brings you into the serenity of the place.
Darkness is also about shadows. That same afternoon in Aachen last summer, I found myself on the backside of the Cathedral in a small street. Even though this was mid-day, the height of the buildings cast a very strong shadow over the street. I decided to use that and let the sun just peak over but let the rest be still cast in shadows. There is just enough light to bring out some of the Cathedral details but the scene is wrapped in shadows which worked much better compared to walking twenty meters back and let the sun light up the street.
Another staple composition tool in the bag of photographers is how to work with negative space. I find there is ample opportunity to play with that in poorly lit circumstances. The next photo is one I took in a village in Tuscany. This is also in the middle of the day but the arched walkway was very dark. That darkness brought out the light that came in and showed what was waiting on the other side. I decided to frame this so that pretty much the whole right side of the image is pitch black to provide balance.
The next example plays with negative space as well and adds that previously mentioned key element that is useful for shooting in the dark, silhouettes. I took this on safari in South Africa. You usually go out twice a day with a ranger. One of those runs is in the early morning, we typically left at 04:30. There is more animal activity when the sun is not yet out and scorching. As we drove on the plains, I noticed a zebra standing on a small hilltop and it gave this nice silhouette with the first light of the sun that still had not come out fully behind it. The result was an image almost made of two color tones and hardly any detail in it. But somehow it works because in the darkness there is just enough to make out the stripes and the silhouette further captures the iconic shape of the zebra.
Long exposures allow you to capture scenes that are hard to see with the unaided human eye. Below is a photo taken in the Joshua Tree national park, two summers ago. It was quite dark and I did not have a tripod but this was right next to the road and I positioned my camera on the roof of our car. I use my cellphone to illuminate the tree that was closest to us, and because I used a larger aperture, it creates a focus in the image that was quite unlike what I saw with my naked eyes.
There is one more thing that I want to talk about concerning photos taken in the dark, and that is that we tend to be a bit more forgiving of these photos. What I mean is that because we cannot see very well in the dark ourselves, when we see a photo that is obviously taken under poor light, we are ok if things are a little less sharp, or there is a bit of unintended blur. Because after all, that is very much how we experience the darkness. The two photos below are good examples of this. I like them very much because they take me right back to the moment I took them. The first one was taken during a dog sledding ride in Tromso, Norway Under the dark arctic winter sky, it was absolutely pitch black. We all had a little head light and with that I managed to capture the experience of sledge mushing. These dogs are amazing. The photo was hard to take and I could maybe have tried a few more times to get it right but that would have distracted me too much from just enjoying the moment.
The second shot comes from the Monument Valley national park in the US. It was very dark, and rather cloudy with a lot of wind. The exposure was 1,5 minutes and I tried my best to keep the camera still but there was a bit of motion and the image isn't fully sharp. But for me, that's ok. Seeing the lightning light up the famous 'buttes' in the middle of the night was quite a spectacle and I am happy I got to take this photo. The lightning created this purple hue and it was one of the weirdest light situations I have ever seen.
Over the years, I have become a bit more savvy when it comes to assessing the balance between shutter speed, aperture and ISO when shooting in the dark. For this, practice makes perfect and I have a long way to go here. Writing this post was a good reminder to kick myself out of bed in the small hours of the night a little more often to capture the world in the darkness.
This is part of a series on photographic principles I've learned over the years. From one amateur to another. Check out the blog for the full series (work in progress).
As always, I will leave you with a few more of my favorite shots for this theme.