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One of the most valuable lessons that I apply to photography on a daily basis was actually taught to me by a theater professor in college, well before I had a passion for taking pictures. “The most interesting characters are the ones that struggle between good and bad. Show me this conflict,” Dr Edwards said, “because it is this conflict that we are drawn to.”
We can easily apply this to photography. Think about it—what are some images that are forever etched into your mind? There is probably some sort of “conflict” going on—whether it is a gun to someone’s head, a moment of impact in a sport, or even the simple movement of leaves in a tree. This “action” in the image gives you pause, and often creates a reaction within you. The more static the shot, the more our eyes will pass it by.
Henri Cartier Bresson was one of the first to write about how to see and seize these “decisive moments” of time. Ironically, his real passion was for painting—taking his time and adding layer after layer of color, detail, etc.
Night is the flip side of day.
Artists, from the beginning, have sought to capture the surreal night light.
The night can bring you in tune with your imagination like a Van Gogh painting. Additionally, like a Brassia photograph, it can reveal the secrets of the shadow play.
The image below (left) is of the Hudson River taken during a pleasing time of the day, about an hour before sunset. Now look at pretty much the same shot—taken about 6 hours later (right). The angle is slightly altered to avoid the spill of the garish yellow street light onto the river, but I think we can all agree that the night image is much more fascinating. The clouds give a nice surreal sense of movement that is not visible to our eyes, and the reflecting lights from the bridge make it seem much bigger than in the day shot.
Given the right tools—a camera, tripod, and cable release—you will have the ability to start challenging time. However, it takes experience to attain the proper night vision. Early on in my photography career, I remember walking down the same concrete sidewalks that I always had, but now I could see the silver light of the streetlights reflecting off the sidewalks, and I became infatuated with the night light. With a splash of rain thrown in, the scene became even more interesting. (Below)
We are no longer clicking. We are truly painting with light for seconds, minutes, or even hours, to create something that our eyes can’t comprehend.
I often tell my students to look for some action in the night, whether it is a dramatic star trail, car lights, water flow, etc. And if there is something solid near it, it will only emphasize that movement even more.
I was taking some great shots of the 69th St. Transfer Bridge, a wonderful historic ruin that sits about 30 feet off the West Side of Manhattan. Surrounded by water and reflections, it makes for a great location to shoot at night. It was almost too easy. So I thought back to what my professor said, and I stepped back to take in the whole scene. And that’s when it hit me. I could create even more “punch” in the image by shooting through the moving branches of the tree. It brought another movement, color, and created a vignette that drew you into the scene even more.
All rules should be questioned. Upon walking along South Beach one night, I decided to challenge myself to not add any solid objects in the image. Instead, I sought to create an abstract painting similar to a Rothko painting, and it has become one of my favorites over the years.
The night offers many opportunities to turn the normal—upside down.
I hope to see you on the flip side.
You can see more of Gabe's work and his night adventures on his blog: Ruinism. If you're interested, you can check out his workshop with famed photographer Tim Cooper over at Rocky Mountain School of Photography, called "Vegas to Zion: Dust to Dawn."