The world looks different at night.That, more than anything, continues to drive me toward night photography. I started doing photography with a Kodak 110 film point-and-shoot camera, which was completely incapable of performing satisfying night shots due to its lack of manual exposure control. The night beckoned me. On the very first roll of 35mm film I shot with my trusty Nikon 6006 are some (very bad) long exposures of jet aircraft taking off and landing at Bradley International Airport.
Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
The physiology of our eyes causes them to see very differently than the camera at night. During the day, the cones in the retina reveal the world in Technicolor. At night, the cone’s companions, the rods, work overtime to offer a picture of what is before you, which the cones relay with muted colors. The camera does not know the natural boundaries of rods and cones. It has the ability to capture color regardless of the level of ambient light. Therefore, the camera allows us to see our dark surroundings in a vastly different way than our eyes perceive it. Photographing at night allows us to see night in all its wonderful color.
Daytime is boring to me
Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy sunshine, summers, and sailing, but there are amazing light shows that you can only see after dark. The natural light show of the heavens above is unbeatable. When I was an infant, one of my first words was “moon.” Our natural satellite captivates me to this day and I still seek the perfect photo of the moon. The stars and wandering planets come a close second to the constellations, the hot red of the red giants, the cold blue of the blue giants, the moons of the Jovian system and the seemingly endless expanse of the Milky Way galaxy. Without the night, these worlds beyond our own would be nonexistent to our eyes.
Of course, I live in New York City so, besides the sun, I get to see only a few stars overhead. No worries for me, the night photographer. I am also drawn to the interaction between artificial lights and their environment — especially in an urban setting. I walk down a street during the day and I might not be inspired photographically. But, at night, even the most nondescript street can ooze with personality. See how that streetlamp casts a shadow on the sidewalk over there? See how that porch light intermingles with the textures of the brick wall? See how the open window on the second floor spills warm light onto that tree? To me, nighttime transforms the mundane into a visual spectacle that I can’t wait to capture with a camera.
I love the process
Henri Cartier-Bresson once said, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”
In night photography, there are no fractions of a second. It is the opposite of point and shoot. It isn’t usually about moments. It requires thought. It requires planning. It requires patience. It requires gear. Night photography becomes a process. I love doing something that requires more thought than just holding the camera to your eye (or hip) and pressing a button and then moving on in life. To take a photograph in the dark you usually have to set up a tripod, mount your camera, attach a release, compose, and then take a photograph. Add exposure calculations, light-meter readings, and test images to that list and you begin to see that making a photograph in darkness requires intricate steps. Oh, and sometimes the photograph could take the better part of an hour or more — not a fraction of a second. How many moments are in a 16-minute exposure?
Night photography isn’t for everyone
There are a lot of ex-spouses, girlfriends, and boyfriends who can attest to the quirkiness of night photography (and night photographers). Night photography flies in the face of today’s fast-paced lifestyle, where mail is sent in an instant. It flies in the face of the world of the smartphone camera shot. I have journeyed out into the darkness for four hours and have come home with eight images. I didn’t do anything but create photographs the entire time. The magic of night photography requires a commitment of time — time not all of us think we have in a given evening.
Observe the night
If you live in a city, look around as you walk about at night. Look at the shadows cast by streetlamps, headlights, and every other electric light that shines out into the darkness. Picture these scenes in your mind’s eye and realize that, with the right camera and gear, you can capture them in a photograph.
If you live outside of urban centers, bask in the night sky and have a blast capturing star trails, the moon, nebulae, and the Milky Way. I am jealous of your views! Then, as you arrive home, see if the light from your porch falls in a way that helps create elements of a photograph. Take a picture of that, too.
See you outside in the dark!
Thank you for joining our journey into night photography! For more Visualizing the Night content, please click here: Visualizing The Night and share your enthusiasm for the art below in the comments section or reach out to us on social media using #visualizethenight. Thanks for reading!