Why I Love Night Photography

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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!

39 Comments

Hi Todd,

Great article as always. I would like to get involved in the fast-paced, high flying world of night photography. But alas, I have a crippling fear of the dark. Do you have any suggestions?

Thanks!

Hi Albert,

There are many remedies for fears, I suggest you do some internet searches to see what works best for fear of the dark. Talismans, prayer, rabbit foot, cane sugar, vitamin C?

You can also do low-light photography during daytime by shooting spaces that are not very well lit (yet not dark).

Good luck!

Hello Todd,

As I was reading your article, I thought that you were inside of my head somehow. Not only do I enjoy night photography, but I started out with a trusty Kodak 110 camera as well. I moved to an Olympus OM-10 but then went to the Nikon 6006. I loved my 6006! I still dust it off from time to time. The thing that really got me though was the moon thing. One of my first words was moon too. My parents always tell the story of riding in the car at night, I would always point out the moon. Anyway nice work! I just wanted to point out our similarities.

https://roythoman.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/midnight-landscapes/

Thanks, Roy

Hey Roy,

Sorry to be inside of your head!

I am still looking to get the perfect photo of the moon. I wonder if I ever will.

Did you see my article about the N6006? http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/hands-review/classic-cameras-my-first-slr-nikon-n6006-f-601

Enjoy! And, thanks for reading and commenting! Great shots on your page there!

I thought a NIKON 6006 was a digital camera.

Hello Stuart,

Nope! It is digital in the sense that it runs on batteries and has a computer, but it definitely takes film!

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/explora/photography/hands-review/classic-cameras-my-first-slr-nikon-n6006-f-601

Thanks for reading!

Dear Todd!

Indeed very informative talk about night  photography. It's my favourite too.

just wanna ask.. I tried several times but failed to take good night shots from airplane by a DSLR.

Need some input please.

Best wishes and thanks.

Saqib

Hi Saqib,

Thank you for the kind words and thanks for reading!

Taking photos from an airplane is very tough as there are several things working together to ruin your photos!

1) Speed. Airplanes are fast (nearly 600mph at cruising altitudes). That is the opposite of a tripod.

2) Vibration. Turbine engines are smooth, but turbulence is not. Planes are constantly being affected by turbulence, even if you cant feel it. Check out the drink on your dinner tray and you'll see almost constant ripples. Also, its hard to hold a camera still against the window.

3) Multi-plane Plexiglas windows. Because there are more than one sheet of Plexiglas between you and the outside world, it is easy to get reflections from the cabin lights in your images.

Is it impossible to get a good shot? No. Is it very difficult? Yes. Be prepared to experiment and use the speed, vibration, and reflections to your artistic advantage, if you can. My best advice is to keep trying!

Also, check out this tutorial from a friend of B&H:  http://www.lonelyspeck.com/photographing-the-milky-way-from-an-airplane/

Good luck!

May I add from experience also, flight cabin personnel frown upon and may even prevent photos/video taken over cities or landmarks, owing to potential mapping by those with evil intent.  Sorry, it's a different world.... reality bites.

Hey Stanley,

Yep. Definitely check with your airline before you get in trouble! Airliners are not public spaces, so the airline can ask you to not take photos if they don't want you to take photos.

Mapping? You can likely get better imagery online from private and government satellites and survey aircraft than through an airplane window!

Having said that, either ask permission or do it discretely. Setting up a tripod over your seat is probably a bad idea!

Check out this article on PetaPixel: http://petapixel.com/2015/05/08/yes-airlines-can-legally-ban-photography-and-some-are-doing-just-that/

Thanks for adding to the discussion!

Todd, thanks for the great text.

One of my favorite hobbies is photographing skyscapes, essentially capturing sky phenomena and the surroundings as seen from a particular place. I also take great joy photographing the Milky Way, whose center passes overhead at the South latitudes we live. Taking in and paying attention to Nature (plants and nocturnal wildlife) while spending many hours capturing the skies provide two major feelings symultaneously. First, a great feeling of achievement when you come away with a meaningful shot and, more importantly, an opportunity to humbly admire both the Universe and stars we came from and what Mother Nature did with the raw material the stars provided.

In your endeavours and through your works you may wish to consider voicing against light pollution, in cities and elsewhere. In a few more decades, perhaps sooner, our kids and their kids will loose the sense of our cosmic connection with the skies, as the stars and the Milky Way, for most of the people in this planet, will be visible no more.

Cheers.

Hi Antonio,

Thanks for reading! I am jealous of your views. I attempted to capture the Milky Way this weekend from a relatively quiet part of Rhode Island with limited success!

I am 1000% on board with you about the light pollution. In fact, I wrote about it not long ago. Check out this link: https://medium.com/vantage/battling-light-pollution-dark-skies-benefit-everyone-not-just-this-night-photographer-5be8df323d37#.2i5vnuh11

(I hope the hyperlink works...sometimes Medium articles do not link well. If not, just do a web search for "B&H Medium Light Pollution.")

Thanks again!

I have done night photography with film and digital cameras.  With film I  would bracket quite a bit, with digital I can see the image and adust exposure. Film has recipocity failure, does this occur with digital sensors?

Kalman,

Digital detectors respond, for the most part, linearly to light in proportion to your exposure times. What you have to be careful with is, pixels that may saturate in your image after your intended exposure, for which you then loose information irretrievably. For such situations, you can do one of a few things.You can break your exposure into several exposures that can the be summed together to provide a longer exposure and with higher bit depth in your image provide by the software doing that summation. Another approach is to take exposures in sucession, like 3 exposures with and without exposure compensation (at zero, +2 and -2 stops, say), which can also be combined, allowing you to compose an image with a larger dynamic range.

Things can get a little more complicated when you're trying to obtain an image which is very faint (in astronomy, that would be the case of a faint nebula or galaxy). Then you might have cool the digital detector in order to get rid of the thermal noise (which generates electrons even when there's no light shining in) from the pixels. Lowering this noise your signal-to-noise will improve, as well as the dynamic range in your image. But, for the usual situations photographers face in their everyday life, this won't be necessary and multiple exposures are a typical way to improve your signa-to-noise.

Antonio,

What do you mean by long exposure long exposure   30seconds ---   2 minutes....  10min...?

Hi kalman,

Antonio gave you a really good reply above. To expand on what he said, and to answer your follow-up, here is my input:

Digital sensors do not suffer from reciprocity like film did, but they do have inherent limitations. The longer the sensor is collecting light, the hotter the sensor becomes and the more digital noise you will get. So, the longer the exposure, the more noise.

To answer your follow up, it all depends. I have shot 16-minute exposures in cold weather in Northern California with very little noise and, with the same camera, I have gotten a fair amount of noise from a 15-second exposure off of the coast of Thailand in hot and humid conditions. There is no dictionary definition for "long exposure"...and how your camera/sensor performs is dependent on many external factors.

I hope this helps! Thanks for reading!

Thanks for helping a fellow B&H customer, Antonio. Great answer!

I am in Wellington for the night - when I get back I am going to sneak out onto the balcony and hope theres some traffic around ;) thanks for the inspiration 

Hi Kat,

Traffic or no traffic, you can always make great images in the dark! Enjoy Wellington and thanks for reading!

Excellent capture of the essenence of night photography. I too am a lover of night shooting and soing out all night for that one shot. I usually find something I wasn't looking for along the way. My girlfriend often asks to go but I have to let her know that it is probably not much of a spectator sport. Thank you for your words.......I can't wait until my next adventure

Hey Hunter,

Thanks for enjoying the article. There is so much to see and capture at night!

In my experience, girlfriends are good for 1.5 night photography outings! Sometimes, getting them their own camera helps. Good luck!

Thanks for reading!

Todd....I thoroughly enjoyed this piece!!! I've been doing some night shooting with my X-T1 here in the city and I love being in the night air exploring for good shots. 

I would frequently sit on Nobska Point in Woods Hole, Cape Cod late at night and watch the night sky. I never brought a camera with me!! Frigid January nights delivered clean arctic air. The airway into NYC from Europe provided plenty of jets. The moon could be followed east to west. Besides Nobska Light three other lighthouses could be seen. 

Thanks for this great story.

Hey Tom,

I am glad you enjoyed the article and you are enjoying your X-T1!

There are definitely a lot of high-altitude multi-engine jets overhead that part of the world. I see them every weekend from Westerly.

As always, thanks for reading!

Going to the Olympics in Rio. Have been there over 20 times & have no night photos. This time, I am going out at night every night, thanks to your inspiring article!!!!

Hi Arthur,

Good luck capturing the Games after dark! Enjoy Rio and all the city offers after the sun sets! Thanks for reading!

One of my favorite photographs is a 4 minute time exposure looking out my hotel window, on the 26th floor, along side I5 in Seattle Washington. The red light streaks from the cars on busy I5 made the image along with the downtown buildings filling the rest of the image. I even shot a good time exposure from on top of the Space Needle.

Keep on shooting in the dark, Jim! It only gets better and better!

By the way, I used to fly down I-5 in Navy helicopters from NAS Whidbey to Harborview Medical Center. Always a treat to do at night!

What enjoy the most about night photography is the solitude . Great article thanks....Doug 

Doug, you're a man after my own heart. Solitude and relative silence are ocassionally essential for me. Creating an image that captures and allows me to share that feeling is a very satisfying and soulful endeavor.

Well said, eddie. Thank you for reading!

Hey Doug,

You bet! That is one of the perks of night photography. Rarely are you amongst crowds! However, in NYC, you can definitely find gatherings of night photographers at different spots around the city.

Thanks for reading!

I love it to. My career path that I have chosen requires me to work, many times, in the dark. I make the best of it by taking photos during my lunch break. The best that I have done, were during my lunch at work.

Hi Paul,

Sounds like you have the makings of a lunch-time coffee table night photography book on your hands! Thanks for reading!

Fantastic article and photography. Thank you! 

Thanks for the kind words, Aelf! And, thanks for reading!

A different vision when your shooting after the sun is shining. I'm inspired even more by your words and images. I need to get out there and do it!            

   Thanks GC 

Thanks for reading, Gordon! I am very glad the article inspired you. Good luck in the dark!

For those without a cable or remote release, using the camera's self-timer will help eliminate camera shake when using a tripod for night photography. I've used the self-timer technique for years on my Canon A-1.

Now I have a (double) cable release that was part of a Canon Auto Bellows kit that I bought used and a Canon remote trigger for the motor drives for the A-1 and New F-1.

A remote trigger was part of the package of the Canon 5D III.

I haven't tried photographing the International Space Station using a remote trigger. That thing moves so doggone fast.
https://spotthestation.nasa.gov/

Hey Ralph,

Yep, the self timer is a good work-around to not having a release. However, some timers will not play well with mirror lock-up engaged. On some cameras you can lock the mirror and then engage the timer, but some don't allow that.

Good luck shooting the ISS! Thanks for reading!

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