As we get in to autumn, the clocks go back and the weather is generally worse, night photography can be a more effective option than daylight when photographing architecture. Even during winter daylight periods the sun is so low down that you often find large parts of the building shaded by adjacent buildings, again making night photography the better option.
While night photography is basically the same as day photography in that it’s about composition and lighting there are quite a few subtleties that can make the difference between a good shoot and bad shoot.
In addition to your normal architectural photography kit you will need a few extra bits.
Tripod – If you don’t use a tripod all the time you will really need a tripod for night photography, yes you can balance you camera on handrails and lean it against sign post etc. but if you want flexibility in composition and framing a tripod is essential.
Remote Shutter Release – Again it’s a good idea to use a release during the day but really important when using longer shutter speeds at night as any camera movement will affect image quality.
Lens Hood – A lens hood helps reduce glare from adjacent street lights etc. and also reduced the risk of lens misting.
Torch – Always useful at night but take one with a low power setting as you can upset you night vision by shining a bright light onto your camera close to your face.
Plastic Bag – A plastic bag is really handy for covering your camera and lens while it’s on the tripod to keep the damp of it and prevent misting of the lens and eye piece. I tend to use supermarket carrier bags because the handles hook onto the tripod easily. They can act as a bit of a sail in the wind though so weight your tripod or don’t use them if it’s windy.
I often hear people talking about the Golden Hour or Blue Hour which is the period around sunset when you get that nice orange light, sunsets and long shadows. This only really applies to landscape photography though as you can use longer and longer exposures as the ambient light levels drop to record the landscape detail. Unfortunately when we’re photographing architecture it’s filled with and surrounded by artificial light and we have a much smaller window of opportunity. Ideally we want to see some light in the sky as this will provide edge definition to our building, we don’t normally want the building to merge into a black sky. Photographically the best time is when the ambient light in the sky is bit lower than the artificial light coming from the building by say 1 – 2 ev, but light enough to give you edge definition.
I normally find that the best light available is about 45 – 60mins after sunset, depending on the amount of overcast or the direction you are looking, if you are looking towards the setting sun the sky will be lighter than looking away from the setting sun. The period of ideal light is really short at about 10 – 15 mins.
If you are in a heavily built up area and the weather is overcast it often doesn’t get that dark because the street lighting is reflected from the cloud base, giving enough light to provide edge definition. You are restricted to a yellow sodium colour backdrop though and an earlier shot would possibly have allowed you to retain a bit of blue in the sky, even if overcast.
It’s generally best to check out the area in daylight and get a good idea of the shots you want as you will often only have about 10 minutes to get that perfect sky you don’t want to be composing your shots out then. Think about the fact you are using long exposures and the way the location will have an impact on those. If you are working on bridges or near tram lines then vibration of the ground can be a real issue.
Shutter – Even with the best tripod you will probably get some camera vibration as you will be using shutter speeds of many seconds. Use your remote shutter release and the mirror up setting (MuP) if you have one and try and use your body to shield the camera from the wind if there is any.
Aperture - Use a depth of field calculator to pick an aperture setting that gets you the depth of field you want but no more. People often use much smaller apertures than they need resulting in much longer shutter speeds, causing more camera shake and spiky stars from streetlights etc, the smaller the aperture the more harsh and spiky these stars will be. Generally longer shutter speeds also result in more image noise. If you have a long exposure NR setting make sure it’s turned on.
Metering - Getting the exposure right is normally a bit of trial and error but I normally spot meter on some of the brighter parts of the image to get a starting point, if you use an auto exposure setting you will often find that your camera over expose to try and capture more of the dark sky detail.
White Balance – I normally set mine to daylight and tweek in post production if you leave it set to auto you will get all sorts of weird results.
Misting – Keep your lens cap on and your camera covered when possible particularly if you are working near water and regularly check the front of the lens for condensation. Your lens can get misted enough to spoil a good image before you notice it looking though the camera.
The public – you may have been outside for quite a while and you night vision will be working well. Members of the public though may have just left brightly lit offices and shops and they may not notice your black tripod and camera bag, try and keep out of busy traffic routes and use street furniture to create natural barriers.
Personal safety – consider the risks of working at night, try and take someone with you if you think you may be at risk.