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Night-Time and Twilight Photography - The Twilight, The Urban Landscape

light color exposure flash

DAVID MALIN
Anglo-Australian Observatory, RMIT University

Taking pictures at night may be considered to be both more limited and more challenging than daytime photography because there is relatively less light available. However, nighttime and twilight photography provides many opportunities for unusual, creative, and scientifically interesting imaging. The technical challenges that the night photographer faces are numerous. Night time photography requires the measuring of exposures at low light levels, managing very long exposure times, and sometimes the inclusion of the light source(s) itself in the image, as well as the mixed lighting and the changing lighting levels during an exposure. It is also useful to have some prior knowledge of how the light and color will change in the twilight and the brightness of moonlight. Sometimes additional extra equipment is required, but often nothing more than a cable release, tripod, and electronic flash or flashlight are necessary.

The Twilight

The twilight and its approach offers the photographer many opportunities, including long shadows and colorful skies with a strong brightness gradient and strange color casts, often all at once. Twilight begins at sunset, but it is not truly dark until the sun is 18 degrees below the horizon (astronomical twilight). For most photographic purposes it is dark at the end of “nautical twilight,” when the sun is 12 degrees below the horizon. This occurs less than an hour after sunset at the equator but lasts for weeks within the arctic and antarctic circles. The length of twilight thus increases with geographical latitude.

As darkness approaches, the color sensitivity of the eye alters as it transitions from the color-sensitive photopic vision of daytime to the dark-adapted monochrome scotopic vision of the night. The faint but rich colors of the late twilight appear muted and our ability to estimate photographic exposures by eye is also distorted. The inexperienced film photographer resorts to bracketing exposures at this time; those with digital cameras have the advantage of almost instant feedback.

With experience, twilight exposures can be judged so that a trace of bright horizon remains on a star trail photograph, adding interest and color, especially if there is a distinctive foreground. Twilight photographs taken over lakes and still rivers double the angular extent of the evening or morning glow and are especially effective for capturing the subtle colors of the earth’s shadow. Twilight also makes an interesting backdrop for campfire shots or architectural studies of large buildings or industrial landscapes, especially if combined with artificial light. The period when all the ingredients are in perfect balance is surprisingly short, so digital photographers may take several shots from the same position and combine them in software for the best effect.

The Urban Landscape

Most of the possibilities outlined above assume a natural setting with little or no artificial light, although few of us live in such surroundings. More often our streets and cities are well lit by night and these can be rewarding subjects. Light levels are often such that film cameras perform well, but the instant access and convenience of digital is always useful, especially when the sources of light are in the scene. Under these circumstances the lens must be scrupulously clean and it is useful to use a lens hood. Star or haze filters can be used to ornament or exaggerate light sources and flash may be used to fill in the foreground. However, the brightness range of such scenes is very wide and there is usually no single “correct” exposure. Firework and lightning displays often occur over long periods with street lights in the scene, so to avoid too much glare the camera should be shielded as well as possible and (with fireworks) a dark card or cloth used to cover the lens when they are not visible. As usual, digital camera users may combine multiple exposures to good effect.

Many buildings are floodlit at night, sometimes for security purposes or to highlight architectural features. Neither kind of lighting is installed with photography in mind, especially that pointing skyward from ground level. If the building is of modest size a few well-placed flash guns can be used fill in the shadows, but if the building is huge a more ambitious approach using hundreds of flash guns is needed. This painting with light technique requires a good deal of organization but is very successful.

All of the above ideas suggest that both camera and subject are stationary during a longer-than-usual night-time exposure. This is not strictly necessary. Weird and interesting results can be captured if the same subject is photographed in different positions with multiple flashes, or if a moving subject is partly
lit then “frozen” with a single flash. The camera moves during the exposure as well of course, as can the settings on a zoom lens to create the impression of motion. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the photographer.

Night Unto Night (1947/1949) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique [next] [back] Night Slaves

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