Roaming the Night with Danny Pan
I’m a person who likes to daydream. Imagine walking around with a dramatic movie constantly playing in your head. I take everyday scenery and reimagine it with different colors, angles, and sometimes even people so that it looks cool. And for the longest time, my photos lacked that grand romanticization of life that I imagine.
However, after Zach, the Photo Club President, and I went for a night shoot during one of our retreats, I finally felt like I captured the vision of my daydreams. That 25 photo album began my love affair with shooting lifestyle photos in the dead of night. Something about roaming around Idyllwild at night brought a surreal sense of adventure. The uncharted darkness is foreign to what we’ve known and that element of mystery made me feel like I was documenting a different world.
How to take Photos at Night
The most important thing you’ll need is a tripod. What I usually do is set up a scene with my camera on a tripod and then take repeated shots with varying settings until I get a satisfactory image. Since they’re long exposures, I tend to set my ISO to the lowest possible and roll with a long shutter speed for a clear photo. The aperture is really dependent on how much depth of field you want in the photo. If you have a full frame camera with a fast prime lens, then you can crank up the ISO and hand hold your shots.
Next, a flashlight is necessary because getting your camera to autofocus at night is difficult. I recommend shining a flashlight on the subject and then autofocus - right after, you’ll want to lock the focus by switching it to manual. You can also use the light to add in some fill light onto a subject that’s too dark. On the left image below, for example, I used a flashlight to shine some light on Fah’s shirt so she wasn’t a silhouette.
Two more tips to note:
The default metering on cameras heavily weigh exposing shadows, so you have to expose almost 3 stops down in order to get something similar to what your eye perceives.
Think of light as particles that can bounce off the ground or a wall into your sensor. That means, shining a faint light can help fill shadows and stronger lights can reflect off of surfaces to illuminate a subject.
Light as a tool
The beauty of night photography is the ability to selectively target subjects from a dark canvas. I’m typically searching for street lights, car light trails, neon signs, or ambient light in the background. Since there’s so much contrast in these photos, the light source immediately draws attention; therefore, darkness is negative space and that allows any other color from the scenery to be the focus. This is a great canvas for highlighting textures and colors that otherwise would be forgotten in a busier, brighter picture. For example, the photo of my friend Kevin below. I used the partial illumination of the concrete steps as a spotlight to showcase his outfit. In broad daylight, I would have to be in a studio in order to create a similar scene that emphasizes the texture of his jacket.
The other important light source I like to focus on are neon lights. They’re very bright and have distinct colors, which you can play around with to create moody backdrops for photos. I usually look out for signs, building lights, and car lights while I walk around. Since they’re so strong, they can help illuminate and color backgrounds or create light trails if they’re moving.
This shot below was from an outlook in Elysian Park. The cars on the highway created a great contrast of white and red light trails. The white and orange lights in the background help complement the dark blue of the night and the colors of the light trails. I brought down the temperature of the image to cool down the sky and raised the highlights to help fill in some of the shadows.
Here’s my next tip: on these kinds of photos, adjusting the blacks and highlights are where you get the most results. Since the contrast is so high, adjusting the middle spectrum doesn’t do much.
Places to go
Now I hope you’re inspired to put on your tripod plates and go out to document the night. As my final aside, I’ll provide a list of spots in near LA that I still wander around.
- Water and Power Building - the ground floor of this building has a strong even illumination coming from the ceiling that is great for nighttime portrait work.
- Chinatown - Downtown Chinatown is full of neon lights and lamps which are great for getting a moody night shot.
- Idyllwild - It’s 2 hours away, but you can get a completely desolate little town for you to play around with after like 8pm.
- Elysian Park - There’s amazing views of highways and the LA skyline from this park. It gets really dark inside the park, so you can try to cool flashlight work too. Be careful there when it gets late though, it’s not the best part of town. Would recommend the swing and the bridge overlooking the 110.
So now that you have all the tools and knowledge, venture out and start creating. For further inspiration, check out my gallery of night time photography on the Photo Club website. Also, feel free post your night photos in our Facebook group so I can personally see it. Happy creating!