Experiment with your camera, part 2

Play with camera settings at night
By T Martin

Last month’s article on using manual camera settings to experiment with available light photography ended with an outdoor night photo of John Mull. This month continues the available light story with more night photography tips. Get your tripod, and make sure your camera has fresh batteries!

Beginning last August, I got myself on a night photography kick and just started taking the camera out at night to try something different or new. A party (social) photographer for years, I became very used to flash photography, since it is generally the quickest way to get images at high activity events like parties. However, I’ve always been impressed by the natural look of portraits, landscapes, skyscapes and even garden photos.

Most people with a half-decent camera in possession have taken one or two truly stunning sunrise or sunset photos. My first real experience with night photography was the sunset. I used a fully manual Minolta [model] without a tripod. Fortunately, sunrise and sunset photos provide enough light to merit passing up a tripod. However, only recently – thanks to updated equipment – have I been encouraged to return to a slower paced kind of photography… the kind that requires patience and an understanding of your gear.

Sunset at Franklinville-Eagles Plaza

Using the Minolta Dimage 7, this photo was taken as part of a self-assignment with my brother Brian and sister Patience. I used 1/500 at f/2.8 to achieve just the right amounts of light and color. The camera’s ISO was set at 200. The assignment was part of my “testing” phase for the camera.

Sunrise at Clemente Middle School

Again using the Dimage 7, I captured this photo with 1/90 at f/3.5. I had to get up early and hurry to work to catch the sunrise from the third-story, east-facing window. I used ISO 100 to slow things a few stops. This photo was taken in December of 2001, shortly after I purchased the camera.

Photographing people at night requires extreme patience. The human body, namely a live one, is not designed to stand or sit perfectly still for extended periods of time. To capture a figure indoors in low light, the subject must hold very still during the exposure, which cannot be too long to avoid “washout” in the photo. Photographing people outdoors at night is even more particular! I’ve found that the best way to prepare to photograph people at night is to practice on inanimate objects first.

Though my return to night photography began with my brother Gregory and a cousin on the front steps of my house, I quickly turned my attention to the cars, signs, and the street itself. Before the night was over, I would walk with my brother to my workplace just a few blocks away to photograph the building. One co-worker jokingly described the results of that first shoot as “accidental” – (“When you tripped and the camera snapped the picture…”).

While I had shot photos in low light long before this experiment, it was still as if I were shooting night photography for the first time, and I spent a great deal of time composing and recomposing various images that night. I paid more attention to detail than I had been of late. The truth is, I couldn’t afford any accidents with the new equipment! (The remaining images displayed in this article were taken with the Nikon D100 using a 28-200mm f/3.5-5.6D zoom lens.)

28mm, 12 seconds at f/11 and ISO 400

To have some real fun that night, I called my sister Patience (I told you night photos require this.) whose photography course at Community College of Philadelphia had taken her through a number of similar situations. She had been shooting everything I had long since gotten away from – from still life to night photos to available light portraits – and her images are great! I needed her guidance! So out she came, camera and tripod in hand, and we proceeded to the nearest avenue for some night photo practice. I welcomed the opportunity to continue our gag competition – film vs. digital, perhaps a topic for a future article, if any readers are interested.

The results were amazing to me. I did a few photo stories, playing with head- and taillights streaking across my images. I was shooting near my home, so I found very few interesting subjects for this rejuvenation, but I worked with what I had. The First Union Bank had just changed its signs, and the new Wachovia signs were lit that night, so I zoomed in and varied the f/stops and shutter speeds to get different images of the sign from across the street. While I was pointed that way, I took a few of the street signs and traffic signal for effect. To the other side of me, Greg was tempting me to use an exposure long enough to capture all three traffic lights. The result: Exposure was too long, but produced an interesting, albeit strange, image after all!

200mm, 60 seconds at f/11 and ISO 400

My sister had returned home, but Greg stuck around and helped me compose a few images. He suggested framing a dumpster through a fence, taking on a tree looming over another fence around a corner parking lot and two or three other angles that eventually made images worth showing off. Two of my friends enjoy stick-handling, passing the hockey puck around, and hockey-fighting each other, so Greg and I paid them a photographic visit as well, positioning the tripod and camera a safe distance from their wild swings and passes.

I liked the “ghost” effect: During longer exposures when one of them would stand in one place for a while and move toward the end of the exposure, they would appear to leave a ghost in the picture. This was also where I practiced some more people-at-night photos, though the street lights provided enough light that I could get usable images in less time.

80mm, 10 seconds at f/11 and ISO 400

After only a few shots of them, though, I was ready to take a walk. Securing my equipment in its camera bag, I invited Greg to accompany me to my job, a nearby middle school. Interested in framing a few more photos, he agreed and we took our show on the road. There were some interesting shots along the way, but it was close to midnight, and the neighborhood is not one in which I’d drop my bag to remove anything – even for a few seconds.
The school was old friend of mine. The last time I had photographed the entire school front – and here’s the clincher – was four or five years earlier with a Nikon FG. I used a 28mm lens then, and the difference here was that I was using a lens whose widest angle (28mm) equaled 42mm on a 35mm camera. For this experiment, I used bulb exposure at f/8 and alternately f/11 or f/16. I allowed 8, 10, 15, 20, and 30 seconds as different shutter speeds during the bulb exposures, and found an interesting point of info.

Using a remote trigger, sometimes referred to as a plunger – old-schoolers, you know what I’m talking about – I realized that the camera’s 30-second exposure differed from the plunger’s 30-seconds. The difference was minute, but in the recording of light, that difference can significantly alter the final image. This being the case, I took some images using the camera’s exposure, and then I took alternate photos allowing the plunger’s timing to take precedence.

28mm, 5 seconds at f/11 and ISO 400

Taking pictures at night is, evidently, among the more fun aspects of photography. Next month, we’ll explore the joys of hanging out the passenger side of a gliding van to capture whatever images you can on a fun road trip with the family or as a chaperone on a field trip. (Remember that the fun is in the getting there, no matter how hype you are about the destination!) Until then… enjoy NorFilly™ Online!