For anyone who has spent hours outside making images in the dark, this will seem like a ludicrous question – the experience itself answers the question without argument, it is a wonderful thing to do. For those who pack up their cameras and tripods the moment the sun dips below the horizon however, our opening question is rhetorical and somewhat sarcastic, “why would anyone do it?”
Of course, in many cases, there is a certain element of hardship; cold, dark, alone, even some fear, but I hope in this series of articles to show that the benefits to our image-making and personal development far outway the potential negatives, which on the whole can be negated with a little planning.
Before we consider any physical or mental hardship, let us consider the aesthetic benefits of night photography.
I have told the following story many times, but I feel it underlines a great deal of why I got into night photography in the first place, and paved the way for a huge evolution in my work and lifestyle.
In the fall of 2004 my wife and I were touring western Canada, and had planned to visit some friends who lived in Banff. Back then, I was very much a bird photographer, with a 500mm lens attached to my camera all the time, but as we drove east from Vancouver and into the mountains, fresh and glowing in their golden colours, I decided I should investigate landscapes, and now was a good time to start. We headed down to Calgary and in a downtown store bought a Canon 20D and a 17-40mm lens. I also purchased a series of Cokin Graduated Neutral Density Filters. The landscape obsession was about to begin.
For a few days we toured the region, learning that great landscape images didn’t appear on the sensor as often as I would have hoped! One evening we lined up beside perhaps a hundred other photographers on the banks of Vermilion Lake, looking across the mirrored waters to Mount Rundle, and were rewarded by a very pretty sunset. This to me, was what landscapes were all about, but I felt sharing it with dozens of other photographers would severely diminish the possibilities of any of my shots being in any way unique.
Soon after sunset we packed up and went back to the house, where we enjoyed a typical Albertan dinner of grilled meat and good wine. Around 11:30pm I went into our room to close the blinds and went onto the balcony briefly to take some air. The view over the valley was superb, with a full moon bathing the scene in gorgeous soft light, and on a complete whim, I suggested to Juanli we head down to the lake to take some shots in this sweet light.
We got our gear together and got to the lake shore; alone, perfectly quiet, mist rising from the swamp and the moonlight caressing the landscape. It was complete bliss, and a complete change of experience from earlier that evening as we placed our tripods in the wet hollows left by other photographers.
I’ll confess I knew nothing of night photography; exposure and focus were a mystery, but I worked through it, and got an image that remains a favorite up to the present day.
At the time there was not a lot of great learning material out there, and most of it referred to dealing with film; so, in my usual way, I got down to it and worked most of it out for myself. By the summer of 2009 I felt I was beginning to get a good overall feel for what the whole discipline required, and having written and published a primer on the subject, began to seriously consider my own book – The Complete Guide so to speak.
From 2009 – 2012 we travelled a long way, from Tibet to Nepal and the western Chinese mountains over to the coasts of Spain, Thailand and Indonesia – capturing night light and images to illustrate my book and the required techniques.
In that slightly protracted tale, I hope I demonstrated one of my primary reasons for shooting at night.
1: You usually get the place to yourself.
Popular, iconic locations are popular for a reason; they are gorgeous and you can take many a pretty picture. But, at night, you have an opportunity to take the iconic compositions, but in fresh light – moonlight or starlight. Yes, it’s a challenge, but the rewards are unique and intriguing images.
If you are interested in exploring the world of Night Photography, pelase consider purchasing my eBook – Seeing the Unseen – How to Photograph Landscapes at Night.
Until the 1st October 2012 – the following Discount Code is in effect – ALINEW1 – giving a 25% discount.
The second part of the series will look at Adding Meaning to your images by shooting at Night.