Night street photography is an exciting genre. There’s the contrast of light and dark, the movement of people, and the energy of the city. Capturing that in images is the goal of the night street photographer.
But, this genre of photography presents some enormous challenges. Because of the variable lighting, the movement of subjects, and the photographer’s need to keep up with that movement, you have to be well-prepared to capture those compelling images.
How do you do that? Well, here’s how the experts handle night street photography:
First, you need somewhere to go to get those shots. Of course, cities are obvious locations, but really it can be anywhere people congregate. It can be a small town annual fair or a local festival, for example, and within the city or town, there are also a number of possible locations you can utilize.
The temptation is for the photographer is to stay out on the street where the action is, but there are other locations as well. The alleyways, backstreets, and vacant thoroughfares have stories to tell too.
The absence of activity in a deserted downtown commercial district at midnight, for example, contrasts nicely with the daytime hustle and bustle in the same location. It tells a story about the daily life cycle of the site–the birth of the day, the growth of activity, the peak of its intensity, followed by the slow waning of its life energy as the night progresses. As the iconic line goes, “There are eight million stories in the naked city,” and they’re not all found on the busy streets.
One caveat about location–always stay safe. Be careful about venturing into dangerous areas alone. You should be aware that you might be a target since you’re distracted by what you’re doing and you’re carrying expensive equipment. Take appropriate precautions, such as working with a colleague, a friend or a group, so that you can stay safe.
Preparation is key with any genre, but it is particularly important for night street photography. You don’t always know what you’ll encounter no matter what plans you might make. So, you’ll need to come prepared for almost anything. There are really two areas of preparation: photographer preparation and equipment preparation.
You’ll need to prepare the right equipment for the night shoot, but you’ll also need to prepare yourself. First, you want to dress appropriately. You’ll need to dress for the weather you might encounter and you’ll need to dress for the job.
Aside from the clothing you’ll need for the weather you’ll experience, you want to dress comfortably. You’ll be moving around and perhaps shooting in various positions, so your clothes need to be loose enough for you to do that. You should also wear shoes that are appropriate for a LOT of walking!
Additionally, you’ll want low-key clothing. You shouldn’t wear anything too eye-catching. First, you don’t want to call attention to yourself–you want your subject to be the center of attention. And then, if you’re working with a flash, you don’t want to wear reflective clothing materials as those can contaminate your image.
You’ll also need to prepare your equipment. The minimal equipment you’ll need is the camera body and a good lens, but you may also want to bring additional lenses. A 50mm lens is the preferred choice for night street photographers, but an 85mm lens is good for portrait shots, and a 35mm lens is great for handheld photography.
While there are occasions where you might want to use a tripod–such as when you’re doing long-exposure night street photography–for the most part, it’s better to leave the tripod at home. Usually, you’ll be on the move and the tripod won’t make that any easier. Also, since you’re often shooting on the fly, as it were, you won’t have time to set up a tripod. However, you can go for a small and easy to carry tripod such as Platypod.
Whatever equipment you bring, you’ll also want to prepare it for any weather you might encounter. Rain covers aren’t very expensive, and they’re definitely worth the money. They can also protect from the snow, but you’ll need to consider other factors if the temperatures are cold.
Battery life can be cut in half by cold temperatures, so you should bring extra batteries. Also, condensation can form on your equipment, so bring some cloth to dry the gear, and be sure to keep your memory cards warm and dry.
3. Lighting for Night Street Photography
Well, you can’t use the sun, so what light sources do you have? Clearly, you’re limited to artificial light, but this can come from a number of different sources.
Streetlights are the standard for night street photography, and they can provide a spotlight for some very dramatic images. There’s also light coming from shop windows. These are often not only lit, but decorated as well, and they can provide very interesting backgrounds for your photographs.
There’s also neon signs. When you think of Las Vegas, you often think of the strip lit up with neon signs at night. These can create an almost ‘steampunk’ atmosphere, which can make for some very interesting images.
To Flash or Not to Flash
Finally, you always have the option of using a flash. Some experts say you should not be afraid to use the flash, because it clearly illuminates the scene. They argue it won’t draw too much unnecessary attention, and it will give you more creative options.
Other experts say leave the flash at home. They feel that it not only might draw unwelcome attention, and possibly lead to confrontations, it also detracts from the artistic style of night street photography. If you’re going for a documentary kind of feel, the flash can compromise that.
In the end, you have to decide what works best for you. You might also try a variety of techniques. But, you clearly need to be aware of the light sources on the street and use those to your best advantage regardless of whether you then use a flash or not.
4. Camera Settings
Night street photography clearly presents some challenging conditions. These include low light and fast-moving subjects. So, what kind of camera settings will help you meet these challenges? In general there are three areas to discuss:
Because of the low light conditions, you’re going to need a large aperture. The largest aperture settings, however, will give you a very shallow depth of field, which means that achieving a sharp focus will be more difficult. If possible, you want to try to shoot at f/2.8. That will expand your opportunities.
The aim here is usually to have a fast enough shutter speed that you can freeze the action and avoid camera shake. The slowest shutter speed you can hold the camera at is related to the focal length of your lens. For a 50mm lens, that means the shutter speed can be held at 1/50th, whereas an 85mm lens will need 1/100th. It will help to have steady hands and a wide angle focal length.
For night street photography, you’ll need to raise your ISO significantly. Without doing so, handheld photography at night is just not possible. Most experts agree that an ISO of 3200 is enough, but there could be situations where you need up to an ISO of 6400. A higher ISO increases the grain, which can give the image a gritty appearance, something many night street photographers embrace.
5. Techniques for Photographing Streets at Night
There are a number of techniques the experts use to achieve a particular mood for their night street photography. These vary in accordance with how close you are to the subject, the amount and type of light available, and your focus techniques.
One technique is the bokeh–or blurring–of the background or the foreground portion of the image. This is achieved by having a large aperture and having your subject positioned in front of the background objects. This helps to accentuate your subject or the background, and can result in a compelling image.
Once you have your main subject, it’s best to try to minimalize what else is in the image. It is, in a sense, the art of subtraction. Having too much going on in the image can detract from the mood you’re trying to create.
One technique is to look for leading lines. These might appear as a line of vendors or lights or even architectural structures. You can use these to guide the eye through the image in the same way you read a story.
Shoot Close Up and from a Distance
Close-up images can create a narrative or a “moment” and result in striking photographs, but don’t be limited to just one method. Wider images of street scenes can also create a compelling illustration of night life.
Embrace the Darkness
Photographers are told ad nauseam to avoid dark images, but if you want images full of light, you shoot during the day. The goal with night street photography is to capture the feel of the night. You want deep shadows and areas that are almost too difficult to make out. That’s what it’s like at night, and you shouldn’t be afraid to portray it that way.
6. Inspirations for Night Street Photography
Finally, don’t forget the reasons behind your night street photography. It offers you a tableau of life after the sun goes down. It can be moody, almost mystical, or fun-loving and joyous. It can be gritty and giddy all at the same time. Night street photography offers a setting like few other genres.
Single light sources, for example, juxtapose light with negative space, and excite the viewer’s imagination. Bright lights and a lot of activity can create a joyous feel. Pairing the right backgrounds with the right people can inspire almost an ethereal mood. Using a slow shutter speed with a flash can allow you to produce light trails that will give your images a surrealistic appearance.
Set the mood for your shoot and then look for locations that will give you the opportunity to get that inspirational image. Sometimes you might find the background first and then wait for the right person to walk by. Other times you might find the right setting and position yourself so you can photograph varying angles to capture the right mood.
Night street photography is a challenging genre, but that is exactly the reason it attracts so many photographers. By going into the night with the right equipment, preparing both yourself and your camera for the conditions you will encounter, finding the best sources of light, and properly adjusting your settings, you can utilize various techniques to create truly inspirational images.