Night photography

I've been using film for a very long time. To me, film has a a completely different look and feel to how digital images look. It's almost like the difference between how a motion picture looks and how something filmed on video looks. Film has a way of suppressing blown highlights in a pleasing way, whereas digital just hits a brick wall.


But digital has quite a lot of advantages over film and I've pretty much come to the conclusion that I will be using both in the future. Film is strong in the departments of skin tones (Kodak Portra) and Saturated landscapes (Velvia). Digital on the other hand has immediate feedback and in terms of doing night shots or sunrise/sunset shots, it doesn't suffer from reciprocity effect which is present in all films.

In case you don't know what reciprocity effect is I'll explain. Film exposure is pretty much consistent from around 2 seconds upwards. But when you shoot longer exposures, the relationship between the shutter and the aperture fall apart. In essence, film becomes less sensitive to light, the longer it is exposed. So typically, if your light meter indicates an exposure time greater than 2-4 seconds then the meter is pretty much guaranteed to be wrong. You have to compensate and extend the exposure time in order to get a correctly exposed shot. If you don't, the film will be underexposed.

Now with digital capture, all of this becomes a thing of the past. The only issue you have to contend with is digital sensor noise. If you can imagine, the sensor is sampling the scene for the entire duration the shutter is open, and that means heat build up on the sensor. Due to all the electrons flying around, noise build up. Some cameras have algorithms built into them to remove the noise at the end of the exposure. That's why if you shoot a 10 second exposure, it takes the camera quite a bit of time after the exposure has complete to show you the preview.

The image you see above is a digital capture. I'm pretty sure I would never have caught this on a film camera without having a lot of skill and experience of shooting in the dark. I was able to dial in the exposure value I wanted into a nice little remote handset called a Canon TC-80N3. It allows me to use the camera on bulb and dial in the number of hours, minutes, seconds for the exposure... which is great as I'm always forgetting to keep check on the stop watch I carry with me (yes, a stop watch is a 'must have' for long exposures).

In terms of how the image was made, I'd been out shooting at Torness nuclear power station on the east cost of Scotland. I was just returning back to my car after it had got dark and whilst putting things away, I saw the sky moving very quickly. I loved the orange colour from the sodium lights in the car park and in particular thought the lights looked rather alien with all this strange light and swirling clouds going on. So I set up the camera on a tripod and used the remote timer I mentioned above. It took around three attempts to get the correct exposure because my light meter couldn't give me a reading so I had to guess (I have a hand held Sekonic meter). After each shot, I was able to check the preview screen to see if I'd got the exposure correct.

I love surreal images and I certainly subscribe to the idea than an image should be an expression of your imagination. Shooting at night adds another dimension to photography and your own experiences of being 'out there'.

Of course, this could have been captured on film, but I wouldn't have known if I'd got it 'in the bag'. I'll be posting more articles on both film and digital, because each has it's own strengths and weaknesses.

If you do go out to shoot at night - take warm clothes and a flask of hot tea, and don't be surprised if the first few attempts result in you coming home because you got a little bit freaked out..... it takes a while to get over the fear of being out in the dark on your own.

To view my portfolio of Torness images click here.