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Photographing Street Scenes at Night

In every town and every area there is the scope for night time photography. At night most things look far different, a town street with trees in the daytime is seen in a wider setting with hills or other buildings behind, while at night we see pools of light hitting the road between the trees. A petrol station in the day is often plain, while at night often looks like something that would feature in a fairground. Office buildings illuminated at night can be far more striking then in the daytime and parks far more spooky.

Street scenes with cars, have light tracks, and if it has been raining will often show reflections of cars and other lights, often quite distorted as the road surface is not flat like water.

There are no legal restrictions in photographing people in a public place, in the day or night, as a general rule people dressed up for a night out enjoy being photographed, but the friends of people who have got drunk, may object to you photographing those who are less than fit. Police can be a pain, and many photographers have experienced, with so say 'terrorist act' checks on what they are doing, not that there has been any terrorists that look like you, have been photographers, or any terrorists would need to take photographs with DSLR cameras. However its said to help them meet their targets, so many stop and searches or whatever a day, and far easier than worrying about crime or people who may be difficult to deal with. So dial 999 and they haven't got anyone free, they're all busy questioning photographers and others they aught to be leaving alone. The easiest thing is to just go with the flow and answer their questions, show them who you are and make it just a silly unnecessary waste of time. Objecting or arguing is likely to just get you into more problems. This also brings up the question of how visible should you be, while for candid shots being hardly noticeable may be ideal, however if you are more visible you are less likely to encounter problems. I have an orange reflective coat, like those used trackside on the railway, and this was the main purpose I obtained it, but at night when involved  in street photography I often wear it, and am therefore very visible, so far less likely to get hit by a car, and also less likely that anyone can complain that I am spying on them or have other objections. In some areas the authorities are not popular, and using a orange as opposed to yellow reflective jacket, like the emergency services, does cause people to ask what you are, before taking exception to your presence.

You have to watch that you do not get accused of voyeurism, that is photographing courting couples in the park, or in the back of cars. You also need to avoid people thinking that you are photographing people changing in bedrooms or the like. The difficulty of course is that you were looking at whatever you were photographing and probably not aware what was happening in the shadows, so you have to look for what you should not be looking at, in order not to see it, if that makes sense. Remember that young courting couples have to go somewhere, and will generally select a place they feel they will not be disturbed, so town parks, graveyards, dark areas of car parks, are at certain times of the evening likely to be places you should avoid.  It goes without saying that photography in red light districts is likely to present problems, as many of the other people in those streets most likely would not wish to be photographed or identified.

The other risk is being mugged and having your equipment stolen or cash and credit cards taken. The only real solution to this is to get a group of other photographers or others to go with you. Generally I don't take my latest/best camera and have just one or two lenses with me, so if they got taken it would not be as bad, but I am cautious at all times, try to be visible and don't go too far from the public well lit areas.

Photographing floodlit churches, office blocks and areas around night clubs is less likely to cause you problems. Photographing earlier in the evening is also less likely to be problematic, before people can drink too much, and staying where there are more people you are less likely to get mugged than when off where there are few people.

Villages and smaller places have fewer problems and often nearly as many photographic opportunities.

Technical considerations

Exposure - Matrix metering or equivalent systems cope quite well with well lit street scenes and illuminated petrol forecourts, nightclubs, office blocks. With less well lit areas, you will find this is less ideal, and switching to spot metering, setting the exposure variation as +3 and spot metering off the brightest area that you want detail in, is the solution.

Speed - for light tracks you need a slow speed or time exposure. If you want to expand the time the exposure is open, then reduce the ISO and the aperture (towards f32). If you need more then use a neutral density filter. If you just want light tracks and not to see any vehicles (except parked ones) then use a very high value ND filter, ND 64 or higher. To get the movement of repetitive items try to estimate the length of a cycle.

Depth of field - consider the depth of field that you need for each shot, a street scene may need quite a large depth of field, while an illuminated feature may not.

Noise in images - noise comes about through using very high ISO's and very long exposures, as well as by pulling out too much from shadows in editing. Noise, like film grain, is not always negative, in some cases it can improve a shot. In some shots where nothing is moving you may have the capability to reduce noise on your camera by taking a number of shots that then are combined together for a single one.

Flash - flash runs out of range quite quickly in street scenes. Its useful for people and lighting shadows, but you can photograph large items at night outside with normal flash. You can use a time exposure and walk around the scene firing your flash manually making sure you don't get between the flash and camera.

Day for night shooting - movies often film night scenes in the day, using a dense blue filter on the lens. This is also possible with some photography.

Star filters - a star filter turns each point of light into a star, you can get star filters with different numbers of points.

Finally - Get out and have a go, but be careful, ideally take one or more other person with you and start simply, with petrol forecourts and general street scenes.


By: Keith Park Section: Key:
Page Ref: photographing_street_scenes_at_night Topic: Landscape Photography Last Updated:11/2009

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