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Into the night - a guide to low light photography

Taking photos of landscapes at night provides us with a very magical view if you choose the time well. Our guide, Andrew Fleetwood, explains the dos and don't of lowlight landscape photography.

| General Photography

This article provides an overview of photography during that magical time of day when the mood of the landscape changes, our view of it is reduced and most things are typically slowing down, including our shutter speeds. I mean of course low light / night photography. So what is there to photograph, exactly the same as in daytime except whats visible now is either lightly brushed with receding natural light, and/or by areas of artificial light, basically its one big creative playground.

Into the night - a guide to low light photography:

Low light / night photography does however presents us with some different photographic challenges, e.g. which equipment is suitable, which film should we use, when to photograph and what about long exposures. The following focuses on these issues in the hope that they will form part of the foundations to your creativity, with less of your results being labeledArt. You know those photographs you cant figure out what went wrong, or am l the only one with loads of art.

What equipment
Low light / night photography typically extends our exposure times therefore its worth considering a camera that can be used manually, as shutter speed selection typically extends to Bulb, B. Complementing this is of course a suitable tripod and shutter release cable. Program, Aperture and Shutter priority modes l find prefect for those creative grab shots, digital cameras with instant preview and erase are just fantastic for creativity at night. Personally, lm happy with the flexibility the following equipment provides.

Art Panoramic 617
Pentax ASAHI 67, 110mm and 45mm lenses.
Olympus C2000-Z (2.1 megapixel)
A short shutter release cable with thumbscrew lock.
Gitzo tripod.
Minolta V light meter with 10 deg spot meter attachment.
Small torch.
Watch with seconds movement.

Keep equipment secure and to a minimum.

We all have our favourite films from the vast array on offer, my personal choice for low light / night photography is Fuji 64T II slide film (120 roll) because of its fine grain, extended longer exposure characteristics and because its tungsten balanced, i.e. balanced for colour temperature of around 3200k.

Into the night - a guide to low light photography: During low light / night photography the receding natural light and artificial light is closer to 3200k then 5500k, the typical daylight colour temperature, therefore using Fuji 64T II results in closer rendering of the mixture of light.

Colour temperature range derived from heating up an object, observing the colour at a given temperature, assimilating it to real world temperatures colours during the cycle of the day then applying this model to balance a film for daylight or artificial light.

The figures below show how the same light source, albeit from a different viewpoint was rendered on film with different characteristics. No filtering used.

Into the night - a guide to low light photography:
Into the night - a guide to low light photography:

Slide film tends to be preferred for low light / night photography because following processing you will receive faithful reproduction of your efforts. Whereas with print films the automatic processing system may try to correct some of the colours / creativity you have worked for.

Where, when and what
Countryside to city I find that one hour before, and leading up to sunset on evenings when the contrast between the sky and land/lake is minimal produces some very tranquil and interesting vistas.
Into the night - a guide to low light photography:
Into the night - a guide to low light photography:
Equally, after sunset, later in the night offers some interesting photography, especially in the cities, in the alleyways and across the lakes. Add to this the moonlight, maybe the odd rolling cloud formation, maybe lightning and you could be out all night, just in time for sunrise.


  • Use published sunset times as, a guideline consider the terrain.
  • Bracket.
  • Avoid or obscure slightly the moon in your shots when using long exposures.
  • Visit potential locations during the day especially in the countryside.
  • Avoid invading peoples privacy, and sensitive locations, seek permission.
Into the night - a guide to low light photography:
Into the night - a guide to low light photography:
The above photographs are not particularly creative, but they are representative of the variety of lighting typically encountered during low light / night photography. Shots like these serve as useful references for equipment and film combinations, eliminating some of the guesswork, saving you time and film. But where do we start?

Exposure, where to start
In low light and areas of concentrated artificial light l find the Pentaprism averaging meter system fitted to my Pentax 67 or my Minolta handheld meter fitted with a 10 degs spot attachment provides reliable exposure combinations. Generally, l meter the light on the ground under a lamp / shop window or from the sky / lake, this l find produces the results l like, but experiment. Using program, aperture and shutter priority modes serves much the same purpose, remember to record the exposure details.

Personally, l work from f16 downwards for low light / night photography, selecting a exposure combination to suit the film characteristics and scene, l bracket and record my exposure combinations including date, time, lens, filter and film details giving me all the reference information l need. However, it is wise to periodically re-evaluate reference vistas.

Into the night - a guide to low light photography:
Into the night - a guide to low light photography:
From both these scenes l was able to take meter readings, calculate an exposure combination to produce an acceptable reference vista within the optimal range of the film. Optimal range of the film whats that?

Optimal range of film
The majority of the films we are familiar with are optimised, design for daylight use within a specific exposure range at daylight colour temperatures of around 5500K, this is the optimal range l refer to. Broadly speaking remaining within this optimal range will produce e.g. consistent colour, contrast and levels of exposure. Each film, from each manufacture has a different optimal range therefore, simply checking the film data sheets and selecting a different film could be easier to work with during low light / night photography and render scenes more accurately, creativity aside.

The following compares Fuji Velvia with Fuji 64T II. The emphasis is on long exposure times for low light / night photography.

Optimal ranges:

From the figures above the advantage of Fuji 64T II for low light / night photography is clear. l have a massive 256 seconds, (4 minutes) to work within, with only two slight stop adjustments to make at 128 and 256 seconds, (+1/3 and +1/2 stop respectively) before l must concern myself about how the film is going to react, stop adjustments cost nothing. Exposure details obtained from the film data sheet.

This is only one aspect of film characteristics full information is available from the film manufactures data sheets, (see appropriate websites).

So why should films react differently outside certain ranges?

In fact films react differently inside and outside their optimal ranges due to a number of different factors e.g. light source, film emulsion, layer sensitivity and light intensity. Essentially however outside the films optimal range, short and long exposures, films are subject to something called Reciprocity law failure.

Reciprocity law
The law states for a given exposure combination, e.g. f4 at 1/8 sec the film will receive X amount of light for a given light intensity, if we reduce our aperture to f11 and increase the exposure time proportionally the film will receive the same amount of light as in the f4 example, this principle is applied / designed into films. The law remains true as long as our actual exposure times remain within the optimal exposure time range of our chosen film. How broad the optimal range of a film is, is a design issue, i.e. films are manufactured for a particular photographic / commercial purpose.

Once exposure times fall outside the films designed optimal range the Reciprocity law does not hold true, i.e. Reciprocity law failure and the film starts to react differently. Some effects are, independent colour shifts, under exposure and contrast changes. To minimise these changes film manufactures / data sheets provide detailed information on what and under what conditions we should apply specific measures, e.g. exposure compensation and/or the usage of special compensating filters.

It is worth noting film data sheets provide information about film usage under a broad range of lighting conditions. If you have ever wondered what magazines or other photographers mean by know your film then the information on film data sheets combined with practical usage under a range of different conditions is what is meant.

At night and in low light the shadows and viewpoint clearly provides a different view from the daylight world.

Into the night - a guide to low light photography:
Into the night - a guide to low light photography:

Special effects
Selective special effects filters can add to the creativity. Examples not edited.

Into the night - a guide to low light photography:
Into the night - a guide to low light photography:
Tobac filter
6 Star filter

If you are out late and you have a burning desire to send an email, fax, SMS, or just phone earth, then pop into one of those personnel high street offices, which may generally be ignored photographically during the day.

Into the night - a guide to low light photography:
Be creative, Go play.

Any feedback welcome, email [email protected].


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