Scott Frances architecture photography night
© Scott Frances. In shooting this nighttime scene at a New York City apartment, Scott Frances chose to supplement interior lights with candles.

Night Lights: 6 Approaches to Shooting in the Dark

APRIL 24, 2013

The liminal glow of pre-dawn and twilight hours is beautiful and mysterious, but also difficult for photographers to work with. Night photography is even more challenging. But new technology is making photography in low (or almost no) light much easier. Ever faster digital sensors and lenses, image compositing software, and LCD displays on the backs of cameras (for checking exposure and results) have made shooting in low light conditions more practical.

A number of photographers have developed signature styles based on low light (and night) photography, and used their techniques to land commercial and editorial assignments. Some architectural photographers, for instance, are taking advantage of twilight (and supplementing it with artificial light) for the rich and flattering look that it casts over buildings that look unremarkable in daylight. Photojournalists and fine art photographers are also experimenting with low light conditions. Alejandro Chaskielberg, for instance, is known for his moody moonlight images, which he shoots for clients as well as for personal projects that have been widely exhibited.

Here are stories from the PDNOnline archive (accessible to PDN subscribers) that provide detail about the gear and techniques six photographers use to get striking results.

Shots in the Dark: Mike Butler on Lighting Large Exteriors
What Mike Butler has enjoyed doing the most since he launched his career as an architectural photographer is shooting large exteriors. The bigger the subject, the better he likes it. And what makes it even more challenging is that he shoots in the evening, as darkness falls. Butler shoots each piece of the scene for a final composite, usually from a distant location from which he can capture the full scale of his subjects, while directing his assistants via radio on where to place strobe lights to bring details out of the shadows. While it may sound elaborate, Butler insists he works simply and bases his lighting setup on “whatever’s practical” to get the shots he likes.

Evan Joseph on Photographing Exclusive Real Estate
Evan Joseph photographs high-end luxury real estate for developers and brokers, and he knows his clients are looking for panoramic views out of window, as well as the warm glow of the interior lighting design. To get both, Joseph shoots interiors at dawn and dusk with a variety of lenses, lights, and techniques. "I’m trying to do whatever I can technically to evoke emotional response to the images. I want someone to look, and go, ‘Ah home, I have to live there!’”

Shots in the Dark: Royce Bair on Lighting Nighttime Landscapes
About five nights per month, conditions are just right for shooting dramatic images of the starry skies over the geological formations of the West and Southwest, says Salt Lake City-based photographer Royce Bair. His pictures show colorful, light-painted sandstone arches, mesas and cliffs under dark skies popping with hundreds of stars, all of them sharp points of light. Bair describes the cameras, lenses and light painting techniques he uses to capture both sky and landscape features with exposures of 30 seconds or less.

Shots in the Dark: Scott Frances on Lighting Structures with What's Available
For photographer Scott Frances, a building’s interior lights play a more important role in his nighttime architecture shoots than any exterior lighting set-up could. "I would resort to almost anything rather than supplement the lighting,” he says, and he describes how he balances the light from lamps, track lighting, chandeliers, and other interior and exterior building lights with ambient light of dusk to photograph both residential and commercial buildings.

Alejandro Chaskielberg's Moonlit Portraits for Oxfam
NGOs frequently use photojournalistic images of human suffering to tug at the heartstrings of donors, but Oxfam took a different approach to raise funds for its projects in drought-stricken Kenya by commissioning cinematic photographer Alejandro Chaskielberg to shoot nighttime portraits. The Argentine photographer describes the commission, and how he supplemented fickle moonlight with light painting by flashlight to make his images.

How Stephen Wilkes Blends Day Into Night
To explore his fascination with the passage of time within a single photograph, Stephen Wilkes photographed a cityscape over a 15-hour period from a fixed position. Then he combined 25 or 30 selects to re-create the fleeting sense of transition from light to darkness, and shared some of the details of the process.

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