Life after dark: photo tips for night time street photos (part two)
This is part two of a two part series on night time street photography. You can see part one, from last week, here.
The gear and settings
I have a small and lightweight tripod to which I attach an L bracket and Arca-Swiss plate to my camera. The L bracket is useful as it lets you change the orientation of the camera quickly and easily.
With long exposures, you don’t need fast primes although it does help. I find a mid-range zoom (24-70mm equiv.) and a wider zoom lens (16-35mm equiv.) are the best bets. I also have a screw in ND3 filter for the blue hour shots, or for when I want to really slow things down and there’s too much available light.
Once you’ve set up your camera and framing, I recommend focusing manually with focus peaking as you won’t be able to rely on your camera’s autofocus. Keep the ISO low, and the aperture at somewhere between f11-f18, depending on the scene, the lens, and the lighting.
If there are bright streetlights, somewhere around f16 to f22 will help emphasise the starburst effect. Depending on the light, shutter speeds will likely be anything from three seconds through to 30. If time is tight, remember you can increase your ISO slightly to reduce your shutter speeds and get more shots in.
Finally, use a wired shutter release if you have one, or failing that a shutter delay on your camera to be sure the tripod doesn’t move when you press the shutter.
Shooting street scenes at night is in many ways just like daytime shooting. You’ll need to think safely, be fast and discreet, keep your gear minimal, and avoid isolated places. I suggest avoiding shooting around bars if you don’t know the people within them. With a few drinks people can become aggressive, and especially when they see someone pointing a camera at them.
One camera body, several spare batteries, and a fast prime lens have always been my weapons of choice for night-time street shooting.
Previously I’d recommend you pack a short prime lens such as a 35mm to allow you to get in close for busy street scenes, but in recent times I think a longer lens makes more sense. Personally, I’ve been using a 90mm equivalent and have taken to shooting from a distance. This is because peoples’ ideas of personal space has changed a whole lot in the past two years, and keeping distance makes much more sense.
I’m a manual shooter, although for low light work you may prefer to use one of the semi-automatic modes such as Av (Aperture Priority) or Tv (Shutter Priority).
Whatever you choose to use, keep an eye on your ISO. What you’ll get away with does vary considerably between cameras and personal taste, but as a general rule of thumb try to stick between ISO 400-1600, although I have pushed that a lot recently (in some cases up to ISO 10,000).
If you are keen to push your ISO, avoid capturing extreme shadows or making large swathes of sky part of your frame as these areas will show noise more than ‘busy’ elements.
It's also very important to keep an eye on your shutter speed. If you find you’re not able to achieve the shutter speeds needed to freeze the action, good technique can help as well. Keep your elbows close to your sides, lean against a wall, or bend your knees slightly to stabilise your position.
At the bare minimum, 1/60th of a second should be enough to freeze somebody working inside a shop for example but try to double that if you can (around 1/125s).
My preferred method is to always have the camera ready, estimate my settings in advance, and then quick draw and micro adjust – which is where an EVF really helps.
Finally, if a subject notices me I always strike up a fun interaction and either gesture or ask if I can take the image - 80% of the time that works.
If it’s a busy scene, with people at food stalls for example, it’s far easier as people either don’t notice you, or are used to people taking their picture. This is one of the benefits of the Instagram and mobile phone era.
However if you are in any doubt, apologise, then quietly move on. ❂