How to shoot Night Street Photography! Gear, Techniques and Tips

How to shoot Night Street Photography! Gear, Techniques and Tips

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Introduction

Ever since I started shooting in the Streets, I have been hooked to it. I love the way that sometimes scenes just unfold themselves right in front of my lens and I feel so lucky that I am there to press the shutter button to capture them. 

I have noticed that after shooting in the same town or city for a long period of time, I begin to get it’s vibe and I start to comprehend it better and better. When shooting in a small town, this comprehension might come to me faster, depending of course on the complexity of the people and the architecture in the area. I must admit thought, that after shooting in the same streets for many weeks or even months, a time comes when I feel that I have nothing more to capture. I feel that I have explored every corner, that I know every way the light shines in each street and sometimes I even know which people to expect during specific times of the day. When this happens to me, there is always one thing that I do that excites me and makes me feel a new interest for my town.  I go nocturnal.

Going Nocturnal

I have been called “King of the night”, I have been “accused” of having Nyctophilia (an abnormal preference for the night over the day), but all it is really is just me looking at my town from another perspective. When I am nocturnal, I see things differently. The same spot that is lively and vibrant in the morning is mysterious and silent at night. A park that is packed with people during the day, could be empty when darkness comes, or even better it could host a few shady characters that might be very interesting to capture.

In order to shoot Street Photography at night though one must make sure that they keep a few things in mind. So in the following blog post, I will talk about the right gear for shooting Street Photos at night, I will share some techniques that can help you get better results and I will also provide you with a few tips, stuff that will help you enjoy a better and safer Night Street Photography session.

Gear for Shooting Street Photos at night

Of course you can’t hit the streets in the midst of darkness and start shooting using your iPhone! You will need something better than that, something that can really help you produce Night Street Photos fast, discretely and with some average or above quality. The gear that would work the best would be the following:

For Compact Camera users

Manual or Semi Automatic control

Make sure your compact camera can shoot at high ISOs and with a wide enough aperture. If you don’t have options for manual or semi automatic control over ISO and aperture, then maybe you shouldn’t shoot at night with that camera.

Image Sensor size

Make sure your compact camera’s Image Sensor is of an adequate size. I have managed to shoot night shots with my backup Panasonic Lumix LX7, at f1.4 and ISO 3200 with kind of ok results. So, I will set the bar at that camera’s image sensor size which is 1/1.7″. Anything above that, will work fine for Night Street Photography and anything above M4/3 will work great.

For MILC and DSLR Camera users

Image Sensor size

The average MILC has a Micro 4/3 image sensor built in and above. The average DSLR has an APS-C images sensor built in and above. So as far as camera bodies go, anything in these two categories can shoot great Night Street Photography, if equipped with the proper lenses!

Very fast prime lenses

To take awesome Night Street Photos, you need to use a Prime lens with an aperture of at least f2.8. Anything narrower than that, will shoot bad Night Shots. I would say that f2.8 is the utmost minimum aperture for shooting at night. Personally I can’t hit the streets with anything narrower than f2.0.

For All Camera users

Camera must be black

Black cameras are harder to spot in the dark than silver / chrome like cameras or even worst brightly coloured cameras. You goal is to be as invisible as possible, so a black camera with a black lens, is preferable.

Camera must support RAW

Your camera must shoot in RAW format if you are going to go nocturnal. Shooting in RAW helps you preserve the image information, even though you can’t see it with your naked eye. So, later, in post you can really bring out the image, especially if you choose to make your image black & white. Noise in Black & white looks much cooler than what it does in Colour.

Exposure compensation

An added bonus is if your camera has Exposure compensation. Using a high Exposure compensation, can really make your camera “see in the dark”, even if your eyes can’t. Of course your images sensor and your lens must be as described above for best results.

So, if you have all or most of the above, you are ready to hit the streets at night. But wait! Before you open the door and follow your passion, please, read the next two sections. They will prove most helpful.

tree in the alley

Techniques for better Night Street Photography

Assuming that you have the gear we mentioned above I will share with you my techniques for shooting awesome Night Street Photos. Please note that I said Night Street Photos not Night Photos. Night Photos have other priorities to Night Street Photos. Since we are Street Photographers, we will focus on just that.

Do not use Flash

Shooting with a flash will first of all give you away and second it will make all your photos look artificially lighted and some if not all your subjects will have red eye. Also, the people you capture with a flash in the night will feel that their privacy is very much invaded and they will react. Another thing that is bound to happen, is that not only the people you shoot will notice you but everyone else around you will notice you too, making you a target. People will be prepared to give you an earful, even before you push your shutter button. That is not good.

Switch up your ISO or use High ASA film

ISO or ASA is the value of the light sensitivity (speed) of your camera or film. The higher your ISO, the faster the capture. The only downside to high ISO values is noise in the photo. The more you increase your ISO the more noise you will see in your captures but that is ok, because in Night Street Photography, noise is allowed because the important thing is to take the picture and preserve the moment, not to take a technically perfect shot. Personally I use either ISO 1600 or ISO 3200 with my 35mm f1.8 lens and my camera set to Aperture priority somewhere between f1.8 and f2.2. The results I get are great!

Turn off your AF assistant light

All cameras have little lights that shine straight ahead when they are trying to Autofocus. The reason is that AF doesn’t work in the dark, so camera manufacturers have added these tiny lights to illuminate the target area so your camera can focus. Turn it off! This will give you away instantly. You can turn it off in your camera menu / settings.

Turn off any camera sounds or beeps

All cameras have annoying little beeping noises and AF lock sounds. They can be heard from quite a long way, especially in the dead of night when it is silent. These sounds are clearly added by camera manufacturers for an improved user experience, so novice camera users know that their AF is working and also that they pushed a button successfully in the camera menu. You are a Street Photographer. You don’t need these things, so go to your settings and kill every sound. The only sound your camera should make is the shutter opening and closing! Mmmm music to my ears.

Turn off your LCD screen and use your viewfinder

This applies to all of you that have a camera with a viewfinder of course. LCD screens glow in the dark and they make your face light up. So, you might be trying to take a stealthy shot in the night, but as soon as you lift your camera to press the shutter button, your whole face lights up like you have a flash light pointing at it. This will make you visible to everyone around you. So, as with the previous settings, just go to your menu and deactivate the LCD.

Prefocus

Most cameras let you prefocus. You can prefocus with 2 ways. The first and easy way is to focus on a target that is at the same distance as the target you will be shooting and hold the shutter button half way down. Then, when your subject walks into your viewfinder, all you have to do is press down and you take the photo. Of course, at night this might be difficult, since AF will not work well most of the time. So, the other way to do this is to switch to manual focus, focus on a target that is at the same distance as the target you will be shooting and you are set. You have prefocused for that distance and when your subject enters your viewfinder, all you have to do is click.

Get used to Manual focus

When shooting Night Street Photography you will find your self using Manual Focus more often that usual. The reason is because your camera will not be able to “see” most of the time in order to perform a precise Auto Focus. If you are using a MILC or Compact with an EVF (Electronic View Finder) or if you are looking into your LCD screen, because you don’t have a Viewfinder, make sure you have turned on Focus Peaking (if supported by your camera). This feature, creates coloured outlines around the areas of an image that are in perfect focus. So, that way, manual focus can’t go wrong. As time goes by and you become more experienced with Manual Focusing, you will perform this task very fast. If you are using a Rangefinder camera, you will have a different visual aid to help you manually focus perfectly. No matter what camera you use though, you should definitely try MF. It is well worth it.

Do not take a tripod with you

Street Photography is meant to be exciting and Street Photographers must have the chance to move fast in case something like that is needed. So, hauling a big tripod with you, setting it up and trying to get a shot, will most probably result in you missing many shots, because it will slow you down, encumber you and make you move in a rhythm that is more suitable for a cityscape photographer, rather than a Night Street Photographer.

night window shopping 2

Tips for better and safer Night Street Photography

Wear inconspicuous dark clothes

It is important that you blend into the night and that you don’t stand out. So, the best thing to do is to wear clothes that don’t attract attention. A bad example of Night Street Photography dress code is a bright orange t-shit, with a white pair of trousers and white sneakers. You will be seen from a mile away.

A good example is a set of black, brown or grey sneakers, jeans and a black, grey, dark blue, dark green or brown t-shirt or top in general. If it is winter, a black jacket will do. Nothing shiny though.

Wear sneakers that are comfortable and fast to run in

This is very important for two reasons. First of all you will most probably be walking for hours so you should really wear comfortable shoes. Secondly, if the push comes to the shove and you have to make a run for it, a pair of sneakers might make a huge difference. They might even save your life.

Do not remain in one place for a long time

When a person remains in one place, especially at night, for a long time, he is automatically marked as “a suspicious character” by everyone around him. Don’t sit on a bench all night, shooting people passing by. Don’t hide in the shadows for long periods of time. You are a Night Street Photographer, a creature of night and darkness and you must be constantly on the move, slipping in and out of the shadows. So be careful how you place your self in your surroundings and for how long. If someone feels that you are suspicious, they might even contact the police to investigate.

Take a friend along with you

If you feel like visiting some really creepy places at night, it is best not to go alone. For example, when I went out for Night Street Photography one night down to the centre of Athens, I had my best mate with me. He was looking out for me, while I was taking pictures. If an area is dangerous, never go alone at night. You might never return.

Never make eye contact with the people you shoot

This is a general rule of Street Photography that must be followed at all times and even more during a Night Street Hunt. If you make eye contact with someone and you are holding a camera, they automatically assume that you have taken their picture. So be careful, because you might get into trouble even if you haven’t ever taken someone’s shot.

Try to shoot people standing still

When it is dark the light is usually not enough for fast and accurate shots. So, in order to get good sharp photos but at low shutter speeds, you must try and look for subjects that are not moving. So for example, shoot someone leaning on a street lamp.

Try to shoot people not standing still

I know that a second ago I told you to shoot people that are standing as still as possible, but you could also do the opposite. Focus on your surroundings, objects, cars, walls, etc, switch to a slow shutter speed, set your aperture to something around f 5.6 and use a low ISO value. Something around ISO 100 will do. Then before your subject steps into your frame, press the shutter button softly. Because you have set it to a slow shutter speed, your camera shutter will remain open for quite a while, letting in light. Remain very still while doing this. Because it is dark and your subjects are moving though, the photos background will be sharp but the your subjects will be blurred. This motion blur can prove most useful when shooting Night Street Photography, because it adds character and a sense of motion to a photo.

night the burning of the carnival king

Create silhouettes by shooting people against the light

Try and spot people conversing in front of a shop window that is full of lights and glowing objects. Automatically your subjects will turn into silhouettes due to the fact that they are so intensely backlit. Using this trick you can easily create Night Photos with human silhouettes. These photos are very often liked a lot by Street Photographers and Street Photography Enthusiasts.

Conclusion

Night Street Photography is not something that all Street Photographers want or even can do. In some towns or cities it is something that is considered very dangerous. To make Night Street Photos, a Street Photographer must be patient, flexible, fast, vigilant and very careful about the choices he/she makes. Equip your self with the proper gear, take a friend with you and head out at night to have some fun, but be safe and be sensible. To not challenge your self with trying daring things.

Dear reader, please, share your thoughts in the comments if you feel like doing so! We would love to hear your opinion and learn more from you.

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