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Making Photos That Look Like They Were Shot at Night

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Creating a photo that looks like it was shot at night can be difficult. In this tutorial, we’re going to take a look a creating some images that appear as they were made at night, but were actually shot outside during the day. The principles you learn here can be applied in the studio or even when shooting outside at night to make a more convincing, but still well lit, image.

"Shooting Day for Night" in the Movies

There’s a technique that appears again and again in the films of the mid-20th century. It’s called "shooting day for night." When a movie required a night time scene, the crew faced some challenges. Films of the day were not very fast, and early on lenses didn’t have wide apertures either. That meant night shooting was out of the question.


This video shows the technique applied with modern equipment. The videographer says it was filmed at 2pm under an overcast sky. Notice the cool tones. Video Credit: Day For Night Effect [Test] by RedEye Films.

To fake the effect, the filmmakers would shoot during the day, but would shoot on tungsten-balanced film. This film had a built-in "white balance" that was adjusted for indoor tungsten lighting, which is orange. When they used it outside during the day, it produced a cool blue color to the images. They would also underexpose the scene.

We’re going to employ some of these old school techniques today during our photo shoot. We’ll be shooting outside during the day, but we’ll also be employing artificial light.

Shooting in the Park

I was meeting my model in a park for my shoot, so that meant I wouldn’t have easy access to power monolights. So I packed my Vivitar 285 flash and a light stand. You don’t actually need light modifiers for this shoot.

My model for the day was C.A. MacConnell, a local writer and former yoga instructor. I thought some yoga poses might be fun to photograph, and I could do some images that she might use for her author portrait.

Checking the weather leading up to the day, it was supposed to be cloudy. This would have helped out a lot. However, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky all day. Someone really needs to talk to these meteorologists!

Overcoming Bright Sunlight

The challenge immediately became overcoming the intense sunlight. The was in the early afternoon, so actually shooting out in the open was out of the question. If I had a neutral density filter to drop the light down four or fives stops it might have been possible. I opted to shoot in the shade.

I chose two locations. One was under a shelter with interesting rock walls. The other was under a stand of trees.

shootnightday_CK_tut-1
An initial test shot to determine the exposure of the background.

In order to overcome bright sunlight, I dropped my ISO to 100. That’s the lowest setting my camera has. I set my shutter speed to 1/125 of a second. I was then able to underexpose the scene by using my aperture. I initially set my aperture to f/22, but ended up fine tuning it f/16. My flash was at full power to overcome the ambient light. I did, however, allow some ambient light to come in and illuminate the background.

Use Direct Strobe

I chose to use direct, unmodified flash for three reasons. I wanted harsh or hard light to match the moon. I needed powerful light to compete with the sun, and I wanted as much fall off as possible from my flash.

Hard Light

First, and this may sound a bit silly, but the moon is a very small light source. The moon is also a much lower intensity than the sun and therefore doesn’t reflect around the environment nearly as much. The sun is a pretty small, hard source of light, the moon even more so. Other night time light sources are hard as well, like street lights. This is also why I chose to use a single light source instead of multiple flashes.

This was a test shot with my single strobe. Remember, light doesn't always need to be soft.
This was a test shot with my single strobe. Remember, light doesn't always need to be soft.

Powerful Light

Secondly, I wanted to get the most power I could out of my flash. This is pretty simple. Any modifiers would have sucked power from my small flash.

Fall Off

Lastly, I wanted have as much fall off as possible. Fall off occurs because the intensity of the light lessens has the distance from the light source increases. This occurs more rapidly when the light source is close to your subject. Light modifiers like umbrellas effectively lengthen the distance from your flash to the subject.

When we look around at night, we are essentially looking at a scene with clipped shadows. It could be said that we are seeing in “high contrast.” Smooth gradients and even difference in color disappear, but increasing the fall off and using harsh light, we are replicating what our eyes see at night.

Create a Small Pool Light

You can distinctly see the small pool of light in this image. You can adjust the size of the pool by zooming your flash.
You can distinctly see the small pool of light in this image. You can adjust the size of the pool by zooming your flash.

The next tactic for pulling off a scene that looks like it was shot at night is create a small pool of light for your subject, and then let the rest of the scene fall off into shadows. This doesn’t actually happen in real life when you’re viewing a scene at night, so this is more about providing a visual clues that it’s dark.

We expect the subject and background of an image to have a relatively equal exposure. When we see the background is dark, almost completely black, we are tricked into thinking it’s night time.

Using Your White Balance to Cool Down Your Image

The final trick of the trade comes straight from that old moviemaking technique. The last think that you can do to change day to night is to change your white balance. You can do this in post-production, but I find it helpful to change the white balance on my camera while shooting. It helps me visualize the scene better.

This one features a cool yoga pose. I think this is the most intimidating and dark yoga photo I've ever seen.
This one features a cool yoga pose. I think this is the most intimidating and dark yoga photo I've ever seen.

I changed my white balance to 3300K. Old tungsten-balanced film would be balanced closer to 2800K, but I find that it’s a bit too blue for this technique.

The Final Result

I didn’t spend too much time on composition and style in this tutorial, but I really like the way this image turned out in those respects as well.

Here's the shot I liked best. I like the door in the background that seems to suggest hidden possibilities.
Here's the shot I liked best. I like the door in the background that seems to suggest hidden possibilities.

The images under the shade of the tree were interesting, but the sky looks pretty strange to me. The image would definitely look more convincing if it were cloudy out

Here's the best image from under the tree. The sky just seems off, but I like the rest of the shot.
Here's the best image from under the tree. The sky just seems off, but I like the rest of the shot.

Create Your Own Moonlight Photos

Now it’s time for you to make your images that appear to be shot by moonlight. If you’re not interested in battling the sun, the same techniques apply to other locations as well.

Try it out in the studio. Obviously, there’s no sun to compete with, which makes it easier. Just remember to isolate your subject in a pool of light, and let the background go dark. The white balance trick will work the same way. Try using a hard light source to complete the illusion.

You can also try it to enhance the images you actually make at night. Add a small pool of light to really highlight your subject. In this case, you could try using an appropriate white balance for the situation, and then add a blue gel to your flash. Finally, don't forget that these principles were perfected in filmmaking, so they work for video, too. The results will look great!

Give it shot and share your results below in the comments!

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