Through my career as a photographer, I've been to many strange places at even stranger hours of the night—or should I say morning? My nocturnal wanderings have taken me to places as varied as remote deserts and abandoned Michigan buildings. I've had strobe umbrellas blow away, tripped over lightstands, and nearly broken cameras and limbs on multiple occasions.
I've learned many things about working in the dark. This article can save you time, money, and serious frustration before embarking on your next nighttime location shoot.
This tutorial will be assuming that you're using some kind of off-camera lighting. The following information can be used with any level of gear, from a single speedlight to a three-light pack and head system.
Other than that, adjust your gear to the location. If you have to walk two miles to get to the shoot, pack light. The only think worse than being your own pack mule is being your own pack mule in the middle of the night.
When you pick your location, it's important to consider the various factors that could be working against you that wouldn't be a concern during the day. Shooting in an abandoned warehouse is a much different experience to shooting in a busy, well-lit urban street.
It's extremely important to ensure you'll have a source of constant light to light your work area with. Whether it's a streetlight, storefront neon signs, or the headlights from your car, you absolutely need some kind of ambient light.
This is crucial, otherwise you'll just be stumbling around and knocking over lightstands in the dark. Many recent DSLR bodies are built to be weather and impact proof, but I can guarantee that when it comes down to the battle of magnesium alloy versus concrete, the loser is always the camera.
A little bit of constant light will also be a huge bonus to have when you're attempting to focus your camera. There's nothing more frustrating than the sound of your camera's autofocus racking in and out, struggling to focus—other than perhaps the struggle to use manual focus you can't see anything.
If there isn't a readily available constant light source, you'll have to provide your own. A common solution to this problem is an LED flashlight. They're incredibly compact and cheap, yet put out a huge amount of light—there's simply no reason for any photographer to not have one of these in the back of their gear bag.
As a last resort, a cell phone light can do in a pinch.
A good tip is to have your model hold the light near their face to give you enough light to focus by. This way, you have both hands for your camera. When you have your focus locked in, just tell them to move the light out of frame.
Working with Ambient Light
Many times you'll have to choose between working with the ambient light or blocking it out entirely.
If you're using a multi-light setup you can afford a greater degree of control by blocking out the ambient and lighting the scene purely with strobes. This typically means having flashes set up in the background to illuminate the scene. Doing this allows you to use a fast shutter, and easily balance the exposure of the subject with the background.
If you're using a more minimal setup, it's generally a good idea to let the ambient bleed in and work with it rather than fighting it. You do this by using a very slow shutter speed. Remember that lengthening your shutter speed has no effect on the exposure of your flash. I usually get a good ambient exposure using my camera's light meter.
I lock down the settings, then add in the flash using its power settings to balance out the two light sources. In these cases, it helps to underexpose the background a bit. It also helps if you subject doesn't have a lot of ambient light falling on them.
I'll walk through two simple setups that illustrate how quickly you can get a pretty decent start to your image simply by metering and positioning your light properly. These shots feature Spencer, a mustache enthusiast and videographer.
First, meter the ambient light in several spots around your shooting location to get an idea of the variance of light.
Here's my first shot, with camera settings suggested by my light meter. This obviously looks way too dark, but it'll fill in a bit once we add our key light. For now, we're getting a pretty decent hairlight and a bit of separation.
Next, I add in my strobe (a gridded beauty dish) at 1/4 power just to see how it looks.
That's clearly far too dark still, and the light isn't really hitting him at the right angle. In this next shot I've bumped up the ISO, opened up the shutter a little, and upped my strobes power just slightly.
That's starting to look a lot better. Next, I adjusted the positioning of my key light again just slightly, and give my subject a more dominant place in the frame.
At this point we're getting some nice backlight to illuminate the smoke and add some separation, quite a bit of background illumination to bring some depth in, and a well balanced exposure on our subject's face. Including setup time, the process shown above was completed in under 15 minutes.
Here's a setup shot. The ambient light was a little lacking, but you can see the tripod where my camera was, and the boomed beauty dish. I really love the gridded beauty dish for nighttime shots since it allows you to place the light exactly where you want it.
Using a beauty dish with no modifier can sometimes make a nighttime scene look unnatural due to its large spill of light. You can also see a striplight in the back that actually wasn't contributing to the shot, I'd just set it up in case I decided the beauty dish wasn't enough.
Here's the final image, once I was finished with it.
All I did to finish this up was clone out some distracting background elements, desaturate, dodge/burn, and sharpen. Very light.
Here are some more examples of nighttime portraits from my archive.
In this example, you can see that I've lit the subject from head-on and above with a harsh pointed light modifier to simulate a streetlight.
You can also tell that I used a high ISO (around 800 or so) to ensure that the background is at least a little visible. I had the option of using a slower shutter speed with a lower ISO, but that would've caused the smoke to blur.
With a higher shutter speed / higher ISO its easier to get the smoke nice and crisp like it is in the final image. I didn't shoot my lens wide open because I wanted the depth of the subject to be in focus. I also didn't stop completely down because I wanted the background soft.
I used a very warm palette for this image to mirror what the shot would look like under actual tungsten street lights, which is my own bit of fantasy because most street lights aren't tungsten. Street lights are usually sodium vapor, which tend to look really green.
For this shot, the subject was lit from above and behind the camera's position with an octabox. She was photographed on a decently lit street, resulting in some great bokeh in the streetlights and snowflakes. Again, this was shot at a high ISO, but with a larger aperture of f/2.8.
I kept the foreground lighting a neutral color in this image. It has more of a fashion look, so I wanted to keep all the colors true to life. You don't see many sepia-toned catalog shots because people want to the know what color the clothes are.
Be a Night Owl
With the above walkthroughs, hopefully I've provided a bit of an insight into my workflow and general way of thinking when I work in the dark.
Remember to plan your gear around your location, and start keeping a flashlight in your bag.
The first decision you have to make is what you're going to do with the ambient light. After that, the rest is up to your imagination! Now it's your turn to make some great nighttime photos!