171105 Night Photography Basics - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

Night photography is a new thing for me, so this year I've been learning the basics. While the artistic requirements carry forward from regular daylight, there are two main differences that I've found with working nights:

1) It's dark.

2) I'm tired.

Aside from that, it's pretty much the usual challenge of finding something interesting to put the camera behind, which remains subjective and a work in progress. But those two main differences have been worth working through.

Being tired is perhaps the bigger challenge, especially when the top photo and the photo above were taken eleven hours apart on the same outing. A little fatigue-inspired mental disassociation doesn't necessarily hurt the creative process, but it does make serious demands on my organization and routine. 

I've become a huge fan of organizer pouches. These days no little bits go in my pack or camera bag loose. Drawstring nylon bags take no extra room, and zippered pouches hold things that I need easier access to. Last time I was out I had my spare batteries in a pouch with my emergency memory card and tools, which then went in a bigger pouch with my cable release and other larger important things. In addition to being bright red, that pouch also has a bright glow-in-the-dark dangle on its zipper pull. It saves me hours of stress and fumbling.

Glow tape all the things.

I'm a huge fan of glow-in-the-dark – photoluminescent – things. I have glow tape wrapped all around my cable releases after incessantly fumbling for them for an entire moonless night. The little tripod that holds my audio recorder is similarly adorned, because I need to be able to walk far away from it and then find it again many minutes later. Every now and then I'll refresh the glow with a handy flashlight and it's good for hours.

Gear that doesn't have glow tape will often have reflective tape on it instead. This especially includes my hiking stick and tripod, as well as many of my flashlights. If I don't want a car to hit it, or me to lose it, it's taped to make it easier to see.

Not that it always helps.

"Use it or lose it" is a wise and prophetic saying. I've learned that unessential things that I only use occasionally tend not to come home with me. Spare gloves and a small flashlight have already fallen prey to that, so now I pare down as much as possible to things that I will quickly notice when they're missing. Everything that I won't need is safely zippered away in my pack, anything that can be tethered is, and nothing ever gets set down 'just for a moment' instead of being put away. 

I've still had to retrace my steps some considerable distances to retrieve significant but forgotten gear. Life's a work in progress. At least by being methodical I've been able to remember when I had it last.

The dark thing requires a tripod, which I figured out fairly early, but there's always more to learn about the nuances of adversarial camera operation. Always. But a surprising number of problems can be improved with the careful application of flashlights.

I carry three flashlights these nights. There's a Streamlight Survivor, an extremely powerful light designed with a bright, tight beam for firefighters to cut through smoke. It's useful for scouting paths, scaring off coyotes, and light painting trees from hundreds of metres away. My other staple is an older 1xAA light with a LED that has a clean warm colour for painting rusted rebar and wood, a smooth soft beam, and variable levels. Perfect at close range, it's what I used in the photos above and below. But like all good things, it's discontinued, so I need to be careful not to lose it.

The third light that I carry is my utility choice, which changes to suit my mood and the weather. Recently it's been a yellow plastic glow-in-the-dark Pelican 1960 that twists on and off, so it's good with gloves, hard to lose, and won't turn on accidentally. Perfect. It's not the best lamp colour for light painting natural subjects, but it works well enough in mixed lighting, like on the inspection booth and concrete barriers, and on the fence and shipping container.

And one other light that I carry is a small laser pointer. This is occasionally needed as a focusing aid, throwing a dot that works with both manual and auto focusing systems, but I won't use it when there are people or planes around. It's nice to have, but not critical.

So. It's dark, and I'm tired. There's just one more thing I need to mention.

Two of the three flashlights I used on my last night outing are made of yellow plastic; one of them glows in the dark, and the other two have reflective tape added to them. Partly that's for safety and practicality; I can find them more easily if I drop them in the dark or leave them somewhere cluttered, like my desk. But it's more than that.

So many of the things I like, including flashlights, use "Tactical"  as an aspirational marketing hook. Buy this light! It's war-ready! Be like a soldier!

That shit is poison. 

Mainstreaming war and aggression, the underlying fantasy of being ready for imminent conflict at any moment, is a deadly mental space to be in. There's a thin but direct line between the militarization of consumer products with 'tactical' appeal to the ugliest violence of contemporary America. I'll have more extensive thoughts on the subject soon enough, but in the mean time, just trust me: buy yourself a yellow plastic flashlight, ideally one that also glows in the dark.

They're good for the soul. And they're good for night photography, too.


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