I did a night shoot in downtown LA a couple of days ago. The session was organized by Paul’s Photo and about twenty photographers at all skill levels descended on Chinatown, Union Station and Olvera Street.
As you might expect, night shooting requires a different skill set from normal photo work. There’s far less light so you end up treating the pools of light that are available as core compositional elements.
Technically, you need to be aware of which type of light is available, natural, tungsten, fluorescent and adjust the WB according — or just shoot in Raw format with white balance set to Auto. If there are problems, you can fix them later in Lightroom.
Other issues: Tripods are great if you don’t mind the extra hassle. Set the ISO low and set the f-stop to 8 or more for max depth of field (DOF). Or do hand-held and push ISO to 3200 or higher and lower your f-stop to 2.8 or so (depending on the DOF you want). Having what we call a “fast lens,” one that can be set to 2.8 or lower always helps in low light. The wider the lens, the faster your focus and the less noise.
Chinatown is great at night. Businesses stay open fairly late. And if they aren’t open, you still get some great neon lighting and buildings that have been there since the 20s and 30s. The different atmosphere of the place and the flashes of garish neon make it easier to get fun images.
There’s more to shooting than just the lighting. Here, I’m shooting through a restaurant window. The ducks are hanging perfectly and I wanted that symmetry. But the cook staring out at me adds a separate layer of reality — attitude, dinnertime rush, etc. And all that has to be seen and composed almost in an instant — before our subject gets bothered.
You don’t always need to do big canvas images. Sometimes zooming in and looking at a design in the abstract is equally fun. This umbrella shot was a display just outside the Chinatown shop — you can see it in the first image above. I could have zoomed back to show the entire store. But I was more interested in the abstract images and the layering of light.
Going more abstract also helps you avoid the busyness that can ruin shots. The Olivera Street booths are full of fun stuff (puppets, Mexican wrestling masks) and lots of people. And that’s a problem. Because it gets hard to see a composition in all the confusion.
With the puppet shot, I zoomed in on one of about 10 puppets. For my background element, I chose a few puppets farther away and a shop girl chatting with her friend. I could have kept the background elements in focus as well, just push the f-stop to f-10 or so. But that would have made for too much confusion. Here you can see enough background to understand the shop context. And the look is cleaner.