Night Photography: People Watching at Union Station

LA’s Union Station is a great spot to shoot architecture at night. But it’s equally good for photographing people. There are two elements I look for, someone who’s immersed in a personal moment and the way the person gets woven into the environment.

Union Station is the busiest train station in the West. And there’s something about folks who are traveling that makes them interesting as character studies.

Waiting for the Train, Union Station

This shot could have been taken almost anywhere. And I like it just because the two are so engaged in the moment. But I’m not sure if this image is anything special except to their friends. The thing that Union Station adds to the composition is how it helps me as a photographer — people tend not to notice me working. There’s just too much happening.

Waiting for the Train

With this shot I went formal — by aligning myself with the couple and the two rows of seats. That pulls the setting in and the station’s layout becomes an equally important aspect of the photo. On the other hand, the moment is only OK. This is certainly the feeling of a train station but it’s not anything extraordinary. Just folks waiting. Here’s another shot where the station environment makes a difference:

Hallway to the Trains, Union Station

There’s a human story here that’s subtle but I like it. Mom shepharding her two kids home. These kinds of images are harder to make work than they look. I wanted to have a formal composition of this hallway leading to the trains. Rule of Thirds and all. But there are a couple of million folks who walk this hallway every month. And out of the ten or so images I took here, only one showed a human moment without too much busyness.  To me that’s the secret sauce for any character study, an interesting composition that has some emotional depth.

Waiting for the Train

Union Station at night. It’s eternal. It’s Waiting for Godot. Except that these days, Godot is whatever’s on your phone.

Night Photography: Seeing the Art of Union Station

In a recent Paul’s Photo trip, me and 20+ other photo enthusiasts did a night expedition to Chinatown and Union Station in Los Angeles. Union Station was built in the 1930s in a style that’s part Art Deco, part Mission Revival, part Raymond Chandler Hollywood. The place is the largest rail station in the Western US and gets over 100,000 passengers a day. …And Union Station is a fabulous spot for photography, especially at night.

Nighttime photos are great at this spot for two reasons. First, this is a rich environment for candid people photos. People come and go, following their dreams, dragging their baggage, waiting for a train to where ever comes next. … And at night, all their dreams and fears push closer to the surface.

Waiting for the Train

The place is also great at night because the lighting makes it easier to focus on the purity of design. This station captures the DNA of LA like few other buildings. It’s on the National Historic Registry. And it’s been used as a location on more LA films than you can count.

Exterior, Union Station

Here are a few impressions on shooting this great location.

Photographing Architecture 

One of the best things about photographing architecture is to step back and look at a place in pure visual terms. In the photo above, the people are a secondary concern. Instead what we’re drawn to is the  Art Deco/Spanish Mission style — and the garishly perfect colors. Hey, we’ve got a train station and it’s fabulous in mauve. Add the row of palm trees and we know we’re in LA. The interior is equally elegant in design, as we see here with the Information Booth.

Information Booth

In both of these shots, I’m going for a formal composition. I’m standing on the center line of the hallway and have framed the image as precisely as possible. That allows the viewer to focus on the elegant lines of the place rather than the image itself. And even though there are people here, they don’t take away from the formality.

Here’s another formal shot but done off-center.

The floor tile-work leads the eye in and balances the huge windows on the left. Formal but from an angle.

Here’s another formal shot with a twist, of the station’s courtyard fountain.

Courtyard Fountain

Here I’ve lined up the tiles and the fountain fairly precisely, but opened up the framing to include the young woman. She’s almost a silhouette. But the light from the fountain adds a glow to her face, like she’s looking for her future.

In this one, I’m also going for a juxtaposition, of the station’s formality with nature — in this case a tree lit by Christmas lights.

Lights in the Courtyard

I tried several variations of this. But the key was to shoot the waiting room entrance in as balanced a way as possible — while angling myself to bring the tree trunk close to the door frame. The play of light on the two main elements in the darkness makes it more abstract. But you can also see the warmth of the waiting room.

Next Exciting Episode: Photographing People at the Station

Night Shooting: Chinatown, Olvera Street

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.

Chinatown Store — Three different light sources here. The tree is lit by a green tungsten spot. The exteriors have lots of neon and the shop (and lanterns) have a warm tungsten.

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.

Church off Olvera Street — This one was shot hand-held 1/60 sec, f-3.2, ISO 2500. Again, notice that the night forces you to think in terms of pulling a few pools of light into a comprehensive composition.

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.

Ducks on Parade — hand-held

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.

Going Abstract

Umbrella Display, Chinatown Store — .6 sec at f-10, low ISO, tripod

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.

Puppet, Olivera Street  — 1/100 sec, f-5.6, ISO 2500

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.

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