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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Photographing on the Night Shift

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Maybe it has something to do with my early work on newspapers, when every job I had seemed to be on the night shift. In fact, I held down so many nighttime jobs while I was in college–on the old the New York Post and Herald Tribune–I used to joke that, until I started work on the New York Daily News and actually saw the sun, I'd never worked a day in my life.

Though the real reason I gravitated to night work was so that I also could attend classes during the day, something about the night shift appealed to me beyond mere convenience. Like Sky Masterson in "Guys and Dolls," I found my time of day to be the dark time, when the palette and rhythms of the city changed dramatically, and when the black mantle of night combined with streetlight, moonlight and neon to make magic what otherwise was only mundane.

That feeling has infused my photography. Some of the most satisfying pictures I ever have made occurred at night – and reflect a number of different techniques, only one of which involves long exposures made by available light with a camera mounted on a tripod.

One of the best books I have seen on this subject is called simply Night Photography (Watson-Guptill $29.95). It is by a British commercial photographer, Andrew Sanderson. The book is printed in England and distributed in the States by W-G. The book's British provenance is a plus, I think, because it lacks the hyperactive, hyper-technical tone of so many American how-to photo books. This is not a volume you buy to "learn the secrets of big-time, big-bucks commercial shooting." Like the often pastoral scenes Sanderson uses to illustrate his themes, this is a decidedly low-key book of instruction. Sanderson seems to speak in measured, even quiet, tones when describing exposure calculation, developing times or using a "torch" (i.e.: flashlight) to help open up shadows in dark scenes during long exposures.

Sanderson deals with time-tested methods that he obviously knows well and uses with a master's skill. The index to his book doesn't even mention the word "digital."

My own first efforts at night-time photography some decades ago probably were like yours – on a tripod, with my camera set to "Time" or "Bulb." The mere fact that I could get a nighttime image while working on a tripod – an image that would have been impossible to make handheld – was the first of several nocturnal miracles that got me hooked on photographing after the sun went down. As I became more aware of what I was doing, and therefore more aware of how light behaves, I appreciated that the effect of light is cumulative – similar, in fact, to water filling a void. I also came to appreciate how light, especially during long exposures, can create shape and contour in an image by seeming to wrap around objects.

Then there was the surprise of seeing how long exposures on film can produce things we never see in real life: star trails in the sky, for example, or streaming head- and taillights on automobiles.

These, of course can be mixed blessings. As Sanderson notes:

"Often a scene is selected, the camera mounted on the tripod, an exposure is decided on, and everything is ready."

"Just at that point the previously tranquil scene becomes busy with traffic and continues unabated until one minute after the gear has been dismantled and packed away. At which point the scene reverts back to its previously tranquil state."

Remedy? Rather than try to time an exposure in between oncoming cars, Sanderson observes that "a simple method that will help in these situations is to have a piece of black card that can be held in front of the lens for the duration of the offending vehicle..."

To the technical-minded, especially those who enjoy darkroom work, Sanderson's book is a joy. He goes on at great length about film/developer combinations, sophisticated printing techniques using split filtration (and of course dodging and burning in) as well as how to tailor the right film for the right picture. He makes a good case for leaving slower-ISO films at home (those with ISOs of 50 and 100) because the exposures necessary for effective night work might be so long as to invite camera shake and reciprocity failure. [Note to novices: this failure occurs when ultra-long exposures do not produce an anticipated, well-exposed image. In color films especially, this can take the form of weird color shifts.] Sanderson's favorite bxw films are in the ISO 400 range, and he praises two popular chromogenic films, Ilford's XP-2 and Kodak's T400CN, both at ISO 400. I would add that my own late-night experience has found a welcome place for Ilford's bxw Delta 3200 – though it does produce a grainier, grittier image than the two chromogenics.

Sanderson notes the beneficial effect of fill flash – to open shadows, especially in the foreground of an image, but seems to have his heart set on that "torch." That's not surprising since continuous light from a flashlight or similar source provides a far more readable effect and also lets one "paint" with light more easily.

Still, painting with flash is not a bad way to go.

Several years ago in Venice, for example, I made a great picture of the Bridge of Sighs by setting my medium format Mamiya 6 on a tripod, holding the shutter open for around 20 seconds (with the lens stopped down fairly tight) and painting the surrounding walls with multiple pops from a handy battery powered Vivitar 283. The repeated flash bursts provided enough light to render detail on the walls of the Doge's Palace and the royal prison, while the tripod mounted camera was steady enough to render tack-sharp detail on the walls combined with the ethereal trail of a boat that was wending its way under the bridge as I made the picture.

Sanderson's low-key, chatty style is best illustrated in his final section, on "unwanted attentions" by late-night strollers who wanted nothing more than to butt into your photographic business.

"If the person who approaches you is inebriated," he writes, "and you believe the situation could become difficult...ask them to stand in the scene whilst you take a picture of them (it's a good idea to carry a flash for this eventuality.) then take their name and address so that you may send them a print..."

Sanderson notes candidly that it's entirely up to you whether you follow up on this, but adds with a canniness born of experience that "it is very unlikely that anyone is going to cause you any trouble after your kind offer, and especially when you have their address."

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

Andrew Sanderson's Night Photography is full of practical advice gracefully given. He illustrates his book with numerous examples. It's a delightful, informative read.

© Frank Van Riper Photography
At night Venice's Bridge of Sighs is starkly lit, leaving everything else in the dark. So in order to make a nighttime picture that best showed its context I had to fire multiple pops of my portable flash unit during a tripod-mounted time exposure to light the surrounding buildings.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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