To photograph your city or town after dark and bring home many dramatic and exciting images, you better have the right night moves.
1. The first move is the careful consideration of equipment. Although many better compact and bridge cameras will do an adequate job, a good DSLR will give you the expanded capabilities to record any opportunity that comes your way. Try to limit your lens to just one. A small zoom, such as 24–70mm includes a wide-angle view and a bit of telephoto for people or to tighten on details. The alternative is a fixed-focal length, wide-angle lens (20, 24, 28, etc.).
Whatever lens you choose, it should have a fast aperture (f/1.4, 1.8, 2.0, etc.). You won’t be shooting with a flash, so you need a big lens opening to capture as much light as possible. Even with a fast aperture, your shutter speeds will tend to be slow, so a tripod and remote shutter release are also required. Don’t expect to shoot many photos handheld. The tripod should be sturdy, but light. A good choice is the X1 Brian Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod from 3 Legged Thing. Leave your camera bag at home and equip yourself with a photo belt or beltpack, such as those from Think Tank.
2. To make all the right moves with as little fumbling as possible, be so familiar with your equipment that you can change lenses, attach and detach the camera from the tripod and disassemble the tripod in the dark. This is also a beneficial security skill, since you won’t have to expose your equipment to prying eyes if you can step into the deep shadows and make changes there.
3. Your equipment choices are somewhat dependent on what photos you shoot during your after-dark photography adventure. Because of the nature of your shoot, it’s a good idea to develop a plan that focuses on specific subject matter. The tips in this PhotographyTalk.com article relate to shooting cityscapes: skylines, architecture, parks and squares, wide street scenes, etc. This is why a tripod and remote shutter release are so important because to record light sources and their reflection off of buildings and other objects will require long shutter speeds.
The other primary form of after-dark photography would be life and action on the streets. Most of your subject matter would be people, moving, dancing, etc., so you would shoot handheld in the middle of everything, so a tripod would be an unnecessary burden; you’d want a flash, instead.
For various reasons, your shooting plan/schedule will be most beneficial if you actually make a list of locations you want to photograph. One trip could focus on the most interesting architecture in the downtown area: skyscraper, courthouse, cathedral, etc. The subject matter for another shoot might be broader city landscapes, or moving closer to show the busy streets and flashing lights where the nightlife happens. For security purposes, a shooting document would allow your family, roommate, whomever to know where you will be and generally when.
4. Making such a detailed shooting list may require one or more scouting trips during the day, so you are sure you want those locations on your list. Plus, you can walk in the area of your subject matter and find interesting angles and views before your after-dark shoot. Less time actually shooting is safer.
5. Night movers also have “city sense.” Whenever you’re planning to photograph your city or town during the evening when the streets are still active or during the dead of night, it’s important to decide on specific routes to travel and streets to avoid. Generally, you want to travel on well-lit streets. The point is to know your city well before venturing into it late at night.
6. Plan your after-dark photography according to the weather report. Try to pick a night when there is no chance of rain. During the winter, however, you might want a snowy night, which will add many creative elements to your shoot. Whatever the weather report, include among your equipment a rain cover that folds very small, but is large enough to cover your equipment…and maybe you.
The weather also dictates how you should dress for nighttime photography. Remember, nights are cooler, even during the summer. You want a good pair of athletic-type shoes for all the walking, and the outside possibility you may be doing some running. It may be a good idea to wear a hat, as additional weather protection.
7. Quite likely, your most important night move is to practice street security. This is why you want to bring as few pieces of equipment as possible and inform someone of where you’re going. Seriously consider having a friend or photo buddy accompany you, so there is one set of eyes on the streets while yours are focused on shooting.
If you see or are stopped by police officers, then don’t try to hide or evade them. Stay in the open where you can be seen and explain that you are photographer shooting the city at night. Make sure you have a valid ID with you.
In these days of terrorist threats, some buildings could be off-limits to photography. To be safe, contact your local police department and explain what you will be doing, so you are aware of any place you shouldn’t be pointing your camera. This information may also be available on the Web.
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