There are always two ways of doing things; the conventional way, and the unconventional. Photography is no different. Conventional wisdom, conventional techniques, and conventional equipment are all well and good, but sometimes it’s nice to think outside the box a little.
Conventional wisdom tells us that night time portraits without using a flash are difficult to achieve. Conventional techniques dictate that we need to use extra, conventional equipment, like a tripod or a reflector. Conventional equipment costs money and even if we can buy it, we don’t always want to carry it around with us.
Unconventional wisdom and techniques brings unconventional results, and unconventional equipment surrounds us wherever we go. Street photography is as popular as ever. What if though, instead of taking pictures of what we see on the street, we used the unconventional equipment found in the street to help us take pictures?
Night time portraits pose a conundrum to us amateurs with base equipment i.e. just a camera. To flash or not to flash. We don’t want our subject to look like a startled and red-eyed ghost, yet neither do we want them so blurry as to wonder if the camera was drunk.
This is where we get unconventional.
There is only one piece of special equipment you will need, and it’s something you may already have: a fast prime lens. Aside from that, we’re taking back the street and using it for our own aims.
In terms of portrait photography, a lot of the streets of most towns and cities at night are not actually dark. At least, there are always patches of enough light for what we need. Anytime we take photographs, our cameras are recording the light bouncing off our subjects, and it doesn’t take much light at all to illuminate a face, or even a body if you’re going for a full length shot.
The next time you are out in the city at night, look around you. Remembering that you only need enough light for the person you want to shoot, think about that street light. Look at that shop front. Did you notice that bus stop? That illuminated advertising board?
Maybe the light is only from one side, or from one angle. That’s great! Use the shadows to give your subject some character. Side on from the shop front, facing slightly up towards the street lamp, directly in front of the bus stop. Experiment, try different shots, get unconventional.
The light provided by your surroundings is yours to use, and they negate the need for any fancy flashes or reflectors.
Don’t be scared of a high ISO. For most modern cameras, ISO 800 is safe as far as image quality goes. Turn on your Noise Reduction if you have it. With a prime lens, at f2.8, you’ll have a shutter speed quick enough to get sharp portraits, so long as you and your model can remain reasonably still. I’ve taken handheld night time portraits at 1/15.
You don’t need a tripod when you have a wall or street lamp to lean against or a garbage can or parked car to rest your elbows or camera on. Take a couple of small bean bags to help position the camera. You don’t need a cable release when your camera has a self-timer.
We don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on equipment when all we need (light and a place to rest our camera) is already all around us. We just need to be creative, resourceful, and just a little unconventional. Embrace your surroundings, be at one with the urban environment, and practice street photography in its purest form.
Still struggling? An extra tip from me: go where the light is always good. All night car parks make great portrait studios.