the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

DARK NIGHT, BRIGHT NIGHT

Handheld post-sunset image, shot at 1/30 sec., f/3.5, 18mm, ISO 500.

Handheld post-sunset image, shot at 1/30 sec., f/3.5, 18mm, ISO 500.

By MICHAEL PERKINS

OFTEN, THE SHOT YOU GET HAPPENS ON THE WAY TO THE SHOT YOU THOUGHT YOU WANTED. We all like to think we are operating under some kind of  “master plan”, proceeding along a  Spock-o-logical path of reason, toward a guaranteed ( and stunning) result, but, hey, this is photography, so, yeah, forget all that.

Night shots are nearly always a series of surprises/rude shocks for me, since sculpting or harvesting light after dark is a completely different skill from what’s used in the daytime. Even small tweaks in my approach to a given subject result in wild variances in the finished product, and so I often sacrifice “the shot” that I had my heart set on for the one which blossomed out of the moment.

This is all French for “lucky accident”. I’d love to attribute it to my own adventurous intellect and godlike talent, but, again, this is photography, so, yeah, forget all about that, too.

So, as to the image up top: in recent years, I have pulled away from the lifelong habit of making time exposures on a tripod, given the progressively better light-gathering range of newer digital sensors, not to mention the convenience of not having to haul around extra hardware. Spotting this building just after dusk outside my hotel the other night, however, I decided I had the time and vantage point to take a long enough exposure to illuminate the building fully and capture some light trails from the passing traffic.

Same subject, almost same time of night, time-exposed on a tripod. 8 sec., f/13, 18mm, ISO 100.

Same subject, almost same time of night, time-exposed on a tripod. 8 sec., f/13, 18mm, ISO 100.

Minutes before setting up my ‘pod, I had taken an earlier snap with nothing but available light, a relatively slow shutter speed and an ISO of 500 , but hadn’t seriously looked at it: traditional thinking told me I could do better with the time exposure. However, when comparing the two shots later, the longer, brighter exposure drained the building of its edgier, natural shadow-casting features, versus the edgier, somber, burnt-orange look of it in the snapshot. The handheld image also rendered the post-dusk sky as a rich blue, while the longer shot lost the entire sky in black. I wanted the building to project a slight air of mystery, which the longer shot completely bleached away. I knew that the snapshot was a bit noisy, but the better overall “feel” of the shot made the trade-off easier to live with. I could also survive without the light trails.

Time exposures render an idealized effect when rendering night-time objects, not an accurate recording of “what I saw”. Continual experimentation can sometimes modulate that effect, but in this case, the snatch-and-grab image won the day. Next time, everything will be different, from subject to result. After all, this is photography.

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