Superb Night Travel Photography
By Brian Ach
1 Jul 2008
Often when I am travelling for a job, the only time I can get out and do some travel photography is at night. This is convenient, because I love shooting at night. Things are slower. There are less interruptions. You can take the time to really get the shot you want. Oh, and it is generally quieter.
Night Travel Photography is unique because it presents a different perspective not often seen in magazines like Travel and Leisure or Conde Nast Traveler. A unique style can get your work noticed. However, there are many difficulties involved when shooting travel at night, especially when it is not in your home town. Here are ten tips to make your Night Travel Photography experience more successful, along with examples from a recent shoot during a job in Washington D.C. All of the images were made between one and four in the morning in one night, and I have included shooting data with the images so you can see how I shot them.
1. Have a good map.
Even though all of the things I wanted to shoot in Washington were near each other, a good map was essential in planning out a successful shoot with minimal time on hand to accomplish it. I picked up one from the hotel I was staying at in Arlington, about 10 minutes out of D.C. I planned my shooting route on the map so I wouldn't waste time getting lost.
2. Dress appropriately.
There was a definite chance of rain that night which was good for photography, since shooting long exposures with a clear sky can be boring. I was prepared with a Gore-Tex jacket, water-resistant shoes (also for dew on the ground) and a small umbrella. My camera backpack also has a built-in rain cover for extra measure.
3. Let someone know where you are going and when you will be back.
This might sound like overkill, but trust me, it is important. The person does not have to be in the same location with you, but someone should know where you are going, so if something happens, they can help. Always carry a cell phone and ID. If you are taking a cab to your shooting location (like I did) get the cab or car service phone number so you can call for a ride back before wrapping up your shoot. Cabs in D.C. don't pick up riders at night like they do in NYC. You have to call them and be picked up.
4. Carry what you need, but not too much.
A successful night shoot means planning for the unexpected, but not bringing your whole studio. Think about what you are going to be shooting, and act accordingly. Scenics mostly look best with a wide lens. You probably will not need that 70-200 at night in a city. An all-in-one zoom (28-200) can work as long as you read Tip #8 and learn it well. Bring a fast normal lens (like my 50mm F1.4). And always bring a wild card lens, such as a lens baby or the like. Using these lenses at night is unexpected but cool. The following is what I had in my bag that night: Canon 5d; 24-105mm stabilized lens, 50mm f1.4 lens, 28mm f1.8 lens, zenitar 15mm f2.8 fisheye, lensbaby; manfrotto tripod with ball head and hook to hang bag on, 12 gigs of cf cards, extra battery, and two Zone bars to stuff my face with at 3am.
5. Introduce yourself to law enforcement before they ask what in the heck you are doing.
This is a big one. Since that day in September, a lot of things have changed. I knew I would have issues in D.C. even though I have a NYC Press pass and do this for a living. The first thing I shot was the White House at 1:30am. I walked right up to the officer standing outside his car on the blocked-off street out front and introduced myself, showed him my press pass, and explained what I was doing. I showed him my gear in my backpack. I asked him where I could shoot from. I talked to him. I joked with him. I gave him my card. At first he said I could only use my tripod in the park across the street. I talked to him for about 10 minutes, and eventually, he let me go right up to the fence and rest my camera on the ledge without the tripod. I improvised, and got the shot I needed. I asked him if there was anywhere else I could not go that night, and he said no, just don't be stupid, this is D.C., after all. I thanked him and left. What if you don't have a press pass? No problem. Just tell him you are on assignment (after all, you are on a self-assignment) and want to get some shots if that is OK. Don't give them any reason to ask you to leave. Don't argue. Make their job easy.
6. Use a great tripod.
If you want to shoot good Night Travel Images, you have to invest in a good tripod. You want it to be light enough to carry, but sturdy enough to hold your camera still during those long exposures. If you can buy it at Kmart, it isn't going to work. Manfrotto and Giottos make some good but inexpensive models, and Gitzo is top of the line. Spend what you have to and no more. Carbon fiber is nice if you can swing it, as it weighs about half, and at 3am, that's pretty sweet. Also get a good head if your tripod doesn't have one built in. I use a ball head, but you can use any type--just make sure it will support your camera and your heaviest lens.
7. Always shoot at your lowest ISO setting.
It may be tempting to crank up that ISO to 1600 on these new cameras, especially the Mark III and D3, and I know, it looks great. However, if you want magazine quality pictures that can be placed in a double truck spread to open an article, take my advice. Shooting at the lowest ISO possible makes for less noise in the shadow areas of the image, the darks and the blacks. There are going to be a lot of those, because you know, it IS night.
8. Select a medium to small aperture for scenics.
Most everyday lenses are really optimized in their designs to be sharpest at f8 or so. If you are shooting the Eiffel Tower, you will want it to be tack sharp so you can blow it up to 20x30 and throw it on your wall to impress mom. Shooting at f8 or f16 will usually help you do the trick. This rule, of course, is meant to be broken. You will see some of my shots are shot wide open. This was for a certain effect, and not for a scenic shot. The question you may be asking is, "Low ISO combined with f8...won't that be a really long exposure? Is that going to work?" It will if you ...
9. Use a great tripod.
This is so important I put it in here twice! If your tripod moves under the slightest breeze, all of the above is in vain. Tripods are like flashes to people who are not familiar with them--they are only brought out when absolutely necessary, and are confusing and never seem to work well...mystical, three legged contraptions that always pinch your fingers and jam when you try to fold them up. Sort of like a bridge in billiards. Well, the first time you use a great tripod, all of that fades away. They work like they are supposed to, are sturdy, and will make your pictures shine.
Good technique with a tripod is essential, though. When shooting Night Travel Photography, don't extend the tripod to its fullest length unless you must to get a shot, as this will make it less stable. Hang your bag from a hook on the center column to weigh it down. Make sure all of the feet are set before shooting. Don't walk long distances with your camera on the tripod and the whole rig slung over your shoulder. The first time it falls off onto concrete, you'll wonder why the hell you were doing that. Have a quick release plate so you can take the camera off quickly. Put it in the bag. Make sure everything feels set and locked before pressing the shutter. Tripods--use them, coddle them, love them!
10. Move quickly, and when you are done, you are DONE.
Get the shot and move on. Don't stay too long in one place, you want to have a wide variety of shots for your editor. Vary your lenses when you find something good to shoot, so you have different perspectives and looks. Work quickly and efficiently, and try to think like a photo editor while you shoot. Shoot details as well as wide shots. This will make putting a book together showing your work much easier. Most importantly, if you start to tire, quit. Dragging your gear all the way back to your hotel is a real drag (wow, funny) when you're exhausted, your feet are wet, your back hurts, and your straps are digging into your shoulders. Call that cab when you start to slow down, go back to your hotel, have some hot tea and hit the hay. Don't download and look at your pictures till you have had some sleep, as you might make a mistake and delete them. Then, get up in the morning, have some coffee, and look at the fab work you did last night!