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This tip article by Brian Dilg, comes to us courtesy of New York Film Academy Photography School, where he serves as the Chair of the New York Film Academy Photography Conservatory. Dilg is an internationally published and collected photographer and award-winning filmmaker with over 20 years of professional teaching experience around the world.
The Feeling of Darkness
Exposure and Shadows
In order to feel like night, your image must be dominated by dark tones. But how dark? That fundamental decision will determine your visual style as much as your compositions. Take as an example one of the undisputed masters of contemporary photography, Michael Kenna. He is particularly known for his night work. He makes liberal use of silhouettes, a fantastic technique to simplify a composition to pure graphical forms. Some of his images use an almost black-on-black palette with an incredibly narrow tonal range. Compare this image of the Rio de Janeiro skyline to this much darker one.
And herein lays the most formidable technical challenge to night photography: how to deal with shadow tones (silhouettes excluded). The three fundamental principles you need to understand are:
Digital sensors are much better at rendering good highlight detail than discreet shadow tones. The closer you get to black, which should be the absence of any electrical signal, the more spurious low-level electrical noise ends up appearing as pixels that aren't black.
If you ever plan to print your work, and I hope you do, you will need to capture and process printable exposure data. The translation from the transmissive medium of light on a screen to the reflective medium of subtractive inks on paper will always shift towards a less luminous, less contrasty image. So not only do you need to expose on the bright side, you'll need to process an image that looks a bit too light onscreen to compensate for the translation to the print medium.
Unrelated to the shadow issue is your use of saturation. You should know that the cones in the human eye lose their sensitivity to color before we lose our ability to see tone, and the last color we see is blue before we lost color perception altogether. To create a more realistic feeling of night, try using a low level of saturation, and biasing your white balance a bit to the cool side.
That the lights themselves are clipped is not necessarily a problem; a filament is not an essential piece of highlight detail. The real trick is hiding the crossover from the clipped highlight to the glowing area right next to the bulb that does have detail. That transition will produce posterized tones – an obvious hard edge – that may require some hand-painting or selectively applied grain to hide.