How to Light at Night
We recently had our He Said She Said Photography Workshop, in which we discussed off camera lighting. As a follow-up to the workshop, I thought it might be fun to continue the discussion, and talk about using your flash at night. It’s very common for people to only want to shoot at the prime times of the day, but if you can learn to shoot outside those prime times, you’ll immediately find several things happen. First, you’ll be different from the rest of the masses. Everybody shoots in the evening. The light is delicious, and it’s a cinch to shoot it. But it all kind of looks the same. As you start to venture into shooting in full noon sun, or after the sun has set, and the city lights come out to play, you’ll find a new world of options available to you.
Shooting at night can be very intimidating, because it will absolutely require artificial light. But once you realize your flash is your friend, and you take a little bit to get to know the little guy, you’ll love the new options available to you. So let’s talk night-time shooting. First, the goal is not to make it look like day-time. You want to light your subject, then bring in a good bit of ambient exposure to get those beautiful city lights into your photo. The biggest mistake I see people making is blasting their subject with their flash on their camera, or even off camera, but then missing the ambient exposure, making the background completely black. So how do you get your ambient exposure? Drag that shutter, baby! As we talked about in our workshop, you are going to affect your ambient exposure by adjusting your shutter speed. Let’s look at a few examples from my shoot the other day with Josh. Josh is a 2011 High School Graduate. He was great to work with, and totally brought it with his styling. And of course, it’s always nice when my seniors bring a friend or family member, because it means I have a voice activated light stand (I always put them to work!) . So on this particular shoot, I had his friend (and one of my former shoots) Angelica.
We got a fairly late start, and actually started shooting shortly after sunset, about 9:15pm. The first images were shot at the old Train Depot in Detroit. For me, when setting up my first lit shot, I follow the following steps
1. Assess the current scene and make a guestimate at my settings. In this first image, I started with my camera at ISO 800, f/4, 1/80 sec, and my flash was set to 1/8 power, and was placed in a Lastolite EZBox. Why did I start here? The sun had set, it was pretty dark. I knew I was going to need to be shooting at a higher ISO to get the train station exposed without slowing my shutter to extremely slow speeds. Because I had increased my ISO to 800, I knew I’d need lower power settings on my flash. So that’s where I started. Here’s the first image out of my camera:
2. Evaluate the test shot. After making my guestimates, and taking my first test shot, I turn the camera over, and evaluate the image. As you can see above, it basically sucks. It looks like I’m in the ball park for my ISO but I need a little bit more ambient exposure, and a little less flash exposure. To fix the ambient exposure (ie the train station, the sky, the grass behind Josh), I’m going to slow my shutter speed by almost two stops, to 1/25 sec. To change my flash exposure, I could either adjust my aperture or my flash power. Remember, aperture controls flash exposure. Not shutter speed, but aperture. However, I know that if I stop down my aperture, to say f/5.6 or f/8, that will also have an effect on my ambient exposure, thus requiring me to slow my shutter speed even more to compensate. So instead of changing my aperture, I’m going to adjust my flash power. I drop it two stops, to 1/32 power. By doing so, I arrive at the image below.
Final image out of camera, shot at ISO 800, f/4, 1/25 sec, flash power 1/32. Once you get your light right, your post processing time drops by about 99%. You can see the final image below after post processing, doesn’t look a whole lot different from the image straight out of camera.
The beauty of this process is, you don’t have to recreate it for every look. Once you have your settings, you’re set for the rest of the shoot. You may have to make subtle tweaks, but in general, you are able to run and gun. I’ve included several more images below, along with the settings I used to create them. In each of these images, I used the same light modifier, the Lastolite EZBox.