Night Street Photography
Summer is my favorite season for Street Photography. The sun casts beautiful light and creates shadows that in themselves are already interesting. Mediocre images are improved with the help of the perfect light alone.
Unfortunately, the summer doesn’t last very long, especially in Berlin, it is only a short phenomenon until the days become shorter and darker. Street Photography becomes more difficult and we are facing new challenges.
With only a very short time frame, where the light is ideal for Street Photography, we must get creative to capture the streets. During the last winter, I faced this challenge by illuminating the street myself using an external flash.
Advantages of a Flash
During the day, we are dependent on the sun and its grace to work in our favor. Unsteady conditions can be difficult to handle when there is a fast change from sunny daylight to cloudy weather.
Depending on the light, we must change the way we photograph and what our focus is. After the sunset, there aren’t that many changes. Artificial light is pretty predictable and doesn’t force us to adapt quickly.
Using the flash as the main light source has the advantage that we face the same conditions every night. Thus, we can learn very quickly which settings work the best for us and how the pictures will turn out.
The flash is also a very versatile tool that can change the look of the photographs.
I wouldn’t recommend using the built-in flash of the camera. They are usually not powerful enough, need a long time to recharge, and can only be shot from the same point of view.
All you need is an external flash and a receiver that fits on your camera. It doesn’t need to be some fancy flash. I had good experiences with simple off-camera flashes and they work fine for me.
If you aim to be more specific, need more power or a faster recharge time, then you should invest a little more, to buy a flash that works with rechargeable batteries. Do keep in mind though, that they weigh more and can become a hassle when you are shooting for many hours.
Before I tried using a flash in Street Photography I was very afraid that I would face a lot of negative repercussions, that people would be annoyed by the usage of the flash and that I would draw a lot of attention.
Contrary to that belief, I didn’t have any negative experience and using the flash even during the night time worked like a charm. I guess it is only natural to use a flash during the darker hours as a photographer and no one will question the work you are doing.
Of course, you will raise some attention, but most people are more curious than annoyed. Even getting very close to people doesn’t pose any additional threats. Most people will be puzzled more than getting angry at you.
Long Shutter Speed
A very popular style that I use when shooting with a flash at night is in combination with a longer shutter speed. Thus, creating light rays that ‘dance’ in front or behind people.
For me, these images are more than a simple and dry depiction of the reality. They display more a fantasy of the night and create a very new look of the street.
To create such images, you must understand that only the objects that will be illuminated by the flash will be frozen and sharp. Anything else will be blurry, depending on the duration of your open shutter. The slower the shutter speed, the more dominant will the light rays become.
Usually, I work with a shutter speed of 1/10th of a second and stay within a range of 1/5th to 1/25th. The flash should be powerful enough to freeze the main object.
This means you must either power-up your flash or get very close. Keep in mind that the light strength is a square function. Meaning, that if you halve the distance to your subject, the flash will be four times more powerful.
So, if you aren’t able to freeze the scene because your flash might be too weak, you have to get closer. As already stated before, you shouldn’t be too afraid when using a flash up-close. Most people will be more puzzled than anything else, but I also wouldn’t recommend flashing directly in people’s faces. Rather use the flash more indirectly from the side or any other direction.
The most important part of such blurry flash scenes isn’t the foreground or the subject. When it comes to creating the light rays, they will only be visible when there are other light sources that can be blurred in the image.
Therefore, when you want to create a blurry flash scene you must have some light in the background. Search for street lamps, shopping windows or cars that can support your photograph. Without such additional light sources, you will only have a “normal” flash picture with a dark background.
Places that work wonders for me are lively shopping streets or during the December Christmas markets. Depending on where you live, Christmas markets might not be a common thing, but then I would watch out for other events.
For example, we have also sports events during the evening, when it is already dark outside, that offer a great opportunity for these images. The athletes create a very dynamic picture while the blurry lights create an atmosphere on their own.
Either way, search for places or events that are crowded and not completely dark. The most important part you must look for is the light in the background.
For many reasons, the summer is my favorite time to shoot Street Photography. The sun creates a great mood and the streets are crowded, offering many interesting scenes. During the darker times, I was at a loss and had no motivation to take photographs.
This changed when I discovered the flash for night photography. No longer was I restricted by the sun, but was able to choose my own light and create the photographs that I had in mind without being dependent on the natural light sources.
Flash photography is also not “dangerous” and you shouldn’t be too afraid to raise attention while using it. Try it out first during events where there are a lot of other photographers anyway and you won’t feel any more “conspicuous” than taking pictures during the day.
If you don’t try it out, you will definitely miss out on this great experience.