Street Photography VI

The night is a very interesting time for photography in general and street photography in particular. Certainly the lighting is different. But more importantly, the people are different. It is a very different person who is out at night from the day. Even if it is the same person, they are different. The night is personal time. People who you might see during the day are more likely to be more relaxed at night. There is also a sector of the community that you probably will only see after the sun goes down.

The Boring Technicals

Technically, there are some obvious differences from the daytime. Light levels are usually low. You will need to increase your ISO setting in order to get hand holdable shutter speeds. The offset to this is that you will introduce more visible noise into your photos. Noise reduction processes in RAW conversion programs have become very good. But there is also the thought that you can embrace the noise. It can add a grittiness to the pictures that enhance the feel of the night. Noise does not have the same look and feel as film grain, but it is as close as we can come with today’s digital technology.


Technical Tip

If you are shooting in color and maintaining the image as color, look for both color noise and luminance noise in the image. Color noise is the more objectionable and unappealing. Reduce it with noise reduction during RAW conversion and keep the luminance noise. This will generally provide a more pleasing and more ‘natural’ look than if the color noise is left unaltered. It will also mean less softening of the image which can result from needing to be too aggressive with luminance noise reduction. In Lightroom and Camera Raw, the default for color noise reduction is 25, and this will often be sufficient at lower ISO levels but at higher ISO settings, you may need to push a little higher with the color noise reduction adjustment.


In order to help keep your shutter speed in a workable range for hand holding, you can use a wider aperture. Faster lenses (e.g., f/2.8 and faster) will be beneficial. You will sacrifice some depth of field but using a wider angle lens, you still have reasonable depth of field to work with. On a full-frame camera using a 35mm focal length lens at f/2.8 and a subject distance of 20 feet, you have about 21 feet of depth of field from about 14 feet at the near end to 35 feet at the far end. Using a cropped frame camera with a 1.5X angle of view factor, a 23mm focal length at f/2.8 and a subject distance of 20 feet you have about 45 feet of depth of field ranging from 12 feet at the near end to 57 feet at the far end. Shallower depth of field is less a concern at night. Because of the darkness that will often surround your subject you will not be able to see great distances around what you are photographing anyway.

Your camera meter will probably not work as well at night. There may be a tendency to overexpose due to the prevalence of dark areas in the scene. You will want to do some experimentation with your camera to know how it responds in these conditions and how you may have to adjust via exposure compensation.

In order to keep your visibility minimized, turn off the autofocus assist light, if your camera has one. This will, necessarily, reduce the performance of your autofocus system. In some cases, you may not be able to focus automatically at all. In other cases the focus speed will be slowed. If you have a fairly bright light on your subject, it will help. Be prepared to focus manually; however. You can pre-focus or use zone focusing as we covered earlier in order to be ready to shoot more quickly.

The Interesting Art of Night

With those technical details out of the way, we can move on to the art of night photography.

Aesthetically, light levels are very low. Wait, we already said that. It is true though. And the low light can play into the look and feel of your pictures. You will be, generally, working with much higher contrast than during the day. There will probably be larger areas of inky blackness in your night photos than during the day. This adds to the mystery of the night. There is a greater chance of having areas of overexposure too in elements such as street lights. These can be considered specular highlights which are difficult to control. Some people feel the night scene has a more monochrome look than the daytime. While this is true in some cases such as dimly lit laneways or stairwells, there are cases where you can have vast amounts of color. At night, colorful lights and signs are turned on that are not in the day. You can get exceptionally beautiful reflections of these lights on windows and off pavement that you cannot in the day. You also have a greater opportunity to use motion to your advantage at night because it is easier to achieve slower shutter speeds when darkness falls. You can also render silhouettes at night that can bring an air of subtlety, or a more enigmatic feel, to the photo that is not as easily done during the day. The night is a veritable cornucopia of opportunity and can be even more exciting than the daytime.


A Public Service Announcement – Personal Safety

Before continuing, I want to add a caution with regard to street photography at night. Safety can be more of a concern at night than during the day. Be careful when you are out. If you are going to venture into areas that are, perhaps, less desirable, make sure you have a ready exit strategy. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be back. Do carry your phone with you so that you can call for help if needed. You may want to set up with a friend or family member that you will call or text them when you get home. Taking a friend with you will help as well – the safety in numbers idea. This is another reason to turn off the autofocus aids in the camera. For the same reason, turn off camera sounds too. Keep the LCD dark by disabling automatic image review. Do not use Live View to focus or compose your shots. Travel light when out at night. The less gear you have, the less obvious you will be to those elements who may have designs on your expensive kit. It will also mean you can move more quickly if necessary. Do not stay in any one place too long. As much as you might try to keep out of sight and think you are not being noticed, you are an interloper. There are people who are far more used to being out at night and know who else is usually around them than you and they will take note of your presence in fairly short order. If you stay in one place too long, you will become suspicious to them and they may become motivated to motivate you to move on. If you are driving, do not park near where you are going to be shooting, particularly if you will be in a less desirable area. If someone wants to follow you as you are leaving, they typically will not go too far. If you park close by, they may be able to get your license plate number, which is information you do not want them to have. Park further away and walk, take a cab, or transit to your desired location. This will sound sexist, and for that I apologize, but these cautions apply to an even greater degree if you are a woman.

Public service announcement out of the way, let us return to the art of shooting at night.


Light is more isolated and directional at night. You can use this to your advantage. The light from a streetlight can highlight or spotlight a subject. Light from a window or doorway can act as a wonderful frame for your subject. Reflected light off pavement markings like lines on the road or marking spaces in a parking lot can work well as leading lines or frames to help you compose your shot and direct the viewer to your subject. Indirect light from colorful signs and billboards can fill your scene with a rainbow of hues. You can see, in the images below shot in the course of just a few minutes, how the lighting from outside the frame altered the colors in the image. Embrace the color you have available to you, don’t try to fight it.

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Light changing outside the frame makes for interesting colour in our shot

Another aspect of the night you can embrace is movement. With your ISO raised and aperture set wider, your shutter speeds will be in the hand holdable range allowing you to freeze movement if you wish. But there is also the ability, more so than during the day, to use movement to your advantage. Pan with your camera to follow a subject and blur the surrounding parts of the scene. While you won’t be carrying a tripod, there are other ways to support your camera for slower, below hand holding, shutter speeds to blur movement. A bench, a mailbox, a ledge, stairs. Any of these can make a good platform to keep the camera steady, blurring movement in the scene but keeping other static elements sharp. The few shots of these break dancers performing in Toronto on a summer night illustrate the effect.

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The blurring of motion adds an element of dynamism to our pictures

What does movement do for us? It provides a sense of activity, as we described earlier. It adds life and vitality to a picture. Pictures like the ones of the dancers would not have the same visual impact if higher shutter speeds had been used to freeze all movement. The shots would look staged and rigid. The flow and rhythm of the setting would not have been conveyed. The pictures would be incomplete. With the movement, we can imagine the music playing in the background and sense the pleasure that onlookers were getting from the performance. One expression of movement that I, personally, do not find appealing is the hand held, long shutter speed shot. The jittery movement created in the scene from the unsteady camera is visually jarring. We are often unable to discern any recognizable features in the shot. It can, in some cases, make for a good exercise in abstraction – which is a valid artform on its own – but it is less appealing for street photography.

The Weather

Here is a good place to include some small commentary on the weather and its impact on street photography. Weather, good and bad, can alter what we see and how people conduct themselves.

In summer, it is warm and sunny. People are wearing fewer clothes, are unconstrained and ‘free’. This feeling of lightness, of freedom can be seen and captured in their actions. Conversely, in winter, when people are bundled up, they are huddled to keep out the cold. Movements are constricted by heavy winter coats. Faces are obscured by hats, toques and scarves. The atmosphere is different. The people in the atmosphere act differently. There is a more hurried sense to their actions and movements as they try to spend as little time in the cold as possible. Even where people are enjoying winter activities, like skating or sledding, they are still bundled in layers of clothes and their movements are greater to help keep warm. Even leisure time, in winter, is more frenetic than it may be in summer.

These contrasts present interesting opportunities to the street photographer.

Likewise the rain provides us with opportunities to use light and reflection to our advantage, creating surreal canvases that can challenge the viewer’s perception of what is or is not happening.

The Interview

Lori Whelan (aka Underground Joan) is an occupational therapist and freelance photographer living in Toronto. Her images are frequently focused on isolating shapes and forms in the urban environment and emphasize themes of simplicity and solitude. Lori’s work is frequently featured in online Toronto urban news and culture publications. More of her work can be seen on her Flickr stream and you can follow her on Twitter.

Pictures are used with permission. Click on the images for larger versions.

How do you conceive of, or define, street photography?

The way I think of street photography has morphed over the years. I used to think of street photography only in the traditional sense, like social documentary that could only be conveyed with human subjects or, candid, in-your-face portraits of people, and as such, I did not identify at all as being a street photographer. But now I think of street photography as a large category that can be broken down into many important contributing styles, including urban landscapes and city scenes with or without people in them, like I think of Stephen Shore and how he could create fantastically moody and memorable scenes of southwestern US urban spaces – without people in them and their importance to history in terms of recording political and socio-economical information of the time. And as much as I object to Bruce Gilden’s unethical street photography style, I recall him saying something that more decisively shaped my definition of street photography, and that if you can’t “smell the street” in the image you are looking at, then it isn’t street photography and I very much subscribe to that definition, noting also a human doesn’t necessarily have to be present for an image to invoke emotion.

The El Mocambo in Toronto.

The El Mocambo in Toronto.

What are your ethical boundaries?

I do not feel comfortable with taking direct photographs of people without their explicit consent.  If I sense I am being intrusive or disrespectful of an individual’s privacy, then I probably won’t take the shot. Or at times I feel compelled to take the shot because I see so many interesting human subjects on city streets but I won’t publish the image. I have a great appreciation for documentary street portrait photographers who bring political-social issues into our consciousness, or even those street photographers who draw attention to the smaller, ordinary human elements of street life, but straight-on shooting of people just does not fit into my personal comfort zone. I prefer to shoot a street scene where people blend into the mosaic of city life, and where people are not easily identifiable.

I have a beautiful image of a boy playing amongst the ruins of a run-down abandoned building. If you didn’t know it was in Niagra Falls, Ontario, you would think it was shot in a country impacted by civil war. I was observing him play and imagined his life story as he seemed to lose himself in this make-shift battleground. There is a pink fabric blowing among the rock which provides beautiful contrast to his striking blue eyes, but at the moment when I released the shutter, he looked directly at me, and then he ran away, and as much I love this photograph, it feels wrong in my gut to share. I have many photos like this shelved in my personal archives

Many of your photos do not include people. Why? What are you trying to convey, or what stories are you trying to tell, with your photography?

Well, often in part due to my concerns with privacy as I just mentioned and being a health care professional is a strong influencing factor, but when my photos do have a human element, it is usually a street scene with one person occupying the space.  This is intentional and it relates to my fascination with the paradox of human disconnectedness that exists all around us in dense, concrete urban spaces and I really like to convey this tension in part because I feel it. I am from a small town and I found the feeling of anonymity appealing when I first moved to Toronto because it was freeing, but despite having a social network, I missed the close connections that I experienced being a part of a small community. The other reason my images can be devoid of people is because I also really like to document changes to the cityscape and redevelopment of neighbourhoods, and Toronto is changing at such a rapid pace, so I tend to be more interested in the built environment.  In my compositions, I aim for simplicity, taking the clutter and the chaos out of a typical city scene to slow down the pace, and in this way I think my images are enabled to tell stories of isolation or rapid urban development or even beauty in the ordinary that people too often rush by in auto pilot mode.

Bicycles

Bicycles

I also like to make abstracts from architectural details, lines, patterns and shadows but that is an entirely different genre of photography and not what I would consider in the domain of street photography, along with what I would describe as my straight-up architectural images.

You shoot quite a lot at night. What is it about the night that appeals to you? How does that aid in the furtherance of your goals in the stories you want to tell?

Shooting at night in the city is a continuation along the same theme I like to express of loneliness or alienation in a dense space. Night shooting also offers an element of street grit that I just really like and it enhances the atmospheric quality of the scene. And for me personally, as a woman shooting alone at night, it adds to this tension – having a sense of liberation and being able to make choices while also being aware of an inherent vulnerability in being a woman, and needing to protect myself.

How do you feel being a woman impacts and informs your photography?

Well at the risk of sex stereotyping, I think being as patient as I am is a feminine quality that helps me create a certain aesthetic that defines my visual style. I will stay in the same city space often up to a half hour, until the “right” person enters the scene that I am looking to complete the image, maybe because of a stylistic quality they bring, or a certain colour to complement the scene artistically.  I will also revisit a city space more than once to complete an image that I have an idea for in my mind, but maybe was unable to find the right lone human subject in the first attempt. I think being a woman also, I can be perceived as less threatening to other people, which I think has given me extra allowances to get into (and apologetically out of) spaces that would be considered trespassing. The female community of street shooters is very small compared to men, so I also hope to help make this type of photography feel more accessible to other women.

Umbrellas

Umbrellas

Do you take any particular precautions when shooting at night?

Yes absolutely – being a woman alone and with a tripod hanging around on a street corner at night can attract unwanted attention. For this reason, I always carry a personal alarm. Being alert and aware of my surroundings, and trying not to lose myself too much in deep concentration while creating an image, that’s a protective strategy that I have developed over time.

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