When the sun goes down, Scott Martin’s job begins. He’s a night photographer and instructor in San Antonio, leading workshops to teach curious photogs the nuances of shooting in the dark.
“I had this ‘aha’ moment where I realized that when the world goes to bed there are still all these sleeping giants out there that have this unique relationship with the night,” he says. “All these buildings, all these hidden away places, they are always there yet we so rarely see them in that light.”
Martin was nice enough to share a few tips with us that we’re passing on to you. Try these out the next time you’ve got the itch to stalk the night with your camera.
- Bring a tripod. There’s no easy way to do these shots without one.
- Know your lights: Mercury vapor, sodium vapor, incandescent and LED all have a special flavor of light. Use them to re-see, or re-imagine architectural or street settings that might otherwise not seem photo-worthy. “In our lifetime everything is going to go LED and daylight balanced,” says Martin. “At some point people are going to look back and say what a rich environment photographers had to work with today.”
- Three-tiered exposure system: Martin has devised ISO, aperture and shutter setting for each of the following shots.
- Star Point Shot: A relatively short exposure that allows the stars to show up but avoids trails.
- Star Trail Shot: A longer exposure that allows for stars to trail.
- Stacked Image: Combines multiple exposures to create the long, circular star trails (seen in several of the images above).
- Light painting: Martin only uses tungsten flashlights because they create a warmer light that contrasts well with the cooler light of the moon (he says the best time to take night photos is during a full moon because the extra light makes it easier and safer to move around and find a shot). Martin paints from off to the side because angled light creates more texture.
He’s also taken to what he calls “box lighting,” where he paints a scene from all four corners, including from behind the object he’s photographing. This helps add narrative and forces you to think about more than just a good exposure. “It takes a while to decide how you’re going to paint a scene,” says Martin. “It can easily take 20 or 30 attempts.”
- Don’t get lost in technique: For Martin, the most important thing to remember is that night photography, like any other kind of photography, should tell a story, create an emotion and help transport the viewer to the scene. Only focusing on the technical aspects loses the art and purpose of the photograph. “Just making an image at night isn’t enough,” he says. “At first it seems like a good trick, but you also have to think about why you’re making the images you’re making or what story you’re trying to convey.”
You can see the benefits of these techniques in the photos above. In the picture of the bus, for example, a stacked image created the star movement and side lighting allowed him to give life to everything from the rocks on the ground to the rivets on the bus.
In the picture of the two large metal pieces in the desert, both objects were too flat in the moonlight, so in addition to lighting from each side, he hit both pieces of metal from behind, creating a kind of rim light that defined their edges and made them pop out from the background.
“Night photography for me is about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary,” he says. “There is also a good bit of self discovery in night photography and we all have to go out there and find our story and find our angle. Use your uniqueness and let it come out in your images.”