Taking pictures at night gives an image a completely different feel because it captures different stories of daily life—sometimes more dramatic than the ones captured during the day. There is also a whole new cast of characters at night that make taking pictures on the streets after dark an even more adventurous experience in street photography.
Just by decreasing the available light, we increase the element of mystery in the image. Don’t get me wrong, it could still be an average image. Just because it was taken at night the picture won’t magically become a great photograph, but it might become a little bit more interesting. It may make the viewer ask just a few more questions. And depending on where you are, it may even add an element of danger.
“You don’t have to go looking for pictures. The material is generous. You go out and the pictures are staring at you.” –Lee Friedlander
Here are a few tips for taking street photos at night:
1. Don’t use flash
I think this is key for several reasons. First, the ugly artificial light that results from the flash is just too harsh and unnatural. It also calls way too much attention to the photographer, and the idea in street photography is to blend in, not stand out like a lighthouse. Also, people expect the flash to go off after you take a picture at night; when they don’t see the bright light coming from the camera that was pointed at them, they think that you didn’t take a photo and they probably won’t question you. I never use flash when I shoot at night (or day or ever, for that matter). It might take some practice but in a short time you won’t miss it.
2. Increase the ISO
More than a suggestion, this is a necessity. Unless you increase the ISO, the shutter speed might become too slow and the whole picture will be way too blurry to even see what’s going on. As I wrote before, a little bit of motion blur is fantastic and makes for great street photography shots. But if the photo’s too blurry it loses the effect and is just confusing.
High ISO will also give the image some “noise” and it will look grainy, which is a great look for street photography. Make grain and blur your friends, not your enemies.
“New images surround us everywhere. They are invisible only because of sterile routine convention and fear.” –Lisette Model
3. Use available light to your advantage
Find a bright corner or a storefront window and position yourself in a way that it will light your subject’s face. Or maybe you want the light to their backs to make them silhouettes. Either way is fine, the choice is yours. It’s all a matter of moving around the light. Find what works and wait for an interesting subject to walk by. Try pointing the camera into the inside of storefronts or brightly lit buses; the light may be just enough to capture great scenes of people unaware that you are capturing the scene.
4. Use fast lenses
Fast lenses, with maximum apertures such as f/2.8 or f/1.4 are great for low light situations. The same thing applies to full frame cameras. Any lens or camera is fine but full frame cameras or fast lenses make things easier because they have a better sensitivity to light. Use what you have and practice and look at the results before you invest your paycheck in a more expensive camera or lens.
“Anything that excites me for any reason, I will photograph; not searching for unusual subject matter, but making the commonplace unusual” –Edward Weston
5. Avoid isolated areas
It’s not necessary to go to a dangerous area to get interesting pictures. Any crowded area will do, especially if you are just starting.
Taking pictures on the streets at night is not the usual thing to do, but if you want to give your street photography a little extra excitement consider going out for a walk after the sunlight has been replaced by street lamps.