Shooting Street Photography At Night When the light fades

When the light subsides in the early evening and slowly gets dark, we can still see it very well. However, the light is no longer sufficient for the camera’s sensor for street photography at night. In the automatic program, the camera switches to a high ISO value in the dark. As it gets darker, the photos will show more and more noise.

The tripod does not help because, at low ISO settings, the exposure times are too long, and life in the evening streets would show motion blur. On the other hand, a shot of motion blur enhances the live character of the street photos.

Those who follow this approach can choose a happy medium when photographing nocturnal street scenes. That would be, for example, an exposure time of 1/20 or even 1/10 sec for handheld pictures.

The noise at high ISO values ​​does not have to be avoided at all costs: street photography is not about the quality of the photos with the highest demands, but about the documentation and memories.

The blue hour is the optimal time for street photography in the evening. The residual light still allows handheld shots at moderate ISO values.
All you have to do is find a fixed position – lenses with anti-blur or image stabilization enable significantly longer exposure times with minimal blurring.

Photographing street scenes at night

Without a tripod, the TV or S program is the best choice. The photographer specifies the exposure time he can take a photo by hand – e.g. 1/20 sec with a well-stabilized lens.

  1. Set the camera to the TV or S program and specify an exposure time for handheld pictures (e.g. 1/20 sec, depending on the lens).
  2. Use short focal lengths of 20 to 50 mm, because short focal lengths do not blur as quickly.
  3. Of course, bright lenses (e.g. with F2.8) are best suited. The brighter the lens, the easier it is to focus in the dark.
  4. Pay attention to the histogram: the city’s lights must not tear out too large overexposed image areas.

Of course, not everyone likes to carry a tripod through the city in the evening. Then walls, the entrance to the subway, and benches can be used.

You can get a remote release for little money: Without a remote release, the photos will shake when you press the release.
The remote release alternative is the camera’s built-in self-timer, which waits for 2 or 10 seconds and then takes the picture. But maybe then passers-by march through the picture …

Shooting with high ISO values

Modern cameras today still deliver acceptable quality at ISO 3200 and even at ISO 6400. Every photographer has to determine for himself at which ISO value the photos’ quality is still acceptable. An ISO test series is appropriate here. When ISO is maxed out, the camera has to expose the photo longer. Then, on the one hand, there is a motion blur with moving subjects, and on the other hand, the photo is blurred due to the restlessness of the hand.

Exposure time and stabilizer

With small focal lengths, a shorter exposure time is sufficient for the camera. However, wide-angle lenses are often not stabilized. Most new lenses with longer focal lengths have an image stabilizer or anti-shake protection.

The Canon lens 18-55 mm is stabilized with 4 aperture steps
Sony uses a stabilizer in SLR cameras that stabilizes the photo by 2.5 to 4 f-stop steps – this is how the camera shake protection works on all lenses.

The manufacturers specify aperture steps as a measure of the camera shake protection. Each aperture step allows the regular exposure time to be doubled. A camera shake protection of 2 apertures allows a four times the longer exposure time. With a 100 mm lens, following the old rule of thumb, we can take pictures with an exposure time of 1/100 sec without blurring the image by moving our hand.

Safe time without image stabilization: 1/100 sec
1 aperture step: camera shake protection: 1/50 sec
2 aperture steps: camera shake protection: 1/25 sec
The camera shake protection or image stabilizer is not a guarantee – the rule of thumb, maximum exposure time = 1 / focal length, is just a leitmotif. Nevertheless, the camera shake protection or image stabilizer in the camera or lens is a big step towards sharp photos, even in low light.

By the way: The younger generation of cell phones are using a trick to take photos with Available Light without a tripod: Your internal image processing software combines the recording from a quick series of photos.

Shutter settings for taking pictures in low light

For photography in low light – available light – without a tripod, bright lenses with large apertures are required. The larger the aperture, the more light reaches the sensor in a shorter time. However, with larger apertures, the depth of field also becomes smaller and smaller, but bright lenses can focus better and faster in low light than less bright lenses.

30 seconds of rest before taking the picture, leaning against it, and holding your breath. Press the SLR camera against your face and set the mirror lock-up if the camera offers this option. If you take photos with the display: press your arms against your body.
Quite banal: look for a wall, a bench, turn off the camera, and set the camera’s self-timer to 2 seconds.

With photos at the blue hour, mobile phone cameras and compact cameras play out the long depth of field with their small sensor: the large apertures are sufficient for short exposure times.

Shooting in the dark: ISO, exposure time and aperture

These three input variables must be combined with one another:

  • Which ISO value shall I choose?
    This can best be tested with a small ISO series: place the camera on a tripod and take three shots in low light with ISO 1600, ISO 3200, and ISO 6400.
  • How good is the image stabilizer on my lens or camera?
  • Look up the documents for the lens or the camera or on the Internet. Check it out anyway!

How fast is my lens, and is the shallow depth of field of the large apertures sufficient?

Focus at a greater distance (e.g. 10 to 20 m with a 50 mm lens) and do not use long focal lengths: This results in a relatively long depth of field even with large apertures.

Black and white holes

In the evening and in the brightly lit area of ​​the city, it is not just dark. In the city, we are dealing with hellishly black corners and brilliantly bright lights. The bright lights from windows, lanterns, and advertising burn white holes in the photo, while the black in the picture is already without details. The range of contrast of the camera – the area between the lightest and the darkest point that the camera can still capture – has been exceeded.

The best way to see if the contrast range is exceeded is the camera’s histogram. If the histogram lines on the right and left edges are as high as here, many pixels are completely in black and white.

Black and white for night street photography

Most cameras can take pictures directly in black and white. With RAW pictures, you may show the picture on display in black and white (which allows better exposure control), but the RAW picture contains the full colors.

Fuji GFX 50R, 1/60 s f / 8 ISO 12800

Image editing

Every good photo costs a night in the darkroom – a confession from an old photo textbook (Andreas Feininger).

Exposure to the lights – even if the unedited shots are very dark. The image editing programs brighten the dark corners in RAW photos surprisingly well without drawing the highlights into white holes. Many image processing programs offer a shadow/highlight correction. The protocol brush is represented in many programs today.

Darktable has the shadow and highlights correction up its sleeve to correct simultaneous underexposure and overexposure, which can happen quickly with backlighting.

Street photography in the evening and at night

Still, city street scenes are a good start to taking photos with Available Light, as city lights replace daylight to a certain extent. However, the photographer cannot rely on the camera’s automatic system: The automatic system insists on always putting photos into daylight.

Now pay attention to the aperture: If the camera is positioned directly on a place with a lot of light – large illuminated signs, spotlights, a brightly lit street café – overexposure can occur despite the evening scene. On the other hand, exposure correction is only of limited help. Which setting is the right one (most cameras offer exposure corrections of -1/3 to -3 f-stops) can be determined today by taking a test photo.