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“The best way out is always through.”

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Night Photo Techniques: Take a Swim in the River of Night

There are a few different ways to approach photographing the city at night. One is to adhere to our obsession with reality and set the camera up on a a tripod, frame an interesting scene and get a nice sharp, well-exposed photo. That's a completely legitimate approach; it's nice to know how to take a good night shot and it's a kick to have really professional-looking night photos.

But I've always felt that some night scenes--particularly New York's Times Square--are just too exciting and too flamboyant to be captured in a traditional way. Yet many photographers (myself included at times) are fearful of leaving reality behind because they're afraid that if their photos are different people will think they goofed. But the city at night is not about doing things correctly or trying not to make mistakes, it's about diving in and taking a swim in the river of light and color that's surging all around you. Forget reality! The reality of Times Square at midnight is that reality has been suspended in favor of free-flowing imagination and an electric energy that is so thick you can almost taste it. Trying to ignore that torrent of inspiration is like swimming upstream with an elephant on your back--you have to just go with the flow and find new techniques, new visions that match that energy.

One way to photograph city lights at night is to use a technique called zooming where you rack your zoom lens from one focal-length extreme to the other during a time exposure to turn bright lights into long colorful streaks. The more color and light that you cram into the frame when you zoom the lens, the more intense and vibrant your shots will be, so look for vantage points where you are just engulfed in light. And don't worry about keeping the camera steady during the zoom because a small amount of camera shake (try turning off the image-stabilization and see if that makes things better or worse) usually just enhances the effect.

While places like Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip are obviously perfect for streaking night lights, you can even do it with the neon sign in the local pizza restaurant window. In fact, I almost always take zooming shots of my Christmas tree because it can create wild patterns from the fairy lights.

I really believe in letting the passion of a place soak into your imagination and your ideas, whether it's the reality of a desert landscape or the chaos and intensity of Times Square. Don't be a bystander--jump into the river of imagination and leave reality on the shore! OK, enough water analogies, I'm done.

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