If you do decide to record in colour and convert afterwards, don’t make the mistake of converting your images using the desaturate option under the image/adjustments menu as results will be much better using the channel mixer. Just check the ‘monochrome’ box and play about with the sliders. Provided you make sure that the values add up to 100, the lightness won’t alter – unless you like a particular effect of course.
Night vision is called scotopic vision which means the human eye uses rods to sense light. Scotopic vision cannot perceive colours and records light in terms of black, white and grey. But importantly, the sensitivity range of the rods makes the eye more sensitive to blue light at night.
So it’s important to realise that in black and white night photography, what you are seeing is not exactly what the camera will record. You have to learn ‘black and white thinking’ to allow you to make informed choices as that beautiful blue night scene will look different in the final black and white shot.
As if dealing with mesopic vision wasn’t enough, there is another problem that awaits you in black and white night photography and that is a thing called ‘reciprocity failure’. This only occurs with film and it is more pronounced with black and white film than colour film.
Above: Black and White Photo of a Bench in Elizabeth Park in West Hartford, Connecticut, at Night by Sage Ross
Black and White Night Photography -Tips for Digital & Film Photographers
Above: The Eiffel Tower at Night During the 1900 Exposition by William Herman Rau (American, 1855-1920)
Canon Digital Rebel XTi, 1/20 sec, f/1.8, ISO 1600, lens focal length 50 mm
Seeing in the Dark: A Guide to Night Photography Seeing the Unseen – How to Photograph Landscapes at Night
Also keep the ISO as low as possible, 200 or less, as the noise on many digital cameras increases rapidly about 400 and up. In my experience, Canon make the best cameras for dealing with noise. With Canon cameras you can shoot at quite high ISOs but keep the level of noise down to an acceptable level.
Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, 1/5 sec, f/5, ISO 800, lens focal length 38 mm
For black and white night photography to be successful, it helps to think in black and white because the eye perceives things differently at night to during the day and you need to be able to compensate.
The term reciprocity failure means that with long exposures, the film becomes less sensitive to light and results become unpredictable. This particularly occurs with long exposures such as those needed in the low-level light conditions that you usually have to work with in black and white night photography. Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5 and FP4 films work well at night but Ilford films in general have a greater tendency towards reciprocity failure.
Although the colour temperature for night shots is actually the same as for daylight, the difficulty in believing this is because objects at night usually look blueish to the human eye.
Normal vision is called photopic vision which means the human eye uses cones to sense light. The eye is working in photopic mode during daylight. During photopic vision three types of cone receptors in the eye are used to sense light as three colours, red, green and blue.
If you enjoyed this article on black and white night photography, consider taking some shots of the moon next time you are out at night. Click the following link if you would like to read photography tips for making moon photographs.
If you are shooting digital, your camera will record light of three different colours, red, green and blue, on a scale of 0 up to 255. The three readings combine to give a single reading for each dot on your sensor. Since each colour has a possibility of 256 readings, the total number of possibilities in a single pixel is 256 x 256 x 256 which is more than 16 million possibilities – so many colours!
Mesopic vision means a combination of both photopic and scotopic and predominates at dawn and dusk or in urban areas that are dimly lit. The combination of the higher total sensitivity of the rods in the eye for the blue range with the color perception of the cones results in a very strong appearance of bluish colours around dawn or other low levels of light. Mesopic vision is what most of us use at night as there is so much ‘light pollution’ nowadays.
This is potentially a problem if you are shooting in colour and converting to black and white afterwards in Photoshop. More about this further down the page.
Firstly, if you want to try film for night shooting then careful thought has to be put into film choice, most Black and White films suffer what is termed reciprocity failure, this is caused by exposures usually longer than one second, at speeds below this film loses its sensitivity in how it reacts to light, it slows down and compensation needs to be given to the exposure time.
As an example, if I needed to set an exposure of say 40secs at a given aperture, a film such as Kodak Trix 400iso would need the 40secs extended to around 300 secs, now on a cold winters night standing around for that time is not always a practical thing to do.
The other disadvantage is aperture setting, for the majority of my night work I use medium format cameras, 6×6 and 6×9 formats, because of the negative size and its ratio to focal length you will have a narrower depth of field, (areas in and out of focus), wide apertures are not always good to encompass a scene from foreground to infinity, or for zone focusing so it is beneficial to use smaller apertures like f11,16, or even f22 to get that all important depth and clarity into our images.
Using films that have reciprocity failure characteristics forces into into wider apertures to keep the exposure times practical, as another example if the metered exposure was 1.5 mins at f16 with Trix then I would need to expose for 17mins, that’s a long time to be stood about in a dark alleyway at night, (unless you have Rottweiler with you, however, there is a solution, read on.
The solution is called Fuji Acros 100iso, a film that does not suffer from reciprocity failure, at least not up to two minutes, after that you just add plus 0.5 to your exposure, so in the above example of Trix at a metered exposure of 1.
5 mins with Acros would be 90sec, a massive difference.Film has the ability to capture a wider range of tones than a single Digital exposure, you will rarely blow highlights, even in street lamps and the shadows will be open enough to show detail, it has a built-in safe guard called latitude, under or overexpose and you will always be able to bring it back, (that’s providing your not 10 stops over or under) 3 stops, either way, will still yield an editable and printable image.
Another control after exposure is in development, let’s say a normal development time for Fuji Acros in daylight is 10 mins at 20c, to bring down highlight density always under develop by at least 10%, this will have little effect to shadow or mid-tone qualities only the higher regions are slowed down in the development process and keep the densities at usable levels.
Most users of Digital cameras these days use zooms, even fixed lens that does not have a depth-of-field scale on the lens and normally auto focus on something, that’s not a good way of calculating distances, the best way is to use the lens scale that will give the maximum DOF possible for a given lens, in other words, you don’t even have to focus on your subject, set the scale and forget about it, most film cameras prior to auto focus have these scales.
Metering night shots is NOT a nightmare, its relatively simple, you might waste a roll or two on your first outings but believe me after that you will recognize the intensity of light and be able to give a qualified guess erring on more exposure is better than less, by that if you’re unsure and you think it needs 40sec give it another 20sec on top, it will not ruin your shot, (remember the word latitude) always give more exposure than not enough.
Always remember that if the scene has a lot of dark areas in the composition then you’re likely to overexpose and if there is a lot of light areas it will underexpose, you’re in charge and with a little knowledge you can take control of the metering.
So to summaries: 1/Use a film like Fuji Acros 100iso for shorter exposure times with smaller apertures 2/ Remember that film has a wide exposure latitude to under and over exposure, always err on the overexposure.
3/ Use a camera that has a DOF scale on the body.4/Always use a tripod and cable release.5 Use any form of light metering as a guide only, the best meter is your brain and knowledge of bright areas and dark areas within a composition and alter accordingly.
6/ Keep things simple and use only one standard lens, wide lens get to much in and can clutter night compositions.7/Always carry a torch and a small piece of black card, the card is used to cover the lens to stop anything such as car lights ruining a scene, if one is coming into the scene, cover the lens, pause your time when its past remove the card and carry on counting the exposure time.
Most of all be careful at night, Saturdays are the worst in cities, too much booze around, go to areas that you know are safe (ish) never visit alone renowned dodgy areas, always take your mobile, let relatives know where your going, keep warm and enjoy a whole new world of photography.
Get out and have a go Martin
Black and White Photography TechniquesNight Photography Tips Recommended Reading (for Kindle)
By Brian: Nice writeup! I’ve just got my hands on a rolleichord 6×6 and I’ve been shooting at night using a reciprocity chart and tri-x (o ordered some t-max 100 though because it has less failure). I’ve been using a gossen Luna pro and metering for iso 200 and sticking around f11 .
.. seems my average exposure is something around 95 seconds to 3:30 seconds under average city lights. I haven’t developed any rolls yet and I started second guessing my methods but from reading your post it seems I should just relax and keep on bracketing and experimenting.
Reciprocity failure doesn’t happen with digital cameras but there is another problem then which is that digital noise increases with the longer exposures. The answer is to use a tripod and keep the exposure as short as possible.
A 4-second exposure is much better than a 16-second exposure but then you will have to choose a wider aperture so depth of field will be smaller and more of the background will be out of focus. This could be a plus of course, depending on your intentions.
If, on the other hand, you shoot in colour, you can convert to grey-scale later in Photoshop with a huge range of subtlety available due to the camera having captured all that ‘extra’ information.
If you set your digital camera to record in black and white, it ignores these possibilities and just records the strength of the light on a scale from 0 to 255. Pure black is 0 and pure white is 255 and everything else is shades of grey. In other words, by setting the camera to black and white rather than colour, you have just thrown away most of the 16 million possibilities and opted for 256 possibilities.
And here’s a couple of other articles which might also interest you:
Above: A Performer at 2007 Buskerfest in Toronto, Canada by Darren Tse