It Was a Dark and Not So Stormy Night

Photograph © 2011 Barry Staver.

Working  under available light, unavailable light, available darkness, or low light—it doesn’t matter what you call it—can also produce some of the most rewarding and salable photographs. First, there is the thrill of overcoming the technical obstacles that normally prevent you from capturing a well-exposed image. Next, photographs made under conditions different from the instruction-sheet standard have a more eye-catching look. Most importantly, taking the time to search out dramatic lighting conditions let you produce photographs that are different from the rest of the pack. The ingredients for making images under less than ideal lighting conditions are well known. You use a tripod-mounted camera with high ISO film and slow shutter speeds to create timed exposures that create images that overcome the cliché and can, if you’re lucky, produce art.

Scenes that contains an extreme rage of brightness and darkness can give a light meter fits and nighttime holiday lighting is a perfect example. The human eye easily adapts to the colorful lights hung on buildings and trees, but your camera’s meter generally reads the larger dark areas and instructs the camera to expose for a lack of light. The resulting image will be overexposed and the brightly colored lights will lack detail. You can overcome this problem by taking a meter reading from an area that is well lit by the lights. Move in close and meter it, using a hand-held meter or locking the reading into your camera’s built-in meter. You can also put on a longer lens and take a closer reading from camera position. This produces the same result as my first suggestion without having to move in close—which isn’t always possible. Another method involves bracketing several different exposures of the same scene. With the camera on a sturdy tripod, adjust the shutter speed to under and over expose the next frames of film.

Denver’s City and County Building has traditionally been illuminated at Christmas with a striking lighting display. Due to the size of the large building, most photographs made of the building are taken from a distance. This photograph was made on a ledge outside a window on one of the building’s upper floors. To make this photograph, Barry Staver asked for and was given permission in advance and an escort accompanied him and remained with him throughout the shoot. A Gitzo tripod-mounted Nikon camera with a 16mm fisheye lens was used to capture the entire building. Exposure was five seconds at f/8 and ISO 400.

Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Barry Stave is co-author with Joe Farace of the book “Better Available Light Digital Photography.”

Author: Joe Farace

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