I recently had the privilege of visiting Summit County in Colorado. During my visit I spent one of the nights outside in the refreshingly chilly mountain air. Even in April there was still several feet of snow on the ground (not a huge surprise when you are over 10,000 ft. above sea level), though the daytime sun was warm enough to be outside in a t-shirt. Being out of the city the stars shone brightly behind the silhouettes of pine trees and mountains. These images reinforce the magic of the camera as the camera captured the stars moving across the night sky.
Looking back through photographs I took in Minneapolis I often come to the images I took at the site of the Fruen Mill near Theodore Worth Park on a chilly winter night. The sheer mass of these structures are a testament to a once booming time in this now residential neighborhood. The buildings have a beauty of their own as they sit and decay season after season.
The remains of a once booming mill sit vacant and rotting in the middle of the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis. These buildings have remained unused for over 40 years and show their wear along with plenty of street art. Most of the structures were built after 1920, but the lot has been used for milling since 1894. The lot is next to Basset Creek and adjacent to the enormous Theodore Worth Park. Empty and dilapidated buildings sit towering over the residential neighborhood boasting fantastic views of downtown. The views from the top of this structure are in part the reason that it still stands. Redevelopment has been discussed several times, yet always fallen through.
Night photography is an art that allows us to see the nocturnal world in a way that our naked eye cannot perceive it. Through the use of long shutter times the camera magically records the world; exposing shadows and trails of light. The equipment you need is not much different than any other type of photography, but there are a few pieces of gear used for long exposures that you cannot live without.
Obvious, but there are some settings your camera must have to be able to work well for night photography. An SLR (single lens reflex) camera is your best option, whether digital or film is up to you. The reason behind needing an SLR is that it offers you the most flexibility as the artist. Some point and shoot cameras do offer the features I am about to discuss, but they are few and far between. The features that you will need in a camera to are:
- Manual Mode
This allows you the flexibility to set your own shutter speed and aperture. The high contrast of lights and shadows at night make it nearly impossible for any cameras exposure system to determine a correct exposure.
- Adjustable ISO
Most cameras with a manual mode also have this. Having the option to to set your ISO will help in situations where you don’t want to sit for extended periods of time or need a test shot to check things such as framing or light flare.
- Tripod Socket
This might seem obvious, but should be pointed out. For any exposure longer than 1/60th of a second you should be using a tripod.
- Infrared Sensor or Remote Terminal
The best ways to trigger your shutter for night photographs is through the use of a cable release or a remote.
There are many different styles of tripods available. Honestly, any type will work. My first tripod was $9.99 at Target. I have since purchased a more durable, heavier duty tripod, but the cheap one allowed me to learn and figure out what options I wanted in a tripod. I have a few different styles of tripods for different situations. I have a standard heavy duty tripod that I use most. Being a heavier and more durable helps it to stand up to windy nights. I also have a Joby Gorrilapod that is absolutely wonderful when I want to get low to the ground or attach my camera to a poll or railing with it’s flexible legs. The one I use least, but comes in handy on some occasions is a suction cup tripod. Start with what you can afford.
A Cable Release or Infrared Remote
Either or will work, and each has advantages. Both eliminate camera shake from your hand pushing the shutter button. Personally I buy third party products for either. Typically they are at most a third of the price of the manufacturers product and do the same job. I would rather buy three generic ones over a long period of time than break an expensive one as they do get bumped/knocked around in use and in my camera bag.
- Cable Release
The traditionalist in me loves cable releases, though I now only use them when shooting film. Cable releases work wonderful and unlike remotes you can keep the shutter open as long as your camera’s battery will last. These also do not use batteries, so therefore are always working.
- Infrared Remote
Infrared remotes are very convenient. The fact that you are no longer tethered to your camera is wonderful, and there is no possibility of accidentally shaking the camera by pulling on the cable like a remote. The limitation is that most cameras will only keep the shutter open for up to 30 minutes with an infrared sensor, which is only an issue if you are in areas with absolutely no moonlight or city lights. Remotes also require batteries, and though they need replaced rarely it is still something to be aware of.
If you are inclined you can check out some of my night photography work: