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:
One magical thing in doing long exposures at night near bodies of water is the reflections created in the often still liquid. Working in the Twin Cities water is always nearby; whether it is rivers, lakes, streams, or puddles. Looking back through the work I have created over the past years I find many images of reflections. These reflections combined with the lights of the city or of the moon give the world a surreal look of unimaginable beauty that one is unable to see with their eyes, yet is able to be captured through a camera. Here are a few of my favorites.
The clarity of the reflection of the boats on Lake Harriet simply amaze me every time I look at this image.
The stillness of the water and the fact that the bird did not move during this exposure are astonishing. Add to that the reflections of the colorful city lights in the water with the neon colors of the tree and it is a magical scene.
Though some dislike the symmetry of this image I absolutely love everything about it. The lights reflecting on the waters of the Mississippi River appear as a highway across the river beneath the Hennepin Ave. bridge that crosses from downtown to northeast.
I recently put together a piece about my inspirations as an artist. I looked at the work I most enjoy creating, night photography. Looking back at when my work during the twilight hours all began I thought about the artists who most inspired me and pushed me to create better work. I came up with three artists:
The first two both have an exceptional body of work in the world after sundown. Brassai was a early to mid 20th century photography who mostly worked in Paris. Chris Faust is a Minnesota native who still uses film to capture the magical movement of light across the landscape. Both inspired me in different ways and made me look at things from unique perspectives. Alec Soth is another Minnesota artist who has inspired me to think deeper about the places I photograph from reading his blogs and interviews.
Please take the time to check out the post and my thoughts as well as images from me and the artists I discuss here:
Photography in itself is magic. You capture a space and time as it once existed, and will never exist exactly the same again. Recently I was reading an essay from Minnesota photographer Alec Soth. Soth discusses how photography is a hoarder’s way to the world.
“I think photography is the most anti-Zen activity. It’s all about stopping time, possessing things, holding onto them. And you know, if my goal was to be a healthy person, photography would not be the thing. I have this joke about becoming a binoculographer: you go around and look at the world without photographing. That would be a spiritually healthy way of taking things in. But this wanting to possess it is not so healthy.”
This is true of most art, but especially photography. The artist is collecting as many images of the world as they can, trying to hang on to the place and moment that was in their sight. This recreates what all humans do in collecting memories, only it serves to visually reproduce the past.”
The way I most enjoying capturing the world to collect images is through night photography. These images represent a period of time in a specific place. The period of time can range anywhere from a few seconds to hours entirely depending on where you are and the amount of available light. In the past I have greatly enjoyed working in urban areas where there is ample light and my exposures range from 30 seconds to a minute. Recently, upon moving to Texas, I have found peace and solitude in working in rural areas where there is much less light for the camera to take in. This not only pushes my exposure times up, but also allows from movement in the stars and clouds above.
I originally drew inspiration from two artists when I began capturing night images while attending Anoka-Ramsey Community College in the Twin Cities. These two artists have very different bodies of work, but both work with film. Film has a certain magic that will never be met by digital. The fact they you are holding something tactile throughout the entire process and seeing the image appear in the liquid is an experience only somebody who has worked in a darkroom can understand.
The first artist of the two is Brassai. This artist photographed Paris in the night between the two World Wars. In his 1933 book Paris de Nuit (Paris by Night) he successfully captured the essence of Paris after dark. His images have a sense of feeling and emotion in them. Often they capture seedy locations in the veil of mist and fog using the ambient light to showcase particular parts of the image. As a student I took to the cities nearest me in search of something similar and began photographing the Minneapolis/St. Paul neighborhoods I knew and loved.
After several years of shooting night images a friend showed me work by a Minnesota photographer Chris Faust. Faust does a lot of night work in smaller towns that dot the landscape of Minnesota. He uses a panoramic medium format camera, which allows the capture of an intense amount of space and detail in each image. The photographs he creates give an incredible sense of the cold, quiet solitude of these off the beaten path locations throughout Minnesota. I felt fortunate being able to discuss process and technique with Faust through an exchange of e-mails a few years back. The communication taught me a great deal on exposure and alternative processing methods to create the desired contrast. These images have pushed me to recently get away from the cities and work in areas less traveled, which is a natural transition now that I live 45 minutes south of the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex in Waxahachie, TX.
As with any artist my inspirations are endless and would bore anybody to hear about them all, but this is a basic grasp at what pushes me to create and a quality I strive to rival.
Check out mentioned artists:
The border of Minneapolis and St. Paul is the Mississippi River. The river creates a barrier and the bridges create the links between.
The bridges always amazed me. Not only do they span nearly a century of architecture, but each has a very unique aesthetic. There is the historic Stone Arch Bridge on which opened in 1883 to the new and modern Lowry Avenue Bridge that opened in 2012.
Living or working in the Twin Cities you cannot avoid crossing the Mississippi on a regular basis. Moving to Texas has been odd in that my commute only crosses the Trinity River on an old and very unappealing structure. While living in both Minneapolis and St. Paul I used to love escaping at night to photograph the wonderful lines, curves, textures, and lighting of these magnificent structures. Every image could tell a story; representing a time in history in which these cities expanded across the river.
Looking back through my work over the past years I have amassed a small collection of a few of these bridges. My hopes is that if I return to the Twin Cities in the future I can put together a body of work representing each bridge that connects the east and west banks of the Mississippi River.