If it wasn’t for light, there wouldn’t be such thing as photography, right? Yes! For some – light is one of the most important ingredients of the photo. You can count me in. Definitely, I am one of them. Please note that all my tips are based on my street/urban/fine art photos and most of them are evening and night shots. This is not an ultimate tutorial as this subject is wide as an ocean.
wherever there is light, one can photograph.” – alfred stieglitz
I couldn’t agree more. I love light. Light is life. Even when I don’t have my camera with me I tend to look for light – where it comes from, how does it look like, how does it affect people and buildings, how does it look in different times of day and night. As I think about my first memories when I was a kid – walk in the warm, autumn sun or rays of late afternoon sun pouring into the room. Light conveys feelings, mood, atmosphere. Day when I discovered that I can try to keep light “frozen” by taking a photograph was a big day for me.
For me light is crucial when taking a photo. I would like to share some tips with you when it comes to dealing with light when shooting ‘in the streets’. Most of my shots in my 365 Days Project (that ended up after 245 days, read about it here ) were taken during evening or night. Why? Because only during evenings I had some spare time to go out and shoot. I shoot only with Fuji X100t. It is small, fast and handles ISO very well. 99% of my shots were taken in my hometown (Gliwice, Poland – around 185000 inhabitants). So let me just answer one question – do you need London, Tokio, New York to do street photography? –No. So let’s get to the point.
1. The lightest place is under the candlestick… or to be more precise under the streetlamp
The first source of light you see when you go out in the evening is usually a street lamp. Unless you live in a forest, of course. You can make a great use of those lamps – different types give different kind of light, color, amount, angle. I always use them in my shots when it is really dark so the human element is more visible and distinctive. It’s also easier to use a bit lower iso. As you can see from the examples below – you don’t have to stand in the same line as the source of light and hold camera on your eye level. Try taking a shot from above the ground or walk away to find an interesting angle. For me, the most interesting light coming from a street lamp is when combined with fog, rain and snow. My camera (Fuji X100t) is no waterproof, but I don’t care, I take photos during rain and snow. You just have to be extra careful – leave your camera in your bag or pocket and take it out only to shoot, then put it back. Have a cloth or tissue hidden in your pocket to wipe your lens. Of course the smaller size of the lens (front glass) the better. Don’t use converters, tele’s etc in wet and snowy weather. Street lamps are so great to work with – they always stay in their place, give interesting light and there are plenty of them in every urban area. Try it for yourself.
2. Enlightened faces
So what can be cooler than taking a shot in the dark and seeing a person’s face? Well, to be honest there are tons of cooler things, however that one is pretty cool when it comes to night photography in the city. So how can you do it? Of course you can use flash in your camera, I don’t use it, however you can try it and see whether you feel it or not. So what are the other ways? First of all, focus on people’s faces when walking with your camera and try to catch a moment when faces are enlightened by anything. It can be light from approaching car, ground light, small lamp from a shop etc. It can be anything, so stay focused and just look for it. Eventually you will find it and when you find it – make a good use of it. Shoot in the burst mode, try to hold your camera firmly. If you like to – wait for the eye contact. If you explore your city, you will find great opportunities.
3. Morning glory
All this talk about golden hours, early morning shots or just-before-sunset photos and how great it is…is it really true? Hell yes! It’s something magical about the full morning sun and by saying this I mean that some of this magic pours into your photos creating exceptional mood. Early morning light (especially in autumn, winter and early spring) is something that I love – just look at that shots below. All of them were taken about 8 a.m. in autumn and early winter. Effect can be enhanced when rays of morning or late afternoon sun come through tress, windows, gates, buildings. Try to roam your city in the early morning and see how sun operates. You can try to find narrow spaces between houses or low buildings that allow sun to come through directly to your camera.
4. Flooded with light
It is one of my favourites. I love to point my camera directly to the source of light. Let’s take the first shot you see under the text. Some guy standing behind the bus stop. You can’t see it here, but he was talking with his friend who completely disappeared in this huge ball of light. It was after 10 p.m. and I was heading back home in my car after a photo walk. I pulled over, got out of my car and I knew that mood is great here. I had to take a shot. It was a chilly evening that is why the glass has this “smoked” effect. I completely forgot to change shutter speed and I left it on 1/15s but every cloud’s got a silver lining, right? I shot in burst mode and thankfully this guy was not moving for couple of seconds. Additionally, there was a car passing by and 1/15s did the job. I don’t use Photoshop in my shots, only basic Lightroom playing with sliders was used. My advice – try experimenting with shutter speed. Lower speed allows the light to “spill” all over the frame and create interesting effects. On the contrary, shooting in the direct sunlight is only possible when quite fast shutter speed is used. Try to find a subject surrounded by sunlight – it will create this unique “aura” effect.
5. Shopping after hours
Shop displays, bus stops, luminous adverts … all of them can be perfect backgrounds for night photography. All you need to do is to roam around your city and find such spots. It’s always cool to combine it with frosty weather or drops of rain. Same as with the street lamps – it is always better to wait when it gets really dark. The contrast between people and light will look really great. Unfortunately, my city does not offer many of these but hopefully yours will have more!
6. Dark inside, light outside
One of the easiest things ever. You are in a dark space such as a tunnel, park, passage, corridor etc. There is always light at the end of the tunnel, well sometimes there isn’t, but let’s don’t talk about them. This contrast gives a perfect opportunity for a shot. If you live in a city, no matter big or small, you just can’t miss places like these. Human element is going to be emphasised nicely. Usually, all you have to do is to wait for a person to show up. Trees can be great leading lines, same applies to tunnel walls. Try to take a shot in public buildings such as libraries, universities etc. – very often there are many dark corridors. When you are in places like these don’t limit yourself, look for other shot opportunities – light coming from the window, taking a shot from above and many others. Your imagination is your limit. Just one last remark on this one – please remember that your safety is a priority. No one will ever admire your tunnel shots when you’re robbed, unless a man who stole your gear is into street photography. Have eyes in the back of the head… that’s it.
7. Rabbit in the headlights
Catch that split of a second when light from car’s headlight comes directly to your camera. Most of the times you would need to face the car and it can be a bit problematic – standing too long on the street is not a good idea. Be fast, careful and predict where people will appear to take a shot. This kind of light with a person walking by, creates this ‘star-like’ effect that you can see in the first photo below. Car’s headlights give a great “lighthouse” light in foggy and rainy weather, so try that as well. Light coming straight to your camera can be tricky and giving this nasty flare so be patient and try it for yourself.
8. Follow the light
You know that using leading lines is a great way of composing a photography, right? So why don’t use sources of light as your leading lines. Cities are full of lamps installed in rows. Use them to lead the viewer into your photo. In ‘Urban Skywalker’ you see below I also used puddle reflection that doubled this effect.
9. Backlight baby!
Sunlight (especially in the morning and just before sunset) gives also a great opportunity for some backlight shots. Basically, it is more or less the same as tip 4 – Flooded with Light, however not to such an extent. Amount of light does not need to be as big and it does not have to come straight to your lens. Take the first shot as an example – sun is blocked by the bridge, however those 3 boys are perfectly lit. Light like this also extends the shadows so your shots can be ever more enjoyable.
10. Any other not mentioned before
Light is everywhere and there are dozens, hundreds of other sources that you can use in your street and urban photography. Your imagination is the limit. Below you will find some more examples : stranger flashing her pocket flashlight thought that I had lost something and that is why she turned it on. Different shop lamps are also interesting to explore and every shop, shopping centre has some – that’s for sure.
Ok, that’s it. Hope you liked it. If you have questions, remarks please use the comment section below or e-mail me.
Take care and happy snapping!
About the Author
Marcin Baran is an enthusiast photographer based in Poland. He specializes in urban, street and human element photography. You can see more of his work on his site, and follow him on Flickr. This article was also published here and shared with permission
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