The title sums it up. I took my family to my niece’s house in Blue Grass Country in preparation for their ultimate destination in Orlando, Florida. They had an opportunity to spend the week at Disney World. I opted out as the timing was not the greatest and it worked out that I also stayed behind to tend to our zoo, 2 dogs, 2 cats and 1 turtle. After dropping off the family, I stopped in Music City on my way back home. I’ve been wanting to do some street photography at night for a long time. However, my equipment has kept me from taking the plunge. If you follow my blog, you have seen plenty of shots from downtown Nashville at night. However, shooting people doing their thing on the streets at night is much different than shooting static subjects at night.
The key difference is that I can use a tripod when shooing cityscapes. This tripod allows me to decrease my aperture for increased depth of field and it allows me to shoot with lower ISO sensitivities to minimize noise and camera shake at low shutter speeds. Ultimately, I can take my time in finding and setting up the shot. Essentially, the tripod allows me to adjust the camera settings to more manageable parameters for my old 2008 sensor. That’s right! I am still kicking around my old Olympus E520 DSLR. It has served me well and still continues to do so as long as I shoot within its limitations. That’s what this post is about. Knowing that my camera is not well suited for this task, I wanted to see if I could apply better technique to get some shots. I’ve learned a lot about photography since the last time I was on the streets at night with this same camera. That was several years ago, even before I started shooting film. That very night was the night that I realized that I had to find the courage to aim my camera at people. I remember driving home that night kicking myself because of all the lost opportunities. Well, that was the start of my aspiration to improve my street photography which is a craft that is constantly evolving. So, why is this task a tall order for my camera? Let’s start by listing 3 key issues.
Sensor technology has improved significantly since the sensor in my camera was made. I’ve read forums where people say don’t shoot above 400 ISO with the E520. I have an issue with that statement which I will talk about later. However, the noise at ISO 800 and 1600 can be horrendous. There is ugly “banding” that appears in dark frames. With that note, there is a lot to be said about lighting and proper exposure for minimizing noise at high ISO settings.
It would be nice to be able to set my ISO to 3200 or even 6400. My camera tops out at 1600.
All cameras may have some problems when focusing at night. Technology has improved in this arena as well. My camera definitely struggles with this issue. It is recommended that you manually focus at night, but that’s a tall task for my small viewfinder and my aging eyes. If I had a large viewfinder and a focus screen like the one in my OM1 SLR, then that would be doable.
How do we work within these limitations? The name of the game is getting as much light to the sensor quickly as possible. The four items that control the light is the light source, sensor sensitivity (ISO), aperture and shutter speed. The only thing I don’t have control over is the light source, other than finding a different light source. I can increase the ISO, but I must be careful not to introduce too much noise. I can reduce the shutter speed, but I must retain the proper shutter speed to stop motion. Lastly, I can increase the aperture. The danger here is a depth of field that is too shallow. I should add that I have an external flash at my disposal. Using flash would definitely help matters, but I just don’t see myself blasting people with my flash at this point. However, I don’t have a problem using it when people actually pose for me.
I figured shutter speed should be priority. I manipulated the other parameters to maintain a maximum shutter speed depending on the subject. The most effective parameter that I had at my disposal was aperture. This was possible because I have a 30mm f1.4 lens in my arsenal. I was able to maintain decent shutter speeds with the combination of shooting at ISO 800 and shooting apertures between f1.4 and f2. Depending on the lighting, I was able to hit 1/60th of a second for a lot of shots. For somewhat stationary targets, I was able to shoot at speeds below 1/60th of a second. These slow speeds can be useful for adding the sense of motion which can add another dimension to the photograph. On rare occasions where the light was abundant, I was able to decrease my aperture for more depth while hitting shutter speeds over 1/100th of a second. As far as depth of field, I used subject distance to help control what was in focus. When my subjects were close, I decreased the aperture as much as possible to increase my depth of field. That sounds good, but the reality was some bad focus and soft images.
There is another critical issue that photographers have to consider when shooting the night scene. That issue is white balance. White balance is always considered in any photograph, day or night, but the artificial lights of night can be tricky. I set my white balance around 4000 Kelvin. This is a fluorescent setting. I figured I would get close to the proper white balance and make adjustments in post processing. Thus, it was important for me to shoot in RAW, which I do 99% of the time anyway. After processing the images, I discovered that most images ended up around 3000 Kelvin plus or minus a few hundred degrees. This setting revealed the best skin tones. White balance has always been my weak area, but I’ve gotten better at making the proper adjustments over the years. On my next outing, I will dial in my white balance to 3000 K. Another option is to convert the image to black and white. I have to admit that some of these images really shined in black and white. Getting rid of the color really put emphasis on the light which already has a strong contrast against the dark of night.
Ok, enough talking. Let’s get to the images. It was a typical Friday Night on two of downtown Nashville’s most popular streets, Broadway and 2nd Avenue. Actually, it appeared to be less activity than normal. Even so, there were plenty of people out enjoying the nice weather and what downtown Nashville has to offer. As you look through the images, you will notice the issues previously mentioned. However, I believe those issues did not get in the way of capturing the moments of the festive atmosphere, but I’ll let you be the judge. Before I got to the main subjects of the night, I started out with a few handheld shots of the football stadium and the General Jackson Showboat during my trek to Broadway and 2nd Avenue.
This was a fun and very informative exercise. I learned that technique and knowing your equipment goes a long way in getting the shot. That alone will not get you a compelling photograph. Not that any of my shots were compelling, but you have to anticipate your subject’s moves and you must have the eye to place them somewhere in the frame that makes an interesting photograph. I also learned that you must go to the light. Only this light is not the end of your life, but it’s the island in the darkness where it’s easier to make an exposure. High ISO capabilities and fast lenses are your best friends at night. Probably the best lesson of all is something that I’ve known for a long time. In fact, the imperfections of film photography emphasizes this lesson. That lesson is that good photography does not mean super sharp clean images and perfect exposures. Good photography means capturing a moment that tells the viewer a story. This story has nothing to do with a technically sound image, but it has everything to do with the vision that is portrayed. This means if I have to increase the ISO over 400 on my E520, I will not hesitated to do so. An image with some noise is better than no image at all. With that said, I am still going to upgrade my camera. I believe the advantages of newer technology will give me even more latitude for creating photographs. So, what say you? I would love to here your thoughts and perhaps your own experiences shooting the streets at night. Thanks for reading!
Images Best Viewed in Lightbox Below!