Night Photography: Creating Your Story with Light

In the argument for “photography as art” it’s been declared that photographs aren’t meant to duplicate a scene but rather are the means for photographers to interpret a scene.  Like painters, photographers use light and shadow, focus and blur, framing and design elements to represent what they are seeing – a mood, a story, a point of view.

It is quite frankly an aspect of the craft I find a continual challenge to achieve.

Interestingly, I’ve found it easier to transform what I see into the image I want using low light or nighttime photography. This is probably because the viewer only sees what you, quite literally, illuminate.  Whether you use flashlights or small strobes, you can “design” a scene to deliver a look the viewer expects to see.  Perhaps this expectation is a bias from all those well-lit movie sets we’ve watched on screens over the years, giving us knowledge of what we “know” a night scene should look like.

As an example, I set up a shoot of a homesteader’s cabin and will walk through my process. I wanted to portray a moonlit evening after all the work was done and the family was settling down for sleep.  On the night of a full moon I set up the scene and made a long exposure image, looking for a soft, relaxed feel.

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The low contrast and weak illumination from the moon just wasn’t giving me the look I wanted – I needed more light from the moon on the ground in front of the cabin but wanted to keep the other areas of the scene dark.

To achieve that look I set up a single small strobe to the left of the camera pointed toward the cabin. It was high on a light stand aimed down toward the sidewalk to give me a bright spot where the moon would appear reflected.  This also illuminated the side of the cabin facing the moon, something the viewer’s eye expects to see in a bright, full moon. I used a combination of a small aperture (f/2.9), long shutter speed (2 sec.) and flash power to control the ratio of flash to ambient lighting until I got the look I wanted.

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When reviewing this image I realized the moonlight should spread more evenly across the ground and that I wanted to separate the right side of the cabin from the background a bit.  So I set up a second small strobe to the right of the camera at a lower power than the first strobe, and pointed it more toward the back of the cabin and the ground.  I also waited until the moon was higher in the sky to increase the natural reflection off the sidewalk.

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Checking this image I realized the side of the cabin facing the camera was now too bright – in reality the moonlight couldn’t hit it enough to lighten it that much.  So I moved the strobe on the right away from the camera and pointed it more toward the back of the cabin, leaving only a little bit of light on the wall facing the camera.  I also waited until the moon was just clearing a small patch of clouds to give the image a sense that it is peeking out to illuminate the scene.  Finally, in Photoshop I removed the annoying radio tower lights in the background.

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With those adjustment in the field and in post processing, the scene fit what I had in mind, at least for the exterior.  It still looked like an abandoned cabin in the moonlight, though, which told a story different from the one I wanted.  To complete the scene I used Photoshop to add a little candlelight to the upper window.


Now the story I wanted the image to convey was complete.

But wait – is the image “real?”  That is, could I have made the same image with just the moonlight and a candle?  Possibly.  Did I have more control over creating a specific image to fit my story by using technology?  Definitely.  And for me, the story (the specific look of the final image) was more important than stretching my skills at the time.  This image is my interpretation for the viewer of the story in my mind about a “typical” homesteader evening.

As a painter confronts blank, white canvas and adds elements to create a scene, I find myself facing a black, blank canvas and use my lights to “add” elements to create my desired scene.  After all, until they are illuminated, the elements aren’t actually there to the camera. Perhaps that’s why I find evening or night scenes easier to work with.


5 thoughts on “Night Photography: Creating Your Story with Light

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Jimmy White

Hey Mel, thanks for walking us through your process here. Very instructive and appreciated.

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Thanks, Jimmy. It was a couple of hours well spent learning how to manipulate natural and added light to get the scene I wanted. Glad I spent all those hours at the RMSP lighting studio! Encourage all the students there to get as much practice as possible with the strobes.

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Barry Grivett

Cannot add much to Jimmy’s comment except [to elaborate]: (1) to note, for what it may be worth, you, of course, started with an already captivating scene but for “the annoying radio tower lights” & the two lights in the trees and (2) I so appreciate your clear/concise teaching (for which you seem to have a talent) accompanied by appropriate images that I immediately went to your website to see more! Thanks for sharing (as outlined in your first paragraph) your visualization and creation (art, tip, technique).

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I appreciate your comments and you taking the time to look over the article (and my website!). This was made during my artist in residence at Homestead National Monument last year. One benefit of a residency is you get to hang around the park at all hours of the day or night!

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