Shooting Tokyo streets at night

We had a packed class last week for our Ginza night photowalk. Some pics and a run-down of what we did.Tokyo is a 24hr city and one that shows a different face after the sun has gone down. From the neon-drenched areas of Roppongi, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza and Ikebukuro to the many quieter, characterful backstreets with their neighbourhood bars and restaurants, Tokyo has much to offer the night-time photographer. The basic techniques we ran through on our wokshop would allow shooters of any skill-level to get instant satisfaction and some great pictures. You dont necessarily need loads of gear but there are one or two key items that will certainly make getting night shots easier…

Some of the GEAR
Photography is all about light and at night, well…. it’s dark. So one of the best tools in your bag is certainly going to be a lens that can let in lots of light. That means a big aperture and a big aperture means a small f-number; i.e. f/1.4 or f/1.8 or if you’re really lucky to have one, f/1.2. The inherently shallow depth of field of theses big aperture lenses also means that you can really begin to isolate your subjects from their background. Great for people shots.

Depending partly on what lenses you have in your bag and on what kinds of shots you want to take at night, a tripod could also be a useful addition to your kit. Like every piece of gear you can buy, there are a bewildering range of tripods to choose from; big ones, small ones, light ones, tall ones, small ones, etc etc. Keeping the camera still can, though, be achieved in other ways. Meaning it’s as simple as putting it on any flat surface and using the camera’s own self-timer to set off the shot and prevent camera-shake. You could use a wall, your bag, the ground…. there’s always a way to shoot a picture and it doesn’t have to mean buying a piece of equipment to do it.

Some of the CHALLENGES
Yes, you guessed it; the main challenge is the lack of light. Or, in Tokyo, sometimes the overpowering nature of the light in contrast with the pitch-black of surrounding areas. That range of light to dark – called ‘dynamic range’ – can prove tricky to handle if it is too great. Digital cameras – like film before – are only capable of capturing a certain dynamic range. In the case of digital it’s around 6-stops.

Movement is another challenge; getting a fast enough shutter-speed to be able to freeze motion [keeping people sharp, for instance] or keeping a stable platform for the camera so you can shoot pictures that convey a sense of motion [those long-exposures with the light-trails of cars, for instance].

The BASIC CAMERA SETTINGS
Digital SLR cameras have a multitude of settings but getting a good grasp of the basics of aperture, ISO and shutter-speed will help enormously at any time of day but especially at night. It’s often best to first make the aperture as big as possible [that’s the smallest f-number on the lens, e.g. f/1.8], then making the shutter-speed either as slow as you can hand-hold or as fast as might be required to freeze any motion of people, e.g. 1/30th sec and 1/125th sec. ISO is the last thing you should change-up as every time you make the number higher, you are losing quality. ISO400 is a good place to start for night photography.

Your camera has a light-meter in it which can function in various patterns, using different areas of the screen to measure light: these are spot, average, centre-weighted, matrix or centre-wighted average – depending on manufaturer. Spot-metering is good for measuring light from smaller areas of your scene [people’s faces] and average or matrix metering can be good when taking landscape type shots or for getting a first general idea of the exposure for a given scene.

If your shooting digital, which we all were last Saturday, then you can shoot on the Aperture Priority mode first – shooting a test frame at your desired aperture – to get an idea of the light. Basically you are using the camera as digital light-meter or a digital equivalent of a sheet of Polaroid, which photographers used to test exposure before digital came along.

Migrate the settings on the camera – your aperture and the speed the camera gave you in A mode – into Manual and change the speed according to whether the first test shot was too light or too dark.

The spot-meter is really going to help with people. Meter off of the face to get a more accurate exposure. Matrix or other averaging metering systems are clever but often at night nothing is an ‘average’ scene: faces are often more shadowy than the brightly-lit night city backgrounds. Typically, using any averaging metering system is going to give you dark faces and a perfectly exposed background. One way of sorting this out would be to use flash, as we did later with our model. But flash for street photography is not to everybody’s taste, can be intrusive and often spoils the ambience of the natural light unless you are very good at balancing the two light sources.

Pools of light

Tokyo is full of ‘pools of light’; the light from vending machines, from shop fronts, from street lights. You can use these to light your people subjects. We did a lot of work last Saturday with spotting where the good spots were, to catch people walking through good areas of light. Position yourself near one of these places and you’ll get your subjects lit well and they’ll be nicely isolated fromtheir background because they are lit more brightly. Combined with a large aperture and its shallow depth-of-field, you have two ways of pulling your subject out of the background: lighting and focus.

For some tips about blending flash with ambient light, refer to this article and the accompanying flash ‘cheat-sheet’, which is downloadable as a PDF at the bottom of the article. We also did some zone-focusing practice. For something of an explanation of what that is, refer to this article. I’m going to do a full piece on zone-focusing soon though.

There’s a section at the bottom of this article about ‘guessing exposure’ which can be really useful at night. Once you have one shot, i.e. your test shot from first shooting on A mode – or one of your nicely exposed proper shots – you have a reference as to the light levels. It doesn’t take much practice to then get your head around the notion of ‘relative brightness’; i.e. being able to deduce the exposure of a subject being lit more or less brightly than the last shot you took. Your eyes are very good at distingushing between levels of light. All you need to do is put the photographic numbers on top of that and you can quickly get the hang of moving from one lighting situation to another and guessing what the exposure of the new scene will be.

A big thanks to Lena for coming to model for us later on in the evening.

Now, less words… let’s see a gallery of shots taken on the workshop.

Japanorama Ginza Nightwalk Workshop

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Here’s the material on guessing the exposure, written as a reminder to some students I did the excercise with recently:

“Relative brightness: this is the excercise we did with beginning to guess the exposures for certain objects in the varying light conditions we encountered in the street.

The whole reason for this excercise was to begin to get you to a point where you can translate into photography-related numbers the differences in brightness you can see around you in everday life.

Your eye can tell the difference between different brightnesses across a range of roughly 23EV; that’s 23-Stops in aperture terms. Your digital SLR has a range of about 6EV at the most; meaning it can capture a picture that will have detail in objects which are six times brighter or darker than each other. Outside of that ‘dynamic range’ as it is called, the shadows will be too dark and the highlights too bright.

Learning to understand the dynamic range in a scene is important, as it allows you to be able to figure out how to set your camera to best capture the scene. As well as being able to understand the range within a scene, it’s also important to be able to understand how much brighter one entire scene might be from another. This is what we were practicing with out in the streets that evening; relative brightness.

If THIS part of the street is one brightness, how bright is THAT part of the street?

First we started with guessing, is it twice as bright, or three times as bright? This is a more natural way of starting to put a figure on the brightness than by starting with; is it f/8 at 1/60sec at 400ISO, or f/16?

So first of all we measured the light in our first scene and we did this by using the SPOT METERING pattern. This narrows the part of the camera that is measuring light – the ‘meter’ – down to its narrowest setting of about 2 to 5 degrees allowing is to take very precise light-readings from even quite small objects in our scene.

Setting our camera to ‘single point focus’ and making sure the focus point was in the middle of the viewfinder, with our meter set to SPOT, we measured the brightness of someone’s face whilst standing just outside the shop, in the light:

400ISO – 1/200sec – f/2

Across the road a little, the light was dropping off and we could see that people were darker. We had a guess: twice as dark maybe? We took a light-reading from their faces:

400ISO – 1/100sec – f/2

Twice as dark.

If you remember, there were various ways to ‘take a light reading’: one, in MANUAL mode, was to put the centre spot over the object we wished to measure light from and turn the shutter-speed until the vertical line under the +2 0 -2 scale was under the zero. We could also turn the aperture wheel but we’d decided, in this case, to keep the aperture set to f/2 and just vary the shutter speed.

The other method was with the camera in A or Av mode; centre spot over the object we wish to measure, just read-off the shutter-speed and aperture numbers in the viewfinder. Shooting SPOT mode in one of the automatic modes of the camera really requires you to use the AE Lock or * button , to lock the reading you have taken. Otherwise if you were to re-frame your shot, the area of the viewfinder measuring the light might be over a different object or part of the scene, measuring light from somewhere of a different brightness.

We chose to use MANUAL mode the whole evening. This is what I find easier.

So, the basic premise of doing this excercise is to ‘measure up’ one scene – take the spot readings from an object in one lighting condition – and then walk to a nearby scene and try to guess how much brighter or darker it is than the last one. It helps, to start with, if you use an object – in our case it was people’s faces – which is common to both scenes.

Once you’ve guessed – OK, it’s twice or half, or three times brighter etc etc – then translate that guess into what it means for the camera:

If a face was 400ISO – 1/200sec – f/2 in that place over there, what exposure would it be here?  In MANUAL mode, put the guessed settings on your camera and then shoot a picture. How close was your guess? You’ll get closer and closer the more you do the excercise.”

Relative brightness: this is the excercise we did with beginning to
guess the exposures for certain objects in the varying light
conditions we encountered in the street. 

The whole reason for this excercise was to begin to get you to a point
where you can translate into photography-related numbers the
differences in brightness you can see around you in everday life. 

Your eye can tell the difference between different brightnesses across
a range of roughly 23EV; that's 23-Stops in aperture terms. Your
digital SLR has a range of about 6EV at the most; meaning it can
capture a picture that will have detail in objects which are six times
brighter or darker than each other. Outside of that 'dynamic range' as
it is called, the shadows will be too dark and the highlights too
bright. 

Learning to understand the dynamic range in a scene is important, as
it allows you to be able to figure out how to set your camera to best
capture the scene. As well as being able to understand the range
within a scene, it's also important to be able to understand how much
brighter one entire scene might be from another. This is what we were
practicing with out in the streets that evening; relative brightness.
If THIS part of the street is one brightness, how bright is THAT part
of the street? 

First we started with guessing, is it twice as bright, or three times
as bright? This is a more natural way of starting to put a figure on
the brightness than by starting with; is it f/8 at 1/60sec at 400ISO,
or f/16? 

So first of all we measured the light in our first scene and we did
this by using the SPOT METERING pattern. This narrows the part of the
camera that is measuring light - the 'meter' - down to its narrowest
setting of about 2 to 5 degrees allowing is to take very precise
light-readings from even quite small objects in our scene. 

Setting our camera to 'single point focus' and making sure the focus
point was in the middle of the viewfinder, with our meter set to SPOT,
we measured the brightness of someone's face whilst standing just
outside the shop, in the light: 

400ISO - 1/200sec - f/2 

Across the road a little, the light was dropping off and we could see
that people were darker. We had a guess: twice as dark maybe? 

We took a light-reading from their faces: 

400ISO - 1/100sec - f/2 

Twice as dark. 

If you remember, there were various ways to 'take a light reading':
one, in MANUAL mode, was to put the centre spot over the object we
wished to measure light from and turn the shutter-speed
until the vertical line under the +2 0 -2 scale was under the zero. We
could also turn the aperture wheel but we'd decided, in this case, to
keep the aperture set to f/2 and just vary the shutter speed. 

The other method was with the camera in A or Av mode; centre spot over
the object we wish to measure, just read-off the shutter-speed and
aperture numbers in the viewfinder. Shooting SPOT mode in one of the
automatic modes of the camera really requires you to use the AE Lock
 or * button , to lock the reading you have taken.
Otherwise if you were to re-frame your shot, the area of the
viewfinder measuring the light might be over a different object or
part of the scene, measuring light from somewhere of a different
brightness. 

We chose to use MANUAL mode the whole evening. This is what I find
easier. 

So, the basic premise of doing this excercise is to 'measure up' one
scene - take the spot readings from an object in one lighting
condition - and then walk to a nearby scene and try to guess how much
brighter or darker it is than the last one. It helps, to start with,
if you use an object - in our case it was people's faces - which is
common to both scenes. 

Once you've guessed - OK, it's twice or half, or three times brighter
etc etc - then translate that guess into what it means for the camera:

If a face was 400ISO - 1/200sec - f/2 in that place over there, what
exposure would it be here? 

In MANUAL mode, put the guessed settings on your camera and then shoot
a picture. How close was your guess? You'll get closer and closer the
more you do the excercise.

About Japanorama

Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

We also welcome submissions of photos and articles for this site, so please get in touch via our contact page. Thanks.

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