Digital Night Photography
With an early digital background I almost exclusively took analog night images over the last couple of years. I was really embracing the lovely look of Kodak Portra that could reveal the details in the shadow of almost any scene and still convey the beauty of a night scene. The natural and aesthetically pleasing look of the final image never drew me back to my clumsy trials getting something similar from digital. But over the years not only the capabilities of digital cameras improved but also my approach to post processing changed. Time to revisit digital night photography.
Nobody will argue that it is much more comfortable to shoot digital than to shoot analog. The possibility to instantly check the image can avoid frustration and allows the correction of errors in the field. You can retake images if you want at any time as long as the light or scene does not change. My Fuji X-Pro2 will also help you with the timing and exposure. It is almost fool proof. AF that works in the dark, a brilliant viewfinder with guides for the best compositions and a live histogram closes the wishlist of every night shooter. The problem is that still the image has to be taken and other challenges need to be solved.
Night scenes include light and shadow this will give the dynamic range of your system a hard time. You need top know how to tone map the result to bring back blown highlights and blocked shadows. Not a big deal some would argue, as Lightroom can help you with this, but the problem is less technically but rather aesthetically. Colors and color balance will give you headaches, I’ll promise! In the end the major issue is the desired look which you are after. In my case this look is very close to what I would get from my beloved Kodak Portra.
Getting the right look and aesthetics seems to be the biggest challenge. Working in the field with a digital camera however has many benefits. I did several tests, including bracketing exposure, merging to HDR, tone mapping, using presets, doing simple and elaborate adjustments. Overall it was harder than I initially thought! When Adobe updated the profile in the latest Lightroom release I found a way to finally process the single exposure takes I did on a recent test shoot in San Francisco the way I like. A combination of a conservative slightly underexposed frame with some new color profiles in Lightroom allowed me to the look I was after. The only drawback I still see is that exposure times are a bit short which might lead to a less pronounced long exposure effect. Even in a still scene without any motion elements a long exposure adds additional effect to how lights render. I am not sure how to call this effect but I will try to see if increasing exposure a bit more will have a positive effect on my night work.