BooksFavorite BooksLinksMoon DatesFAQ
Dark Ventures
A study of black-and-white night photography
by Steve Harper

Night photography, by its very nature, is a subjective study. No books exist exclusively on the subject and the only published guidelines deal with rudimentary exposure matters, such as how to photograph neon lights, Christmas-tree lights, loved ones sitting beside a table lamp, fireworks and such. It is easy enough to figure out such exposures on a hit-or-miss basis, and a sensitive light meter will work if used judiciously. If one wishes to go beyond such subjects, though, and actually record the atmosphere of the night, it becomes much more complex. Consequently, while many photographers have taken a" shot in-the-dark" approach to the subject, few have actually pursued it seriously. But its history, although punctuated by generational lapses, has brought to the fore some distinguished efforts. One of the

One of the earliest night photographers was Jessie Tarbox Beals, a pioneering woman press photographer from Massachusetts.

earliest night photographers was Jessie Tarbox Beals, a pioneering woman press photographer from Massachusetts. She moved to New York City in 1910 and became fascinated with photographing the atmosphere at night. The street lights during that era were gas lights that were dimmer and thus seemed to spread light more gently than today's harsh lighting systems. Beals' night images were quiet, peaceful street scenes, documentary in their ultimate effect, and done exclusively in black and white. It is a great loss that her richly toned images were not annotated.

About 30 years later, and a continent away, the noted French photographer Brassai did night photographs that were of a more complex nature. He photographed Paris at night in fog and used gargoyles and other sculpted animal figures (mainly building adornments) silhouetted in his foregrounds. They perched predatorily, overlooking the misty scenes below, and thus conveyed a more ominous mood of night. Brassai was also very astute from a practical standpoint: He understood that any haze in the atmosphere at night, and most specifically fog, spreads the light in a scene and thereby lowers contrast.

It appears that both Brassai and Beals used only ambient light. (If they introduced additional lighting in their photographs, it was so minimal and so expertly done as to be indiscernible.) Hence, their exposures were of long duration.

In 1955, taking a viewpoint diametrically opposed to Brassai and Beals, O. Winston Link accomplished a technical tour de force by illuminating his usually vast scenes, using a highly complex battery and circuit flash system with up to 3/4 mile of electrical wiring. Link did very short exposures due to his introduction of huge amounts of light.

One of his more famous night photographs is of a drive-in movie packed with cars. His foreground includes the ubiquitous necking couple in a convertible. Filling the movie screen is the image of a large, ascending airplane. And traveling on its elevated grading alongside the drive-in, a train copiously belches smoke. Every major form of transportation is eloquently represented in one photograph, and each element of the photograph is lit so expertly - and so abundantly - as to allow him to have snapped the photograph at 1/200 of a second at f11-16!

Beginning in 1951 and continuing for more than 20 years, the Sylvania Company, a maker of flash bulbs, sponsored a series of "Big Shot" flash pictures. These required the simultaneous firing of 1000 to 5000 flash bulbs. Sometimes the flash units were wired together; in other cases large numbers of people held flash units and manually triggered them on a signal. Subjects included a whole housing subdivision, Levittown, N.Y.; the U.S. aircraft carrier Antietam; Carlsbad Cavern; the Great Pyramid of Cheops, in Egypt; and the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games at the Pyramid of the Moon, in Mexico City

Numerous efforts in night photography have been made, but it was not until the mid-1970s that night photography became an area of concentrated study.

Numerous efforts in night photography have been made, but it was not until the mid-1970s that night photography became an area of concentrated study. On the West Coast, Jerry Burchard, Richard Misrach, Arthur Ollman, and I became interested in night photography at about the same time. As far as I am aware, we were then unknown to each other. Later, in 1984, Burchard, Ollman, and I did a showing of night photography along with Philip Ritterman at Helen Johnson's Focus Gallery in San Francisco. Burchard made preliminary investigations into night photography in both black-and-white, and color. Misrach worked primarily in black-and-white at that time and did rich, bold images using a flash on his foreground subjects, augmented by time exposures in order to record the ambient atmosphere Ollman's consuming interest seemed to be the shifts in color caused by reciprocity failure, resulting in incredibly vibrant and unreal color.

Naturally, such a concentrated effort in any field promotes interest beyond itself, and numerous other photographers today do night photography exclusively.

In 1979 I was asked to teach night photography as a semester subject at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. Put bluntly, it meant that I became accountable for some tangible expectations that were to be as specific as possible, in an area that was essentially unmeasurable. Thus, I began a long, intense campaign of experimentation with films, chemicals, papers and lighting.

I asked only of black-and-white films that we be able to produce a viable range of tones after dark. In color films, I opted for as much naturalism as I might minimally expect - that the sky come out blue and the grass green. I also decided to teach the subject from the widest perspective I could envision - with exposures ranging in time from 1/8 sec. to eight hours, in both black-and-white and color. I gave the students guidelines for exposures in different lighting circumstances, but encouraged individual interpretation.

One of the more difficult and recurring problems in teaching night photography is finding locations that vary widely in their lighting circumstances and that are large enough to accommodate many students with different camera viewpoints.

I think that it is perhaps a natural response when one is faced with a time exposure to choose a fast film. That premise worked for me in black-and-white, but not in color. I had done black-and-white work prior to teaching, and had found that any ISO 400 film was satisfactory for what I expected of night photography. It had the advantage of usually being fast enough to stop cloud motion before the cloud images mutated into an overall visual mist. And if one wished that a person be in the picture, the exposure was short to have the model hold steady for the length of the exposure It was also fast enough that one could choose preferred apertures without the undue penalty of prolonged waiting. I photographed primarily in areas where there was sufficient ambient light (particularly the industrial areas of San Francisco and Oakland) so that I could expect the full range of tonality necessary to rich black-and-white photography, and yet maintain the atmosphere and mood of the night.

I experimented with several developers, including Acufine, Edwal FG-7, Microdol, Perceptol, Kodak D-76, D-76 with Crone:C additive, and Rodinal; all worked to one degree or another. I finally settled on Rodinal, diluted 1:50 with water, used at 68 degrees F for 12 minutes, because it seemed to lessen the contrast of the exposure while retaining acutance.

Because I normally develop film in large amounts, and consequently use large tank, I presoak the film for 30seconds and agitate it in the Rodinal for the first 30 seconds. Then I agitate it for 10 seconds at each additional minute. To enhance development of the middle gray tones, I place the film in a water bath at 68'F for five minutes without agitation. I should stress that in looking for night photographs, I always seek situations that offer reasonably even lighting, but if there is an irresistible situation where the lighting contrast is fierce, and I cannot even it out by adding light, I use a formula I adapted from an Ansel Adams discovery in The Negative, which somewhat moderates the contrast. It requires two tanks and should be done at 70 degrees, F. Presoak the film for 30 seconds. Place it in the Rodinal (or other developer) for 45 seconds agitating constantly. Then place the film in a water bath at 70 degrees F and let it sit absolutely still for two minutes. Repeat the Rodinal and water bath steps four more times each.

A few pieces of equipment are essential to doing night photography expeditiously. Of course, one needs a tripod. If the camera doesn't have a time-exposure setting (T), but has a bulb setting (B) instead, a locking cable release is necessary I suggest to my students that they buy a short one, as long ones sometimes catch the wind during exposures and vibrate the camera. It is also wise to get one in a light color, (white or yellow) as they are the easiest piece of equipment to lose, and the lighter color makes finding them easier in the dark. A flashlight helps determine the edges of your scene while composing, and is often useful as a light source on foreground subjects. Flashlights are sometimes essential just to see where you're going. A medium-size photo flash unit is an essential piece of equipment for accenting your subject and using as a fill-in light where there is little or no ambient fill. A pen light serves several purposes: You can place it at the intended focusing plane, and focus the camera on it; you can use it for time exposure light drawing; and it is excellent for checking your timepiece without spreading light across the foreground.

I advise students to keep complete records of each exposure

I advise students to keep complete records of each exposure. Pertinent information includes the date, aperture used, length of time of the exposure, atmospheric conditions (clear, cloudy, intermittent clouds, high mist or fog, ground fog, etc.), the position of the moon, whether or not the light of the moon was a factor, and the type and amount of lighting, if any, added to the existing light.

Both the 35mm and 2 1/4-inch camera formats provide excellent results in night photography, with the exception of electronic cameras that cannot be switched to manual operation. Their batteries burn out very quickly, they are notoriously capricious in deciding on their own when a night photograph is finished, and they usually don't compensate automatically for long-exposure reciprocity failure. Many students are adherents of view cameras, but I would advise against using them except where there is sufficient light, unless you are capable of staging lighting productions like O.Winston Link. But there are other reasons: the larger size and the construction of view camera bodies make them more vulnerable to gusts of wind; the ground-glass image is so dim that it is almost impossible to focus it at night, and exposure times are often inordinately lengthened due to the need to use small lens apertures in order to get sufficient depth of field with the required long-focal-length lenses.

Night photography remains an experimental subject primarily because it is uncontrollable in its further reaches. Even if one wishes to reshoot exactly the same photograph the following night, the end result will be different because one is dealing with imponderables-the atmosphere and the unexpected things that happen in front of an open shutter during a time exposure. Consequently, each effort is fresh, exciting, and filled with new insights.

(Steve Harper continues to teach night photography at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco.