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Capturing People at Night

Excerpted from Nighttime Digital Photography with Adobe Photoshop CS3 by John Carucci By John Carucci

Editor's note: Peachpit Press has graciously shared a chapter of John Carucci's new book,  Nighttime Digital Photography with Adobe Photoshop CS3.

Theres something magical about photographing people at night. Maybe its the random nature of elements in the scene or the contrast between darkness and light that piques our visual curiosity. Maybe the reason is more primal, like our innate fear of the dark. People add drama to night situations. The stillness of a subject juxtaposed against the kinetic energy of a cityscape creates dynamic imagery. A performance on a dark indoor stage comes to life in the spotlight, as does that decisive final basket at a sporting event. These situations depict the living, breathing subject under low light levels. And while theyre not simple to capture, the image becomes a satisfying accomplishment.

Capturing People at Night

NIGHT PORTRAITURE fuses the controlled environment of the photo studio with the unpredictable nature of the night. You have some control over lighting the subject after dark, but not over the physical qualities of the landscape. Sports and live performances provide even less control but can produce images that are equally as exciting.

Until now, the available-light photograph has been long exposures collected as a single image. Unlike with a building or statue, this time frame doesnt always work when photographing people. You need supplemental illumination, but bringing a light and a stand for it may not be practical. As a result, night subjects require light from an electronic flash or relatively unorthodox camera settings.

To take a good photo at night, you need to compensate for passive factors in the scene?such as lighting conditions, color temperature, and background elements. At the same time, you need to make sure to flatter the subject. Success, in part, depends on how well you balance flash with ambient light.


While flash units are easy to use, they do require some finesse to be effective. A flashs potentially harsh output and inclination to make the subject appear possessed can render the image useless. Combine that with human expression, which by nature is also quite random, and you can see how many things can go wrong.

In order to compensate for such challenges, either while taking the picture or reworking it with Adobe Photoshop, its important to understand the makeup of a night image. Many night portraits consist of two separate exposures within the context of the same image. One captures ambient light through an extended duration, while the other uses flash to expose the subject with a quick blast of concentrated light.

This makes the night portrait prone to both color and tonal issues between the two separate exposures. The ambient exposure may show color bias from artificial illumination. Conversely, the burst of ?daylight in the flash portion can make the subject appear much cooler than the background. Sometimes the disparity in color works to your advantage; other times it does not. Matching exposure is another crucial factor. Its easy to misread the scene and overexpose the subject with flash (FIGURE 8.1).
Sports figures captured under available light conditions are another matter entirely. The goal here is to provide an exposure balance that can let enough light into the lens while using a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the subject. Since you cannot use a flash, success depends on using a high ISO setting to increase sensitivity. In turn, that increases image noise.

Figure 8.1 Posing the subject against a warmly lit background at twilight helps create a colorful image from otherwise monochromatic subject matter. That, combined with the flash exposure punching up the subject's red dress, makes a strong statement.

Performance photography involves some of the same considerations but doesnt always require the high shutter speed, so you can get away with a lower ISO setting, resulting in less image noise. Of course, you will have to deal with changing light conditions onstage. Because of all the aforementioned, most photographs afflicted by these issues ended up in the trash bin in days gone by. But thanks to Photoshop, the ability to make tonal adjustments or compositional enhancements can salvage these otherwise borderline images. With the improved feature set of CS3, rescuing night shots has gotten even easier.

Night Portraits
They cover a variety of subjects and situations, but its best to think of night portraits as two basic categories: reactive and proactive. In a reactive portrait, the subject is not posing?and sometimes is not even aware of being photographed, as in much sports and performance photography.

Figure 8.2 Built-in flash has some limitations but comes in handy for quick snapshots at night.

Here, the objective is to capture the decisive moment while the subject is absorbed in his or her art and free of self-consciousness. This same candid approach also applies when covertly catching the facial expression of an unsuspecting subject (FIGURE 8.2). Whatever the circumstances, the conditions are what photographers call passive, meaning you have very little control over their outcome.

In the proactive portrait, the subject is aware of being photographed and thus allows you more control. While these situations are not as manageable as a studio setting, you can control most aspects of the image to some extent. For example, you can manage the lighting with electronic flash, hold the flash off camera, or position the subject away from a distracting background.
Each situation is different. Heres some advice to improve your chances:
Wait for the right moment. The essential ingredient of a portrait is the expression on the subjects face. Use a telephoto lens. Wide-angle lenses dont always create the most flattering portraits. They tend to distort facial features, especially when the subject is close to the camera.

Avoid merging elements. No one wants to see a tree or fence post growing out of the subjects head. And forget that Photoshop can fix it. Save your Photoshop time for doing creative things, not extensive cleanup! Instead, move the subject to the left or the right, and shoot again.
Apply the rules of classic pictorial composition. They help create a stronger image. Be conscious of flash exposure. Make sure its efficiently lighting the subject and that the flash position does not cause red eye.

Electronic Flash
Electronic flash units enable you to bring light to any scene that does not present the threat of bodily harm from burly security guards. Flash has the power to freeze the expression of a woman posing against a busy city street, but if youre not careful, overexpose her to the point that she resembles a ghost. Flash has the dubious reputation of providing harsh, unflattering light. Some of its properties may be hard to control using a camera that wasnt designed for pros, but with a little understanding, you can make them work to your advantage.

The portable flash unit provides a concatenated blast of light that has a life span measured in milliseconds. Unlike with ambient exposure, theres no simple metering technique, since the light happens so quickly. Flash meters can help, but not for spontaneous shots. Digital cameras provide some relief by allowing you to see the picture after it was captured, and electronic flash units have gotten more sophisticated over the years with through-the-lens metering (TTL) and focus technology. Despite these advanced functions, however, its still possible to misread the scene. Camera preview is your best bet to help you assess aspects of the capture so you can make adjustments before leaving the scene.

Built-in camera flash
Even with the ubiquity of external flash units on the market, most people will use the cameras built-in flash at one time or another. While this feature is better than no flash at all, it does have limitations, with the most apparent being that its fixed to the camera. Blasting the subject under dark conditions with head-on flash produces an unflattering portrait with harsh shadows on the face that can exaggerate the size of the nose or make eye sockets seem deeper.
Another issue is that the blast of illumination may not match the ambient portions of the scene, leaving it very dark. The portrait might resemble a mug shot. Range is another issue with built-in flash. Rarely does it reach ten feet, so if the subject is farther away, the flash exposure will underexpose the image. The angle of coverage can also be a problem when using a wide-angle lens, showing a falloff of light on the edges.  

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