Maybe it’s human nature, but photographers often fear darkness. For many of us, it’s associated with photographic failure: obscured subjects, blur from movement and inaccurate focus, and the inability to see while shooting. Overcoming that fear and conquering darkness has helped the four photographers featured here to create dark images that are boldly streaked with brilliance. Here are their secrets.
“Shadows communicate a sense of place just as powerfully as any brightly lit location can,” says Cameron Davidson (camerondavidson.com), a northern Virginia-based pro who leaned out of a helicopter to shoot the office building on the next page. “I like shooting in dusky light, along the edges of darkness.”
By suggesting depth, he goes on, darkness adds dimension to a scene or shaping to a face or figure. The color black in the frame also directs a viewer’s attention to what’s important. Even more advantageous? Its ability to conceal what is not.
“To hold blacks in the studio, you have to choose light modifiers that won’t spray light around,” says Jorge Moreno Jr. (jmorenophoto.com). For this type of low-key look, he uses one of two lighting setups: either a 60-inch umbrella or as small a soft box as possible. If used correctly, both can produce minimal spill that could turn black shadows gray. With the umbrella, he achieves this by not expanding it to its full 60-inches, but by opening it just slightly to focus the strobe light solely on his model.
“Once I’ve determined my lighting setup, the next step is to suppress the impact of any ambient light,” says Moreno. This means using his camera’s fastest flash sync speed and the smallest aperture possible for correct exposure, usually 1/250 sec and f/7.0.
“To minimize spill, I start at my strobe’s lowest power setting and work my way up to the optimum exposure,” he says. “If I can’t eliminate ambient light completely, I dial up the strobe power so I can use an aperture small enough to prevent ambient light from reaching the sensor. I also keep my subject [and lights] far from the background, in order to hold a strong black back there.”
For New Yorker Michael Shane (www.michaelbshane.com), who photographed the space shuttle Enterprise for online publication The Verge, success comes from choosing his subjects and camera angles wisely. He avoids scenes that require deep depths of field; working at minimum aperture for front-to-back sharpness can be difficult in low light, especially when shooting handheld.
As he circled the space shuttle in the gloomy exhibition space at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, he settled on the angle you see here. “I was cognizant of the fact that the shuttle’s most interesting part from this angle, the landing gear, was [on a single plane] close to my camera,” he recalls. “That meant I was able to shoot at my lens’ fastest aperture, f/2.8, and get a sharp subject.” Moral? Think twice before attempting subjects that require shooting at (or near) f/22.
Gear in the Shadows
“When you're shooting in low light, it’s also important to know how your gear will perform,” says Shane.
Because working in the dark is inherently difficult—you can't see well, after all—it’s important to be completely familiar with your equipment and its control layout. Also know its capabilities. For example, pretest to determine the highest ISO that will produce satisfactory resolution and noise levels. “For this space shuttle shot, I knew from long-time experience with Canon's EOS 5D Mark II how far I was willing to push my ISO in order to get a file that wasn't too noisy,” he says.
Similarly, Davidson cautions, “It’s important to pretest lenses for infinity focus. Some systems have focus problems— either back or forward focus—that can lead to softness, especially in low light.”
If you focus on distant subjects by manually setting the focusing ring to infinity, because it’s too dark for autofocus, “make sure you know where infinity focus is on your lenses. It’s not always at the infinity setting.”
Managing color temperature is another low-light issue. Available-light color temps can vary widely after dark—sodium or mercury vapor, tungsten, halogen, even daylight bounced back from the moon. “So shooting RAW in mixed light is essential,” says Davidson. It lets you fine-tune white balance later in software, without the clipping that’s common with JPEG capture.
There is another way to deal with widely divergent color or color temperatures. Do as Steve Landeros (www.stevelanderosphotography.com) does: convert to black-and-white.
High contrast and wide dynamic ranges are also often a factor. A source such as street lighting can be many times brighter than the surrounding shadows. In such cases, Michael Shane recommends establishing “a close, personal relationship with an image’s histogram. Examine your subject and its histogram, and decide whether highlights or shadows can be clipped, and, if so, by how much. Figure into your calculations what will be salvageable later by highlight or shadow recovery.”