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The Night Portrait

It can be a struggle to take a simple night portrait that shows off not only the subject but also the surroundings. When you take a picture of a friend in front of the many city lights, why does the background come out pitch black? In this section, I introduce you to the wonders of slow sync, as well as some creative effects with and without flash.

Slow Sync in Low Light

This is an easy technique, and conquering slow sync will improve your low-light snapshots immeasurably. We’ve all experienced the limitations of flash at night. In night portraits, often the subject is illuminated but the background is black (Figure 4.32). The quick fix is to use a longer shutter speed by switching your flash to slow sync or your camera to Night Portrait mode. This adds more ambient light by keeping the shutter open longer as the flash fires (Figure 4.33). Shutter speed controls the amount of ambient light that comes into the picture. No matter how much flash you pop, you can’t light up the sky.

Figure 4.32

Figure 4.32 In Auto mode, the flash fires and the shutter speed remains a safe 1/60 of a second to prevent camera shake. But this quick shutter speed kills the ambient light, and the built-in flash on a point-and-shoot camera has only enough power to go 10–15 feet.

ISO 200 • 1/30 sec. • f/2.8 • 28mm lens

Figure 4.33

Figure 4.33 A slower shutter speed lets in more ambient light and reveals the skyline.

ISO 200 • 4 sec. • f/2.8 • 28mm lens

Understanding this concept will improve your flash photography in low-light environments like restaurants and clubs, where you want to light the subject but not lose the feel of the surroundings. Keep an eye on your shutter speed—you don’t want it to be below 1 second unless you are on a tripod and your subject is still. From 1/2 to 1/15 of a second will usually work (Figure 4.34). Be aware that any direct light sources will permanently burn into the picture, but you can work that to your advantage—a cool trick is to spin or move the camera during a slow sync exposure. In Figure 4.35, I asked the subject to remain still. The flash fired, and I had half a second to spin the camera around, which created a rainbow effect on the lights.

Figure 4.34

Figure 4.34 The subject was moving slowly enough for the flash to freeze her in a sea of movement and color.

ISO 200 • 1/8 sec. • f/2.8 • 24mm lens

Figure 4.35

Figure 4.35 By spinning the camera during the exposure I was able to make the lights trail around the subject.

ISO 200 • 1/2 sec. • f/3.2 • 24mm lens

The Ghost

My early explorations in long exposures proved that objects or people could “disappear” in an image, depending on how long they remained in the frame. This led me to think about how I could control it. Ghost photography has been popular since the beginning of the art form. So how do you do it? The easiest way is to think about mass and time. If something is in the frame for only half the exposure, then only half of it will show up. Figure 4.36 was an early test of this theory. I sat as still as I could for half of the 6-minute exposure. This shot works because I had two factors going my way. First, my clothing was darker than the white background of the steps. Dark subjects stand out better against light backgrounds, and vice versa. Second, my camera was about 20 feet from the steps, and I shot with a wide lens, so I’m small in the picture. If this had been a tighter shot, my slight movements would have been magnified.

Figure 4.36

Figure 4.36 One reason this ghost shot works is that I’m wearing clothes that contrast with the background.

ISO 200 • 6 min. • f/8 • 28mm lens

It can be hard for a subject to hold still for longer than a second. An easier way to create ghosts is to incorporate flash. Flashes work better than flashlights because they fire a lot of light for a fraction of a second, freezing the action. You can often light a person with a single pop of a flash, whereas it would take several strokes of a flashlight—running the risk of capturing any slight movement the person makes. Figure 4.37 is a perfect example of using a flash to create several ghosts. I lit the subject three times with a Vivitar 285 flash at full power. Her head is the only thing that appears because it is more reflective than the black coat that’s covering her body. Black absorbs light, so I would have needed to fire the flash two or three more times to make her body stand out against the darker background. But triggering a flash multiple times with the subject staying in the same spot has its own problems: If the subject moves even slightly between flashes, the light will create a blurry overlap.

Figure 4.37

Figure 4.37 I lit the closest figure from a 45-degree angle just off-camera. Then I moved behind the wall to the right. You can barely see the third ghost because the distance of the flash from the subject doubled, lessening the power of the light.

ISO 100 • 4 min. • f/8 • 80mm lens

What if you want your image to be a true night portrait rather than a moody ghost image? Fire the flash once, and have the subject hold their position as you finish the exposure. This builds density in a softer way than illuminating them again with a flash. You may have to reduce the ambient light by using shorter shutter speeds. If your model is in front of a bright light source, like a streetlight, it will burn through your portrait, so be careful where you place them.

For Figure 4.38, I fired a flash at one-quarter power each time the subject struck a pose. I tried to keep the flash the same distance from her so the power of the light wouldn’t change. The flash was in a grid to keep it a tight beam and limit the light falling on the foreground. The flash was fired from above, so it reflected more off the top half of her body than the bottom.

Figure 4.38

Figure 4.38 Balance the ambient light with the flash. If I had reduced the shutter speed to 5 seconds, the background would be darker and I would have lost the sense of the environment.

ISO 200 • 10 sec. • f/8 • 28mm lens

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