Shooting Portraits at Night without Flash 5

Shooting Portraits at Night without Flash

Photographers are generally a brave and determined bunch — whether it be rolling around on the floor to get the perfect shot, getting close to wildlife, dealing with newborns screaming and crying (amongst other things), or taking on a whole wedding alone; you’ve got to hand it to them. But there is something many photographers are scared of: the dark. But packing your camera away before nightfall means missing out on an exciting photo opportunity! With these tips and tricks on how to shoot portraits at night, you’ll no longer need to be afraid of the dark.

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Normally our first reaction to the dark would be to put the flash on, however the effect of the flash often overpowers the image and leaves it looking artificial. It is possible to take stunning photos just using ambient lighting such as street lights, car lights, shop window lights, or even fairy lights.

It may be useful to bring along one of those rechargeable lanterns that you take out during load shedding (don’t pretend you don’t have one by now). Using one of these lights can be quite effective when you want to illuminate your model’s face. The ambient light will give your photograph more charm as well as context as to where you are.
If you have a tripod available to you, it is definitely worth bringing that along. If not, sitting your camera on top of a car, ledge, dustbin, or anything stable and safe for your camera will work just as well. The dark surroundings means that you will have to compensate with a slower shutter speed, so that more light can be let in. This means that your model will have to keep very still so as not to blur the photograph. Using a remote or cable release could be very helpful, but it is not necessary if your camera has a self-timer. We use this so that you can step away from your camera when you are ready to take the shot, so that you don’t move the camera when the shutter releases. Even a small action like pressing the shutter release button can cause a blur because of the slow shutter speed.

If there is one thing that I learnt from watching America’s Next Top Model, it’s that your model needs to “find the light”. Position your model so that his/her face is illuminated by ambient light coming from the street lamps, or a shop window — try to use a light that is constant, not moving (like lights coming from moving cars). If this is not possible or you want the lights to be in the background, ask a friend to shine a light on the model’s face (this can even be a cellphone light).

Keep the aperture as wide as possible (i.e. a low number like f/1.8 or f/5.6) to let in as much light as possible. This will also give the camera a shallow depth of field, which will keep your subject sharp whilst blurring the background, which is a desired aesthetic in portrait photography.

Try to keep your ISO at about 400, and don’t go above 800. You can change the white balance depending on what colour cast you’re going for; sometimes a cool colour cast fits the scene, so you might want to use the Tungsten preset, while other times a warm colour cast works better. Play with the different presets and decide which one you want — personally, I went for the Cloudy preset, and shot using partial metering.

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50mm lens, f/1.8, shutter speed 1/25, ISO 400

In shooting night portraits, the background is arguably just as important as your subject in the
foreground. It is important to pay attention to the aesthetic quality of your background, and even this can be manipulated. I’m sure by now you have heard of the Japanese term “bokeh”, pronounced just as it looks — bo – keh (where ‘keh’ sounds like ‘kettle’). This refers to the blurred points of light in the background of your photograph, achieved with a wide aperture. The blurred circles from lights is often favored among photographers and Tumblr users, and you can even change the shape of the bokeh.

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All you need to do to achieve this is to get an A4 piece of black cardboard or paper, trace a circle out of the cardboard using your lens as a stencil and cut out the circle with four pieces sticking out. Draw any shape in the centre of your circle about 15mm wide, and cut it out with small scissors or a craft knife. Cut a +- 4cm wide strip along the longer side of your A4 piece of cardboard, wrap the strip around your lens and stick it together with sticky tape. Place your circle on top of your lens and stick the four pieces down to the strip with sticky tape, and voilà! Your very own bokeh lens hood! This will work best on a large aperture lens.

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And there you have it! Now you have no excuse to put your camera to rest tonight, or to be afraid of the dark.

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Cara Michelle
Videographer & Photographer at Cara Michelle
Wedding Videographer and creative from Durban.
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One thought on “Shooting Portraits at Night without Flash

  1. Linda Reiss November 3, 2018 at 2:57 am

    Thanks so much Cara,
    I’m doing a favour for a friend and ‘hoping’ to shoot some good pics from her wedding ceremony this evening.
    I’m new to photography and in a ‘lather of sweat’ just hoping to capture some suitable shots for her. You have greatly eased my mind as I try to always shoot in manual and yes am terrified of the fact that I’m not planning on using flash. Less invasive to all!

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