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Night Photography - General Information
by Tim Baskerville

The practice of photographing at night goes back to some of the first photographers. Technical limitations (slow film speed, large camera size, the large wet plates that were used, etc.) severely hampered efforts in this area of photography. However, from the early 1900's on more and more night photographs can be seen. Stieglitz, Brassai, Genthe, Steichen - all have made some notable images that were nocturnal. Stieglitz and Steichen's studies of the Flatiron Building in New York are widely recognized images. Brassai's studies of Paris after dark were classics of this relatively new (at the time) genre. Many of the photographers aligned with the Surrealist movement in the 20's and 30's, did work at night and many of their "non-night" prints evoke the nocturne. The Englishman Bill Brandt also photographed at night, revealing wartime and post war industrial England. And even his darkly printed images of non-night images have a dark, nocturnal feel to them. Lee Miller, a woman photographer during WWII made some interesting night images, the most famous perhaps, being the burning of Hitler's house, photographed at night with a GI looking on as a cold, detached onlooker. Even Ansel Adams, in probably his most famous (and notorious) image, "Moonrise over Hernandez" used the blanket of dusk, moonlight, and a darkened sky to convey a sense of mystery and place.

Who's Doing It
While almost every photographer has at least attempted a "night shot" at some time or other, a relatively small number have devoted their photographic and creative skills exclusively to photographing at night. In the late 1970's on the West Coast more and more work (a lot in color) began to surface by photographers such as Steve Harper, Richard Misrach, Arthur Ollman and others. Steve Harper began teaching college level courses and workshops dealing exclusively with night photography or "Night Light". As a result, a substantial body of work was done in Night Photography by photographers from the Bay Area in the 1980's and continues to be done today. Michael Kenna moved here from England and through most of the 80's focused on night photography, also offering workshops on the subject. Arthur Ollman went on to head the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, where the exhibition, "Night Light, A survey of 20th Century Night Photography" is currently appearing.

While a "true" night photograph would be taken an hour or so after dark, excellent results can be obtained at dusk or shortly after. The overall light is a more even balance of artificial and natural light and the mood is definitely of the night. Thus, exposures for night photographs range from a few seconds to ones that are 5 to 8 hours in length. The latter exposure time would generally take place in a traditional landscape setting, far from urban areas (and any ambient light).

Any Tungsten balanced film (Ektachrome 160. Fujichrome T64, Vericolor type L, etc.) is good for most color night work. Most are transparency films, i.e. they produce positive slides for viewing and/or printing. With their tungsten color balance of approx. 32000 Kelvin they render most scenes in a "natural" way. That is, the sky is blue, the grass is green, etc. The B/W film most commonly used is Tri-X (now T-Max 400) or its Ilford/Agfa/etc equivalent. With these films, a little less development (10-20%) is usually in order due to contrastiness of scenes.

Reciprocity failure refers to the breakdown in the relationship of exposure (time/aperture) to the density build-up in the negative or transparency. Normally films react with predictable results in this regard. When exposures run much beyond the normal range of the film - let's say 1/500 second down to 1/4 of a second, adjustments need to be made.

Suggested reciprocity failure factors: (Tri-x)

Meter Reading
x-factor of
= corrected exposure
1 sec.
1.5 sec.
2 sec.
4 sec.
3 sec.
7.5 sec.
4 sec.
12 sec.
10 sec.
50 sec.
20 sec.
2 min.
40 sec.
4 min. 40 sec.
80 sec.
10 min. 40 sec.
10 min.
2 hours


  • Keep accurate records of all exposures. You learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. Don't go out each time, only to have to "re-learn" the basic info that you need. Night photography as a learning experience is cumulative, much like the exposures involved. A sample exposure log is included.
  • Invest in a timer with an audible signal, and maybe built in illuminance.
  • Get a good industrial strength "Thermos" (unbreakable) for warm drink. It gets cold out there after an hour or so!
  • Consider a MagLite flashlight as well as a small pocket flashlight. The MagLites are focusable and come in various power/brightness ratings, depending on number of power cells used. You can "light" a whole night scene with one!
This article was originally published as part of syllabus for the "Ten Years of Night" Workshop, held February 23, 1991 in San Francisco's Lincoln Park