Night time street photography on a smart phone is a combination of three difficult factors; the unpredictability of people, the technical constraints of shooting in low light, and the photographic limitations of your cameraphone.
It can be tough to even get a single good image.
So, why then would you want to even try it?
There are a number of reasons...
- Because more people these days have smartphones than large DSLRs (so almost everybody can do it)
- You probably take your phone with you wherever you go, unlike your SLR (if you even have one).
- It's a challenge and will require you to be versatile and adaptive in getting 'that' shot.
- There often are interesting photographic opportunities on the streets. This is where you find people and activity, and because of this, there's usually a story to be told.
- Night time presents an opportunity for unusual contrasts in ambient lighting, and the chance to capture a different or unusual mood and ambience.
- It can be exhilarating and 'edgy'. Shooting the streets, activities and people at night can get the adrenaline going, especially if there's something exciting going on.
- Phones are less intrusive for the style of 'hit and run' photography you are taking and much less likely to look conspicuous if you have security concerns.
Overcoming the need for 'technical perfection'...
If you live in a city, there's usually something going on and so it's almost always a good time to be shooting images. But it's harder in night time, mainly because of the light (or lack of it!). So you'll have to accept the idea that many of your images aren't going to be 'technically' perfect, or even close to it.
You'll face a number of technical hurdles that you might not be able to completely overcome due to the constraints of your smartphone camera. But photography doesn't have to be about 'technical perfection'. Instead it can just be about capturing 'that' moment, which is the importance of always being prepared.
And with your cameraphone, you are.
What you are looking to shoot...
Something interesting! You might do better if you don't put limits on what you define as 'interesting'. Shoot as much as you can and leave the self editing 'til post production. However if you still need some guidance, here's some ideas to get you going...
Contrasts in ambient light - For example, something reflective being caught in a bright headlight, or an interesting shaped object casting a striking shadow.
People doing unusual things - Can you capture an intimate moment of conversation, surprise or argumentation?
Events - Can you capture a street party, a market or an official function?
Architecture or objects - Does a certain building look beautiful when light up at night? Is there a historic site you can capture under different lighting conditions to normal?
Close ups + details - Is there an interesting detail on an old surface that catches the light vividly?
As ever, the only real limits on what you shoot are set by you. There are so many things to be seen on a bustling street. Or a quiet street. What can you can see?
Shoot a lot of images. This is especially important as the technical image quality for many of them might ruin a really good looking shot. Inevitably there will be blur caused by camera shake, autofocus looking at the wrong things, and exposure problems beyond Photoshop's ability to correct. So you really need to take as many as you can, it is a 'numbers game'.
Be subtle. Part of this style of photography is about being subtle. When you are shooting streets, you'll likely be shooting people too. Some people might get uncomfortable with this. So, this is easier to pull off without a massive SLR. You have to be subtle. So don't walk up to people and stick your smartphone in their face and you should be fine. In all my time doing street photography, in both day and night, I have never had anyone so much as approach me.
Focus on Composition. Most smartphones do not allow you much control over the exposure sensitivity or exposure time. For my smartphone, the iPhone, the iOS interface doesn't seem to support any form of exposure control. This means that those of you who want to tweak your settings a little more are going to have to wait until post production to do so. When shooting it's easier to focus more on the composition of the image.
Use AE/AF Lock. On iOS phones, the camera will try to automatically try to focus and set the exposure for you. If you want to change this, you can use the AE/AF Lock feature. You do this by holding your finger on the part of the image you want the camera to focus on. The camera then locks it's exposure and focus on that area, and won't change until you click another part of the screen, or take the picture.
Use ambient light as much as possible. Shooting in areas of greater artificial illumination or times sych are good times to do so. Remember, the darker your environment, the harder it is to get a good shot without excessive graininess or camera shake. Shooting in an unlit area in the dead of night is not likely to yield very good results.
Post Production Considerations. Probably the largest problem you will face will come from grainy images, caused by the fact that your smartphone isn't that very sensitive. You'll very likely need to 'denoise' the image, to get rid of the grain.
If you use one of Adobe's Photoshop programs this can be done by using a Photoshop plugin like Topaz' Denoise. Alternatively you can use a standalone programme for denoising such as DenoiseMyImage (for Windows) or Denoise (for Mac). Asides from this, you may be able to recover some detail with brightness and contrast, and again there's often no set formula here, you just have to experiment with different brightness and contrast until you see the result you want.
Keep it steady. Hold it steady as possible. This can be accomplished by resting on a stable surface nearby. Improvise!
Accessories. There are some accessories that can help. For example, you can get iPhone tripod mounts which allow for a more stable. The problem with these is that they may make the phone more conspicuous, require extra setup time, or overcomplicate the process. Remember, it's best that you 'shoot first and ask questions later'...
As I said before, don't expect to get the 'technically best' results from this style of photography. Just get out there and go for the 'scene'. As I said earlier, shoot as much as possible when you are 'out there' and be critical later when you are reviewing your images
You can also apply these ideas and techniques to anytime you are out on street, such as during a night out with friends.
Sure, this kind of photography might take you out of your comfort zone. But you might also actually capture something unusual quite special.
You won't know until you go do it!