Nighttime is the Right Time...for Noir
Although he's not my favorite painter, Edward Hopper knew a thing or two about light which—if you could bottle it—I'd stand in line to buy. You might even describe some of his works as "noirish." However, when I shot the photo in Fig. 7, Hopper wasn't on my radar, but just underneath. What I saw was almost an abstract. Like the barristas, most of the ambient light had gone home for the night, so this was a job for a portable flash. Only I didn't have one with me. And—uh-oh—no tripod, either. It was one of those bite-the-bullet moments when you say to yourself, "WTF, give it a shot...might get an interesting blur."
Fig. 7 Hopper's Cafe (2009). Photo by Derek Pell.
I tried to Zen myself as I braced the camera against a trash can, repeating the mantra, "I am a tripod, I am a tripod..." until I became rigid as a corpse, held my breath, and squeezed the shutter. 1/8 sec at f/5.6; ISO 200. (I could've bumped up the ISO setting but, in this case, I wanted maximum clarity, minimum noise.) Only when I looked at the photo in Lightroom did I see a connection to Hopper's classic, Nighthawks. I liked what I initially saw: the glow of the neon coffee sign, the street lamp, the shadows. The composition draws the eye from upper left to lower right. In the black void between, you expect to see a figure in a trench coat emerge... maybe a dame with a cigarette and heels. This was a still image that begged to be a movie, so I eventually used it as the background in a Flash animation. I added audio and the one visual aspect that seemed to be missing: swirling fog. You can check it out at www.zoomstreet.org/thrill/flash1.htm.
I find a lot of shutterbugs are afraid of the dark. Maybe it's the long exposures that make 'em nervous, the sheer hit-or-miss quality of night. Or they're just too lazy to lug a tripod around. Big mistake. Put the camera to bed after sundown and you're missing out on a world of photographic opportunities. Night is when things start to get interesting. A whole new cast of characters takes the stage. Buildings reveal secret identities. Trees perform shadow plays. Cats, like extras, ham it up in alleys. Windows wink like flirtatious eyes.
With the sun turned off you've got a smorgasbord of illumination: moonlight, street lamps, headlights, and neon. Different light, different subjects, different photos. Fewer distractions, too. No flash? Up the ISO setting. No tripod? Rest the camera on a Fed-Ex drop box or the roof of a car. Hold your breath and try a hand-held (Fig. 8), or use blur for effect, like in Fig. 9.
Fig. 8 This noirish facade was shot handholding the camera, without flash. Auto White Balance accurately captured the color of the scene.
Fig. 9 Using a slow shutter speed produces the ghost-like blur of two pedestrians (1.0 sec at f/8.3).