For black and white night photography to be successful, it helps to think in black
and white because the eye perceives things differently at night to during the day and you
need to be able to compensate.
The colour temperature for night shots is actually the same as for daylight. The difficulty
in believing this is because objects at night usually look blueish to the human eye.
Black and White Night Photography Tip No. 1: Black and White Thinking
Normal vision is called photopic vision which means the human eye uses cones to
sense light. The eye is working in photopic mode during daylight. During phototopic vision
three types of cone receptors in the eye are used to sense light as three colours, red,
green and blue.
Black and White Photo of a Bench in Elizabeth Park in West Hartford, Connecticut, at Night: Photo by Sage Ross: Canon Digital Rebel XTi, 1/20 sec, f/1.8, ISO 1600, lens focal length 50 mm
Night vision is called scotopic vision which means the human eye uses rods to
sense light. Scotopic vision cannot perceive colours and records light in terms of black,
white and grey. But importantly, the sensitivity range of the rods makes the eye more
sensitive to blue light at night.
Mesopic vision means a combination of both photopic and scotopic and predominates at
dawn and dusk or in urban areas that are dimly lit. The combination of the higher
total sensitivy of the rods in the eye for the blue range with the color perception of
the cones results in a very strong appearance of bluish colours around dawn or other low
levels of light. Mesopic vision is what most of us use at night as there is so much
'light pollution' nowadays.
So it's important to realise that in black and white night photography,
what you are seeing is not exactly what the camera
will record. You have to learn 'black and white thinking' to allow you to make informed
choices as that beautiful blue night scene will look different in the final blck and white
shot. This is potentially a problem if you are shooting in colour and converting to black
and white afterwards in Photoshop. More about this in Tip No. 3 further down the page.
A Performer at 2007 Buskerfest in Toronto, Canada: Photo by Darren Tse: Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, 1/5 sec, f/5, ISO 800, lens focal length 38 mm
Black and White Night Photography Tip No. 2: Film or Digital?
As if dealing with mesopic vision wasn't enough, there is another problem that awaits you
called 'reciprocity failure', but only with film and it is more pronounced with black and
white film than colour film.
The term reciprocity failure means that with long exposures, the film becomes less
sensitive to light and results become unpredictable. This particularly occurs with long
exposures such as those needed in the low-level light conditions that you usually have to work
with in black and white night photography. Kodak Tri-X and
Ilford HP5 and FP4 films work well at night but Ilford films in general have
a greater tendency towards reciprocity failure.
The Eiffel Tower at Night During the 1900 Exposition: Photo by William Herman Rau (American, 1855-1920)
Reciprocity failure doesn't happen with digital cameras but there is another problem then
which is that digital noise increases with the longer exposures. The answer is to use a
tripod and keep the exposure as short as possible.
A 4-second exposure is much better than a 16-second exposure but then you will have to
choose a wider aperture so depth of field will be smaller and more of the background will be
out of focus. This could be a plus of course, depending on your intentions.
Also keep the ISO as low as possible, 200 or less, as the noise on many digital cameras
increases rapidly about 400 and up. In my experience, Canon make the best cameras for
dealing with noise. With Canon cameras you can shoot at quite high ISOs but keep the level of
noise down to an acceptable level.
Black and White Night Photography Tip No. 3:
Shoot in Colour and Convert Later
If you are shooting digital, your camera will record light of three different colours, red,
green and blue, on a scale of
0 up to 255. The three readings combine to give a single reading for each dot on your sensor.
Since each colour has a possibility of 256 readings, the total number of possibilities in a
single pixel is 256 x 256 x 256 which is more than 16 million possibilities - so many colours!
If you set your digital camera to
record in black and white, it ignores these possibilites and just records the strength
of the light on a scale from 0 to 255. Pure black is 0 and pure white is 255 and everything
else is shades of grey. In other words, by setting the camera to black and white rather than
colour, you have just thrown away most of the 16 million
possibilities and opted for 256 possibilites.
If, on the other hand, you shoot in colour, you can convert to grey-scale later in Photoshop
with a huge range of subtlety available due to the camera having captured all that 'extra'
If you do decide to record in colour and convert afterwards, don't make the mistake of
converting your images using the desaturate option under the image/adjustments menu as
results will be much better using the channel mixer. Just check the 'monochrome' box
and play about with the sliders. Provided you make sure that the values add up to 100, the
lightness won't alter - unless you like a particular effect of course.
While you are out and about with your camera at night, think about taking shots of the moon
itself. Click the following link if you would like to read photography tips for making
searching for "black and white photography" on Amazon using their search box for more creative ideas