Color & Light
Meeting Photo Challenges
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Creating Better Photographics
Night & Low Light Photography
Light & Exposure
Close-Up & Macro
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Choosing & Using Lenses
Digital Photography Equipment
Traffic Lights; Long Exposures At Night
One of the first techniques I learned in photography was to use long exposures at night to blur traffic lights. I liked it decades ago, and I still enjoy seeing artful streaks of light superimposed over an urban environment. You never know exactly what the resulting images will look like, and that’s part of the fun. When the background happens to striking, like the Walt Disney Theater in Los Angeles, California (#1), the combination of abstract lights and architecture makes a winning photograph.
One of the advantages we have now is seeing the images we take immediately in the LCD monitor on the back of the camera. Instead of waiting until the film is developed to make any changes in our technique, we can correct problems like poor exposure, the need for a longer or shorter shutter speed, a change in white balance, and a change in depth of field while we are out shooting. This helps you take the kinds of images you want without having to come back and do it a second time.
If you don’t use a tripod when photographing at night you’ll be disappointed with your images if you want them to be sharp and of the highest quality. Even though you are essentially creating abstracts, the various elements in the scene—including the lights—must be sharp. If you are only interested in complete abstractions, like the shot in Paris (#2), then no tripod is necessary at all. After you try this a few times, it will probably get old. You will then use a tripod to take shots that show the juxtaposition of a sharp environment with the colorful movement of night traffic (#3). It is interesting to note that our eyes never see streaks of light as vehicles pass in front of us. Only a camera can reveal this abstraction in color and form because it records the movement over time, something that our brain can’t do.
I recommend using a Daylight White Balance when photographing traffic lights. Many people use AWB (Auto White Balance), but this makes the tungsten lights white as opposed to golden in color. Personally, I prefer the warmer look. To determine your own preferences, compare daylight with AWB and see what looks good to you. If you want deep blue pictures, like the urbanscape I shot in Bangkok (#5), try using a Tungsten White Balance.
D-SLR Owners: To minimize camera vibration when doing long exposures, it’s best to use the mirror lock-up feature. This can be found in one of the menus in your camera, and it positions the mirror up out of the way of the light path before the picture is taken. When the shutter opens and closes, the mirror doesn’t move until after the picture has been captured as opposed to flipping up and down when you push the shutter. The reduction in vibration helps ensure your pictures are tack sharp.
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