Colors Of Night: Hidden Details And Moods

If you have not been photographing at twilight or night up to now, you have an exciting adventure ahead. Because cameras have the ability to accumulate light over time, nighttime photographs can seem brighter than they do to our eyes. This means that details are revealed that are hidden from view because of the limitations of the light gathering ability of our eyes, and at the same time the dazzling colors of night add a dynamic quality to the scene. Artificial lights at night are a mixture of neon, mercury vapor, fluorescent, and tungsten, and each of these produce interesting colors. Some are cool, some are yellowish or golden, and some are super saturated, and the combination is really something.

If you shoot at night, the sky will be black. The contrast with colorful city lights is dramatic, such as the picture of the Los Angeles International Airport (#1). If you shoot at twilight, the cobalt blue sky you can capture looks stunning against illuminated architecture, especially when the lights are tungsten, as in (#2), an image I took in Riga, Latvia. I photograph this color theme over and over when I shoot cities and skylines, villages, and individual buildings. In many cases, this kind of lighting and color are more beautiful than what you get during daylight hours. You can see the same dynamic colors in the shot of Gdansk, Poland (#3).

All Photos © 2010, Jim Zuckerman, All Rights Reserved



Note that twilight is not the same as dusk. After the sun sets and the sky still has enough light to see clearly, this is dusk. If you take pictures at this time, the sky will appear too light and the buildings will look dark. The lights that make the architecture come alive at twilight will hardly be seen. When the sky takes on a deep cobalt blue just before dark, that’s the time to shoot. It’s also interesting that you don’t need a clear sky to get a cobalt blue color. The sky can be cloudy or foggy and you will still see that desired color. For example, I shot the Amalfi Coast in Italy (#4) with low clouds and fog clinging to the mountains, and the cobalt color is there.


When I shoot at night or twilight, I usually use daylight white balance. This gives me the rich golden tones from the artificial lighting, and even though the yellow color is more pronounced than I saw with my eyes, the color contrast with the cobalt blue is beautiful. A classic example is (#5), the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. If you prefer the lighting to be more accurate based on what you see, then use tungsten white balance. I did that with the Seattle skyline (#6), and in both of these pictures (#5 and #6) the blues are rich and saturated. It is the warm tones, however, that are different. The artificial lights are less yellowish when a tungsten white balance is used. For those of you who don’t have cameras with a tungsten designation, and instead you must choose a specific color temperature, 3200K is the same as tungsten.



When the pavement is wet from a recent rain, the reflections of the city’s lights are fantastic. Even when it’s raining, I’ll go out and shoot because I love the look of a city at this time. Obviously I have to protect my camera from getting too wet, and I do this with an umbrella and/or a clear plastic shower cap with an elastic band. I also carry a microfiber cloth so I can constantly wipe the lens clean. Using a pretty shot of Krakow, Poland (#7), I cut and pasted a 1929 Cord in the foreground. The glistening street makes this look especially good. It was lightly drizzling when I took this, and the flare you see above the car comes from water drops on the lens. Even though I try to wipe the lens every few seconds, if the rain is coming too fast sometimes you get this kind of flare. In this case, though, I actually like it. I shot the car in a museum with artificial light, thus it works with the background perfectly.


In the past when we shot film, fluorescent lights and mercury vapor fixtures turned blue/green on film. The shot I took in Burma (#8) shows this. Digital technology has solved that issue, and now this kind of lighting is recorded as white light with no color bias.


In most latitudes, the amount of time you have to shoot during twilight is limited. As you travel closer to the Equator, the shorter this time becomes. In south Florida, for example, twilight photography may last 15 minutes, while in the summer in Alaska it could last for three hours. Once twilight passes, the rest of the time you’re taking pictures will be with a black sky, and this offers a stark contrast that in many instances is extremely effective.

The Christmas lights I shot at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville (#9) is an example, and so is the night picture I took in Rangoon, Burma (#10). If you are shooting in a large city, the mass of lights reflect off the clouds and the sky takes on an other-worldly look. You can see an example of this in the shot of the Cooper River Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina (#11). In this 16mm ultra wide angle shot, I included the moon as an interesting focal point because I liked the glow around it.




Note that the moon has no detail—that it’s entirely overexposed. The only way to get lunar detail in a picture with a much darker earth-bound foreground is to take two exposures. You shoot the moon with a daylight exposure (1⁄250 at f/8 with 100 ISO on Manual Exposure mode) and then you expose correctly for the foreground. You must then combine these two shots in Photoshop, and then you have the best of both worlds.

You can always depend on amusement parks and county fairs to provide great colors at night. The neon lights are dazzling, and when you use long exposures to capture the moving lights, the resulting pictures are a great deal of fun. I photographed a local county fair in Tennessee (#12) with a one second exposure from a tripod, and you can see how incredible the abstract colors are. In large cities where neon signs dominate the night (like Miami, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and New York), you can also have a lot of fun. Don’t try doing this without a tripod, though, because at night, especially, it’s important to minimize digital noise by using a low ISO. I shot a sign on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles (#13), and after cloning out power lines the brilliant yellow and red neon colors look great together.



Photographing streaks of traffic is an old technique, and it produces a lot of cool images. A variation on this theme is to shoot trucks or buses that go by close to the camera position. They have lights at the top edge of the vehicles, and those streaks of light and color mix with the normal traffic lights to add complexity to the abstracts you’ll get. I used this technique on Lindau Island at Lake Constance, Germany. A ten second exposure captured a bus going through the narrow streets of the old village (#14).


nighthawkjw's picture

Light pollution is often an issue for me, where a cloudy sky takes on an orange cast from the street lights at night. Since I shoot mostly cemeteries at night, I occasionally shift the color balance to make the sky dark red, adding ambiance to the image, while keeping the landscape colors close enough to original (I also light paint the landscape with gels).

Any other suggestions for dealing with light pollution?

~James C. Williams