Making portraits at night is one of the most creative and challenging applications of night photography. In this post, I'm revealing some of the hardest-won lessons I've learned while honing the craft.
Tip #1: Dilate time
What truly defines the difference between a picture of someone at night and a true night portrait is incorporating elements that show a clear passage of time. In Figure 1, the soft water from a 30-second exposure adds a subtle note about time passing.
I deliberately include the following things in my night portraits; they overtly or subtly show time passing:
- water flowing
- clouds passing
- cars moving
- trees or grass waving in the wind
- star trails
Note the star and airplane trails in Figure 2. It's an extreme example, but drives home the point about dilating time.
What truly fascinates me about this is our brains are wired to comprehend only the moment we are in. We cannot see time as it compounds in a long photographic exposure. But somehow, we can comprehend the resulting photograph. So cool, right?
Tip #2: Do something That Would be impossible in daytime
Your unique advantage whilst making night portraits is the duration of your exposure. Daytime portraits have hard limitations—exposure are all a fraction of a second.
You have time—lots of time—to:
- do some wicked cool light writing
- execute some detailed and layered light painting
- let your model stand nearly still, so the edges of their body blur
- burn in star trails
- expose a delicate net of stars arcing across the sky, including the Milky Way
Tip #3: Use scale to your advantage
Since I often shoot in National Parks and other wilderness areas, I choose to make humans small in scale versus imposing and inspiring landscapes. You can accentuate this by adding a flashlight or headlamp beam.
Tip #4: Use a flash for your model's face and continuous lights for the other parts
The most delicious night portraits I've made have crispy eyes and facial features. It's classic portrait technique. Where I depart from the traditional is keeping that shutter open and painting in from behind, underneath and the side to reveal things that move after the flash pops.
You can even have your model move away after the flash, achieving a "ghosting" effect by letting the light illuminating whatever was behind them to pass through the space once occupied by their body.
You may ask, "Matt, can't I just use a flashlight?" Sure, but I recommend flash because even a quick burst from a flashlight isn't crisp enough to create the look I am after. Try both and you'll see what works for you.
I strongly recommend that you get a flash meter to avoid the process of chimping your way to a proper flash exposure. It will save time, and batteries. TTL is OK, but I prefer something more consistent from one flash to the next. And not all TTL works well at night.
Tip #5: Stop thinking and experiment
Our own expectations can get in our way. We can stifle our ability to make something unique by thinking too much and planning too hard.
One of my most successful methods is to say, "OK, I got something I liked, now try something weird or random."
Whatever I suggest here is likely to be my own taste and not yours. Find your experimental voice. And shout. Whisper. Cajole. Surprise yourself by letting the camera record what you cannot possibly see in a single moment.
Night portraiture is difficult. No joke.
It requires mastery of the fundamentals of night photography, including focus, composition and exposure. You also need to have some knowledge of portrait lighting and how to use a flash.
You also need to have an ability to direct your models clearly (and in the dark). Practicing on your fellow night photographers is a great way to start. Work between their exposures.
Now that we've cleared the prerequisites, don't fret. You can learn simply by doing. Space on your memory card is free, so grab a friend and try it out.
Note: Wanna level up your night portraiture skills? Join me for intimate group sessions in April and October of 2018 in Catskill, New York.