If you think daytime shooting on film is hit or miss, don’t try it at night. Or maybe do, because the really good shot is pretty rare and therefore quite exciting.
I’ve gone from medium format to 4×5 to 8×10 at night. Each one is more expensive than the last, and each puts a bigger question mark over my sanity. I of course think I am quite sane, indicating I truly am crazy, but other people have let me know in ways subtle or blunt that they do not think large format at night is even remotely akin to a worthwhile endeavor. Embarrassingly, this used to hurt my feelings. But this is how I create, and I get to do it however I want.
Night photography has more surprises for me than shooting during the day. Frequently, the unexpected shows up in the picture. Once, I photographed a cemetery in San Francisco, taking careful aim at the headstones and calculating depth of field. A close look at the negatives revealed, first, that it was a pet cemetery (why didn’t I notice the diminutive size of the markers?), and second that all manner of construction vehicles were parked in deep shadow that the lens penetrated when my eye did not. Another time I carefully placed a streetlight behind a telephone pole to get an interesting warehouse. The pole had a nice fat black swastika sprayed on it. Or the time my shots of apartments in Chinatown showed someone in an interesting stage of undress. Oops. There have also been signs I haven’t seen, garbage collected in corners, plants in cracks, and fences in unexpected places (in the middle of a field, leading nowhere to nowhere). Once there was a stray hat, another time a safety cone. At a crummy hotel I managed to miss a craggy old lady smoking a cigarette by the pool. Don’t tell her she’s on the internet now.
Sometimes you make new friends. I’ve had many a chat with police officers, park rangers, and highway patrol guys. One officer waited until I finished a 4 minute shot of a railway trestle so he could escort me out of an unsafe area to my car. Another one told me about his wife, who turned down a job with National Geographic to marry him, about which he felt guilty. I also scared the crap out of a security guard when I stepped out of the shadows to let him know I was there. A local police officer rolled up into one shot, while I was around the side of the building scouting, to make sure I wasn’t helping myself to the copper downspouts. Then there was the drunk guy who wandered through my picture giving a running commentary on how he’d been woken up in someone’s back yard by a dog. How rude! I’ve had people mistake my camera for a movie camera and get very quiet, while others have looked at it and sat down right in front of the lens. Others have given me leave to shoot a building for which I needed no such permission since I’m on public property (but I don’t tell them that–no need for a legal dispute), while still others have watched for a couple of minutes–until they realize there’s really nothing to see; I’m just standing around too.
What do you do when your exposure is a half hour? I have run up the steps on my pedometer by doing laps, though never far from the camera. I have looked around furtively for somewhere to pee. I have read e-books on my phone, although that makes me blind when I look up. I have had a little picnic. I have had a nap (bad idea, I slept through the rain that doused my camera). But mostly I check my email, twiddle my thumbs, and think about how long the exposure should be based on other shots I’ve taken in similar lighting conditions.
Some experiences do stand out. I was in Grand Teton National Park when I heard the wolves howl. I hear them every time I look at the shot I was taking at the time. In Redlands CA I did a shot in which a dear friend wrote, ‘Alessandra loves Ross’ with a flashlight. Once I asked a group of passing teens to hold a flashlight so I could focus and one gave me tips about good places to shoot and another asked about the film I was using, the same as he was using in his TLR. There’s one that is a memorial to a little girl who drowned, though I didn’t know that when I took the shot. My favorites are the ones of my parents’ house in France. I can feel the soft summer air when I look at them.