Night time photography does fascinate me, I enjoy the challenge of working in marginal situations, especially as I am very averse to using a tripod. Modern cameras, though, are very forgiving, ISO 3200 and effective image stabilization make possible today what was unthinkable a few years ago. The trick is to balance the artificial light with any remaining natural light and to avoid over exposure. Cameras want the world to look grey and so will do their damnedest to take a dark sky and light it up, blowing out the buildings that were the original subject. A handheld light meter would fix this, but in practice underexposing by 2-3 stops does the trick most times - and with digital a little chimping can fix most problems. This works for buildings, with more fast moving subjects, shooting on manual after taking a test exposure of the ambient light is the way to go. Final comment, flash? Sometimes, a little fill flash can help, but generally only works in dusk light, in night it blows out the foreground and creates a fake looking photo.
With this exercise I am digging into my archives a little as I have a night time subject that I have been working on without really thinking about it for years, Singapore. Singapore is like a second home for me, I first visited on business 18 years ago and have been back most years, often twice, and last year 3 times. That was an aberation, especially as none of it was business. I guess I love the combination of west and east, the mixing of so many cultures and the combination of safety with hedonistic pleasure. Many times I have thought about moving there, it is my companies Asian HQ and I have been asked before to go. Family prevented that move and I think it is now a little late in my career to start again in Asia. So we try to get there at least once a year, usually on the way to a dive trip somewhere in Indonesia, the Philippines, or Malaysia.
I always take a camera and due to the heat and tropical sun tend to take most of my photographs in the evening. I try to book a hotel that offers an outlook over the city. My first photo was taken from my room in the Stamford Swiss Hotel, a giant tower, with balconies overlooking the financial district. This is an almost iconic view of the city at night, but I have included in the foreground the playing field of the Padang on which people are doing some football practice. This type of landscape photo helps to frame the location, a statement of where we are.
Another hotel, this time overlooking the east coast express way, the road linking downtown to the airport. Perching my camera on a desk this is another standard view of a city at night, trying to capture the never ending flow of cars. I think a key element in city photography is to image the energy and pace of life.
Another hotel, this time the Mandarin Oriental on Orchard Road, nice hotel bad location, miles from anywhere interesting. However, in my case the construction site opposite was a boon. They worked all night. This was another photo with quite challenging exposure, which needed a lot of post processing. The question is how much detail to show in the surroundings. In the end I opted to light just the construction, yielding this image of the continual construction cycle that is an Asian city.
I have long been an admirer of the work of Michael Wolf and his images of Hong Kong apartment blocks, I am drawn to the uniformity of the patterns broken by the occasional piece of individuality. This is really marginal as a handheld image, requiring a telephoto and with very dim lighting on the building. Quality is poor, but I think as part of a sequence it works fine. It is also an important image for me as I tend to be fixated on the hustle and bustle of the bars and cafes at night, forgetting to think about where all these people go. A small island with a very large population means that most live in towering apartment blocks.
My favorite hotel in Singapore is the Swiss Hotel at Clarke Quay, just on the Singapore river and adjacent to a huge area of bars and restaurants. Not the cheapest place in the world to eat and suffering from a tourist premium, it is worth it my opinion.
It is a popular hang out for students, although the prices make it not so affordable. In the middle is a small 7 Eleven that sells ice cold drinks and snacks at "normal" prices. A lot of people simply buy a 6 pack and hang out on the bridge enjoying the atmosphere. It makes for a wonderful atmosphere, a big change from home where a large group of young people hanging around drinking on a street would not generate quite the same feeling.
In the tropics dusk is very short lived, and although it is the best light to shoot by, you have to plan ahead and be where you want to be to take a few shots. Not really my modus operandi, but this is an example of a shot that really worked with the light. Simply luck, being in the right place at the right time. It is also a rare example of clouds that weren't dumping a tropical down pour.
Same location from the other side
One gem in Singapore and free entry is the gardens by the bay with their impressive artifical rain forest. These are giant structures covered in tropical plants with a bar at the top of the one in the middle. Surrounded by water there are plenty of opportunities for intriguing night time photography.
So far it has all been landscape, in a sense the easy stuff, nothing is moving unless of course you are on a boat, but that was my decision. Much more challenging is to photograph people in this light. Rather than imaging the lights I now must use those lights to illuminate my subjects. The first example is relatively easy as everyone is seated and so limited movement. This is an image that would have been destroyed by flash, the strange coloured lighting provides the sense of the photograph.
Moving people are much harder to frame and shoot. The cameras focus is slow, the framing harder to judge. Sometimes you just get lucky. This is one of my personal favorites from Singapore. I was trying to shoot the fountain, when the lady in red crossed my path. The blur adds to the sense of movement and perhaps mystery.
If moving to fast this is what happens, although again I do not think it is wrong, it adds movement to the frame.
I have discussed before my tendency to try and place people in boxes. Night time is a great opportunity for this type of photo, using the light inside the building and the windows as a frame. The addition of the lanterns was a nice touch here.
Another example, and very Singapore. Typical expat bar open to the street.
Finally I also experimented with taking my camera inside at dusk and using the ambient light as part of the background. This is the inside of the Sands resort, a massively ambitious building. Because the space is so large it feels like being outdoors. I must say that I think lighting here is good, the large spheres creating a gentle yellow glow balancing against the evening blue.
Our last trip was end of November last year, Christmas was in full flow, odd to see the decorations in 30 degree tropical heat. I really should have spent more time creating images of this weirdness, but mojo meter was low, so I just took a few. This is my fave, again, the light from the tree balances with the dusk light outside.
I finish with the photographers reward, the most expensive beer I have ever had, but I guess that was the rental for a seat to enjoy the colonial ambiance of the Raffles Hotel courtyard. Now where is my Pith helmet?
One day I should make a serious photo study of Singapore, but somehow I doubt that will ever happen, there is simply too much else to do. But over time, my catalog grows.