Saturday, September 18, 2010

Six Days of Night: Paris

I got so many comments on my Night School post, wanting to see more pictures and hear more about what I learned from photographer Molly S.J. Lowe on my night photo tour in Paris, that I am following up with much more information today. This post is going to kick off "Six Days of Night," where I'm going to post night photos from the different places we visited this summer, and finish up with an Exploring with a Camera post Thursday on night photography. So come back every day to see more of the world at night, and then join in with some photos of your own in the Flickr Exploring with a Camera group.

The photo above is one of the photos I "saw" on my own, set up and got right in the camera. This was one of my absolute favorites from the night. I'll show it again in the sequence below with more comments, but I wanted to feature it as my "eye-catching" photo of the day. So, if you want to learn some more about night photography and what I've learned through this experience, read on. Otherwise just scroll down and look at the pretty pictures. :)

All of the photos below are straight out of the camera, in sequence they were taken. This isn't all of the images I took, by any stretch of the imagination, but I've picked the best of each specific composition and I've provided some details about what I like and what I would change - either in the initial set up or post-processing - based on what I learned from Molly. The key thing I took away from her during our three hours together is to get it right in the camera, so you have to spend less time post-processing and more time shooting. (She shoots mostly film, so obviously this is even more important in a film situation!) "Getting it right" includes getting the image level, appropriately framed (checking the edges), focus, exposure. Beyond just basic composition, these are the details that can make or break an otherwise good shot.

We spend quite a bit of time at the Louvre, because I mentioned I was really was drawn to the pyramids in contrast with the classic Parisien architecture. This shot Molly had me set up, and we worked on framing. Exposure was set to capture the interior of the passageway, the camera was set to aperture priority with the aperture wide open, and I was using a tripod. I notice a couple of things I would change: For one, the front pyramid is not perfectly aligned to the back one, the camera is slightly off of center. I would also try to capture the tip of the ceiling curve that is cut off, by backing up just a bit. Neither of those things could be corrected in software, so I needed to see those at the time. It also needs to be centered, with even edges left and right, but I could correct that in the computer. The centering and framing was an ongoing problem I had during the evening, because what I see through my camera viewfinder (Canon Rebel T1i), is smaller than what the sensor actually captures. Not only that, it's not even on all sides. Good to know!

We moved closer to the same archway, to get the building behind the pyramids framed in the arch. Exposure was set for the pyramids and building behind, so the archway and corridor was more in silhouette. Still a little off center with the camera, you can see that in the tip of the front pyramid and the space between the chimneys of the building and the edge of the arch. Also a little uneven left to right, I would crop that evenly. This image feels a bit more "mine" because I saw the photographer there and took the shot with her in it. In general, we were waiting for people to move through and on, and didn't always get the shots desired because there were a lot of people around in the evening (she thought more than usual).

To avoid the people issue, this one is zoomed in. Still slightly off center and there is a little more archway on the left than the right, but overall a nice shot and I like this one. Notice how the light is changing from the first image to this one, you'll see the progression into full dark through the sequence. Kind of cool to notice how the light changes with time by viewing a sequence like this.

In this one, Molly asked me to set up something with the two pyramids and the building visible behind. I like this image for the beautiful blue sky, and the diagonal line that the top of the pyramids and building make from left to right. We never were able to get it without people, even after waiting and waiting and also trying to zoom in closer. So we moved on. The light was not waiting for us. Another good point - sometimes you just can't quite get what you want - either the light changes or people are in the way or who knows what else - so just move on. There are other images to be captured!

Molly asked me to set up a shot with these lights, see what I could get. After a couple of compositions and input from her, I think this was the best one. The lights and columns of the building were converging toward the back building, and I like the silhouette of the statue there in the middle. There were a couple of frustrating things that happened in this shot. First, the ghost lights on the left side. We moved around, she shaded my lens, we changed apertures, and could never get rid of it. She couldn't tell exactly where it was coming from. I had never thought of using my lens hood at night (I usually don't carry it), but maybe that would have helped. The second thing, my camera freaked out and would not take the picture at times, it just couldn't seem to figure out the exposure. Moving to full manual helped, but there were a few times the camera just would not release the shutter for some reason. From this point on we moved to full manual mode on the camera for exposure, so that we could minimize this problem.  Moving on...

This was a hard, hard shot to get. Lining up the image left to right was one of issues, which you can see I overcame pretty well by using test shots and adjusting, the other one was focus. Since we were using a wide open aperture, the focus needed to be dead on the front pyramid or the image would look out of focus. The auto focus, even when setting a specific focus point, didn't work very well. Partially because the lowest focus point was a little bit too high for the bottom pyramid, and partially because the light was so low. Switching to manual focus wasn't that much better, just because it's hard to see in the dark how clear your image is, and my eyes aren't as great as they used to be. I have many of this shot with out of focus pyramids. Even with all of that, this one came out great and I really love sky behind the pyramid. Again, couldn't get it without people. Also, one of the lights in the left foreground was out, I would probably photoshop one in just to make it even.

Moved closer, and you can see the light fading...

Moved up close, and you can see the fading light of the sky is completely gone by now. Through all of these I had the trouble with focus, maybe it was also just the structure itself, that with so many windows and lights and planes the camera couldn't get a good focus point. You can see that this is not completely straight in terms of horizon and there is more space on the right than the left, but the front pyramid tip is lined up, so I've improved already! I have another version of this same picture that is perfectly centered left to right, but the pyramid is slightly out of focus. I think with my camera viewfinder-to-sensor offset I would not worry quite so much about getting the perfect framing in the camera, but leave a little bit of space for cropping in my post-processing. That would also help if I need to straighten the horizon, I'll have a tiny bit that I can lose with the cropping that happens when I straighten the image.

Here it is again - my favorite shot of the pyramid shown above. This one came out right in the camera with the first shot - horizon is level, line of the fountain and edge of the window converging at the edge, exposure is good. I might crop at the top in order to get the top left corner to line up with the ledge above the windows, but I'd have to see if that affected the overall composition of the pyramid.  I love the reflection in the water, the ripples from the wind give it softness in contrast with the hard lines of the pyramid.

Molly had me set up several different compositions from this location, where you could see the building behind the pyramid. I wish I could tell you that I saw this myself, but it was really about partway through I noticed that you could see the building behind. Too funny. This one is pretty nicely centered, exposed, etc., but maybe slightly tilted. The only thing Molly suggested was to take out the little fountain piece you can see in the water in Photoshop.

We moved on from the pyramid, here's a quick shot of the Hotel du Louvre. Really cool repitition here, with the rows of windows. This is mostly lined up horizon wise. I haven't mentioned, but with all of the shots we did some initial shots to test exposure and make adjustments as needed. Aperture was generally kept wide open in order to keep the shutter speed down as low as possible. Even though I was using a tripod, I didn't bring my remote (need to put that in my camera bag!) and camera shake from pressing the shutter was still an issue. With this shot, even though the Hotel du Louvre sign is bright and a bit overexposed, this was the best overall exposure. Getting more detail in the sign made the image look dim. This is not my favorite image. First off, there are a couple of lights out, which mars the repitition for me. Can you see them? Second, I would rather be focused in on one or two windows. Isn't the glimpse of the interior enticing? But that's just me...

This is one of the Paris metro entrances, there are such interesting ones here! We started on the other side and then moved around to eliminate some advertising from a newspaper kiosk, that was on my right side when I took this image. Molly also really had me focus on being dead center with the light in the entrance, and I never got the image quite straight as you can see by looking at the top of the stairway. I don't love this shot. The background building is a bit distracting to me, and I would have loved to explore this sculpture up close... the patterns in the fence, the reflections in the giant beads, but that would be for another day.

Here's another one of the fountain, that I showed in my Night School post. We did several compositions of this, and this is one of my favorites that is a bit more wide angle. I would love to have gotten the shot without the taillights of the car. Molly suggested early morning, as there is no one about, as a good time to get images without cars or people or anything. I have noticed in the last year that many beautiful, professional photographs of busy tourist places are taken in the early morning, probably for that reason. You can still get the beautiful blue skies of dawn or the lights of night, but the locations are deserted since everyone in their right mind is sleeping. I just have to get serious enough to drag myself out of bed before dawn! The only other thing I would change about this shot is to straighten it, which I can do in with post-processing.

Here was the final place we set up in Place de la Concorde, looking down the Champs d'Elysee. This was a hard shot again. The bright red or green stoplight, the location and motion of the cars, the exposure/focus on the arch all were difficult. Then there were the lights visible in the image on the hill behind, kind of floating in the sky. We couldn't see them with our eye but they showed up in the image. We played around here for a while, but our time was up at this point. This is my last shot of the night. In my camera review, I liked the streakes of the cars that were driving by, but didn't love it as much when I viewed it on the computer. Molly suggested removing the lights above the arch in photoshop and turning the image to black and white. I also cropped and straightened and...

Voila! Molly was right. I like this image much better.

I hope you enjoyed my photo tour vicariously. This has got to be the longest post I have ever written! Thanks for your request and questions, because writing this post got me to really look closely at the images and learn more from the experience. Join me tomorrow for more of Europe at night!


  1. What a wonderful post. Not only did you share beautiful photos, I feel like I learned a ton just reading about your process. I've never attempted night photos, but now I'm itching too.

  2. Great post, Kat! I never have enough reading how to shoot better photos, so I was soooo happy to read your post. So many great tips with your examples... - do you know what came up in my mind? You should write a book! Really! Your style of explaining things along the photos is very simple, so we all can understand the things you talk about and everybody can try it. What do you say?
    And guess what, I have problems (lately) with the straight horizon too, and I don't know why this problem occured suddenly... It was fun to read you had the same issue to work on it. :)
    Anyway, since I don't know anything about the night shots, I was soaking all your info like a sponge. I have a question though: what was the time you started to take shots (what is the 'night-time' for the photographers) and when did you finish?
    And here is my tip I read about the photo remote - if you don't have with you, you can try the 'self-timer' (I think that's how it's called), so that the camera takes the shot itself and doesn't move as much as if you pushed the button...
    PS: Can't wait to learn more from you!

  3. Thanks for the great photo lesson. I love the image of the Louvre with the night sky (your 7th image). When you get back to the states, we should do a photo trip to Pinnacle National Monument, just south of San Francisco. When I was last there, I went on a family hike, but spent the whole time imaging a day of photography.

  4. Thanks for such a comprehensive post. It was really interesting to read of your progression from one shot to another, especially with the two pyramids through the arch at the Louvre. You're a real inspiration to me.

  5. I so enjoyed your post. Thanks for sharing. This is great! I definitely can relate. I found I don't always see the little details through the camera. It's always after that I wish I saw this or did that. Usually, it's too late to fix in photoshop. I shake alot, too. The worst is a perfect picture, except that its blurry. My favorite's your first one, too.

  6. These are just amazing shots.
    Loved your post also!!

  7. Wow, this is another wonderful post of yours. Not only being able to enjoy the stunning views of Paris, but also having your tutorial! I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you. This took me back to when I first started to learn manual photography. (Gosh it’s almost 20 years ago if I counted!) Pleased to see you enjoyed the longing trip to Paris with you and camera :) xm

  8. My favorites are 2nd and 6th photo in this sequence, love them. I've lived next door to France for more than 20 years and never been to Paris yet, I'm going to have to change that, your photos are making me want to book a trip over there right now :)

  9. beautiful nighttime shots. I could never do that.

  10. What a wonderful, great post. I actually think I need to come back here again when I have more time (hah!). I sometimes experience the same frustration when the camera just wouldn't release the shutter. I also work more often on full manual these days. Night time photography has often frustrated me, but it fascinates me at the same time, and your post was very encouraging, so I will go on experimenting and practising.

  11. Absolutely stunning pics - I never knew you were up to this...inspiring...thanks for sharing your journey.

  12. GORGEOUS! Man, I love Paris.

    Maybe the ghost lights are just... ghosts. ;)

  13. So, so wonderful! Thank you for taking the time to write this post! I learned so much from your detailed descriptions of how the shots were set up and what you like/didn't like. So helpful! :) Everytime I looked at the shots of the pyramid, I thought of The DaVinci Code! Too funny. :)

  14. Wow, I loved this post (and the photographs) and will come back again to reread it. I have almost no experience with night photography and can't think of any good images that I've ever taken, so I was really interested in the process. I'm catching up after being away and wanted to have sufficient time to concentrate on all you said. Now I'm off the read the rest of the posts in the order you posted them. Thanks, Kat, for taking the time to do this.

  15. Kat, I'm late on this one, just found it in your archives link on today's (02.14.11) post. Love the photos and the essay. What really clicked for me was what you shared about the T1i viewfinder. All the months I've had my T1i, I thought it was me! Also have experienced the focusing problems you described. But it's good to know it's not always me! :D)


What's your view of the world? I love to hear yours too!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.