Exercise 4.3 – ambient artificial light

These images were taken during an evening walk through central London. They were taken between 7:20pm and 8:45 on an evening when sunset was at 7:03. Therefore, they show a transition through the ‘blue hour’ into full night-time.

All images were made with a Pentax K-1 and 24-70mm f/2.8 lens used in manual exposure mode. Most used ISO3200, apertures between f/4 and f/8 and handholdable shutter speeds.

I shot in RAW, so colour temperature decisions could be deferred until post-processing. I follow Rut Blees Luxemburg’s preference for embracing the real colour of the light source rather than attempting to correct it, so I have set a ‘daylight’ white balance (5500K) in all cases.

Post-processing was in Lightroom, where I adjusted overall contrast (and, occasionally, exposure) to fit my subjective memory of the scene. The typical adjustment is to open the shadows (moving the ‘shadows’ slider to the right) and tweak the ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ sliders so that there is marginal clipping at both ends of the dynamic range. If this were a camera club competition, I would be tempted by local adjustments (grads and post-crop vignetting) but I have eschewed them for this exercise.

The main question with shooting night-time cityscapes is whether to use the artificial light sources as illumination (see Luxemburg or Brassaï) or as the subject (see Shintaro). I have attempted both approaches in this exercise.

As seen in the set above, in many well-illuminated spaces (street lit or internal), the emphasis is on quantity of light rather than its quality. Typically, there are multiple overhead light sources giving a soft, even, shadowless light. In Northumberland Avenue, the street lighting is bright enough that the illuminated theatre sign can be rendered without resorting to HDR.

In this set, the lighting is more directional. The floodlighting from the SNOG bus is intended to give a coloured ‘stage lighting’ effect while its internal lighting gives working light to the servers and, incidentally, illumination of the customers’ faces. With the couple reading the menu, there is overall street lighting but their faces are lit by the illuminated menu acting as a large softbox. In the bar image, there is no street lighting and the two figures are lit by very strongly coloured lights intended for dramatic illumination of the building.


In this image, shot in Trafalgar Square, the rather dim general light comes from the reflected floodlighting on the National Gallery but the womens’ faces are lit by their torchlight reflected from the pages of their guidebook.

In these wider views, the scene and the sky are dark or black and it is the light sources, and their reflections, which are the subject. Water is an obvious reflector, but I also used glossy paintwork on buses, taxis and other vehicles, and a surprising amount is reflected from dry roads and pavements which are ‘polished’ by use and seen at the right angle.


This is the classic ‘light-source-as-subject’ image, of Eros in Piccadilly Circus and the Coca-Cola ad behind him. I spot-metered the red of the illumination as a mid-tone and let the other tones fall as they will. My regret (and I will go back and re-shoot sometime) is that I set the shutter speed too fast (1/1250s) rather than closing the aperture or setting a lower sensitivity, which has caused a form of pixellation in the changing LED displays.

The final image is my favourite of the evening. The neon sign in the window is a picture element itself but also gives that glorious red internal illumination.


Exercise 4.3 preliminary – transition time

My main response to exercise 4.3 is a set of night-time images, taken in central London on 20 September. The images in this posting are a subset taken over a 10 minute period around sunset, between 7:01pm and 7:10. Sunset was 7:03, not that one would notice, given the heavy overcast. What is noticeable is the rapid change of light levels and the changing relationship between the intensity of the artificial light and the lightness of the sky.

Images were made with a Pentax K-1 and 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, used in manual exposure mode. There was minor tweaking in Lightroom, to adjust overall contrast rather than exposure.

All images were shot in RAW mode, deferring decisions on colour temperature until post-production. All images were set to ‘daylight’ (5500K) colour balance to enable a proper assessment of colour changes.

The interesting point is that, with the exception of the very bright ‘stage lighting’ floodlights on the SNOG bus, the artificial lights are insignificant in relation to the overall daylight levels. The first of the images used in Exercise 4.3 was taken at 7:20pm, 17 minutes after sunset, by which time the scene had darkened noticeably and it is the artificial lighting that dominates.

Ambient artificial light 3 (Shintaro and Zachmann)

In the previous postings of this series, I have looked at the effect of ambient artificial light in lighting the scene. By contrast, Sato Shintaro’s ‘Night Lights’ series is all about the light source itself. This is a set of images made in Tokyo and Osaka between 1997 and 1999, showing the clutter of advertising illuminations and deliberately excluding people.

Although the course notes tell us that these are ‘blue hour’ images, the skies are uniformly black and it is the artificial sources that illuminate everything. From the level of detail, these appear to be large-format film images (Shintaro tells us that ‘Tokyo Twilight Zone’ was shot on large-format film and these appear similar). The images are crisp and vibrant and capture the look, if not the bustle, of these cities at night.

Shintaro’s ‘blue hour’ images are in his ‘Tokyo Twilight Zone’ set (2002-2008). These are all taken from Tokyo fire escapes, giving horizontal views over the city, but usually from back-street locations (where the fire escapes are) rather than tourist spots.

Use of the ‘blue hour’ preserves some colour in the sky and sufficient light to show some detail in unlit areas, but our attention is taken by the artificial light elements. Unlike ‘Night Lights’  these are not advertising features but working lights such as the streetlights , the railway floodlights and the office window lights in the image above. In this set, we get a sense of how the city ‘ticks’

Patrick Zachmann is a Magnum photographer who has been photographing in China since 1982, and in colour at night since 2001. His ‘China Nights’ images (Magnum 2014) cover everything lit up at night, from construction sites to nightclubs.

CHINA. Guangdong. Town of Humen. 2005. Massage parlor.

CHINA. Guangdong. Town of Humen. 2005. Massage parlor.

Zachmann’s  images concern the integration of people and artificial light. Migrant construction workers and sex workers feature large, and there is no romanticisation. These images are different from his normal documentary style, much more impressionistic, but most give a feeling that there is abuse or coercion somewhere in the background. The treatment is good, some of the lighting is beautiful, but it is not an easy set to view.


Magnum (2104) China Nights 2005 – Patrick Zachmann [online] at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com [search string omitted for clarity]

Shintaro, S.(s.d.) Night Lights [online] at: http://sato-shintaro.com/work/night_lights/index.html

Shintaro, S. (s.d.) Tokyo Twilight Zone [online] at: http://sato-shintaro.com/work/tokyo_twilight_zone/index.html


Ambient artificial light 2 (Brassaï by night)

Gyula Halász, known as Brassaï (1899-1984) by reference to his birthplace, was a Hungarian-French photographer who settled in Paris in 1924 and started photography in 1929 to record his impressions gained on long nocturnal walks. His book ‘Paris de Nuit‘ (Paris by Night) was published in December 1932. (Jeffrey 2008,148)(Ray-Jones 1970)

The images are a mix of haunting outdoor scenes and vibrant interiors of bars and clubs. Showgirls and prostitutes feature large. Lighting of the interiors was supplemented by reflectors and magnesium flash powder (Meltzer 2014) , so it is not truly ambient and I will concentrate on the exterior images.

Brassaï was a pioneer of night-time photography, in an era of slow lenses and slow emulsions. All of his images were considered (and the people in them posed), taken from a tripod and with extended exposure times gauged by how long it takes to smoke a Gauloises, as seen above (Meltzer 2014)

The images start with black to which patches of light are added, visible street lighting, reflections in wet pavements or the Seine. A good proportion use atmospherics to diffuse the point light sources, and Brassaï is not afraid to render his shadows as dense black.

This treatment is diametrically opposed to Schmidt or the early Atget discussed in a previous posting. Brassaï is not particularly interested in the detail of his subject, he is evoking a feeling of the experience of being there. He wants his viewers to be emotionally involved, and he succeeds. I have enjoyed this research element enormously, which is why I have included so many samples; there were none that I could bear to leave out.


Jeffrey, I (2008) How to read a photograph London: Thames & Hudson

Meltzer, S (2014) The piercing eye of Brassaï: the stunning work of a master French photographer [online] at: http://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2014/01/07/the-piercing-eye-of-brassai-a-brief-history-of-a-master-photographer [accessed 19/8/16]

Ray-Jones, T. (1970) Tony Ray-Jones Interviews Brassai” Pt. I [online] at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/08/interview-brassai-with-tony-ray-jones.html [accessed 19/8/16]

Ambient artificial light 1 (Luxemburg and others)

Part 4 of the course deals with three different regimes of lighting, ambient natural light, ambient artificial light and studio (photographer-directed) artificial light. Project 3 ‘The beauty of artificial light’ looks at the second of these, ambient artificial light. This is the first posting to follow-up on the examples and quotes presented in the notes.

‘Daylight changes from moment to moment; the advantage of artificial light is that it stays the same’ (EYP course notes, 83). This is not strictly true; lights will be turned on and off, sometimes at semi-random (stage and event lighting) but it is, on the whole, predictable. The main difference between ambient and studio light (the subject of project 4) is that ambient is not under the control of the photographer; he has to work with what he is faced with – as with natural light.

Therefore, the Christopher Doyle films do not really fit into this section. The play of artificial light on his characters’ faces  is beautiful, but it is all under the film-makers’ control.

Rut Blees Luxemburg (b.1967) is a German photographer with a studio in Shoreditch, London and is a tutor at the Royal College of Art. She has three major bodies of work, photographing London on 5×4 colour film, of which the second, ‘Liebeslied’ (literally, ‘love songs’ or ‘love poetry’ but renamed ‘My Suicides’ in the English translation) is referenced in the course notes. This is a series of intimate cityscape images, made at night and therefore lit predominantly by street lighting. Exposure times are typically 5 to 20 minutes (Campany 1999), which contributes to the overall look.

Her ‘alchemy … a secret process that uses artificial light to turn the streets into gold’ appears to involve embracing the real colour of the light source, rather than attempting to ‘correct’ it. Point light sources reflected in damp or polished surfaces are often beautiful at night, and she tells us in the Campany interview that she will wait for rain. Finally, the long exposures on large-format film are the diametric opposite of the instantaneous pictures of Jeff Wall and others, smoothing out variations and giving water a syrupy quality.

Stella Achimsa is the mystery woman of the course notes. In a Google search of her name, the leading ‘hits’ are five OCA learning blogs by coursemates who have studied EYV ahead of me. All of these blogs say that they are unable to find any trace of Achimsa online, a comment that I am forced to repeat (no independent Google hits, nothing on Facebook or Flickr). However, the search was not wasted because the learning blogs have given me at least one more name to research. Patrick Zachmann, a Magnum photographer will feature in a future posting.


Campany, D. (1999) A conversation between Rut Blees Luxemburg and David Campany 1999 [online] at: http://www.union-gallery.com/content.php?page_id=653 [accessed 18/8/16]