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This article was written by the New York Institute of Photography, America’s oldest and largest photography school. NYI provides professional-level training via home study for photographers who want to give their images a professional look, and perhaps earn extra income with their camera.

Then, There Was Low Light

Here's the kind of moody scene you can record if you're ready to experiment with low light photography. Later on in this series, we'll show you how to make photos like this.

You, the photographer, position the softened spotlight at the right angle to illuminate your subject's face-creating a picture worth framing. Of course, in a studio, where everything is controlled, lighting is just a matter of positioning. But, out in the stubborn, unpredictable nocturnal world, distant lamp lights streak yellows and golds sloppily onto the streets; your favorite sports team appears as a mirage on an island of darkness; cars on a highway are reduced to ribbons of color. When taking pictures with little light, the importance of being able to manipulate your available light to your lens' advantage becomes evident.

Here's a low light photo where timing is everything. We see a dramatic cityscape that hinges partly on good luck (you need a great sunset), good timing, and good exposure. All three are part of low light photography.

Now, imagine a sky bursting with stars making the foliage below glimmer, or a dazzling cityscape with a rainbow of intensely sharp neon colors, or even a close-up of your daughter kicking the soccer ball into the goal-so clear that your lens captures her ecstatic smile.

Taking low light (or available light, as it is often called) photographs is not always easy. In fact, it can be quite difficult. Over the next few months, we will explore the possibilities and procedures for taking low light photography. With some guidance and practice, you will be prepared to venture into the nocturnal world and make it come to life.

First, A Look Back
With the technological advancements of the last 100 years, it's easy to forget that in the beginning there was only low light. Electricity was not invented until the 1890's, and it wasn't in mass use until the early 1900's. Photography came years before and so was created to work with the little light available. It is a field, which was built upon by many artists and inventors, all adding to the advancements of their predecessors. Though there was one whose name stuck-before Darwin, Newton, Ford, and Lindbergh, there was the French artist Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre.

Daguerre was born near Paris in 1787. A successful commercial artist by 1825, he also promoted the giant theater, the Diorama, which encased huge 22 x 14m. paintings of historical, allegorical, and picturesque scenes lit to simulate movement. With the assistance of Joseph-Nicephore Niepce, Daguerre developed a method of making photographs, which excited commercial success. He called his invention "The Daguerreotype." By beginning with a plate of silver upon copper, polishing the plate with steatic calcareous stone, and iodizing the surface to create a pale yellow tint, the novice photographers had their first materials to create replications of their physical world. The plate then goes into the camera obscura (a small box with a hole in it), the lens is directed onto the object, and the rest depends entirely on the lighting.

By 1839, the French government had made the Daguerreotype public by publishing Daguerre's process of photography for the entire world to learn. In a matter of days, everything that related to the making of a Daguerreotype-iodine, lens, copper-was emptied from the opticians' and chemists' stores in Paris. To the cartoonists and satirists, it was nothing short of "Daguerreotypomania."

In Daguerre's era, photos of buildings often took half an hour or more to record. People walking past, along with dogs, carriages and other moving objects, didn't appear unless they stood still for a long period of time. Today, one way to record modern architecture is by taking photographs at night, such as was one with this photograph. We'll analyze how it was done in a later part of this series.

The Fever is Contagious
This fever to create photographs spread rapidly overseas and took hold in America. The daguerreotype excited the appetite for adventure of the Western pioneers, the artistic sensibilities of the eastern painters; and in everyone, it touched deeply a desire to place the temporal world into small, silver-plated portraits, which could literally be held outside of time. One of the most novel aspects of the first camera was that it had not been patented or licensed. So, anyone from the wealthy to the farm hands could get their portrait taken or even construct their own daguerreotype. It truly was a new communication medium, and it created a similar frenzied productivity and excitement that today surrounds the World Wide Web. By 1843, an explosive portrait industry had emerged.

Low light mixed with bright lights makes for streaks, something that can add or detract from a low light photo. For rides in an amusement part, these combination can show us things we can't see with our eyes.

To the men and women of the 1830's and 1840's, life's possibilities at once seemed boundless. Though, in truth, for daguerrotypists and their subjects, the restrictions placed on their cameras were grossly apparent. The difficulties surrounding the portraiture process depended entirely on the lighting. This was a world that relied solely on the natural embers of light from a fire or the blast of rays from the sun. To capture light, and do so in a way that accented the photograph, was an arduous, if not pain-staking, process. Many daguerreotypists put their studios on rooftops in an attempt to manipulate the light to please the camera. Initially, the exposure time could take from ten to thirty minutes. Then with great improvements in the lenses, apparatus, and chemistry of exposures, the subject's sitting time was shortened to 1-2 minutes. Regardless of the advancements, those posing for a portrait still had to remain motionless until the camera had made its full exposure. Luckily, photographers had a tool to help keep their subjects still. Anxious models ready to pose for the camera had to first place their necks into a clamp. Though this sounds strange and unusual to us, you have to remember that it took 1-2 minutes for the light to filter through the lens and imprint the image onto the silver-copper plate. If the subject moved slightly within that time frame, the image was blurred.

Here's a common low light problem. Professional sports stadiums have bright, expensive lighting that makes night games easy to photograph. What can you do when your subject is high school sports and the lighting is lousy? Naturally there are limits, but we'll tell you about the state of the art in a later installment.

Today, we still confront the importance of good lighting. Whether indoors without a strong light source or outside at night with a canopy of stars, oftentimes our pictures turn out blurred or too dark. Thankfully, much has changed since the days of the daguerreotype, and it is possible to not only take aesthetically pleasing photos with little light but also to create photographs that stand alone artistically because of their emphasis on lighting.

Low light doesn't just mean nighttime. A good dreary winter day also qualifies. Low light is in the eye of the beholder, just waiting to be captured by the photographer.

For the true revolution of low light photography, another one hundred years would pass. Next month we will explore the modern techniques of taking low light and night photography. Take an opportunity to visit to see their timeless collection of the old-fashioned daguerreotype photographs.

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