The Current Issue
Nikon Owner Issue 18
Night Life by Heather Angel
We are all guilty. No matter what part of the world we take pictures, invariably the available light is not what we want at that moment of time. We complain there is too much, not enough; it is too variable or too flat. Only when you venture out at night with a camera, do you begin to appreciate that darkness can present even more problems and hazards to the photographer.
For a start, compared to nocturnal mammals and birds, our senses of sight and sound are ill-equipped to aid our safe movement in complete darkness. Secondly, you have to utilise an artificial light source; be prepared to use a long exposure or carry your own light.
Yet, night photography brings a special magic of its own. After an overnight snowfall, the amount of nocturnal wildlife activity that has taken place becomes evident from the criss-crossing tracks visible at daylight. A walk around a garden on a warm damp night with a torch will reveal the myriad of animals that shun daylight hiding beneath logs and stones, only to emerge at dusk. Slugs and snails glide across lawns or up moss-clad tree trunks in search of food. Unlike butterflies, many moths are active at night and careful searching in a garden on a summer's night will find some feeding on flowers. Spiders are much more in evidence at night than by day. Baiting with nuts wedged in a log or in cracks in a brick path will entice woodmice on a regular basis.
Small approachable animals can be photographed at night using a macro lens and flash. The simplest way to work with flash at night is to use a camera with a built-in flash. Even a small pop-up flash will give quite acceptable results, but like any front-on light it does lack modelling. A ring flash that encircles the lens provides shadow-free lighting, but the downside is that a circular reflection will appear on shiny fruits and beetles or, indeed, any wet surfaces.
Better modelling will be gained by moving the flash off camera attached by a sync lead. This will also eliminate the problem of unnatural red eyes appearing in birds and mammals.
For night use, the flash should be firmly supported together with the camera on a flash bracket, so that the whole unit can be moved in and out of the subject. Mounting the flash on a bracket to one side of the camera will produce a harsh shadow to one side of the subject if it is close to the background. If you plan to use a single flash on a regular basis, it could be worth investing in a Stroboframe camera / flash bracket. These robust, yet lightweight, brackets allow the flash to be mounted high above the lens central to the lens axis. This will eliminate red-eye and cast a shadow behind the subject.
For macro work, a second flash can be used as a fill. I have had a boomerang shaped macro bracket made - appropriately enough - by an Australian photographer. This allows me to mount a small flash on each side of the camera. I cover the window of the fill flash with a few layers of artist's trace to reduce the power.
The recently launched SB-R1 twin macro flash set-up with two SBR-200 remote units would be worth considering for night or daytime use. This unit, which is triggered by the pop-up flash on the D70, D70S or D200 cameras, has full auto TTL exposure. This, together with the SB-RIC1 unit designed for use with the new high end D-SLR cameras, is a Wireless Speedlight system, which does away with all cables that so easily snag up on vegetation.