A Lonely Night Time Photography Walk

The night of Saturday November 13th was unseasonably warm.  Unfortunately my wife was stuck inside with report cards and I was left to my own imagination, which can get dangerous.  I decided to take my tripod and camera into Boston and try my hand at some nighttime photography.   I didn’t exactly know what I was doing, but trial-and-error is how I learned everything so far in terms of photography.  I knew the tripod would be key together with a remote shutter.  The shake that comes with pressing the shutter is enough to ruin any night photo, even with a 2-second delay.  I also knew to keep the ISO relatively low as the camera would tend to try and compensate for the low light by increasing the ISO and therefore the noise.  With these facts in hand I ventured outwards.

I began the night by walking from the Charles T stop to one of the docks on the Charles River.  The dock was littered with young couples in love and groups of students awed by the Cambridge skyline and post-Big Dig bridge.  After setting up my tripod and my Sigma 10-20mm lens I began with some test shots but overall nothing was coming out great.  It’s possible that the dock wasn’t as still as long exposure photography requires adding to the blur.  This shot was the first one I liked, despite a blurred skyline, as it depicted the casual dock activity as well as my shadow.

Cambridge Skyline
Sigma 10-20mm, f/4.0, 1.6 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm

From the dock I walked towards the Longfellow bridge where I spent the next 30 minutes.  This first shot is one of my favorites as it produced an unexpected adrenaline rush since I was standing a few feet away from oncoming Storrow Drive traffic.

Under Longfellow Bridge
Sigma 10-20mm, f/4.0, 10 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm

I moved back a bit for these next shots.

Under Longfellow Bridge
Sigma 10-20mm, f/4.0, 10 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm
Under Longfellow Bridge
Sigma 10-20mm, f/4.0, 10 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm
Longfellow Bridge
Sigma 10-20mm, f/5.6, 10 Seconds, ISO 100, 20mm

I headed for the foot overpass in the hopes for a different few of the freeway.  I waited patiently for the next Red Line train to arrive to produce a light trail perpendicular to the oncoming traffic.  An unexpected obstacle here was the passing foot traffic on the foot bridge.  While there wasn’t risk of them getting in the way of the shot, their steps on the bridge shook the camera just enough to produce the dreaded blur.   These are the better shots from the foot bridge.

Red Line Trails
Sigma 10-20mm, f/4.5, 8 Seconds, ISO 100, 11mm
Storrow Drive Trails
Sigma 10-20mm, f/4.0, 8 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm
Bridge over Storrow Drive
Sigma 10-20mm, f/4.0, 8 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm

My confidence was boosted after those shots came out well, but time was passing quickly.  I moved next to the Boston Gardens thinking the pond and interesting trees would make for some winning shots and the issues with traffic would be removed.   This first vertigo-inducing shot was looking directly up at a Weeping Willow; a tree that I certainly don’t see everyday.

Weeping Willow
Sigma 10-20mm, f/4.0, 10 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm

Up until this point I had been using the Sigma 10-20mm lens which is great for the scenic photos I was taking so far, but I wanted some more detailed and specific shots so I moved to my Canon Telephoto 70-300mm.  Given the clear night my first shot was of the half-moon.  The moon often got in the way of the long-exposure shots as the technique for shooting the moon is the complete opposite of night photography.  It’s sun-lit, so the camera needs to be set as if it was the middle of the day or all of the moon details will be lost.

Half Moon
Canon 70-300mm, f/5.6, 0.01 Seconds, ISO 100, 300mm

From the same vantage point I took the following shots of the bridge by the duck boats.  I wanted to get a shot showing a person or couple on the bridge but that required them staying still for a few seconds which never happened.  The second photo is enhanced and brightened with Lightroom 2.

Boston Garden Pond
Canon 70-300mm, f/5.6, 1.6 Seconds, ISO 100, 90mm
Boston Garden Pond
Canon 70-300mm, f/4.0, 1.6 Seconds, ISO 100, 70mm

I made my way to the bridge for some on-bridge shots and seeing that it was around 7PM on a Saturday it was quite busy.  I set up the tripod in the center for bridge as people walked around me and I hoped no one got suspicious or angry that I was taking a photo in their general direction.  For their face to appear in these photos they would need to stand still for about 10 seconds.  I was prepared to explain this to people, though I never had to.  My first interaction with street walkers did come around this time however.  An unrelated group of males and females were walking near each other towards me and one of the boys pointed in the general direction of the ladies and said to them “is he taking photos of you?”.  The girls listened to their parents advice well and ignored the strangers, but I chimed in looking the boys in the eye and said “no, I’m taking a picture of you”.  As they walked past me I heard a distinct “O no he didn’t”.  I moved on.

Boston Garden Bridge
Canon 70-300mm, f/9.0, 10 Seconds, ISO 100, 70mm
Boston Garden Bridge
Sigma 10-20mm, f/4.0, 2.5 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm

I next made my way through the Back Bay where the streets form a modern grid full of right angles.   This was a great opportunity to use the 10mm wide angle that the Sigma offers though it required me to keep one tripod leg in traffic, and the other 2 on a very busy sidewalk.  It left my camera very vulnerable to passing hooligans but I always kept a hand a few inches from the body.  It was during these shots that groups of college kids would mutter “hey, let’s ruin this guy’s picture” as they waited for the walk signal.  It kept me on guard but if I learned any non-photography lessons on this walk it’s that the threats of a group of college kids are generally not acted upon.

Back Bay
Sigma 10-20mm, f/4.0, 4 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm
Back Bay
Sigma 10-20mm, f/9.0, 4 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm
Berklee College of Music at Night
Sigma 10-20mm, f/10.0, 5 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm

I was asked what time I took these photos as the streets appear empty.  The truth is exactly the opposite as the streets are full of people, they’re just all moving and don’t stay still long enough to make the shot.  In the shot below a woman entered the frame to flag a cab and stopped just long enough to appear as a transparent pedestrian.

Mass Ave and Boylston Ghost
Sigma 10-20mm, f/5.0, 10 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm

After a quick stop over to the Library and Copley Place it was time to call it a night.

Trinity Church
Sigma 10-20mm, f/4.0, 2.5 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm
Boston Public Library
Sigma 10-20mm, f/7.1, 2 Seconds, ISO 100, 10mm

I finished the night at around 9PM at Spike’s Junkyard Dogs for dinner.  There were two groups of people there; college students stopping in for a bite before a night of drinking, and seemingly homeless people with over-sized coats and bags strung out across the tables.   With my camera bag and tripod I fit comfortably in the latter category.  As I ate my dog I couldn’t help but listen to the young folk’s conversations about Taylor Swift.  Her song was playing while we ate and they expressed their hatred for the young lady.  For anyone over the age of 18, announcing hatred for the Cyrus/Bieber/Swift machine is like Derek Jeter complaining that “Creative Knitting” magazine doesn’t have enough articles pertaining to life as a celebrity short-stop.   They have a target audience, and Derek Jeter and Boston college students are not that audience.

If I learned anything during this walk it was that long exposure and nighttime photography is unforgiving.   While it’s commonsense that the camera needs to be kept still I didn’t think things like foot traffic and wind would be much of a factor.  When I researched a possible tripod a few years back I read a comment suggesting that everyone starts with a tripod that’s less than $100 as they see no reason to spend over $1000 on a 3-legged camera stand.  But later everyone realizes that a good tripod isn’t cheap and the upgrade is inevitable.  While I can’t envision ever spending close to $1000 on a tripod, this trip brought more truth to those old comments.


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