A Balmy Evening In Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok at night is a surreal place. It's hot, it's humidy and it's chaotic. Yet a strange kind of beauty exists, in those moments of stillness between the noise and traffic.

It’s always hot in Bangkok, which places a balmy evening night photography session high on the agenda for the enthusiast photographer. Amidst the noise and the chaos moments of transient beauty exist, between the din of the traffic and the hustle and bustle of this busy and crowded city.

The Best Time To Photograph The City

I love photographing the urban environment, particularly after the sun has set.

The afterglow, when the sun shines from below the horizon and lights up the clouds above, can be wondrous, particularly when some of that light reflects down onto a reflective surface like a wet street or a body of water.

Likewise, twilight is a beautiful time of day in the city. As street lights and interior lighting are turned on any remaining natural light works to fill many of the deep shadows where the artificial light doesn’t reach.

The combination of both natural and artificial light sources work together to both lower the contrast and introduce beautiful, sometimes surreal, mixed lighting situations.

Photographing the Night Sky

Night-time offers great opportunities for photography. Under a stormy sky bright, city light can reflect off low lying clouds helping to balance the illumination within the scene.

Alternative a clear night sky will often photograph very dark, sometimes black due to the much brighter light from the city in the bottom part of your photo.

Sometimes a very dark sky is problematic, as there’s nothing for the viewer to look at. Other times a black sky works as negative space which can work to draw attention to iconic illuminated buildings or shapes in the urban environment below.

When you compose your photos you need to look carefully to determine the relationship between sky and ground, particularly when there’s little to see in the sky.

The terrible high ISO noise performance of the Leica M9 camera is evident in the sky of this night-time photo made, without a tripod, at ISO 1000.

Fill Your Photos With Light

As a general rule I’d say it’s important to fill the frame, as much as possible, with subject matter that is illuminated. With the exception of a deliberate silhouette, there's little or no point photographing a building unless the building's exterior is adequately illuminated.

While it’s possible to add light through the introduction of one or more flash units, or by painting with lighting through the use of portable continuous light sources, such techniques are beyond most folks and are unlikely to work on large and/or distant subjects.

Nonetheless there are relatively easy ways to photograph at night that open up the world of night photography to anyone with a camera, even a mobile phone camera. Let’s explore some of them.

A man casually making his way across a pedestrian crossing at dusk in Bangkok, Thailand.

Make Night Photos At Dusk

Dusk is a great time to make night photos. The sun has gone done and the artificial lights are turned on. It’s not yet night-time but, in your photos, it will feel like it is.

What’s more the remaining ambient light will illuminate many of the darker areas of the frame where the artificial lights don’t reach, lowering the overall dynamic range of the scene and allowing you to record more information in your image.

Light The Subject By Moving Your Camera

The image at the very top of this post was made in downtown Bangkok on a balmy January evening. I wanted to photograph the bridge on the left of the frame so I moved to a position where the bridge was illuminated by light from the shopping centre across the street.

The wide-angle of view created by the fabulous Leica 24 mm Summilux-M f/1.4 lens allowed me to include both the bridge and the shopping centre facade within the frame in a way that emphasized three-dimensional space and depth.

I like the bizarre colors produced by the variety of artificial light sources within the frame. It adds a dynamic to what is, otherwise, a very quiet image. While not an amazing photo that duality between passive and dynamic makes for a more interesting photo.

I made the image at ISO 800 which, with a modern camera, shouldn’t present too many noise-related issues . But the images in this post where made with a Leica M9 camera.

I’ve been a long time fan and user of Leica cameras and, while I loved the color reproduction of the M9 camera, image quality was adversely and, to my mind, unacceptably affected by the camera’s CCD sensor at moderate to high ISO.

Jet black hides noise.
— Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru

I went a long way to resolving this problem with the image at the top of this post by pushing the darkest tones, particularly in the sky, into black.

Fortunately the issue has been resolved with more recent Leica M-series cameras. Newer models now provide excellent high ISO performance.

 

Traffic congestion on the streets of Sukhumvit at night in Bangkok, Thailand.

 

White Balance For Night Photography

As far as setting your camera's White Balance for night photography you might like to start off by setting your camera to Daylight/Direct Daylight/Sunny (different names for different brand cameras). This will allow you to accurately photograph the colors that are actually there.

Daylight White Balance

It might sound counter intuitive to set your camera to the Daylight white balance setting, or whatever it’s called on your particular camera, for night photography. That is, until you realize what the Daylight white balance setting actual means.

You'll likely be surprised by the result as your brain is doing its best to white balance (i.e., neutralize) the color of the artificial light and, as a result, most folks can't see the actual color of the light under which they're working.

Leaving your camera on the default Auto White Balance will cause the camera to try to neutralize the color of the light it reads. Imagine a wonderful red sunset reduced to a neutral white light. Yuck!

If I was Yoda I’d probably say something along the lines of,

“Not very clever your camera is!”

So as well as a great learning exercise, on the spot in real time, I feel your image making will improve by getting something close to the correct white balance before your camera's shutter is tripped.

And of course you can always change the white balance to achieve a warmer or cooler mood, either in camera or on the desktop. After all, it’s your photo.

Night Photography Under Fluorescent Lighting

Of course with one dominant artificial light source, such as fluorescent, you may not like the correct white balance produced by setting your camera to the Daylight/Direct Daylight/Sunny white balance.

In this case setting your camera onto the Fluorescent white balance (or to one of several fluorescent settings on many Nikon or Sony cameras) will often produce a more neutral result in camera.

The Advantage of Auto White Balance

If not, particularly when photographing under a range of different colored light sources, try the Auto white balance setting. From my way of thinking, that’s really what it’s for.

White Balance for JPEG

Just remember if you set your camera to JPEG it’s important and, sometimes, essential that you get your white balance right in camera.

While it’s possible to adjust an image with significantly out of whack white balance on the desktop, it's unlikely you'll be able to completely neutralize that color caste if you’re photographing in JPEG.

How to Approach White Balance in RAW  

Of course many folks photographing with their camera set to RAW can easily reset the white balance during image processing on the desktop.

Fine, but what you see on your camera's LCD screen effects how you feel about the images you’ve just made and how you’ll approach the image you’re about to make.

It’s for this reason that I think it’s really important to achieve a white balance that’s either correct or appropriate to your needs, in camera.

The feedback that’s available to us on our camera’s LCD screen and/or, in the case of a mirrorless camera, through the viewfinder is one of the greatest advantages offered by a digital camera.

I say pay attention to that information, let it inform your photography practice by helping you to feel good about the photo you’ve just made and allow you to move onto your next photo with confidence.

Food Vendor, Bangkok, Thailand

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Color Informs Mood

Color is such a potent agent of mood. Because white balance influences the color of light and, as a consequence, the way subject color is reproduced in your photos I believe it’s essential to develop a good understanding of white balance and how best to apply it, in camera.

That's one of the reasons I like to at least put the camera's white balance in the right ballpark before I walk up to the plate.

For me white balance on the desktop becomes more of a tweak, on the rare occasions that I need to change it, rather than a complete re-working or re-discovery of the original image made in camera.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru