Hong Kong at Night: Painting with Shadows

· 4.February.2019

For 2019 I found myself in Hong Kong just three days into the new year. A small work project would take me to my favourite city for only 6 days and 6 nights. I knew I had limited time to shoot during the day, so I prepared myself for mostly night photography. I brought with me the Fujifilm X-T3 and the XF10-24mm that would double as both my video and stills camera. Although I was technically testing the X-T3, I wanted my photographs to be more than a bunch of disconnected review images. On this trip I wanted to work on leveraging the darkness of night, not only as negative space or a framing tool, but as a useful element in the majority of my images.

One of the easiest ways to shoot at night is to highlight the pockets of light that breaks though the darkness. The opening image really stood out to me because it was really dark where I was standing, but I noticed the glowing red ‘OPEN’ sign in the window. We know windows make fantastic frames in photographs, but this view had multiple windows, each with it’s own unique character. Multiple frames within a frame. Without the dark negative space this image wouldn’t have been as strong, so this was an easy scene to frame and photograph.

Fujifilm X-T3 w/ XF10-24mm @ 16mm. 1/125th f/4 @ ISO 3200

Another simple framing technique at night is shooting through the front windshield of a vehicle, in my case a taxi. This POV style is a very simple concept because the darkness creates a natural vignette, but the execution can be challenging. Sometimes you see something perfect outside, but the vehicle is either moving too fast, the road is too uneven and bumpy, or the scene changes quickly. I probably spent the most time trying to get the perfect image from inside the taxi that would include the taxi driver, a clear view from within the taxi, as well as something interesting outside. Although I didn’t get exactly what I was looking for (other taxis, neon signs, an even amount of people crossing the frame) this was the closest to my original concept.

Fujifilm X-T3 w/ XF10-24mm @ 10mm. 1/20th sec f/4 @ ISO 1600

Using both leading lines and the darkness to frame an image is another simple technique to use at night. Hong Kong is filled with narrow streets and pockets of amazing light, so these types of images are reasonably easy to get. If you are use to shooting in aperture priority, I recommend to under expose by at least 1 stop and shoot RAW. Try to save the highlights since the camera will try to over expose due to the lack of light. Also make sure to bump up your ISO between 1600-3200, 6400 being the limit before the introduction of colour noise. Once you frame everything up, just stand and wait for people to enter and exit your frame. I stood here for about 10 minutes and took about 5-6 shots. I decided on this image because of the perfectly silhouetted motion of the people as well as the shadows they created. Shadows creating shadows sandwiched between shadows.

Fujifilm X-T3 w/ XF 10-24mm @ 10mm. 1/15th sec f/4 @ ISO 1600

Using long, straight shadows is a great framing technique during the day, but you can also try pulling it off at night. Because big cities at night have multiple lights coming from a plethora of directions, look for areas where lights can also cast long shadows that help frame your images. Negative space works really well at night, as well as contrasting strong light and interesting elements. The above picture was down a very narrow alley with leading lines and an interesting graffiti wall with pipes and a fence. The right side and bottom edge of the frame had a reverse L shaped shadow that helped frame the image while the centre and left side had interesting lines.

Fujifilm X-T3 w/ XF 10-24mm @ 15mm. 1/80th sec f/4.5 @ ISO 1600

Even in scenes where I couldn’t find strong shadows, I still looked for contrasting points of strong light and tried to create layers by framing into my photos elements that would help the viewer be drawn into the image. I took this POV shot from inside a taxi. In this image I used two cars as my frame, both happen to be dark (like shadows) and perfectly sandwiched the focus of my frame, the people at the kiosk. What initially caught my eye was the overly bright light above the kiosk, but then realized the buildings on either side and the two cars acted as leading lines and a frame that locked the scene into position. I wish the building to the left was darker or at least older and more grungy, but overall I was pleased with the composition. Even the extra bright lights from the car on the right helped by mirroring the overhead light above the kiosk. The mixture of light and dark and the framing helps layer the image and keeps it interesting.

Fujifilm X-T3 w/ XF 10-24mm @ 14mm. 1/60th sec f/4 @ ISO 1600

This above image of the woman getting into the taxi is very complicated, and in theory shouldn’t work. The bright overhead neon sign should over power the image. However, the position of the taxi and the open door actually helps draw the viewer to the woman as the primary subject, and then the neon sign as secondary. Even though the bright buildings in the background can be a distraction, because both sides of the street create leading lines that draws the eyes towards the open taxi door, the composition works. The darkness in the image is inside the taxi itself. You can barely make out the taxi driver. As the lady enters into the taxi, she is slowly slipping into the shadows. The darkness is in the forefront of the image, and the bright lights are in the background. Also notice the furthest point of the image is the one bright street light, in contrast to the dark night sky. There’s lots of things happening here, but I feel the image still works because it all leads back to the lady and the taxi.

My final image I wanted to share is my latest experiment that merges selfies with my building ‘look-up’ series of images. As many of you know I enjoy taking pictures of buildings by shooting straight up into the sky. I call them reverse drone shots. I’ve evolved this in the past by incorporating random strangers, then posing my friends into the images, and now I use the Remote Camera app and embed myself into the photo. I love these building shots at night because the sky turns black and creates a natural negative space. I decided to frame myself just to the left of the large neon sign, and allowed the buildings to create natural leading lines up into the dark night sky. The neon signs and lit windows create an interesting contrast to the darker parts of the image until it all disappears naturally into the night.

Moreover, I was reasonably happy with what I was able to do on my short trip to Hong Kong. I could have easily chased the same type of images I’ve grabbed in the past, but I always feel the need to evolve my photography. Instead of focusing on just the light, I decided to look for the darker parts of the images to help me to compose and frame my images. Sometimes the darkness helped create leading lines, sometimes it helped to frame the light, other times it was negative space. Instead of painting with light, conceptually I was painting with shadows. Thanks for reading and happy shooting.




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