Who’s Afraid of the Dark?
“The best thing about low-light photography,” says Mike Will, “is that it’s a challenge. It’s not easy to master, so it’s an opportunity to prove myself creatively.”
Mike has been shooting low-light cityscapes and night portraits around London for several years, and for him the challenge has never gotten old: “I’d pick shooting at night over day every time, and a big part of that is to do with people’s reactions to my images. I can take a street scene that they might see ten times a day, a view they take for granted, and make them see something completely different and amazing.”
© Mike Will | Sony Alpha 7R III + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1.0s @ f/4.0, ISO 100
There’s no doubt that Mike’s low-light scenes are impressive; a fine mix of excellent composition, precise timing, and captivating colorwork that’s matured over years of shooting. This, alongside the features of his Alpha mirrorless cameras and his passion for overcoming the challenges of shooting night portraits, has led to him producing low-light pictures that are both intriguing and magical.
Mike says that he pushes himself to add value to every image, using elements that make it leap out and grab the viewer’s attention.
© Mike Will | Sony Alpha 7R III + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 2.5s @ f/8.0, ISO 160
So, how exactly do you elevate low-light shots above the ordinary? How do you make them emotional and compelling? Mike uses a range of elements, one of which is to literally shoot from an elevated position.
“Higher vantage points are great for overlooking cities like London,” he tells us, “and you get a freer feeling being away from street level, along with a more expansive view. It’s important to strike a balance however, as you don’t want to lose that connection to the place you’re shooting or to make it anonymous.”
Take his shot overlooking Bank, where the higher view gives a traditional landscape composition, with strong lead-in lines to guide the viewer’s eye.
© Mike Will | Sony Alpha 7R III + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 5.0s @ f/11.0, ISO 125
Movement is also an important ingredient, but not just any type. Long exposures in low light naturally leads to motion blur and light trails, but, says Mike, you need to work a bit harder again. Combining static elements with the blur is one method he uses, such as the focal point of the static bus in the middle of his Bank shot, or using a still human shape to contrast with the motion.
“Again, it’s that problem-solving thing,” Mike explains. “You have to be passionate and put in the hours, often in the cold, waiting for the right moment. It’s you against the buses and cars to get the timing completely right, but knowing you’ve nailed it, even after 20 or 30 attempts, is a great feeling.”
© Mike Will | Sony Alpha 7R III + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 2.0s @ f/10.0, ISO 320
For his latest low-light shots covering landmarks across London, Mike has used his trusty Alpha 7r III and Alpha 7 III. The benefits of mirrorless cameras aren’t lost on him, but as the Alpha 7 II was his first professional camera, features that make low-light photography much easier than in the past all seem very normal to him. “When people ask me about the problems they’re having on their DSLRs,” he tells us, “like focusing in the dark, or perfecting exposure, it’s pretty alien to me. I ask ‘why can’t you just use focus peaking, or look at what you’re going to get through the viewfinder?’ And they just sort of stare at me blankly! After years of using Alpha kit, I guess I just take all the great features for granted as they’re all totally normal for me.”
© Mike Will | Sony Alpha 7R III + FE 16-35mm f/2.8 GM | 1/80s @ f/2.8, ISO 2000
Shooting in low-level light also means that when picking his gear, size is an important factor for Mike. “Smaller, lighter cameras and lenses do make it easier to work in the city at night,” he explains, “and if I were to get a DSLR that had a comparable full-frame quality to my Alpha kit, it would be almost twice the size.”
And what about lenses? Mike tells us that he travels light with these too: “I use the FE 16–35 mm F2.8 GM about ninety percent of the time for my low-light and long-exposure work. For portraits, like the shot of the girl on the swing, I use the Distagon T* FE 35 mm F1.4 ZA, and I know with the Alphas’ Eye AF focusing mode I can totally rely on the sharpness being there, even wide open.”
© Mike Will | Sony Alpha 7R III + FE 35 mm F1.4 ZA | 1/320 sec @ f/1.8, ISO 1000
The most important challenge for low-light shooting though is image quality and the ability to get the colors and detail necessary to captivate people. Again, his Alpha bodies come to the fore here, and Mike is happy to leave white balance on Auto and then make small adjustments to the colors in Lightroom.
ISO performance and dynamic range also meet the challenge of low light. "My low-light portraits are shot around ISO 1000 or higher,” Mike explains, “but you still get so much detail and quality out of the sensor, and the images are so clean. With the low-light street scenes, I’m shooting between 50 and 500, and there’s an amazing dynamic range for highlight and shadow detail. It all helps me overcome the challenge of low light.”
And does Mike have any final pearls of wisdom for photographers looking to capture nighttime shots? “It’s not enough,” he says, “to simply go out and shoot at night. You need to do something different.