In cars at night

an exhibit on muellerworld

Inspired by Will Cheung's 2-page arcticle in the Christmas 2001 issue of Practical Photography ("Britian's best selling photography magazine"), I ventured out to take some night photos in my car.

Four minutes in Eastborne Six minutes in Wellington

The set-up was pretty straight forward:

First, the tripod. I set mine up in the back seet area, so that my 20mm lens would see both rear-view mirrors in its field of view. It took a little wrestling and I had to remove the head-rest on the passenger-side seat (in New Zealand, that's the seat on the left) so that the view was not obscured. I was using a Manfrotto 190NAT tripod with a Kirk BH-1 ball head. I wedged two of the legs into opposite corners of the back seat where the seat meets each door. There is a small gap where the backrest part of the seat meets the horizontal part, and the end of the legs wedged in very nicely. I positioned the third leg near the center console, right behind the passenger-side seat. After the tripod tipped-over one time, I reclined the seat to secure the whole set-up in place. Be sure that your tripod is secure!, you don't want it flopping around in the back seat like mine did the first time I took a sharp corner.

Next, the camera. The author of the story was using a Canon EOS 3 with a "long, lockable release". The difference was that his was mounted up front, near the dashboard in front of the passenger-side seat. His release cable was probablly pretty easy to operate from his driving position... I chose to use a fancy, electronic release for my Nikon F100. That way, I could push the button and let the timer keep track of when the exposure was complete, instead of me having to worry about it as I drove. The one I have is about 30" long and the control rested conveniently on the passenger-side seat back where it only took a second or two to reach over and start an exposure. It is very important to make sure that the whole setup is quick and easy to use without distracting you from driving.

Since exposure is a complete guess, I started with what the arcticle mentioned: 5 minutes at f/8. As I drove out of my driveway, I pushed the remote release button, and drove around Wellington. The first few frames were through the city centre where there are many street lights and businesses that are lit up at night. I got stopped by traffic lights a few times, and the driving was pretty slow, maybe 30 kph. The frames were OK, but over exposed a bit. The next few frames were taken in a more remote area with street lights, but not much else. They, too, were over exposed a little...

I took 19 exposures in about 90 minutes as I drove from neighborhood to neighboorhood. From the city centre to the airport, along Cook Strait, and out to Eastborne and back on the motorway.

I got one exposure that I liked. It was on from on the motorway where I was able to drive at about 100 kph (62 mph), and the street lights were higher and farther apart. Most of the frames were at f/8 for 5 minutes, but the one that I liked was for 9 minutes at f/11.

Not satusfied with my results, I went out again 2 nights later and got better results. I used f/11 and 4 minutes as a starting point, and I also started with an 80A filter mounted on the lens to try and somewhat correct the color temperature a little (I am guessing that most of the street lights were sodium vapor, so the 80A was not really the best filter to use, but it did a pretty good job). I drove a similar route to the one I did the first time, and got much better results. Out of 15 frames, I got 4-5 that were pretty good, with my favorite being for 6 minutes at f/16.

Film: I used Kodak E100VS slide film for both tests. I might try it again another time with one of the Fuji Tungston stocks like 64T or 160T to see how it goes...

The author used a 24mm lens that was looking directly out of the car from in front of the passenger-side seat. I'll probablly try that perspective at some point, but I think I like having the driver in the frame, with blurry motion on the steering wheeel and all the gauges, and interior lights visable (and readable).

Matt Mueller
29 Jan, 2002