Claire Gillo shares the work of iconic day to night photographer Stephen Wilkes and reveals how to try it yourself on a budget scale
Time and photography go hand in hand. A photograph is a moment of time captured at a split second or a number of seconds/minutes/hours depending on the shutter speed. While modern cameras can capture some amazing results in just one frame, if you want to capture a long passing of time (i.e. the turning from day to night) then it’s best to shoot multiple frames and then blend them together.
That is a basic outline of what Stephen Wilkes has done for his latest book Day to Night. Wilkes spent many years shooting iconic locations such as the African Serengeti, Times Square in New York City, Trafalgar Square in London and the Eiffel Tower in Paris to name just a few. In a TED talk on YouTube Wilkes reveals that he captured these places for long periods of time and then blended the images together for a flawless composition. For many of his composites Wilkes would shoot more than 1,500 exposures (even up to 2,000 images for some) from the same fixed angle. The durations of his shoots would last anywhere from 15 to 30 hours, and then at the post-production stage he painstakingly edited the final frames together, often over a period of several months. When you look closely at his city scenes you can see the same person/people in different places throughout the day, and even details such as their shadows move as the light changes. These small touches really add to the final effect.
If you’re thinking of doing something similar and to the same high degree, then this type of project requires much patience and technical expertise not only at the shooting stage, but also in the planning. In fact Wilkes waited more than two years to gain permission to photograph Pope Francis celebrating Easter Mass at the Vatican, and in 2013, he was lucky enough to capture the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. He reveals in the TED talk, ‘Day to Night is a compilation about all the things I love about the medium of photography. It’s about landscape; it’s about street photography, colour, architecture, perspective, scale and history. When you spend 15 hours looking at a place you’re going to see things a little more differently than if you just walk up to something and take a picture.’
Try it yourself
Wilkes shoots on the digital equivalent of an 8×10 camera. For many of us, having access to such a high-end kit isn’t an option, but don’t let that put you off. It is still possible to use standard kit and capture the same idea (just with a bit less resolution!). If you want to try this yourself then a sturdy tripod is an essential piece of kit for keeping your camera still in one place.
Wilkes shoots most of his composites from a high vantage point on a cherry picker, which for the majority of us is unlikely expenditure! Although being up high is an advantage it is not essential, and the main element to focus on when setting up your shot is getting a good composition. You want to find a strong angle that reveals interesting elements whatever the time of day. We set up our composition on the beach at Slapton Sands in Devon and captured the people moving around from day to night. To find out how, follow our simple steps.
Shooting and editing a day to night
Although we didn’t come anywhere close to capturing 1,500 frames for our final result we still got a great result! Here’s how we did it
For our day to night interpretation we took a slightly different approach to Stephen Wilkes and used a ghosting effect to blend our images together. This meant that some of our figures overlapped. Whilst we don’t deny the technical expertise it took for Wilkes to complete his amazing day to night images and fully appreciate the amount of time he put in at the editing stage, we think ours is still a great result if you want to try this technique as a day project and have limited resources.
When the sun is still high in the sky set your camera up on a tripod. Once you’re happy with your composition lock it down securely into position. At this point you want to focus about a third of the way into your frame and check the focus is sharp. Once happy, switch the focus setting to the manual setting to lock it in place.