The dark night rises in a flash

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Dublin city centre is a treasure trove for amateur snappers, particularly when the sun goes down, says Graeme Lennox, who shoots the Liffey at midnight with surprising results

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Taking pictures of O’Connell Bridge at midnight is the kind of thing that will get you a) arrested b) mugged or c) both, if you are really unlucky.

Fortunately my first attempt at night photography was a mob-handed affair with about 30 amateur snappers scrambling over each other to get shots of landmark bridges while passers-by craned their necks to get a glimpse of the poor soul who had jumped in the Liffey.

Capturing night shots in the capital involves a lot more than pointing and shooting. Even with the most sophisticated camera it takes a basic understanding of the rules of photography, not to mention a modicum of skill and patience, to pull off a great shot. Fortunately we were in the capable hands of Dave McKane, a fine-art photographer and principal of the Institute of Photography in Dublin.

McKane, whose 35-year love affair with the lens has seen him experiment with everything from instant Polaroids to film and the latest digital SLRs, reckons no amount of technology can account for the eyes of the person behind the camera. “I’ve been taking photographs since the dinosaurs walked the Earth and I’ve gone through every iteration of technology,” he says.

“Photography is very much about the creative tension between the image you want to take and the image your equipment will give you.”

Sales of DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras have been hit hard by improvements in smartphone and compact-camera technology. But while point-and-shoot solutions are great for everyday use, they lack the manual settings needed to shoot in low light. Even high-end smartphones, such as Samsung’s Galaxy S7, which allow users to adjust ISO, white balance and aperture settings, cannot match a full-blown DSLR after dark.

To prove a point, I joined a group of bloggers, Instagrammers and social-media stars on a night-time tour of the capital armed with Canon’s EOS 80D, a mid-range DSLR starting at €1,550.

Sensors in the latest digital cameras are good at reducing the grainy image quality associated with pictures taken in low light. But DSLRs are complex boxes of tricks and exploring the dial that experiments with settings can be daunting. McKane assured us that with a bit of training, shuttered storefronts, back alleys and gritty locations can all be brought to life. The two main settings covered here were aperture priority, which affects the level of light reaching the sensor, and shutter priority, which adjusts the speed of the small metal curtain in front of it.

Our first stop-off was the iconic Ha’penny Bridge, where after a few years of not paying its electricity bill, Dublin city council had installed a series of green spotlights to celebrate the bridge’s 200th anniversary, simultaneously adding an eerie glow to our shots.

Setting up my tripod quickly so as not to attract attention from the guards, I started snapping away with a two-second delay on each shot to give me enough time to remove my hands from the camera body and minimise shake. We deliberately set up on the south side of the Liffey to avoid the northside’s boardwalk where vibrations created by passing pedestrians can ruin images from 10 metres away.

A good technique for professional-looking results is to set your camera on a slow shutter speed and make use of the atmospheric light. The ISO rating regulates how sensitive the camera is to light. The higher the setting, the more sensitive it is. But going too high adds “noise” and a grainy texture to images.

We shot at 100 ISO, which is an average setting for shooting in daylight, but counteracted it with a slow shutter speed and a long, eight-second exposure. A tripod is essential at this stage as any camera shake will result in a horrible mess. “When I started doing digital photography in 2002, the noise you saw at 200 ISO is not being seen until 3,200 ISO in modern cameras,” says McKane. “It’s a huge leap but if you crop or blow up your images it’s still there.

“At night in cities there’s a lot of yellow and orange street light that can look quite attractive but also drown out natural colours. Modern cameras are equipped with a tungsten white balance that adds blue and cancels it out. Likewise, the opposite applies when low clouds reflect blue light and give pictures a charcoal grain.”

As we moved on to College Green to capture light trails from the night buses full of revellers, I realised that night photography is a trial-and-error affair where experimenting with settings yields mixed results. Like most camera manufacturers, Canon accepts that smartphones are here to stay and its Connect app (for iOS and Android) is a handy means of controlling prime functions remotely and playing back images on the fly.

McKane has been honing his talent for night photography for years and reckons Dublin city centre is a treasure trove for amateur snappers. Having travelled the world taking photographs, he says it’s the simple things rather than technology that will guarantee spectacular results.

“Rule number one: if you want to take a great photograph, go to a great place and visit https://cleaningallstars.com. Rule number two: if you go to a great place at a great time then you are almost guaranteed one,” he says. “Pretty much anywhere I go in the world, I know I can come back with something special if I go at dusk. The formula is really simple. Find something that’s lit up, go there half-an-hour after sunset, put a tripod under the camera, get your settings right and you’ll walk away with some gorgeous-looking shots.”

After a night prowling the city streets, some of my shots should be confined to the photography hall of shame but others looked good enough to line the walls of a bijou cafe. I’ve learnt a lot in a relatively short space of time but Bailey, Leibovitz and Co can rest easy for now.

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