Photograph Courtesy of Honor
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In this example taken on the Honor 8X, a city scene is captured in detail in a low light setting.
Photograph Courtesy of Honor

Chasing Moonlight

The past, present, and future of night photography.

There’s no shadow of a doubt that night photography is now a popular discipline. Photos taken after sundown have a special quality to them, and often contain an air of mystery and intrigue, as well as challenge, that simply can’t be replicated.

Thanks to the rise of image-heavy social media platforms like Instagram, many have been converted into fans of the dark discipline. Some of the top night photography accounts on the popular social platform have even reached hundreds of thousands of followers, and hashtags like #nightphotography have been used millions of times. Even National Geographic’s Your Shot community has joined the craze.

However, budding photographers and casual fans alike may not realize that the discipline is more than a century old. Which is why we’ve created a simple guide about the history of night photography, some of its early adopters and luminaries, and how everyday consumers now have the power to progress the genre with improved personal mobile devices.

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In this backlit example taken on a Honor 8x, a man walks past a body of water at dusk, showcasing a juxtaposition between human activity and nature.

Origins

People began to experiment with night photography not too long after the invention of the first commercially successful photographic process, the daguerreotype - named after it’s inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre.

As bright street lights weren’t common in the 1800s, it was celestial objects that photographers first attempted to capture in the evening. Unfortunately, the lengthy exposure times required made it difficult.

It took a further development, the gelatin dry plate negative, before more photographers seriously attempted to take pictures at night. All thanks to the longer exposures times this plate allowed.

Paul Martin, an English photographer, started to explore the discipline in 1895. His work then inspired Alfred Stieglitz, an American, to experiment with night photography. It would, however, take a few more decades for night photography to truly come into prominence.

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Three white-tailed deer flee in this earliest night-time flash photograph taken in Michigan, date unknown.

While Martin and Stieglitz were focusing on photographing their cities at night, another pioneer, George Shiras, was exploring taking photos of wildlife. Known as ‘Grandfather Flash’, Shiras became the first to use flash photography and camera traps to capture creatures in the dark.

Paris de Nuit’, a photo collection by Hungarian-French photographer Brassai, is often credited as one of the turning points in the history of night photography. Its vivid depiction of the less-virtuous side of Paris opened the eyes of many to the potential of nighttime street photography, shedding light on a second side of the city most had never seen.

Soon after, Bill Brandt, a British photographer who drew some inspiration from Brassai’s work, used the dark conditions found in London during World War II to capture vivid imagery of the still streets at night.

The 1970s saw the rise of four California-based night photographers: Steve Fitch, Richard Misrach, Arthur Olman, and Steve Harper. Their wide-ranging body of work covered diesel trucks, desert life, architecture, and the state’s hard-to-reach locales.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the style began to take off around the globe, thanks in part to technological advancements that have skyrocketed ever since.

Modern Times

Modern equipment and techniques allowed shutterbugs to better capture both natural and industrial settings in low light situations – opening up night photography to a much wider audience.

The proliferation of more affordable camera equipment, from digital cameras with adjustable shutter speeds and focal lengths, to lenses with high maximum apertures, allowed more photographers to experiment with the discipline.

Other supporting equipment like headlamps and flashes, lens hoods, natural night filters, and intervalometers have further stretched the possibilities of night photography.

The most important advancement for the discipline, however, is the modern smartphone.

In a consistent attempt to outdo one another, smartphone manufacturers have made it possible for pocket-sized devices to have better lenses, compact but powerful low-light sensors, and powerful graphics hardware that can handle complex tasks.

Some smartphones, like the Honor 8X, even use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to help users take better night photos. It’s Automatic Image Stabilizer technology uses a collection of functions such as AI Handheld Detection, AI Defense Shake Processing, and AI Image Synthesis to enhance night shots. This technology also allows casual users to perform 6-second-long exposure or multi-frame composite night scenes without a tripod.

The Future

These days, night photography is more accessible and more astonishing. And the night photography torch is carried today by talented photographers such as Nat Geo visual storyteller Robbie Shone, known as @shonephoto on Instagram.

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National Geographic visual storyteller Robbie Shone

To help explore the limits of smartphone night photography, Robbie will be going on assignment with the Honor 8X in one of the world’s premier night photography locations: Hong Kong. While there, he’ll be capturing images of cityscapes, motions, backlit portraits and buildings in dark or dim settings.

Robbie is only one of many skilled night photographers that have started to test what smartphones are capable of. The discipline will continue to evolve over the next few decades, and it will be exciting to see what the next generation of night photographers are capable of. Thanks to advancements in technology, they’ll need little more than a smartphone and a desire to brave the night.

Visit the ‘Brave The Night’ website for a collaboration with renowned photographer Robbie Shone and Honor as we explore the capabilities of smartphone night photography. Robbie also has some tips that will help improve your own night photography Instagram game.

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