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With our Nokia Low Light Photography Competition now in its final week for submissions, we thought we’d take a look at the story of low light photography.

It will surprise no one to hear that photography and light share an inescapably tight relationship. Indeed, the suffix ‘photo’ has its etymological origin in the Greek for light (φωτός (phōtos), genitive of φῶς (phōs). Photographs have, since their very inception, depended upon light altering or affecting some form of receiving plate, whether that was a bitumen coated surface, a glass plate or a DSLR sensor. Light is the key to all photographs.


Eight hour exposures

Today we have so many tools at our fingertips to enable us to capture even the most minimal amount of light. We can bump up the ISO on our cameras effectively making them more sensitive to a lesser amount of light. (Some DSLRs reach a whooping 25600 ISO)! We can set exposure times of hours thus allowing more light to reach the sensor or film. And we can add extra light from any number of sources: flashes, tungsten lights, halogen torches, LEDs – the list is endless.

But it hasn’t always been this way. When photography first appeared, exposure times were a necessarily protracted affair. For example, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce created what is widely regarded as the first ever photograph (in 1826), the quickest exposure time he could muster was an astonishing eight hours!


Photos made rather than taken

And whilst we take it for granted to be able to walk around the city at night or to walk into a room and flick on the lights, these are relatively recent inventions. Gas street lighting was only just beginning to spread across Europe in the 1820s. Electric street lights began appearing in the 1870s and although the first photographic flash light was developed in 1899 these were not commercially available until almost 1930.

Many photographers experimented with capturing the world at night. The mandatory long exposures helped maintain the values that the early Pictorialist’s were espousing, namely making painterly and ‘sensitive’ looking photographs, that looked ‘made’ rather than ‘taken’. Photographers such as Edward Steichen had also captured eerie moonlit landscapes before venturing into the city to photograph street scenes lit by artificial lighting. And others, such as Brassai working in Paris, made many long exposure photographs featuring lit bridges, streets and cars.

-- flashbulb

Scoops in a flash

But aside from those figures who relied upon the long exposure to capture their shots, others added their own light to a situation.

 Perhaps the most famous figure in flash photography is the omnipresent Weegee (Remember Danny DeVito in L.A Confidential? That is basically Weegee). His flash photography captured New York and its inhabitants throughout the 1930s and 40s. Alongside the gigantic bursts of light from his newly available flashbulbs, Weegee also used an infrared flash and film which allowed him to shoot nearly undetected. (Legend has it he also removed his shoes and crept up on people in cinemas and parks).


Night visionaries

In recent years, artists and photographers have made use of military level equipment to produce images that are both technologically astonishing and visually alluding to a range of other cultural produce (particularly video games). Night Vision technology either utilises and magnifies what little light exists at night or is ultra sensitive to infrared light. Photographers such as Geert van Kesteren utilised military night vision goggles whilst working in Iraq. And other photographers have used this technology to capture scenarios normally unseen, such as animals’ nocturnal activities.


Of course the amazing evolution of low light photography is an ongoing story. If you want to be part of it, why not grab your camera and enter your own low light masterpieces in our competition. You have until the 24th July to submit your entries. Up for grabs, the low light marvel, the Nokia Lumia 925, a trip to New Zealand and a spread in iconic UK style magazine, Dazed and Confused.

 Image credit: Adam Monaghan