Two art directors at a bus stop

For me, photography has mainly been a mix of luck, compulsion, and serendipitous light.

Picking up knowledge from night courses and my personal work has helped me collaborate better with commercial photographers, but also have a healthy understanding of the gulf between my skills and those of the top professionals especially in constructed scenes. But this year I've had a quick challenging dip into that world, to help out an agency and an excellent cause.

Nightstop is an initiative by the charity DePaul UK, that provides emergency overnight accommodation in 30 locations around the UK for young homeless people who are facing the night on the streets, or sleeping in unsafe places.

DePaul's ad agency, 11London, who I’d only just met to show off my portfolio the previous week, asked if I could shoot the images for the latest Nightstop social media campaign:

(me) “Um, you mean art direct it with a commercial photographer?”

(agency) “No we have an art director; we need someone [affordable] with a good eye and a sense of humanity behind the camera.”

I could understand the situation. As an agency you always want to make your work look top-end. But when it’s a charity client with a typical shoestring budget and the images will mostly be seen a few hundred pixels wide, wedged between status updates and cat videos, it’s hard to justify all the bells and whistles and Hasselblads that come with a ‘proper’ photo shoot.

For these bleak suburban compositions in the dark of night, I knew I’d need some sort of lighting. Flash photography isn’t my forté, but drawing on my video experience, renting a good LED light panel, backed up by my own small lights, made all the difference.

Working with 11London’s art director Dave Hobbs was a pleasure (and an interesting experience being on the other side of the art-director/photographer relationship), and allowed me to concentrate on the gear and the compositions while he wrangled the shivering teenage actors and many scene iterations against a finite few hours of the evening.

As you see here the actual ads had to be a far tighter crop for the headline to be readable. But with the low light a prime lens was a must, and the combination of my fastest lens being only 35mm and the annoying necessity of having to be on the other side of the road to not get run over by a bus, I had to capture a much wider scene than seemingly needed. While that's useful from an art direction perspective to have plenty of flexibility for cropping, I quite like how the full images have a chiascuro, Edward Hopper-like potential.

There wasn’t budget for pro retouching, and Dave’s priority was the crop for the ads, so I’ve had a play at bringing the best out of two of the shots, purely as pieces of photography. It’s tricky getting night-time to look plausible, yet moody. Even these carefully tweaked versions can look subtly detailed, or bluntly jet-black, depending on the ambient light they're viewed in and the angle of the screen.

The teenage actors weren’t professionals but with Dave's direction they did a great job, so I took a few moments to grab their performances with a longer lens. I also love the fun, painterly sort of feel of this random mid-shoot moment.

In retrospect there are lots of things I’d do differently and some elements I just don’t have the retouching expertise to fix, but for my first night shoot, I’m pretty damn pleased.

Kit and settings

EOS 5D MkII shooting RAW / Sigma Art Series 35mm f1.4 / Manfrotto 055 tripod with 3-way head / ISO 640 / f2.2 @ 1/30 sec (more or less) / F&V K4000S 1 ft square LED panel / Neewer CN-160 LED camera top-light / Sony CLM-V55 video monitor