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Turning Day Into Night

Shooting at night is like having a clean slate. A very challenging clean slate. Why do I say it that way? Because as far as the camera is concerned, there is nothing there. We may know there are houses, cars, or trees in that moonlit space around us - but without adjusting the ISO to extremely high (and usually noisy) levels, the camera sees a blank, black canvas. In order to make it come alive, we need to paint with light.
      In the world of big budget films, this means using huge amounts of lumens and wattage to create either a large wash of psuedo-moonlight, or pools of selective light shining on specific parts of the scene. Either way, it means having lots of lighting - and lots of power - at your disposal. Maybe. And maybe not...
      There is an age old trick that has been used by Hollywood for decades, and is even seen  in large-budgeted modern films such as Jaws (1976), Peter Jackson's King Kong (2005) and Mad Max Fury  Road (2015) among countless others. In this technique, daytime is 'transformed' into night. Known as Day-For-Night shooting, it is typically created using underexposure and post-production color-timing that renders a scene shot in daylight as darker, less contrasty, and desaturated in tone. While I am not a huge fan of this trick, I must say that if it is carefully applied and done exactly right, it can be a cheaper option to tons of lights, generators, and what-have-you.

Here is an example of one that I created as a green-screen background awhile back: 

Original, daytime shot of forest.

Night Conversion. Colors and densities adjusted to be more like moonlight. 

How is this done? ONE way is in-camera by underexposing the shot. Bear in mind that you should always be shooting in RAW/NEF format for this, because if you underexpose in .Jpeg, you likely will not be able to do much with the image after that. Raw formats allow for a good deal of color correction and exposure manipulation. .Jpeg format... Not so much. The great thing about working in PhotoShop is that you can use layers, snapshots of your work, save and close in layers for later adjustments, and in the worst case; revert back to the original if you have to. 
    MY WAY to do these is to shoot the image as normal. (Seen in the first shot) and then bring it into PhotoShop and adjust it old-school. It is hard to give a definitive, step-by-step formula, because each image will be different. But the main things that you want to do are:
  • Darken the shadows and mid-tones to your liking 
  • Lower the saturation 
  • Pull some red, and bring up the blue and cyan
  • Lower the contrast
  • Keep tweaking these steps until the image looks the way you want. 
Two things that should be stressed: Unless you are shooting on a cloudy day, and aiming for a "dusk" look, try to eliminate the SKY from your shots. Another thing you need to bear in mind is: DON'T OVERDO THE BLUE. Real moonlight is NOT cobalt blue, and unless you are specifically trying to do homage to 1980's films with their insanely blue night scenes, try to just keep the saturation down, and aim for a little on the greener side!

So that's it: How to make a daytime shot look like it was done at night. I certainly would not recommended it as a go-to technique for every night shot. In fact, I would use it pretty sparingly. Personally I prefer to strategically place lights within a shot and use real night. But day-for-night is another tool for image creation that can be called upon when and if needed.


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