Night Shoot in Surrey Woods

The woods looked like some kind of B-movie horror film set. The fading light and swirling mist gave an already erie location a sinister twist. Although relatively small, the Hurtwood Estate is plenty big enough to get lost in, and to harbour at least two axe murderers. After several wrong turns and what felt like hours of empty tiny single track road the sweeping headlights brought a tiny shack into view. Single light in window, check, conspicuous woodpile, check, massive felling axe, check, beaten up truck to disposing of victims, check…

1/125th sec at f5 ISO 500 11mm

We were here to shoot a night riding image in a nearby gully, a location I’d been to before, in the light, mid summer. As the car door closed with a slam that was deadened by the mist, the absolute silence suddenly became un-nerving. Still, mind over matter and all that, but as we walked into the small, steep sided valley I couldn’t help thinking that since I had tripods, light stands and camera gear and Ali was on a bike it would definitely be me making the headlines. (Note to self, must shoot a good self portrait image to be used on missing persons posters, the usual ones are terrible family holiday shots)


There were two things I wanted out of this shot, I wanted the viewer to be able to see the rider and the trail, but I also wanted to portray that interesting isolation that night riding often gives. Ideal then that I was already very well aware of the ‘no one would find us if it happened’ location. Setting up in the dark requires some good lights, not just to light your scene, but, obviously to see what you’re doing. My 0.5 candle power head torch did a sterling job of illuminating nothing. The steep wet ground, the 6inches of heavy leaf fall and the multitude of hidden roots meant that more than once I thought an expensive lens-floor incident was imminent. More importantly though, your camera needs to see too. Autofocus needs contrast to work, so pointing it at a barely visible, dark tree against a dark night, in the mist, means it won’t work. Once you’ve decided on composition then, prefocus with your rider static but framed where you’d be pressing the shuttering using a nice bright light.


Setting up the composition with the rider lit by torch enables your camera's autofocus to work

Whilst you’re fighting to ignore any creak in the branches behind you (breeze and psychopathic killers sound very similar) be sure your rider is warming up and getting confident on the line you’ve asked to him hit. And, as ever, don’t let your creative intent cause serious injury. Its dark, its wet, everyone wants a great shot but finding a massive gap jump or drop to dark pit isn’t going to make that shot if, on the first attempt its time to go knock on the killer’s cottage for directions to A&E


Lighting the rider is the easy bit. Once you know where they’re going to be, a gridded snoot fixed to off-camera flash no.1 can be used to light face and body by placing it relatively low and pointing directly at the rider. (In this case 8ft away, camera right on 1/32nd, which is probably a little hot) A gorillapod mount is ideal.

///Gridded and snooted? A roll of cereal box cardboard stuffed with black drinking straws gaffa taped to the end of your flash. (Make your own) ///

This gives you a really tight beam of light and cuts down spill light hitting the rest of the background. One other point, riding gear often has reflective stripes and patches on, try to cover these as they really pick up flash, making iridescent glowing blobs all over your shot

Lighting the trail is more tricky. The rider’s helmet light has two problems, its not very bright (which could be solved using a higher ISO) and it only lights what the rider is looking at when the shutter snaps. I wanted to include the tree detail and, bizarrely, my rider complained about not looking where he was riding and trying to light scenery. So, second flash, camera left, 15 ft 1/4power, tripod mounted about 4ft up. The key here was to get enough light into the shadows.The final consideration here is that in the dark the camera LCD screen appears very bright, so using the histogram to check exposure is essential, and pushing your exposure as far to right without clipping highlights is also important for the work you’ll want to do in your post – shoot software work. (The ever popular Lightroom in my case.)

By now your rider is ready, you’ve got composition, focus and lighting sorted its time for the standard shout of “Right, let’s see it” and a few runs trying not to get hit by your man barrelling down this little shoot with you crouching in the dark at the bottom. Shooting on a 10mm fisheye meant that I had to be close to get the shot I wanted, really close.


Rider is lit by ground level flash with a gridded snoot to prevent spill lighting of the background trees. The light behind the rider was part of an idea to suggest a second rider. An idea I quickly abandoned )

Looking round I noticed the shack light had gone out. Meant only one thing in my mind. He had left the building and was stalking up towards us, somewhere  out there, in the mist. That and the fact my hands were bloody freezing  meant it was home time.

The ‘out of camera’ shot is below, it is clear that a degree of adjustment work is needed to focus the light spread. Some broad brush dodging in Lr neatly put that right. Other than that, a re-crop and we’re done. As ever I could add another 4 hours of work in post to give the whole image a 5% improvement, but this is experimentation rather than commercial work so happy as it is.

The final image without post work. Lightroom dodging was used to focus the lighting in front of the rider. (The snooted flash is visible bottom right)


Some obvious points then, about shooting at night:

  • Take a torch, a really really good torch. My shitty headtorch left me stumbling about the woods with a 1000s of pounds worth of expensive glass one trip away from an expensive floor to lens interface. It will also help your camera with autofocus
  • Don’t put anything down in the deep leaf mulch, especially black things, with a high cost density (a measure of value against size) And definitely don’t leave your camera bag unzipped and empty entire contents into said forest floor, Ahem.
  • When its drizzling, freezing and miserable try to cut down the waiting time for your rider so, pre-visualise your shot, give it a few goes and if its not working out, move onto your next idea
  • Riding gear often has reflective stripes and patches on, try to cover these as they really pick up flash making iridescent glowing blobs all over your shot
  • You’ll be using flash to light your subject. But consider what else is going to be picked up by the flash. When finding a location for this shot I was keen to be sure there were no overhanging trees and the background was clear of bushes etc.

And finally, some ideas for next time….

  • Using the rider’s light on the trail simply requires a better balance of ambient (his light) to flash. So a lower flash power and higher ISO might work out well
  • Another investigation to a ‘second rider’ rim light, giving it a little more time
  • I’m looking for a creative way to deploy the classic long exposure light trail shot


About The Author


Action and adventure photographer based in London, shooting commercial and editorial images that seek to capture the beauty in the lifestyles he loves

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