Adventures in Late Night Photography
Photos © Paul Cotter Photography
The best photos are often captured when sane people are sleeping comfortably in their beds. During the very late and the ridiculously early hours, the light can be more captivating – and life can be more interesting, too.
That’s why Brassai was a nocturnal roamer with his camera in Paris in the early 1930s.
In that same spirit, I try to plan at least one late-night photo excursion whenever we travel. I found the perfect opportunity to channel my inner Brassai when we visited Prague in the Czech Republic.
A Bridge That Never Sleeps
I wasn’t looking to photograph prostitutes, transvestites and street thugs like Brassai did. What I wanted was to capture a bit of Prague's historic architecture and some candid street life. Above all, I wanted a night shot taken on the St. Charles Bridge, showcasing the statues of saints and the glowing lampposts on the bridge, which dates to 1357.
I assumed most of the tourists would be off the bridge by 1 a.m. What a silly fool I am.
Things Come Unzipped
Prague is a serious party town, and at 1 a.m., the bridge was packed with young people on their way to the bars.
In the midst of the mayhem, I mounted my camera on a tripod at one end of the bridge for a few initial shots. As I peered into the eyepiece, a group of rowdy revelers walked straight down the center of the scene, directly toward my camera.
One of the guys started to unzip his pants. Before I knew it, he was inches away from my camera lens, which was perched at the same height as his … well, you know.
I yanked my camera out of the way before he had an opportunity to relieve himself on my lens. He didn’t speak English, but I’m fairly confident he got the gist of what I was yelling at him.
Bright Lights, Dark Alleys
Finding the bridge too crowded, I took to the streets. Carrying thousands of dollars of camera equipment into the back streets at 1 a.m. may not be the wisest thing to do. Brassai was robbed and mugged during some of his nighttime excursions. But in photography, as in life, we gotta take some risks, right? And that's why we have camera insurance.
The 5 a.m. Surprise
Since I never got my bridge shot after midnight, I decided I’d try again before dawn one morning. The sun was coming up around 5 a.m., so I set my alarm for 4:15. Surely the partiers would be in bed by then, right?
Rozhodně ne! (That's Czech for "Absolutely not!")
The bars in Prague were just closing then. So when I got to the bridge, it was filled with young crowds who were returning from a long night of carousing. And my biggest disappointment: the lovely lampposts on the bridge were turned off the very instant I arrived before sunrise.
The photo below shows life on the bridge shortly after the sun came up.
The Parting Shots
Realizing I wasn’t going to get the St. Charles bridge shot I'd envisioned -- quiet, moody, deserted, lit with the soft glow of the lamps -- I decided to go with the flow and work with what was presenting itself. I got a few candid crowd shots. And I got some nice shots of the statues with the sun coming up behind them.
(CLICK ON PHOTOS FOR A LARGER VIEW)
And most delightfully: As I looked down river, I saw a bridge in the distance that was shrouded in morning mist. The scene feels like something Alfred Stieglitz might have photographed in 1905.
Would I rather stay in bed and miss this view? Rozhodně ne!
Want to see more of Prague?
Visit my Prague gallery to see cathedrals, puppet shops, the astronomical clock, the old Jewish cemetery and more reasons why this city belongs on your bucket list.
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