By Peter Benson ARPS  CrGP  AWPF  CPAGB  BPE3*

Our club talk this week was titled “Photography on the Darkside”, by Peter Benson, and was delivered via Zoom.  Peter has won many accolades for his nightscape images as the string of qualifications shown above demonstrates, and is a member of the Bury St Edmunds Photographic Society.

The talk began with some details of photographers in his family history – going back five generations in the process.  He started with pictures of Willibald Zehr as a young man in 1868 and again in 1882, taken by his father Carl Zehr whilst the family lived in Leipzig.  Carl was both a painter and a professional photographer using the wet colloidal process requiring the photographer to have all of his preparation chemicals and developing chemicals available at the point where the picture is taken.  Not a process for the faint hearted!  Carl became an official photographer to the local nobility. 

Willibald and his daughter Freida in turn became professional photographers, initially acting as assistants to other established photographers, and later each setting up in business in their own right, moving at different times to Danzig (Gdansk) and later Elbing.  Willibald also became court photographer to Kaiser Wilhelm II among other notable clients. Peter is descended from Willibald’s younger daughter who also appeared as an infant in a family picture from 1906.

George Eastman introduced the ‘Kodak’ dry gelatine negative system to the world in 1888, considerably easing the challenges associated with photography in the field. 

An early pioneer of night photography was Paul Martin who about 1895/96 used a camera called a Fallefield Facile, which carried a magazine of 12 dry gelatine plates.  Paul Martin’s images were published in newsprint at the time, having to be laboriously hand carved onto wooden blocks to allow ink printing onto paper.  His early images were so successfully received that he was commissioned by the paper to produce a series titled ‘London by Gaslight’.  By 1899 he had turned professional and remained a pioneer of both nighttime photography and ‘street’ photography.  He was apparently treated with some suspicion by the Police on the beat when claiming to be taking photographs in the near dark.  Exposures were taking anything from 10 minutes to 60 minutes.

Following this family history and some of the history of night photography Peter went on to show us many of his images and to describe how he goes about achieving these results.

The first topic was the question of the photographic gear required.  Peter recommends a sturdy tripod at least 1.4m high (without using the centre column), sufficiently strong to supports a weight at least three times the maximum it will be asked to carry.  The height is required to see over the many barriers in the field of view. For preference this would be fitted with a geared type tripod head to allow precise adjustment of horizontal level as well as tilt and pan. (Altitude and azimuth for any astronomers among you)

For lenses he uses a full range of focal lengths, starting with 17-40mm, then 24-105mm both full frame sizes, and sometimes also a 70-200mm.  Peter always uses the inbuilt ‘Long exposure noise reduction’ facility within the camera, which takes a second exposure after every shot without opening the shutter.  The second exposure records the internal noise within the camera electronics at the same ISO and duration, and automatically deducts that noise from the initial shot.  This results in a far less noisy image file.  It does, however, take a long time for a sequence of long exposure shots to be completed.

Peter always takes his night shots with manual camera control, including focus control, and using a remote shutter release. A shutter delay timer could also be used if a remote release is not available.

Looking at the Isle of Dogs ~ Copyright Peter Benson

Images are commonly post-processed using HDR, blending a sequence of separate images exposed at about one stop intervals to record accurately from the brightest highlights to the details in the darkest shadows.  Only the exposure duration is changed between all of these shots for a given sequence.  Further image manipulation often uses the luminosity mask process.

Peter then talked us through a sequence of his images, which were grouped into localities such as the Pool of London, St Paul’s & Millennium Bridge,  Canary Wharf, and the West End, as well as on his travels around the world.

Paul stressed that the scene on view is always changing with varied weather conditions, tidal conditions, and the constant slow change as buildings are demolished and constructed along his walking routes. Regular repeat visits can pay dividends.

Ever Glory at her Mooring ~ Copyright Peter Benson

I have embedded a couple of Peter’s images in this blog, but strongly recommend that you visit his website galleries to see the full range of work on display. 

This is available at

Finally, Peter runs small Central London workshops in the field, where he provides guided walks and tuition on night time photography. He has offered club members a 10% discount on the normal £85 fee for each of the three listed walks along the Central London water’s edge.  These workshops are limited to four attendees each in order to allow adequate levels of tuition. The discount offer was for ‘single date workshops’. Not too sure what was meant by that phrase

If anyone is interested in attending such an outing please comment below and we can see what can be arranged, before the evenings turn too light.

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