I’ve lived in Manchester now for roughly two and half years, having relocated from Scotland to work on my photography full-time. For the first year or so I lived more on the outskirts of town in a very rural part of South Manchester. Fields and trees abound, and little country roads without any street lights. Not great when you don’t drive and have to hulk down them late at night on your own.
Around spring 2015, I relocated to a new apartment nearer the city centre and thus a more urban environment. I’ve always found that my work is heavily influenced by my surroundings and it’s something I like to think that I will look back on in a sentimental way; in that I’ll be able to remember where I lived when such and such an image was taken and what was going on in my life at that time.
I’m also very much a night owl and with being Bipolar, I experience manic spells which hit mostly in the early hours when everyone else is asleep. I’m in the nice position of being able to indulge myself in these moments of high energy and channel them into my work, so if I’m up at 4am then so be it.
Self-portraiture is my main output and I probably shoot around once a week. I am very much addicted to having new pictures to work with and feel a bit lost when I’m not working on something.
Last year, I was forever passing places during the day and thinking about how great it would be as backdrop for a self-portrait – if it weren’t for all of the people around ruining it. This is when I started considering the possibility that going back to those places after dark might be an idea.
Not long after I’d settled into my new apartment, I went out for the first time in the early hours to shoot, making the most out of people being scarce and having the environment as my own little playground. I use natural light a lot, so I wasn’t very familiar with using film at night, but I wasn’t worried about trying. I don’t get stressed about things going wrong, or not knowing how something has come out until I develop the film.
I mean really, how you learn is simply by doing it and by making mistakes.
I truly believe that in order to (hopefully) get better, I need to keep taking photos and continue making discoveries about what doesn’t work and what does. I find learning exciting to be honest. I studied fine art back in my late teens, and with painting you just give stuff a go and see where it takes you.
Being a self-taught photographer I find all of the basics of photography are just the same; framing, composition, ideas etc. And similarly, my ethic has always been to just get stuck into trying out new things. Every camera I own, I’ve had to learn how to use on my own.
The first time I ventured out at night, I decided to walk to a location close to the city centre, which I’d remembered as one of those sights I’d passed a few times on the bus and been drawn to visually. It’s an underpass where the roads criss-cross above it and it has a few tunnels for people to walk under and out of. Every city probably has one.
With hindsight, not the greatest of shoot spots because after setting up a few shots and the flash bouncing off the walls around me, I disturbed a homeless person sleeping nearby and I quickly scarpered. On subsequent shoots, I soon realised that even going out in the very early hours (between 2am and 4am) I would still have to be watching out for the odd passerby, so over the last seven or eight months I’ve stuck to shooting at places much closer to home.
I didn’t really use flash in my work before I started with these nighttime images, because I was always working with natural light. So it was a learning curve finding a way to get the look I wanted.
One of the things I like about using flash at night, is the vignette it creates, which is a spotlight effect. I like this look and I enjoy using films that are a very low ISO and cross-processing them to create even harsher effects. I adore colour and so I either pick places that are pitch dark and add the colour into the image myself with props or clothing, or I will work with ambient light from brightly coloured street lights and neon signs. Sometimes I’m looking for a soft effect in the longer exposures, and I pose in a way that hopefully adds to that movement. Other times I just want that bright burst of flash on me in the image, with the darkness creeping in around the edges.
People always ask me about how I shoot self-portraits; how do I know where to position myself, what do I focus on? With self-portraiture, I find it’s a very internal process when considering the framing and positioning.
The more you use a camera, the more familiar you become with it and instinctively you know where to stand. It’s very much a dialogue you have with yourself in your head. The most important thing really is understanding the light.
The easiest way to see what the light is doing in an any setting is simply to look at it on your skin and clothing. I look at where the street lights are pooling, I look at what the light does to me when I stand and place myself in that pool of light. Light is everything in photography and you need to become familiar with it by using your eyes – don’t rely on the equipment all the time. It’s the one tool I use every time I’m setting up a shot, and whilst it may seem obvious I think sometimes people forget to actually look at what the light is doing and to consider it and work with it.
Of course, I have images where I haven’t been happy with how I looked or I’ve disliked the composition, but I imagine that nobody uses every single image from a shoot. I never take more than one shot of the same thing. I don’t take test shots. I suppose with my self-portraits, I always have the opportunity to re-shoot something because the setting and idea can be revisited. So if something doesn’t work, I can try doing it again.
I’ve created almost a year’s worth of images from my nighttime shoots, which began during very cold weather through into warmer weather. At the beginning I had longer, darker nights to work with which meant I could go out up until 6am and still be in pitch black.
I had to work quickly because it would be bitterly cold and if I was attempting anything that involved taking my coat off, I would be running back and forth from the camera resetting the timer and getting myself re-clothed immediately. There really wasn’t much time to consider anything other than, get the shot set up, shoot it and get back indoors. One night I got so cold that when I returned home, I had to put my hands in a basin of warm water to get the blood flowing warm again. Really painful!
Recently, the nights have been shorter and I found myself chasing the dark rather than the light.
Unfortunately on my very last trip out I was met with an unwanted peeping Tom, who made me realise quite how lucky I’ve been with my nighttime jaunts. I’ve always taken precautions and been sensible, but I suppose I’d forgotten that people can be more than just a simple nuisance and occasionally more than the ruining of an image is at risk when someone appears.
I’ve had to rethink the entire thing and I won’t go out on my own at night with my camera anymore. Instead I have been setting up different lighting conditions at home using props, lamps, torches and so on. Pretty much the bulk of my self-portrait work over this last year will have been shot at an hour when everyone else is in bed or just getting out of bed for work.
When the sun would come up, I’d be heading to the darkroom to develop my film and then rushing home to sleepily scan the results.
~ Dee Eliga
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