(No, We’re Not Crazy) Why You Should Use a Circular Polarizer at Night

I had another “What if?” moment, dear readers.

It was this: What if I use a circular polarizer at night?

My mind boggled. It balked. It basically said, “There are tons of reasons you should not even consider doing that.”

Such as:

  • You’ll lose up to 1.5 stops of light! My precious light …

  • It’s going to be hard to see the effect through the lens.

  • A polarizer is another thing to carry and/or take care of. (Have you seen my backpack? I call it the “kitchen sink.”)

  • Your sensor will capture fewer stars—perhaps?

  • You may be disappointed.

So What?

Despite all those naysaying, braying voices in my head, I set about scraping out some moments during our Rocky Mountain National Park workshop to run some experiments.

Why? Well, I know polarizers have these positive traits:

  • minimized reflections, making water easier to see through

  • more vibrant colors and deeper saturation

  • reduced highlights, which puts more of the exposure inside the dynamic range of my camera

  • eliminating or reducing off-axis light

That last one was really exciting to me, as we would have lots of moon at Rocky Mountain, as well as at our workshop immediately afterward at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Maybe, just maybe, I could make a polarizer do something useful—or even something amazing.

Note: Since my polarizer was a screw-in 95mm, I did not go through the hassle of removing it during tests. I simply set it to minimum effect for the “before” images and maximum effect for the “after” images.

Testing My Hypothesis on Star Trails

So I set out to test my hunch that it would work. After all, it’s just science, right?

On our final day of the workshop, we embarked on an add-on adventure with five attendees, during which we hiked with our gear almost 2 miles (one way) with 650 feet of elevation gain at over 8,000 feet of altitude. It was challenging, but we did it.

Our first shoot location, Emerald Lake, had a moon shadow slipping around to the right. The moon was at my left shoulder—ideal conditions to make a polarizer work.

Tip: Polarizers work best when used perpendicular to the light source (90 degrees). So keep the moon (or sun, if you are so inclined), on your right or left shoulder.

I set the polarizer to minimum effect:

Nikon D850, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 30 sec, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Exactly what I’d expected. Not a lot of stars. So I turned off my camera, peeped through the viewfinder, turned the polarizer and found the area of deepest effect:

Nikon D850, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

I was so excited (and it was so cold) that I settled into a sequence of eight 7.5-minute exposures, totaling one hour:

Nikon D850, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. Eight frames at 7.5 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Booyah. Many stars, despite shooting with broad moonlight. It worked!

As we started hiking back down, we stopped at Dream Lake. I wandered to the south end of the lake with a student and set up another test, this time with stiller water. (There had been crazy wind up at Emerald Lake.) I ran two high ISO tests at 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400:

I loved what was happening so much that I wanted to grab two 15-minute exposures to compare:

(I wish I’d done the “without” photo first, because the moon came out more during that exposure.)

So, then I had another “What if?” moment during editing. What if I used the water from the zero-polarizer shot and masked it in to the yes-polarizer shot?

Nikon D850, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 15 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 100. Maximum polarization (in the sky portion).

Again, a wonderful solution for pulling out more stars and deeper, darker skies. Plus, if you shoot both, you can choose the best of each and blend them together. That’s powerful stuff.

And then the Rocky Mountain workshop was over. … But I had another workshop (with Lance) in two days, so Chris and I hustled down to Chaco Culture. And during the second-to-last night, I had a couple of moments here and there to test again.

Facing north, I wanted to test how many stars I could capture at f/13 for a star trail rip.

Test shot No. 1. Nikon D750, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 25 seconds, f/11, ISO 3200. Maximum polarization.

Test Shot No. 2, with a different polarizer orientation: Nikon D750, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 25 seconds, f/11, ISO 3200. Three-quarter polarization.

I felt it had better skies. I wanted a touch darker, so I dropped to f/13 and I committed to a one-hour shot with Long Exposure Noise Reduction turned on.

I admit, I had to do some post work to pull out the stars on the skies, but they’re there!

Nikon D750, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 1 hour, f/13, ISO 50. Three-quarter polarization.

I think next time I’ll shoot such a photo at f/8 to see a touch more stars. But it’s not the normal, cluttered sky we get without polarization and a much wider aperture. And the sky in the background is darker—much darker—which is something we don’t generally see when shooting in moonlight.

But what about the Milky Way?

Well, what about the Milky Way? It’s a silly question, right? You can’t shoot the Milky Way on a moonlit night.

Or … ?

This last test, if successful, would be the coup de grace, on my circular polarizer experiments. Can I extract a Milky Way from moonlit skies? It was an idea raised by Jason, a Rocky Mountain attendee who was on that hike with us the week before. And now I could try it out.

Now in New Mexico, we were shooting at Pueblo Bonito, the park’s showpiece ancient structure, which features over 600 rooms plus multiple kivas of fascinatingly intricate architecture.

There was a 25-minute window of darkness between the end of twilight and moonrise. We hustled to nail the Milky Way during that window, but I suspected I had an advantage with a circular polarizer and hoped I could make it appear even after moonrise.

As soon as the moon rose, people started repositioning to re-frame to make the Milky Way less important. They couldn’t see it. But … maybe I could?

First shot, with minimum polarization:

Nikon D750, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400. Minimum polarization.

And then...

Nikon D750, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400. Maximum polarization.

Double booya. Ignoring the fact that someone did light painting in the foreground for this shot, check out that Milky Way! This is not a composite. It’s one frame, with some Lightroom adjustments.

You may notice that the area of sky around the Milky Way is darkest. That’s not from a local adjustment in post, but rather that’s where the circular polarizer’s effect happens. I strategically placed the effect right along the axis of the Milky Way. The polarization occurs only in that area (rather than the whole sky) because I am using a superwide lens and the effect covers a limited angle.

Anyway, back to the exciting part. I was able to shoot a clear Milky Way sky with a full moon lighting the landscape. My whoops of pleasure resonated from the canyon walls. I let out massive yawps of glee.

Folks, a revolution has arrived. You can put one more big gun in your bag to make your night skies sing. You can use a polarizer to photograph the Milky Way in moonlight.

When Does a Circular Polarizer Not work?

One caveat: When using ultrawide-angle lenses (like my Zeiss 15mm Distagon), you will discover that the area affected by polarization can be narrower than you want.

Check this out—I adjusted the polarizer all around to find a sweet spot, but didn’t find one: (

I also experienced some flare when the moon was at the edge of my ultrawide lens in the above.

So to avoid these two things that I found disadvantageous, I switched lenses to my 35mm, went vertical with a lens hood, and made a pano stitch (without a polarizer), and am very happy.

Note: Polarizing with pano stitches is rarely successful.

Nikon D850, Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art. Ten frames at 10 seconds, f/5, ISO 6400. No polarizing filter.

So watch your images to be sure the effect is one you want to commit to, but give it a shot.

Wrapping Up

A circular polarizer is definitely worth putting in your toolkit for night photography. ’Nuff said.

And I can’t wait to see what you do with this! Please test for yourself and post your results in the Comments section here or on our Facebook page. We’d love to see what amazing things you make.


For you gear geeks: I used the Benro Master Slim Circular Polarizing screw-in filter on my Zeiss 15mm Distagon.

In case your superwide lens doesn’t accept a screw-in, know that many manufacturers, Benro Filters included, now make 100mm and 150mm square filter holders that allow for a circular polarizer to be mounted, as well as neutral density and graduated neutral density filters. It’s an amazing photography world we live in these days.

Matt Hill is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. See more about his photography, art, workshops and writing at MattHillArt.com. Follow Matt on Twitter Instagram Facebook.


Our First Night Photography Summit and More — We’re On the Road Again!

One of our favorite parts of what we do is getting out into the imaging community to talk about what we love: night photography and national parks. Either as a group or individually, we routinely speak at conferences, trade shows, national park celebrations, camera clubs and so on. We do this all year, but we always seem to be especially busy in the fall.

And so it goes again in 2018.

Over the next several weeks we will be presenting and leading night walks at some of the biggest and most exciting photography events in the U.S., from north to south and coast to coast. Plus … in conjunction with a couple of great partners, we will be hosting our very first night photography summit, a three-day celebration and discussion of all things night photography!

Read on for more information about where, when and how to join us on the road for some amazing night photography educational experiences.

New York Night Photography Summit

Babylon, New York
November 2-4

We’re going to break from chronological order for a moment to start with this one, because we’re too excited to delay announcing it any longer: We will be hosting our very first conference, the New York Night Photography Summit, just three weeks from now.

Moreover, we will be partnering on this event with two incredible ambassadors of the photography world:

  • PhotoPills, the app that serves as the personal assistant and scouting solution for photographers around the world. The creator and bard of PhotoPills, Rafael Pons, will be joining us to teach about scouting and about how to use their powerful app, as well as helping us teach during mini-workshops in the field.

  • Photographic Federation of Long Island (PFLI), the huge umbrella of camera clubs from two counties of New York and the five boroughs of New York City. PFLI knows the island better than anyone, and they’ve secured a venue for the presentations and vendors, as well as permits for our mini-workshops on Friday and Saturday nights at Fire Island National Seashore and the Fire Island Lighthouse.

The summit will take place over the long weekend of November 2-4, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. There will be lectures and tutorials on night photography, plus access to vendors, book signings with authors, and more. On hand will be National Parks at Night instructors Gabriel Biderman, Lance Keimig, Matt Hill and myself. Presentation topics covered will include:

  • ideal gear for night photography  

  • how to photograph lighthouses at night

  • planning Milky Way images with PhotoPills

  • tips and tricks for post-processing 

  • leveling up your creative night photography experience

  • light painting

  • Milky Ways and starry skies

Then, on Friday and Saturday night we’ll be leading night mini-workshops at the beautiful Fire Island locations. Rafael and four of the National Parks at Night instructors will be on hand to help with:

  • photographing the Milky Way in November

  • photographing star trails & star points

  • light painting the rolling sand dunes and sweeping shoreline

BenQ, maker of the best photography-specific computer displays you can buy, has eagerly signed on as a sponsor for the event, and will be bringing some of their best monitors for attendees to check out. B&H Photo, the world’s premier photo retailer, is also sponsoring.

To learn more about the New York Night Photography Summit, and to register for the event, visit npan.co/NYSummit.

OK, now onward with chronological order. …

Out of Moab Landscape Photography Conference

Moab, Utah
October 5-9

This one just ended—Out of Moab is the second national park-based landscape photography by the Out of Chicago group, and this time was in the amazing sunrise, sunset and night landscapes of Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. I was at the conference delivering a talk titled “6 Steps to Better Night Photography,” as well as leading night excursions to Landscape Arch, Windows Arch Loop, and Sand Dune and Broken Arch.

The conference sold out very shortly after it was announced, so if you’re interested in what this great organization is offering in the future (hint: Northwest coast), be sure to get on their mailing list. See OutOfChicago.com for more information.

Biscayne & Redwood National Parks

Homestead, Florida, and Hiouchi, California
October 19-20

This year Biscayne and Redwood national parks are celebrating their 50th anniversaries, and we’ll be there celebrating with them!

We ran workshops in both parks this year, and photographs from all the workshop students (as well as instructors) will be part of a pair of print exhibits held simultaneously in visitor centers at each park. The opening receptions will occur the weekend of October 19, and will include presentations, night photo walks and mini-workshops by Gabe, Tim, Lance and myself. The public is welcome.

The exhibits and the associated events are being sponsored by Bay Photo Lab. In addition to making the event possible, Bay will be providing all the prints for both locations, using their patented Xposer print format that comes with custom hanging hardware.

Moreover, many of the workshop attendees’ and instructors’ prints by Bay are available for purchase from our online gallery. All profits will be donated to the two parks.

For more information, see our previous announcement of this event.

PhotoPlus International Conference + Expo

New York City
October 25-27

We’re back at one of the largest photography conferences and trade shows, once again talking about the ways and arts of nocturnal imaging. This year we’ll be presenting “The Night Photography Toolbox: Gear and Skills to Level Up Your Nocturnal Images,” sponsored by Nikon. Here’s the official summary:

“Advancements in technology have made Milky Way and dark-sky photography more accessible, from cameras and lenses to software, GPS receivers, LED panels and much more. The members of National Parks at Night will share which gear helps them successfully scout, capture and create in a variety of night environments. They will also discuss productive processing, nocturnal photography techniques and other skills in their toolbox that will inspire you to ‘seize the night!’ ”

In a rare event, all five National Parks at Night instructors—Gabe, Lance, Matt, Tim and I—will be on stage presenting together.

For more information, visit the PhotoPlus website via this link, where you can register for the expo for free and get 15 percent off the price of a conference pass.

B&H Event Space

New York City
October 29-30

Immediately after PhotoPlus, a few of us will be spending a couple of days at the B&H Event Space delivering talks to the in-person audience and via livestream.

Lance and I will be discussing “Our Journeys into the Night: How We Found Ourselves in the Dark,” and Tim will present “Processing Your Night Photography: Lightroom through Photoshop.” Our good friends at BenQ, maker of the best photography-specific computer displays in the world, are sponsoring both talks.

Nature Visions Expo

Manassas, Virginia
November 2-4

Based in northern Virginia in the shade of the nation’s capital, Nature Visions features three days of seminars, lectures and workshops. Three of those will be led by Tim:

  1. “Realistic HDR”

  2. “Nightscapes: After the Magic Hour”

  3. “Power of Photoshop for the Outdoor Photographer”

For more information, visit the Nature Visions website.

Sierra Club

New York City
November 15

Our friends at the New York City Sierra Club Photography group have invited us to return, this time with Matt leading a one-night workshop, “Central Park at Night.”

The public is welcome; tickets are $30. For more information, visit the club’s website.

Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark

Birmingham, Alabama
November 18


Our final workshop of 2018 will conclude with Gabe and I presenting the student slideshow at the park’s visitor center, giving the public a chance to view the unique night work that we’ll do in this unique setting.

For more information, stayed tuned to our social media accounts and to the park webpage.

B&H Event Space

New York City
January 17, 2019

Let’s put this in the category of “sneak peak,” because while the event is confirmed, it’s yet to be officially listed. So, you heard it here first!

We will start the new year back the Event Space, as I join photographer and expert backpacker Sherry Pincus for “Backroads and Backpacks: Photography Off the Beaten Path.” (You may recognize Sherry as being the backpacking instructor for our first backcountry workshop at Shi Shi Beach in 2019.)

180219.043_Chris Nicholson.jpg

Sherry and I will talk about how to find the unique photos in popular national parks by driving the primitive roads and/or hiking into the wilderness, far away from the overlooks, the information signs and the tourists. Not only the how-to, but also the how-to-stay-safe.

Stay tuned to our social media and to the B&H Event Space calendar for the pending announcement. (The event will be free to attend live or via livestream.)

Conferences, Camera Clubs, et al.

Throughout the year all five National Parks at Night instructors lecture, present, and lead photo walks and workshops all around the country—at conferences, trade shows, camera stores, museums, galleries, photography clubs and more. In 2018 we’ve had the joy of participating at:

  • OPTIC Imaging Conference (sponsored by B&H Photo)

  • B&H Event Space (sponsored by BenQ)

  • CreativeLive

  • Photographic Federation of Long Island Spring Spectacular (sponsored by B&H Photo)

  • Rocky Mountain School of Photography

  • Maine Media Workshops + College

  • Biscayne National Park’s Dante Fascell Visitor Center

  • Connecticut Valley Camera Club

  • Greater Lynn (Massachusetts) Photographic Association

  • Long Island Camera Club

  • Englewood (Florida) Camera Club

  • New Haven Camera Club

  • and more

Interested in having us join your party next year? We’ll happily add you to the schedule!

If you belong to a club or conference that might like to hear about night photography and/or national parks, etc., feel free to contact us. There are numerous topics we’re prepared to talk about. We’re also eager to speak and/or lead photo walks for podcasts, trade shows, outdoors groups, night sky festivals, arts councils, museums, educational institutions and … well, probably for anyone interested in participating in engaging discussion about the topics we are crazy-passionate about.

To keep updated about where and when we’ll be presenting at any given time, reference our Speaking Engagements webpage, or sign up for our event notification emails.

We look forward to meeting you all out in the photography community at some point soon. Until then, seize the night!

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

Celebrating the National Trails System Birthday with a Walk to an Arch

I love doing the photography, but sometimes—often, in fact—the experience is more important.

Such was true last night, when I hiked the Corona Arch Trail near Moab, Utah. The trail runs 1.5 miles one-way through BLM land to a pair of arches, one rather old and one rather youngish (by geological standards). The trail crosses railroad tracks and weaves through wildlife fences, and in two parts you need to hold a cable lest you fall, and in one part you need to climb a ladder lest you need to turn back. Along the way you see cacti and slickrock and washes and cliffs and boulders and a valley of high-desert landscape so beautiful that you’ll certainly stop walking for a moment just so you can stand and gaze and wonder how we’re so lucky to live on a planet so pretty.

I hiked this trail not because I had to. No assignment beckoned me, no promise obliged me. I wanted only to celebrate the 50th birthday of the National Trails System—which, you may know, is today. And what better way to celebrate, I figured, than to hike one of the newest national trails? Corona Arch Trail was named as such this past May.

Union Pacific Railroad Potash Rail, along the Corona Arch Trail, Moab, Utah. Nikon D3s, 24-70mm f/2.8. 498 seconds, f/4, ISO 800.

Milky Way and boulder, along the Corona Arch Trail, Moab, Utah. Nikon D3s, Irix 15mm f/2.4. 25 seconds, f/2.5, ISO 8000.

I set out on the trail as the sun set on the horizon. I always talk about scouting a location before photographing it at night, and that goes quadruple when you’re also hiking it at night.

Alas, I didn’t scout. I’d traveled to Moab only yesterday morning—to explore, to research, to photograph and to start getting ready to speak at the Out of Moab photography conference. I wasn’t here to hike a national trail, but the idea somehow got in the rental car with me, and it wouldn’t leave me alone for the 3.5-hour ride from the airport, so I relented and decided I’d walk into the unknown (albeit a short unknown) for my first night of shooting. On 4 hours of sleep. With jet lag.

First, I found a campsite near the trailhead, along the banks of the Colorado River, and pitched my tent. That’s not the sort of task I wanted delaying my walk till dark, but it’s also not the sort of task I wanted waiting for me at midnight after a hike. I preferred the ability to march off the trail late, collapse into my sleeping bag and quickly drift to sleep to the sounds of the rippling river and the whisper of wind through the willows and cottonwoods hovering over my tent.

The sun rolled down, and darkness rolled in—quickly. A new moon replaced that big ol’ sun, and some high clouds blocked some sky. And I was on a trail I didn’t know. It’s not the kind of trail that tunnels through a forest in an easy-to-see sort of way. Rather, it’s the kind that meanders over slabs of rock and over hills that don’t have much shrubbery to delineate where the side of a path ends and where the edge of wilderness begins. In other words, it’s the kind that can be hard to stay on without daylight.

Before heading off on a trail I’m unfamiliar with (in the dark, no less), I took cell-phone pictures of the map and directions posted at the trailhead. It was useful info when I didn’t know where to turn.

I’ve been on hikes before. In Olympic, in Acadia, in Big Bend, in Rocky Mountain, in Bryce Canyon, in Lassen Volcanic, in Death Valley. With experience comes intuition. You often know which way the trail goes, even if you don’t know the trail. Last night, I was thinking that exact thought when I realized I hadn’t seen a cairn in a while. I was off trail. And I didn’t know how to get back on. So much for my intuition.

I backtracked, then tried another possible route. I backtracked again, then tried yet another. I stood on a rock ledge, now needing a flashlight to see anything at all, wondering if, halfway to my goal, I’d need to abandon my night’s mission. Then I saw it—a cairn in the valley! Succeeded by several more! Onward!

Which way do I go? The trail through the valley and along the cliff isn’t too hard to follow in daytime, but proved a (fun) challenge with no moon. Can you spot the cairns in the photos below? How about in the dark?

I found the bottom of the cliff (not hard—it’s pretty high, in both an awe-inspiring and daunting way). Then I found the cables to steady myself on a steepish incline. And the smooth half-shoe-size steps scalloped into the rock face. And the second set of cables. And the ladder. I was also, now and then, finding faint paint blazes marking the direction of the trail. Green blazes, on red rock. For a guy who’s red-green color blind. I appreciated the gesture.

At that point, I could finally see Corona Arch. I still had some hiking to finish before reaching it, but the way was now obvious—just around the edge of the horseshoe-shaped cliff, where the rock was relatively flat and easy to walk on, and … wait a minute … from the corner of my eye … I could see … nothing. I turned my head and saw, just a few feet from where my feet met the rock … nothing. No more rock—no more ground. It was the edge of another cliff, but this time the edge led to lower elevations. I peered over and shined my flashlight down—way down, to piles of talus. I’d been walking along the edge of a sharp drop and hadn’t even noticed. (So this is what the BLM trail sign meant by “mild exposure to heights.”)

It was then that my focus shifted from enjoying the walk to surviving the hike. I don’t usually shine a light when walking in the dark, because my curse of color-blindness is offset by the blessing of excellent night vision. Also, I enjoy walking in the dark, relishing the mystery of the night landscape, mesmerized by the same stars our ancestors saw. You can see plenty well under a moon, and if you give your eyes time to adjust, under the stars too. (Which often reminds me of the John Denver line: “The shadow from the starlight is softer than a lullaby.”)

But after noticing the drop, I switched on my Coast headlamp—not to my usually preferred red mode, but to bright, white light, because I have a 5-year-old daughter who’s expecting me home alive next week. I love walking under starry skies, but there will be more of them in future years, and I want to walk under them with her.

The headlamp served me well. (Except for when I used the red light to see if my finger was bleeding. Not effective.) So did my Coast HP7R, mostly for spotting cairns ahead on the trail, or for scanning the surrounds for mountain lions. (As always, I didn’t see any, except in my imagination. The only actual wildlife issue I had was moths banging into my headlamp.)

The cairns led the way—when I could spot them with my flashlight.

What also served me well was my hiking shoes. I’ve been committed (not officially) to Salomon trail runners for many years. I trust their tread, and the tread treated me well on this trail—I didn’t slip once, which was critical for my confidence while hiking atop a cliff in the dark. I also trust their shoes’ wide base, which saved me from rolling an ankle several times on uneven rock.

I never felt in danger, but I was persistently aware of the palpable fact that I would be in danger if I didn’t mind my environment and make all my choices prudently. So I hiked on, confidently, though constantly looking to my right to make sure the cliff wasn’t close.

Then, I reached Corona Arch.

I turned off my headlamp and let my eyes adjust to the dark. It’s a beautiful location. An impressive rock formation 140 feet wide, 105 feet across. It’s a window to receding rock face on one side, and to that magnificent valley on the other. From the arch, you look across the landscape toward a wide ridge with rough character, while behind you a cliff with a couple of aspiring arches (see you in 10,000 years!) towers over your shoulders.

Even when you don’t know where a trail is, you can usually tell where it isn’t, which is a very good place to start.

I started moving around the location, working the scene, eager to have fun and to finally photograph. I tested some light painting with my Luxli, chose to mount my Irix for ease of focusing in the dark, and used PhotoPills to determine hyperfocal distance. I discovered that I’d left my intervalometers in the car, that the battery in my timer release was dead, and that I had mismatched the receiver and transmitter from two different sets of wireless remotes. It was a comedy of oversights not uncommon on the first night of a trip. But that’s OK. I love doing the photography, but yeah—the experience …

So I used my old simple Nikon trigger release with the camera on Bulb mode and counted my shutter speed in my head. During my final, 16-minute exposure, I lay back on the rock and watched the stars quietly pass behind the arch’s silhouette. I worked on only two compositions (remember: no sleep, yes jet lag), and then felt ready to hike back.

Corona Arch, Moab, Utah—the better (I think) of my two setups from the location. Nikon D3s, Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 985 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 2500.

I began the return trip, confidently, though constantly looking at that cliff to my left.

My intuition was more reliable on the way out. I knew the trail now, knew the landmarks, knew the general direction. And even when I lost the trail, I found it. Even when you don’t know where a trail is, you can usually tell where it isn’t, which is a very good place to start. You re-find the trail by process of elimination.

I did get a little lost yet again, after losing sight of cairns and of green blazes on red rock, but I ended up on a ridge from where I could see the campfires of the other few people who had pitched tents not far from mine. Comfortable that I was nearly back, I decided to photograph some more, then I returned to the car, then to the tent, more tired and more satisfied than when I’d begun.

About 60,000 miles of national trails weave through our natural spaces. Some of these trails are famous: Appalachian, Pacific Crest, Continental Divide. Many are not: Ice Age, Ala Kahakai, Mormon Pioneer. They’re all worth walking a mile or more. And you don’t have to travel to Moab to do so. Every state in the U.S. has a national trail.

Happy 50th, National Trail System. Oh wow, the places you go.

For more information on the National Trails System, visit the NPS website. For more on the 50th Anniversary celebration of the national trails, see www.trails50.org.

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.


Our Art in the Parks: NPAN Student Exhibits to Open at Biscayne & Redwood

On the weekend of October 19, two coastal national parks separated by the entirety of the continental U.S.—Biscayne in Florida and Redwood in California—will both be officially celebrating their 50th anniversaries. And we will be there officially participating, partnering with both parks and with Bay Photo Lab for a dual-coast exhibit of our students’ work!

The Story

Two years ago I walked into the visitor center at Biscayne National Park, a park that is 95 percent water and one of the lesser known in our system. I was welcomed by Gary, one of the most passionate rangers I have ever met. He started chatting me up about the park in between assisting people picking up their artwork that had just come down from a group show. I talked to him about our mission at National Parks at Night and the logistics of photographing this waterworld.

As we pored over the maps and I got a better understanding of the park, Gary started seeing a bigger picture. He mentioned that 2018 would be the 50th anniversary of both Biscayne and Redwood, and it was a dream of his to have a gallery show at both parks titled “From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters.” We quickly concocted the idea of having night photography workshops at both locations and celebrating with a group show at both parks.

I won’t go into the incredible amount of logistics that went into making it happen, but I will say that it started with a dream that we kept pushing until it was realized!

It couldn’t have happened without the continual support from the teams at Biscayne National Park, Biscayne National Park Institute, Redwood National & State Parks, and the Redwood Parks Conservancy.

The Workshops and the Work

Both workshops were incredibly inspiring. In each park we could not have been happier with the experience or more impressed with the photographs our attendees worked so hard to create.

Below is a summary of the workshops, along with a sampling of the photography created. (To see all the images, visit the exhibits in person or online. More information below.)

Biscayne National Park

In Biscayne we were transported by boat each night to one of the many unique keys. We got a rare opportunity to photograph one of the historic houses in Stiltstville suspended above water one mile offshore from Miami, as well as Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Biscayne has very little night photography documentation and our students did an absolutely amazing job creating a variety of images under the January supermoon.

Redwood National & State Parks

The Redwood workshop challenged even the most experienced night photographers in the group. The dense canopy of the giant trees made it exceptionally dark in the forest, and their sheer size made them difficult to photograph. It was essential to find and plan images before darkness set in completely.

One of the best parts of the workshop was how the unique challenges of photographing enormous subject matter in total darkness brought everyone together. Collaboration was a big part of the experience, and many new friendships were formed in the forest. Redwood National & State Parks also boasts spectacular shoreline with numerous secluded beaches punctuated with sea stacks reminiscent of Olympic National Park, and we divided our time between those beaches and the forests.

The Exhibits

So what are the details of our celebration? Will you be able to join us? We sure hope so!

Lance, Chris, Tim and I will be heading back to both parks for festivities that will include opening receptions, talks and night walks. Below is the “All You Need to Know.”


  • Dante Fascell Visitor Center Gallery

  • Friday, October 19: Night workshop (boat ride to Boca Chita), 5 to 11 p.m. ($70. Click here to register.)

  • Saturday, October 20: Opening Reception, with a moonlight walk around Convoy Point, 5:30 to 8 p.m. (Free to attend.)


  • Hiouchi Visitor Center

  • Friday, October 19: Opening Reception, 5:30 to 7 p.m. (Free to attend.)

  • Saturday, October 20: Gallery talk with an explanation of the photographs, 1 to 2 p.m. (Free to attend.)

  • Saturday, October 20: Mini-workshop, 5 to 11 p.m. (Email Lance to register.)

Bay Photo will be making all the prints for both exhibits, using their patented Xposer print format that comes with custom hanging hardware.

We’d love to share this celebration with you in person, but if you can’t make it to the opening, you can still visit the exhibits, as they will be up in both parks until January 13. To keep this information handy, download the PDF version of the event post card here.

Buy the Prints Online & Support the Parks

Can’t make it to either park during that time? You can see our online gallery of the show on SmugMug. Prints are available for purchase in a variety of sizes and materials from our good friends at Bay Photo Lab. They were thrilled at the opportunity to show our students’ and instructors’ work at both parks, so sponsored the exhibits and our involvement with both events.

We at National Parks at Night are big fans of getting your images off your computer and on your walls. It’s the ultimate respect for those 5-star photos. Bay Photo does an outstanding job, and we couldn’t be more proud that they support our programs. They offer a variety of print materials, from metal and wood to canvas and wraps and beyond! Just a reminder: First-time customers of Bay save 25 percent off their first order—click here to get that savings and create some precious prints!

Just to up the ante a little bit more: If you purchase a print from our online gallery, the proceeds will go to supporting both parks! The holidays are just around the corner …

With Gratitude …

Finally, we want to thank the 22 students who explored each of these parks with us. We literally couldn’t have done this without you!

Many of you have joined us in our pursuit to explore each one of our parks at night, and in each experience we all learn and grow. All our workshops end with a group slideshow where we revel in our week’s work. But to take it to the next level and share your visions on the walls of the place you photograph is truly special.

Seize the night!

Gabriel Biderman is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He is a Brooklyn-based fine art and travel photographer, and author of Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (Peachpit, 2014). During the daytime hours you'll often find Gabe at one of many photo events around the world working for B&H Photo’s road marketing team. See his portfolio and workshop lineup at www.ruinism.com.


Control the Color Monster: Making the Move to Manual White Balance

While many of the automatic settings on our cameras can be useful from time to time, photographing at night requires us to set nearly everything on our cameras manually. Typically, when most people hear this, they think of manual exposure mode, wherein they are required to set both the aperture and shutter speed independently of each other. This is true. However, it could also mean manually focusing your lens, or switching your ISO from auto to a specific value. It could also mean setting your white balance manually.

Manual white balance?! Yup.

With the useful presets in your white balance setting (Direct Sunlight, Tungsten, Cloudy, Shade, Fluorescent, Auto, etc.), it’s easy to forget that you can go manual here as well.

To set your white balance manually, you first need to understand what the white balance setting does for us. Simply put, it alters the color cast of our photographs. It can make an image look bluer or more orange. It can render our image greener or more magenta.

The Color of Light

Let’s start outside of our camera first. All light has a certain color cast. Some light seems warmer (more orange)—for example, the color of an orange sunset or older household tungsten bulbs.

The warm colors of sunset.

Some light seems cooler (more blue)—for example, the light on a cloudy day or the sky when it just starts getting light in the morning.

The cool colors of pre-dawn.

Often our eyes ignore these color casts and we perceive the light as neutral (no cast/white/no color). It’s not that we can’t detect the color cast. We can, if we are paying attention. It’s just that other aspects of the light rate as more important in our visual hierarchy—such as noticing shadows so we can resolve ground structure and subsequently not trip and fall. Although we may not give much conscious thought to subtle shifts in the color of light throughout the day, our cameras are excellent tools for recording these precise color casts, or even for fixing those casts if we so desire.

The Kelvin Scale

Scientists found the terms “warmer,” “yellowish” or “more orange” simply too vague to accurately describe the color of light, so they use the Kelvin scale to avoid imprecision. Here is a chart that shows temperatures of some common photographic light sources:

The warmer the color, the lower its Kelvin rating. Cooler colors have higher Kelvin ratings. Notice that daylight at 5500 K is neutral. No real color cast. Some even call it “white light.” Whereas sunsets are warm and cloudy days appear cool. These are the real colors that are present under those conditions, even though, again, we may not perceive them as such.

The Camera’s White Balance Setting

Depending on the white balance setting we choose, the camera can either render the real color of the scene or render an alternate to reality. When our cameras are set to Direct Sunlight (also called Daylight or Sun on some cameras), the camera is rendering the colors of the scene precisely as they are. The resulting picture may appear more warm or cool to our eye, but that’s because we failed to notice the color cast at the time.

On the other hand, any of the camera’s other white balance presets will alter the color. They are designed to “fix” the color cast to match what our minds expect it to be. This may or may not be want you want. In the following images, I decided to keep the natural color by using the Direct Sunlight white balance.

Warm colors captured by using Direct Sunlight white balance (above), and the cool colors of an overcast day captured by using Direct Sunlight white balance.

So, if you find the cool light of an overcast day (around 6500 K) unpleasant, you can switch your white balance to Cloudy and the camera will add in warmth to cancel out the extra blue in that situation.

An overcast day is around 6500 K. The Cloudy white balance setting will warm the scene by adding in yellow/orange to cancel out blue and make “white” light.

Let’s look at this in a real-world scenario. Below you can see an image photographed at two white balances. The version on the left shows how it looks on an overcast day when shot with Direct Sunlight white balance. The version on the right shows the same image shot with Cloudy white balance.

Unlike the presets of Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten and Direct Sunlight, which have set values, the Auto white balance setting varies depending on what the camera detects. It looks at a percentage of the brightest pixels in the scene, determines their color cast, and then adds in the opposite color to neutralize.

The Question of Fixing Color

Of course, it’s always your choice whether to fix the color cast or leave it as. For example, why would you want to “fix” or neutralize the beautiful warm colors of a sunset? I also find that when shooting forests or waterfalls on a cloudy day, I tend to keep my white balance set to Direct Sunlight to allow the “cool” feeling to come through.

White balance is very subjective. We can, however, list out a few rough guidelines. Here are mine:

  • When shooting outdoors on a sunny day, I choose Direct Sunlight.

  • When shooting sunrise and sunset, again, Direct Sunlight.

  • On overcast days, I choose Direct Sunlight or Cloudy.

  • In the open shade, I choose Cloudy or Shade.

  • When shooting indoors under artificial light, I choose Auto.

  • When shooting at night? I set my white balance manually.

Manual White Balance

I choose a manual white balance at night so that I can completely control the color of the night sky along with any existing light or any light that I choose to add to the photo.

Manual white balance is achieved by using the Kelvin white balance setting. It allows you to set your white balance to any color temperature you desire. No presets, no Auto fix. Just your choice of how you want your image to look.

This setting is found in your White Balance presets and is signified by either a K or the word Kelvin.

Nikon’s White Balance menu.

Clicking on this choice allows you to choose from Kelvin values of anywhere from 2000 K to 10,000 K.

  • The higher the number you use, the warmer the picture will be.

  • The lower the number you use, the cooler the picture will be.

Using the Kelvin white balance setting allows for very precise control over the color of the resulting image.

Setting the Kelvin value.

It’s very common for photographers to leave their white balance set on Direct Sunlight when shooting at night. Even with no moonlight this can cause an overly warm look to the image. By your using Kelvin white balance and lowering the setting to, say, 3800 K, you’ll be cooling down your photo and thereby making it look and feel more like night.

The exact Kelvin setting you choose will vary greatly depending on the circumstances. Here the white balance of the first shot was set to Direct Sunlight. There was very little moonlight and little to no light pollution from nearby towns. In this case, I cooled down my photo by setting a Kelvin temperature of 4200 K.

The following images were made under a full moon. The first was made with a white balance of Direct Sunlight. The second image was with a manual setting of 4500 K.

When you are near cities or towns, the lights can dramatically influence the color cast of your photographs. In the following images I was just outside of Sedona, Arizona. With the white balance set to Direct Sunlight, the color cast was way too warm. In this case I had to move my Kelvin setting all the way down to 2800 K.

As with most white balance settings, there are no absolutes. So much depends on your personal choice, the current moon phase, the amount of ambient light pollution from nearby towns or cities, and even the type of camera you use. Every camera will render colors a little differently.

The key here is experimentation. Try different K settings under many different conditions. After downloading, examine them closely on your computer. Make notes. Go out and try again. The more you experiment, the better you’ll be at setting your Kelvin temperature. And the better you are nailing the white balance in the field, the less time you have to spend fixing the image in post-processing!

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.