So Far, So Awesome! Recapping Our First Workshops of 2018

It’s hard to believe that the year is almost half over. Our workshop season, however, is just kicking into high gear. Matt and Gabe are leading a group in Capitol Reef National Park, and Chris and I are about to do the same in Redwood National and State Parks. But this week’s post is about celebrating the amazing experiences we had with the attendees of our first six workshops and tours of 2018.

We started the year by visiting one of the lesser-known national parks, Biscayne in Florida, and in the spring we offered our very first night portraiture workshop, in Catskill, New York. For 2018 we added a second international tour, and notched both Iceland and Scotland in our passports before the end of spring. We also partnered with two of our favorite institutions—Rocky Mountain School of Photography and Atlas Obscura—to create two opportunities to seize the night in California.

We’re also working hard on a new series of workshops and programs for 2019, to be announced later this summer. (Want to be among the first to know about them? Be sure you’re on our email list!)

It may sound like we’re tooting our own horn, but what all of this really means is that (as Matt proclaimed in a lecture earlier this year) this is the golden age of night photography. It is not because we are teaching a lot of workshops, but because so many of you are out there photographing at night and continuing to produce so many amazing images.

As we move on with the second half of 2018, let’s see where the first half brought us …

Biscayne National Park

January 29-February 3
By Gabriel Biderman

They said it couldn’t be done—a night photography workshop was impossible at a location that’s 90 percent water. Well, here at National Parks at Night, we love a good challenge and we made the most of the 10 percent of land in Biscayne National Park!

The first night of the workshop was the day before the second blue supermoon of 2018, and we came prepared. Our friends at Nikon shipped us an 800mm lens with a 1.25X teleconverter, which we matched to the D500 with its 1.5X-crop APS-C sensor. With that, we practically lassoed the moon. That “kit” was set up on a Gitzo tripod and students could stick their memory card in the camera and track and capture the moon. The rest of the first night was spent getting our night feet wet with the many subjects to photograph around the Dante Fascall Visitor Center, the only mainland section of the park.

The next two nights we were transported by charter boat to Elliot and Boca Chita keys. Elliott provided a supermoon moonrise, mangroves, dock and other subjects. But Boca Chita is definitely the crown jewel of the location. We literally “lit up” the ornamental Honeywell lighthouse, photographed the Miami skyline, light painted the cutest little chapel, and explored the many views along this picturesque curved key.

We also got to spend an evening at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, which offered spectacular views of off-shore Stilstsville at sunset, which is in the northernmost part of Biscayne National Park. Baggs is also home of the oldest standing structure in greater Miami—the Cape Florida Light, which we were able to wrap lots of star trails around as well as climb up and sing an opera song or two!

Our last night was even more special, as we were able to gain access to Stiltsville, a grouping of wooden stilt houses that are 1 mile from Miami.  The structures are still recovering/rebuilding from Hurricane Irma, but we were able to watch a spectacular moonrise over Leshaw House as well as shoot a few other unique “floating" houses from the dreamlike location of the Baldwin-Sessions house.

Tim and I have taught many workshops, but this was definitely one to remember—from being transported to and from the islands by boat at night, to just the amazing camaraderie that we had with all the students and people who helped make this adventure happen. We want to give a big thank you to Biscayne National Park, Biscayne National Park Institute, Stiltsville Trust and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park for helping us put together this amazing experience.

Iceland South Coast

March 12-20
By Lance Keimig

Our first international tour of 2018 was remarkable for two things: some really bad weather, and a truly extraordinary group of travelers.

After an outstanding exploration of the remote Westfjords of Iceland in the late summer of 2017, we scheduled our second Iceland adventure to the more frequently visited south coast. This is where most visitors to Iceland end up, and for good reason. Some of the most spectacular waterfalls, along with the famous glacial lagoons and the ice beach can be found there.

We arrived and spent our first day and night in Reykjavik, and had an amazing meal at the Fish Market with many courses of truly delicious and innovatively prepared seafood dishes. The next day we headed south under sunny skies and spent some time with a friendly herd of Icelandic horses before making our way to Vik.

Alas, then the weather took a turn for the worse, with rain and ferocious winds. Our intrepid group made the best of it and we photographed when and where we could, and we even had an impromptu light painting lesson in the hotel meeting room when it was too wet to go out and photograph.

The nasty weather continued the next day, and the forecast was only getting worse––100 percent chance of nothing but cold, wind and rain for the entire remainder of our trip. Iceland can be like that sometimes, and you do what you can to make the best of it.

I’d never seen it quite that bad before, but we had a hardy group of outside-the-box thinkers who found a solution and presented it to Chris and I. The next thing we knew, we had changed our entire itinerary and were headed to the north coast, where the forecast was not only for clear skies, but also for lots of aurora borealis. Yup, we did it! The entire group agreed, and we changed our plans and our fortunes, and we found some great new locations and made a lot of great photographs.

I won’t ever forget how this group collectively transformed a gloomy experience into a very memorable trip. Don’t be surprised if you see a National Parks at Night trip to North Iceland show up on our website in the next few years. Maybe the weather on that one will lead us back to the south, and we can finish what we started.

Joshua Tree at Night

April 15-20
By Lance Keimig

Our friends at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography invited us to lead another workshop for them in 2018, and Gabe and I did that at Joshua Tree National Park in mid-April.

This was our first chance at the Milky Way for the year, and we planned the workshop to begin at the new moon and progress to nearly the first quarter. Conditions were perfect––cool nights, clear skies and a largely novice group of night photography converts. We had a few welcome NPAN alumni from Zion, Great Sand Dunes and Cape Cod to help lead the newbies on our dessert adventure.

Arch Rock, Hidden Valley and of course Key’s Ranch were highlight locations again this year, and we were happy to be working with the Desert Institute again as our park liaison. After our RMSP workshop, we led a second, one-night outing for the Desert Institute.

In addition to some truly stellar images, one of the memorable aspects of this workshop is that our group was not hesitant to stay out late and wait for the Milky Way to rise over the horizon—which, depending on the location, was not until 1 a.m. or later. Way to go, gang!

Catskills Night Portraiture

April 27-29 (Spring Session)
By Matt Hill

Students, model, Matt and Mabel in our headquarters backyard shortly after a massive thunderstorm.

In April, I hosted our very first night portraiture workshop. It was also the inaugural workshop in the newly renovated teaching space at our headquarters in the village of Catskill, New York.

This workshop was very intimate, catered farm-to-table by a local chef and designed for advanced students who want to make long exposure portraits of people at night.

From Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon, we worked on lighting, posing and storytelling. Our wonderful local model, Galaexius Quasar, worked with us in studio and on location in the area to bring to life fantastic ideas.

We had challenging weather, but on the first night, that was a real boon. The clouds and misty rain added a moodiness that complemented the scene.

Nikon D750 with a Nikon 105mm f/1.4 lens. 15 seconds, f/4, ISO 200.

The second night brought a very energetic thunderstorm. We decided to stay dry and warm and proceeded to build long exposure portraits in the studio until the weather cleared. After that, we went in the backyard, popped a couple of smoke grenades and made some more magic.

By spending time working on individual skills, both students really leveled up. I’m so happy we did it, and I’m looking forward to the six-person workshop in the fall that I am co-teaching with Tim Cooper.

Dark Skies, Desert Beasts: Borrego Springs, California

May 10-13
By Gabriel Biderman

Dark Skies and Desert Beasts was the official title of our first Ambassador Series workshop with Atlas Obscura. It was held in the dark sky community of Borrego Springs, California, and our focus was the 130-plus surreal sculptures of Ricardo Breceda that created an amazing “Night Sky Museum” with the Milky Way as our backdrop.

For those who are unfamiliar with Atlas Obscura, they have been the go-to online guide to the strange and unusual all over the world for the last 10 years. It was an honor to work with their team, to introduce them to the beauty of the night and to create a unique experience.

Borrego Springs is part of the Sonoran Desert and has been an oasis in the valley for many years—though now more people seek its dark skies than ever before. We enhanced the California vibes even more by staying at an Old West and vintage trailer themed resort!

We spent our afternoons in class, reviewing students’ work and going over the many techniques of night photography. We explored a different section of the Galleta Meadows each night. The variety of sculptures—from the iconic “dragon” serpent that cuts through the main road to the spectacular standoff between the grasshopper and scorpion—were just amazing to aim our lenses toward. But there were so many other beasts to play with too, from dinosaurs and wild horses, to sabertooth tigers, camels, sloths and jeeps driving into the stars!

We scouted each area during the day, and we dropped Google pins and took test shots for sculptures that inspired us so that we could be more productive once the sun set.

Our group of students were amazing and worked so well together, each taking a crack at light painting to reinterpret these pieces of art into something they could call their own.

It was definitely a challenging workshop, operating under little to no moon and maintaining focus on some fairly close subject matter while keeping those background stars sharp!

However, both Tim and I were incredibly impressed with the work that was created and the camaraderie that was forged with all! We had so much fun that we are already planning on a return to Borrego and more collaborations with Atlas. Stay tuned!

Scotland: The Hebrides

May 13-23
By Lance Keimig

Our second international trip of 2018 was to the Isle of Skye, and the Hebridean Isles of Lewis and Harris.

Skye has some of the best landscapes in Europe, and Lewis and Harris are rich in Neolithic archeology. I had been there the year before in March, and things were pretty quiet as you might expect at that time of year. It was immediately apparent that like Iceland, Scotland has seen a major increase in tourism in the last couple of years, and no place in Scotland more than Skye. It was interesting to note that unlike in Iceland, where it seems that much if not most of the tourism centers around photography, that wasn’t the case in Scotland. Some of the locations I’d been visiting for years, often having them to myself, were now absolutely swarming with tourists (and the busy season was only just beginning).

Fortunately, there are still plenty of places to appreciate the spectacular landscapes and appreciate the culture and history of Scotland if you’re willing to come back after dark! That’s what we did!

We had five full days and nights at the wonderful Uig Lodge on the Isle of Lewis. We had some good weather, some mediocre weather, a smashed iPhone (mine) and a real beater of a minibus (thanks, Sixt, but we’ll look elsewhere next time). Again NPAN travelers showed their mettle and faced every challenge head-on to come home with new friends, good memories and great images.

Chris and I took a couple of days before the tour to explore an area in the southwest of Scotland, and he even found the exact apartment in Campbeltown where he had lived for six months as a child while his dad was stationed at the U.S. naval station nearby. National Parks at Night will be leading more tours to some of the other Scottish islands in the future, so stay tuned!

Partner Participation

When we form brand partnerships, we look for the relationship to benefit our workshop attendees too. Nikon, Coast Portland, B&H Photo, Peak Design, Light Painting Brushes, X-Rite, BenQ, Bay Photo, Irix Lenses, Valleret, PhotoPills and Luxli all offered loaner gear, discounts, gifts and other perks at various locations. As always, our gratitude is unending.

Looking Forward

As you can see, it’s been a pretty exciting year so far, with more to come. As of June 22, all of our remaining 2018 workshops are full with the exception of our second week at Glacier National Park led by Tim and myself. You can still sign up for the waitlist for any workshop at no cost and with no risk. If a spot opens up, we’ll invite you to apply.

We’ll be announcing our 2019 workshops and tours in August, first to our esteemed alumni, then to our email subscribers, and then to the general public. We hope to see you out there under the Milky Way!

Lance Keimig is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at www.thenightskye.com.

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Light Painting in Moonlight—Using the Moon as Key Light, or Using it as Fill

Many moons, many opportunities

One of the great things about night photography is the variety of lighting situations we have throughout each month, from complete darkness (around the new moon) to extremely bright conditions (around the full moon).

Photographing around the new moon is great for capturing skies chock full of stars. The skies have little or no light, which allows us to shoot with wide-open apertures that allow even the dimmest stars to be seen. This is also a great moon phase for capturing the Milky Way or shooting long star trails.

New moon. Stitched panorama. Fuji X-T2 with 10-24mm f/4 lens at 16mm. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

The rest of the month, however, is marked by some amount of moonlight. These moon phases provide the night photographer with endless opportunities for light painting.

Quarter moon (sometimes referred to as half moon). Fuji X-T2 with 16mm f/1.4 lens. 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Full moon. Nikon D4s with a 24mm f/2.8 lens. 3 minutes, f/8, ISO 100.

Can you light paint under new moons? Sure. But you do have to provide all of the lighting. Illuminating the entire foreground of a scene can be quite challenging. Sticking to smaller, more manageable subjects will ensure a better chance of success.

When the moon is up (and is more than just a sliver), it bathes the earth in a faint, soft light. On the other hand, when the moon moves toward full, it’s so bright that our images can look like they were made during the day! Using the moonlight to help illuminate our foreground is a great strategy to create stunning astro-landscape photographs. And if you want to level up those images, you can add in some light painting—either as a fill light or as a key light.

Getting Started

Here are the four basic steps to creating a light-painted night scene:

  1. Compose.
  2. Focus.
  3. Determine ambient light exposure.
  4. Add light painting.

1. Compose

It all begins with finding your composition. Regrettably, in this techie genre of photography, we often spend more time thinking about our settings than we do our composition. Spend some time here. Try out different options before you commit.

2. Focus

Once you’ve found your composition, it’s time to get your focus. For more on this, see Chris Nicholson’s recent blog post “Staying Sharp: 8 Ways to Focus in the Dark.”

3. Determine Ambient Light Exposure

With your scene composed and properly focused, it’s time to set an exposure for the ambient light. What is ambient light, you ask? Ambient light is the available light in the scene. This is the sun during daytime exposures, the city lights in a nightime urban environment, your living room lamps if you are shooting indoors at night, or (in our case) the moonlight.

Getting your exposure correct for the ambient moonlight is critical. Each situation and phase of the moon will provide different light conditions, so test out different exposures rather than depending on formulas.

The easiest way to gain an accurate ambient exposure is to run a series of test shots at high ISOs. These test shots will take only seconds and will save you a ton of time. They can also alert you to composition issues in your scene long before you start into your minutes-long exposures. Once you determine your ambient exposure at a high ISO, it’s time to calculate the longer lower ISO exposure. For example, the original test shot of the image below was made at 4 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400, while the final low-ISO setting as seen below was 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Compose, focus, ambient light exposure. Fuji X-T2 with 16mm f/4 lens. 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Add in light painting. 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Final image. 21 stacked exposures, each shot at 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

4. Add Light Painting

Now comes the fun part: crafting the light. Whether you are using a flashlight, an LED panel such as the Luxli Viola, or something as subtle as a tea lights, you can choose how best to balance your added light to the existing (ambient) light.

How do we do this? One of the simplest ways is to employ the age-old practice of lighting used by countless painters, photographers and videographers: using a key light and fill light.

  • Key Light: Also called the “main light.” This is the primary source of illumination. It is the brightest light in the scene. Wherever this light doesn’t reach becomes darker shadows.
  • Fill Light: This is the secondary source of illumination used to “fill” in the darker areas of the scene not illuminated by the key light. It’s usually one to two stops darker than the key light.

In this portrait above, the key light is to camera-left. This makes the image brighter on the left side. Notice the highlight under the model’s right eye and cheek. The fill light is at camera-right and pulled back a bit further to make the light a little less bright. Below is the diagram of this lighting setup.

While this image was made in the studio, you can accomplish the same type of lighting outdoors at night. The moonlight can be your key light and you can fill in the shadows with your light painting tool of choice. Or you can you use your light painting tool as the key light and the moon can you be your fill.

It’s all about the balance. If the light painting you are doing is subtle and the moonlight dominates the scene, then the moon is the key and the flashlight is the fill. If you the moonlight exposure is not as bright as the light you add in, then your painting becomes the key light.

Two Examples

I began with a 3-second exposure at f/8 and ISO 6400 to compose the scene and gain focus. Next I converted the high ISO test exposure to 3 minutes, f/8, ISO 100. The evening features a full moon, so the scene could have been brighter, but this exposure made the moonlit scene behind the truck a little darker than usual.

If I hadn’t been planning to light paint the scene, I would have made the exposure brighter, and the moon would have been the key light (not to mention the only light). But, by keeping it a little darker, I allowed the moon to become the fill light. The 3-minute exposure gave me plenty of time to walk around and paint the truck. The truck is the brightest element of the composition, so this makes my light painting the key light.

Moon as fill light, flashlight as key. Nikon D4 with 35mm f/2 lens. 3 minutes, F/8, ISO 100.

In this next example, I used the full moon as the key light and my flashlight as the fill. I first set up my composition. Then I focused. Then I started my high ISO test exposures, and converted my result to a low-ISO, long-exposure setting. I settled on 3 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

This created a natural-looking scene. The sky seemed bright, but not quite as bright as the middle of the day, and the distant mountain had a nice bright glow to it. The tree and the rock formation in the foreground, however, were in complete darkness, so they recorded as pure black. Time for the flashlight!

Standing to the right and little forward of the tree, I shined my Coast HP5R back at the formation. Adding too much light made the formation and the tree brighter than the background, which was not the affect I was looking for. After several attempts at light painting, I settled on an amount of illumination that kept the foreground just a bit darker than the background.

Moon as key light, flashlight as fill. Nikon D4s with 24mm f/2.8 lens. 3 minutes, F/5.6, ISO 200.

Bringing it into the Field

When you are out under a moonlit sky, try a brighter ambient exposure with less flashlight to keep the moon as the key light. Then try less ambient exposure and more flashlight so that the latter becomes the key light.

There is no right or wrong—only the way you want to interpret the scene!

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.

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Staying Sharp: 8 Ways to Focus in the Dark

One of the most common issues we hear about from people learning to photograph at night is the challenge of getting the subject in focus when you can’t … well, when you can’t see anything.

Is focusing in the dark a trick? A skill? An art? A science?

In fact, it’s all of the above. You have options. Focusing a lens in the dark is not only possible, but it’s possible to do in many ways, some of which are better in some circumstances than others.

Below are eight techniques for ensuring your night images are always sharp.

1. Use a Manual-Focus Prime Lens

This is the simplest way to focus in the dark. If you’re focusing on infinity (which is the case for many, many night scenes in natural spaces), then it’s remarkably quick and simple to mount a manual-focus prime lens to your camera and turn the focus ring to infinity. Boom. Done.

For this photo in Big Bend National Park, the rock ridge was far enough away so that I knew I could focus on infinity and get everything sharp. So I did the easiest thing possible: I used a manual-focus prime lens (in this case, the Irix 15mm f/2.4) and moved the focus ring to the infinity mark (which, with this lens, clicks into that setting). Nikon D850. 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

2. Auto-Focus in Daylight

Focusing might be more difficult in the dark, but it’s a cinch in daylight, particularly with modern autofocus technology literally at our fingertips. When you’re wrapping up your daytime shoot, autofocus your lens(es) to infinity (or on your scouted subject), then turn off your autofocus and immobilize your focus ring with some gaffer tape. Once dark settles over the landscape, you’ll be ready to shoot without having to worry about focusing again.

While shooting with Gabe and Matt in Capitol Reef National Park, we all autofocused on infinity at sunset and taped down our focus rings before photographing Chimney Rock under the stars. Nikon D3s with a Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 lens. 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 4000.

3. Auto-Focus on a Distant Light

Yes, you can actually autofocus at night, as long as you have some light to focus on. The more contrast, the better, and you can’t get a much harder edge than a bright light source surrounded by black. Unless you’re in the hinterlands, in the wildest areas of wilderness, you can often find such a light.

If you want to focus to infinity, you don’t need that light source to actually be at infinity. A street light 50 feet away will probably suffice—as far as a lens is concerned, that’s far enough to resolve infinity pretty sharply. Alternatively, autofocus on a city skyline, or on a car down the highway, or on anything that gives you a faraway bright spot to lock onto.

To find infinity in Iceland, I autofocused on a radio tower light about 75 feet down the road from my tripod (which can be seen in a photo by Lance, who was working nearby). Nikon D5 with a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. 6 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 8000

4. Auto-Focus on the Moon

If you’re shooting on a moonlit night, know that our biggest and brightest satellite is plenty bright enough for an AF system to lock onto. Point your lens up at the moon, autofocus, remount the camera to your tripod, and you’re ready to shoot.

The moon was shining over The Grandstand in Death Valley National Park. I needed to focus on infinity, so quickly autofocused on the moon. Nikon D3s with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 25 seconds, f/8, ISO 2000.

5. Shine a Flashlight on the Subject

The above methods work great for focusing on infinity, but sometimes you need to focus on a closer element of the composition. Perhaps it’s a windmill, or a Joshua tree, or a ferocious dinosaur eating the Milky Way. In those cases, try shining a bright flashlight on the subject, and see if that’s enough for the autofocus to lock on. (Except, come to think of it, maybe don’t do this with the ferocious dinosaur. Use another method for that.)

In Joshua Tree National Park, I used my Coast HP7R to illuminate the rock, which was plenty of light for autofocus to work. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 20 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 4000.

6. Put a Flashlight in the Scene

If illuminating your subject doesn’t create enough light and contrast for your AF system, then walk into the scene and place your flashlight on or near your subject. (Again, probably not the best strategy for the dinosaur. Also not a great technique when your subject is 10 feet past the edge of a cliff.)

At Arctic Henge in Iceland, the fog made it tricky to illuminate our subject from a distance, so I put a Coast HP5R flashlight on the rock and autofocused on the lit bulb. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 30 seconds, f/4.5, ISO 3200.

7. Use Live View & a Loupe

If neither flashlight method above enables you to autofocus, try a similar strategy with manual focus instead. Illuminate your subject or place a flashlight in the scene, then use your camera’s live view to focus on the subject. Using a loupe on the LCD makes this even easier and more accurate.

In the very dark skies of Death Valley National Park, I found a bright star in live view and used a Hoodman HoodLoupe to fine-tune the focus manually. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 17-28mm f/2.8 lens. 20 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 100.

8. Use the Hyperfocal Method

Chances are that the first seven methods will get you into focus. But even though it’s No. 8 here, the No. 1 surefire way to get sharp photos in the dark is to use hyperfocal distance. Hyperfocal is not easy to learn, but it’s an excellent educational investment, because it will allow you to focus on everything from your subject to the horizon without the need for AF, flashlights, or so on. (And it’s by far the safest method for focusing on a dinosaur.)

For a great primer on this method, see Lance Keimig’s blog post “Use Hyperfocal Distance to Maximize Depth of Field at Night.” (Alternatively, see Lance literally walk through the process in our Creative Live course.)

At the Goldwell Open Air Museum just outside of Death Valley National Park, I used hyperfocal distance to know that if I focused 3 feet, 10 inches away, then everything from about 2 feet to infinity would be sharp. Nikon D850 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 23 stacked exposures shot at 2 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 250.

Bringing it into the Field

When you want to make every frame count at night, try our eight suggestions for staying sharp. Nothing is more painful than well-composed, well-exposed images that end up being soft.

To make this a little easier to remember while you’re out shooting, we’ve created a handy infographic. Download it here, and feel free to keep it on your phone or print a copy to keep in your bag for when you're in the field and wondering what to do.

Staying-Sharp-8-Ways-to-Focus-in-the-Dark.png

Pocket Guide

   "Staying Sharp: 8 Ways to Focus in the Dark"

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.

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How I Got the Shot: Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park

Star Circles Over Lake McDonald. © 2015 Gabriel Biderman.

I’m fortunate to visit the Treasure State, Montana, at least once per year. But unfortunately it took me too many years to finally visit the Crown Jewel of Montana, Glacier National Park. There might not be as many glaciers as when the Great Northern Railway cut its path west over 100 years ago, but the three ranges of the Rocky Mountains still carve out some incredibly impressive views.

In 2015, before I saddled up on my motorcycle to ride out to Going to the Sun Road, I synced up with my good friend and fellow NPAN instructor Tim Cooper, who has been leading workshops in Glacier for more than 10 years. In fact, we are very excited to have him lead our first night ventures in Glacier in August and September.

I had only a couple of days to spend in the park, and Tim shared some of his favorite locations, which made the scouting so much easier.  Tim suggested we spend the night at Lake McDonald (below), as it has one of the iconic views in the park.

 Scouting photo of Lake McDonald in  Glacier National Park .

Scouting photo of Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

The Location

Lake McDonald is definitely a popular spot, and it sits about 11 miles into the park on Going to the Sun Road. There are many cabins and campsites that let you take in all of this majestic beauty.

As I walked along the southern shore where most of the boat and kayak rentals are based, it became more and more obvious what kind of picture I needed to make. An epic location requires some epically long star trails! When we aim our camera to the northern skies we can create those jaw droppingly long circular star trails. In order to do this effectively, you need to dedicate at least 1.5 to 2 hours to shooting. So charge up your batteries and I’ll share with you how I got the shot!

 Lake McDonald, my shoot location, is nestled along Going to the Sun Road on the west side of the park.

Lake McDonald, my shoot location, is nestled along Going to the Sun Road on the west side of the park.

The Conditions

The night I took this shot was June 6, 2015. The sun set at 8:35 p.m., but because we were at a higher latitude at the beginning of summer, the twilights lasted almost three hours. I guess I was lucky to actually get a night sky at all! The moon was a waning gibbous of 76 percent, but wouldn’t rise over the horizon until 11:44 p.m., meaning it wouldn’t rise above the mountains until at least an hour later.

Soon after the sky grew dark, I walked out onto the long dock to start shooting. As we entered astronomical twilight, which was to last over an hour, I was amazed to see the clarity of the northern tail of the Milky Way. I was joined by an astro-enthusiast who had his iPad out and was using a star map guide to identify all the celestial bodies that were shining brightly and surrounding us from all sides. It was so dark that the stars were easily reflecting in the calm waters of Lake MacDonald.

The Gear

The equipment I had with me presented a challenge for star-point photography. My lens was a superwide 10-24mm f/4 on the Fujifilm X-T1. The wide was good, as it let me get to a shutter speed of 30 seconds without stars starting to trail. However, we typically like “faster” lenses of f/2.8 or wider to let in more light and keep our ISOs somewhat manageable.

I had to work with what I had and shoot at ISO 6400 for 30 seconds at f/4. That resulted in definitely a noisy image, but I embraced the grain by converting this “bonus” shot (below) into black and white, and I’m very happy with it.

My first photo of the night, of the Milky Way floating over Lake McDonald and the distant mountain ranges. Fujifilm X-T1, 10-24mm f/4 lens. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

The Shoot

I like nights that give you both complete darkness and moonlight to work with. This enables you to come away with a variety of night images as you explore the many different lights of night.

One thing I love about moonlight is how much color it brings into the night. Dark black skies can be difficult to work with, but a lick of moonlight brings a little blue to the sky.

I felt it was wise to move off the dock and onto more stable ground, to shoot from the terra firma along the beach. The moon was rising, and after taking a few test shots to finesse the composition, it was important for me to confirm that the North Star was still in the shot. It can be difficult to make out the exact placement of the North Star in an image, so before committing to a long exposure, I take a 2-minute shot so I can see how the stars are rotating (Figure 1). That confirms the placement of Polaris in the frame.

 Figure 1. Test shot to confirm that Polaris is in the desired spot in the composition.

Figure 1. Test shot to confirm that Polaris is in the desired spot in the composition.

After I confirmed focus and composition, I settled on an exposure of 2 minutes, f/4, ISO 3200. I chose this setting because I was looking for the optimal image quality for star stacking and had noticed that the Fujifilm cameras quickly get color noise after 2 minutes of exposure at temperatures of 60 degrees or more. Also, Fujifilm caps their longest exposure in Bulb mode at 60 minutes, and I definitely wanted to blow past that!

I couldn’t have done such a long cumulative exposure without the help of the Tether Tools Case Relay. Typically mirrorless cameras can last about 1 to 1.5 hours of straight shooting on a fully charged battery. Tether Tools lets you plug one of their dummy batteries into your camera’s battery compartment and then link it to the Case Relay and a 10,000mAh USB battery to give you a much longer charge. (Check out the video we made that shows this in action.)

With the Case Relay hooked up, I set my Vello intervelometer to 2 minutes with a 1-second break between shots. I then lay back on the sand and enjoyed the show! I think I might have taken a little catnap during this shot, as the camera kept clicking for 1 hour and 24 minutes!

The Post-Production

I was very excited to see this shot. At that time it was my longest star trail to date. (My current mark is 6 hours ☺.)

The star stack was fairly easy to put together using Lightroom and Photoshop. In the Lightroom Library module I flagged all the “images to get stacked” (Figure 2) with a red color label (number 6 on your keyboard).

Figure 2.

This makes it easy to differentiate between my test shots and the images that have only a 1-second break in between. Once I had them marked, I selected them all and then clicked Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop (Figure 3).

Figure 3.

Depending on how many images you have and how powerful your computer is, this can take just a few minutes or enough time to brew and drink some coffee. Once the images loaded in Photoshop as layers, I selected them all. Then from the Blend Mode drop-down menu I chose Lighten (Figure 4).

Figure 4.

This blend mode lets the brightest part of each layer reveal itself in the final image. This connected all the bright star trails, as well as the car trails in the background (Figure 5).

Figure 5.

I saved the file, and Photoshop sent it back to Lightroom, where I did some basic touch-up to finalize the image (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Final image. 41 stacked frames, each shot at 2 minutes, f/4, ISO 3200.

Typically when you expose a night sky for this long, you are bound to get airplane or satellite light trails as well, but Glacier must be a very special place to have such a limited amount of “sky traffic.” I didn’t see any in my photo.

Final Thoughts

This is one of my favorite shots, still to this day. It heightens the majesty of Glacier National Park. I love how the moonlight reveals the Livingston and Lewis mountains ranges in the distance but also creates a mirror reflection. When I saw the cars come down Going to the Sun Road during my exposure I thought I’d have to remove them in post, but they slice through the shadow and its reflection perfectly. Oh, and who doesn’t like reflections of star trails? Yes, please!

This shot reconfirms the pristine beauty of our national parks at night. And aside from the gentleman with the iPad, I had Lake McDonald to myself that night!

Note: When we announced our 2018 night workshop at Glacier National Park, it was one of the first to sell out. We recently added a second week and we still have a few spots left. If you want to create images like this, come join us at the Crown Jewel of the Continent!

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

How to Stand Out in a Crowd (of other Night Photographers)

You’ve made it. You’re in that *special* place in your dream wilderness area. Darkness is upon you, the stars are doing that winky, twinkly thing. And that amazing monument of nature is laid out in front of you. … And then so are a dozen or more other people.

When you’re shooting in a crowd, how do you make an image that doesn’t look the same as those of the photographers around you?

It’s a question we get often on our workshops. And here is how we encourage our attendees (and ourselves!) to frame for personal and visual success. In other words, here are some tips for how to stand out among a crowd of other night photographers.

You’re Special

First, consider this: None of us sees things the same way. So, relax. Trust the aspirations that got you into photography in the first place.

All of the instructors here at National Parks at Night have seen this over and over, even when it’s just us out shooting for fun. And we are surprised and delighted over and over again when our workshop participants (and we!) make startlingly different images from the same location.

So believe in your instincts. Believe in your eye. Let it take you to the right spot and let yourself see what it shows you.

Cooperate & Collaborate

If you read our blog on the regular, you’ve seen examples of the power of many photographers working to make an image together. Here are some examples:

To properly light some scenes, it’s fantastic to have one person operating the cameras, and others out in front or to the sides carefully constructing a story of light and shadow with light painting, light writing and more.

It’s fun. And if you swap places, everyone gets a turn directing the lighting, running cameras and making light in all the right places.

On top of that, you can make friends with like-minded people this way. Not only do you encourage sharing the space and respect, but you could also gain a shooting partner!

‘When everybody zigs, zag’

Although Marty Neumeier’s advice comes from a book for marketing professionals, it applies to all walks of life.

Differentiation is what makes someone or something stand out in a sea of similarity. It requires awareness of what others are doing paired with finding a place, voice or meaning that others are ignoring.

A very simple way to apply this is to look at what lens everyone else is using and then use a different one.

For example, when Gabe and I were at Devils Tower National Monument and everyone had their ultrawide lens on, I switched to my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 and pushed in on the rock formation.

My zag. Nikon D750, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8. 271 seconds, f/2.8 ISO, 800.

What most others were capturing. Not a single other person did that. And the image I made feels very personal and powerful. One may argue that the insanely colorful sky glow was worth shooting. Right on—I agree. I shot both! And I believe the tight shot on the tower has power and emotion that the wide shot cannot provide. Nikon D750, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Try a Different Angle

Often, it looks like there is one obvious, reallllly great spot to shoot from. You may label it as “ideal.”

But walk around. Go low. Go high. Go vertical or horizontal. Go around the back. Turn around 180 degrees.

Remember, in the northern hemisphere, star circles are to the north and the Milky Way is to the south. Work your way around something and capture both opportunities.

Around the backside of the ruins, I found this. Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8. 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

And most people chose this view. Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8. 322 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 400.

Walk away—Wipe the slate clean—Do something unexpected

My favorite example of this is is when I was scouting Capitol Reef National Park with Gabe and Chris. Gabe was way off to the left. Chris was somewhere off to the right. And frankly, I wasn’t having such a good night. I wasn’t feeling it.

So I walked back to the car and said, “Well, let’s get some frames in. I drove umpteen hours to be here. Just do the work, and good things will happen.”

Then, being me, I just kind of noticed how shiny our car was. And then how the stars reflected perfectly off the hood.

“Can I get stars off our car hood?” Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8. 120 seconds, f/3.2, ISO 400.

Honestly, after I saw this photo come up on the LCD, it changed my entire mood. I went from “Meh” to “Let’s do this!” in one frame. Then I went back and found these scenes:

That’s more like it. Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8. 723 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 100.

Foreground for the win. Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8. 240 seconds, f/4.0, ISO 400

Plan to be Different

If you are a plan-ahead kind of person (or want to develop the habit) pull out PhotoPills and do some virtual scouting. Or use Google Earth and Google Images or Instagram to familiarize yourself with how others captured a particular scene.

You may spot an opportunity at the edge of their frame that piques your interest and stirs your creativity. Or, even while going to find the spot they shot from, you may see something they didn’t see.

Get Meta—Photograph the Photographers

I absolutely love showing our human relationship to the natural environment.

More often than not, I step back a little, set up my camera to make photos of the people working the scene, and set my intervalometer to run continuously.

From a time-lapse sequence I ran while working on light painting with some workshop attendees. Nikon D750, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8. 13 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

By doing this, I:

1) get amazing time-lapses

2) always get something I could not have planned or directed

Another thing you can do is ask a fellow photographer nearby to pose for a portrait. Wouldn’t you want a photo of you doing what you love, where you love doing it? Imagine their delight (and yours).

Workshop student Susan making a pass with a light wand behind our model. Nikon D750, Nikon 105mm f/1.4. 8 seconds, f/4, ISO 200.

Use Hikers and Headlamps as an Advantage

When I see other park visitors moving into my scene, I ask myself, “How can I make this work for my image?” Some people turn off the camera when it happens, but I love when strollers-by wear headlamps and wave flashlights around.

I’ll time my shots to incorporate these “human car trails” with glee and determination. I like to wait it out until they traverse my entire scene.Fuji X-T1, 7artisans 7.5mm f/2.8 Fisheye. 800 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 100.

It’s Just a Jump to the Left …

We all do the Time Warp when we’re out making night photography. Collecting all those photons on a sensor is truly a remarkable thing. We’re lucky we have to tools, the time and the opportunity to do it.

I hope my suggestions help you get more out of crowded situations, and make you feel like a winner when being creative in those wild, starry places.

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT