A Day of Night: Talking Stars and Light Painting at the B&H Event Space

A few days ago Matt Hill and I were hosted by the B&H Event Space, one of our very favorite places to present. The people who run the space are fantastic to work with—always warm, welcoming, helpful and professional in every degree imaginable. Moreover, the Event Space attracts an impressive array of audience members—from beginners to expert pastimers to consummate professionals—who come armed with infectious enthusiasm and a passionate curiosity to better their craft.

(Attendees also included a few of our former workshop participants; it’s always great to see and to catch up with them.)

Matt and I demonstrating why we love Coast flashlights above all other options. Photo courtesy of B&H Photo.

Matt and I demonstrating why we love Coast flashlights above all other options. Photo courtesy of B&H Photo.

It was “A Day of Night at the Event Space,” comprising two presentations, which were livestreamed to a combined audience of over 25,000 viewers (thank you to everyone who tuned in!). Both talks included some of the topics we teach on our workshops, along with over 75 photographs that we’ve made during our adventures under the dark skies of America’s national parks.

We wanted to share what we talked about with you, the readers of our blog.

‘Shooting Stars: How to Photograph Night Skies’

Me talking about starry skies while surrounded by National Parks at Night logos. Photo courtesy of Klaus-Peter Statz.

Me talking about starry skies while surrounded by National Parks at Night logos. Photo courtesy of Klaus-Peter Statz.

In the first presentation of the afternoon, I talked about how to get started photographing stars. Some of the topics covered were:

  • gear
  • white balance
  • exposure
  • the 400 Rule
  • composition
  • star trails
  • star stacking
  • lens condensation during long exposures
  • software options
  • and more

You can view the recorded version of the livestream here  (jump to 4:56 for the beginning of the presentation):

‘Illuminating the Night: Everything You Want to Know About Light Painting’

Matt and I demonstrating the right and wrong way to paint with light. Photo courtesy of Klaus-Peter Statz.

Matt and I demonstrating the right and wrong way to paint with light. Photo courtesy of Klaus-Peter Statz.

In the second presentation, Matt and I teamed to talk about one of our favorite topics and one of the favorite techniques on our workshops: light painting! Topics covered were:

You can view the recorded version of the livestream here(jump to 1:20 for the beginning of the presentation):

Come see us!

We hope you enjoy watching these presentations, and that you can take away a nugget or two of knowledge that help as you venture into the night with your cameras.

Between the five of us here at National Parks at Night, we talk pretty regularly at the B&H Event Space, as well as at conferences, trade shows, camera clubs, podcasts, etc. If you’re interested in attending any of the events where we lecture, see our Speaking Engagements page for a schedule of where we’ll be next.

And if you want several days’ worth of this kind of information and instruction, be sure to sign up for any of our upcoming Workshops. ;-)

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Faces, Darkness, Experimentation and Time: How To Create Stellar Night Portraits

Making portraits at night is one of the most creative and challenging applications of night photography. In this post, I'm revealing some of the hardest-won lessons I've learned while honing the craft.

Tip #1: Dilate time

Figure 1. "Gymnos at Gantry Park" (2012) from Night Paper. Nikon D700. 30 seconds, f/8, ISO 200.

What truly defines the difference between a picture of someone at night and a true night portrait is incorporating elements that show a clear passage of time. In Figure 1, the soft water from a 30-second exposure adds a subtle note about time passing.

I deliberately include the following things in my night portraits; they overtly or subtly show time passing:

  • water flowing
  • clouds passing
  • cars moving
  • trees or grass waving in the wind
  • star trails

Figure 2: Skyler at Barr Lake State Park, Colorado (2012) from my Night Paper project. Mamiya 7 II. 60 minutes, f/11, ISO 200 (Ilford XP2).

Note the star and airplane trails in Figure 2. It's an extreme example, but drives home the point about dilating time.

What truly fascinates me about this is our brains are wired to comprehend only the moment we are in. We cannot see time as it compounds in a long photographic exposure. But somehow, we can comprehend the resulting photograph. So cool, right?

Tip #2: Do something That Would be impossible in daytime

Figure 3. Star Portraits the night prior to the Atlas Obscura Total Eclipse Event in Durkee, Oregon. Photographed with a Nikon D750 with a LOMO Petzval 85mm lens. 22 seconds, f/2, ISO 6400.

Your unique advantage whilst making night portraits is the duration of your exposure. Daytime portraits have hard limitations—exposure are all a fraction of a second.

Figure 4. Light Painting Brushes Black Fiber Optic Wand on Coast HP7R. Nikon D750 with Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

You have time—lots of time—to:

  • do some wicked cool light writing
  • execute some detailed and layered light painting
  • let your model stand nearly still, so the edges of their body blur
  • burn in star trails
  • expose a delicate net of stars arcing across the sky, including the Milky Way

Tip #3: Use scale to your advantage

Figure 5. Capitol Reef National Park (left), photographed with a Nikon D750 and a Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8 lens at 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400. Olympic National Park (right), photographed with a Nikon D750 and a LOMO Petzval 85mm lens at 21 seconds, f/2, ISO 6400.

Since I often shoot in National Parks and other wilderness areas, I choose to make humans small in scale versus imposing and inspiring landscapes. You can accentuate this by adding a flashlight or headlamp beam.

Tip #4: Use a flash for your model's face and continuous lights for the other parts

Figure 6. My Night Paper and Noctavians projects. Various exposures. All incorporate a flash on the model's face, a flashlight for light writing or light painting, and sometimes a Luxli Viola via Bluetooth for brief, remote illumination.

The most delicious night portraits I've made have crispy eyes and facial features. It's classic portrait technique. Where I depart from the traditional is keeping that shutter open and painting in from behind, underneath and the side to reveal things that move after the flash pops.

You can even have your model move away after the flash, achieving a "ghosting" effect by letting the light illuminating whatever was behind them to pass through the space once occupied by their body.

You may ask, "Matt, can't I just use a flashlight?" Sure, but I recommend flash because even a quick burst from a flashlight isn't crisp enough to create the look I am after. Try both and you'll see what works for you.

Figure 7. Two portraits I made of Lance Keimig during our Great Sand Dunes workshop. Left was lit with a Coast HP7R from behind and on his face. Right was lit by his camera's LCD.

I strongly recommend that you get a flash meter to avoid the process of chimping your way to a proper flash exposure. It will save time, and batteries. TTL is OK, but I prefer something more consistent from one flash to the next. And not all TTL works well at night.

Tip #5: Stop thinking and experiment

Figure 8. A second camera set for behind-the-scenes captured this beautiful moment during our Great Sand Dunes workshop.

Our own expectations can get in our way. We can stifle our ability to make something unique by thinking too much and planning too hard.

One of my most successful methods is to say, "OK, I got something I liked, now try something weird or random."

Whatever I suggest here is likely to be my own taste and not yours. Find your experimental voice. And shout. Whisper. Cajole. Surprise yourself by letting the camera record what you cannot possibly see in a single moment.

Wrapup

Figure 9. Michael Hollander from B&H using a telescope at the eclipse event in Oregon. Photographed with a Fuji X-T1 and a 7artisans 7.5mm Fisheye f/2.8 lens at 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Night portraiture is difficult. No joke.

It requires mastery of the fundamentals of night photography, including focus, composition and exposure. You also need to have some knowledge of portrait lighting and how to use a flash.

You also need to have an ability to direct your models clearly (and in the dark). Practicing on your fellow night photographers is a great way to start. Work between their exposures.

Now that we've cleared the prerequisites, don't fret. You can learn simply by doing. Space on your memory card is free, so grab a friend and try it out.

Note: Wanna level up your night portraiture skills? Join me for intimate group sessions in April and October of 2018 in Catskill, New York.

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

How the New Lightroom Range Mask Feature Helps Night Photographers

As you may have heard, last week Adobe made some big changes to its suite of photo-editing software, the biggest component of which was announcing the successor to Lightroom CC 2015/16. That software’s new name is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic CC.  For short we’re calling it Classic. The reason the name is important is because of a new version of Lightroom announced at the same time. This new software is called Lightroom CC. Perplexed yet? The new Lightroom announcement is bound to cause a little bit of confusion, so here’s a link to a full explanation of the two versions by Tom Hogarty of Adobe

While there are some great performance upgrades to the Lightroom, the coolest new feature for night photographers lies in the ability to fine-tune the masks we create with our local adjustment tools. The new feature is called Range Masking, and it can become a serious way for you to level up your post-processing and your photography.

Follow along in video below as I show you how night photographers can make the most of this new tool!

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

A Look Through the Years—How Night Photography has Changed, and How it Hasn't

Lance Keimig, "Sand Pit," 2016. This image could have been made 30 years ago when I started photographing at night, but it was shot a year ago, in October of 2016.

Recently Chris and I were chatting about how various aspects of night photography have changed with the advances in technology, and how others haven’t. It was a lively conversation, and he suggested that I write a blog post on the subject. I thought it was a great idea, especially as it would allow me to talk about my favorite subject: historic night photographers!

Delay Tactics

One of my favorite early night photography stories is about the English photographer Paul Martin, who began photographing at night in earnest in 1895. Others had made the occasional foray into night photography before him, but it was Martin who really set the wheels in motion, and whose work caught the attention of Alfred Stieglitz and his colleagues at the Camera Club of New York.

Martin wrote in his 1939 autobiography, Victorian Snapshots, that at one point he had decided to continue to photograph in darkening conditions after the sun went down, making longer and longer exposures and altering his development to get the best results. Eventually these early night images were published as the book London by Gaslight.

Like with most pioneers or innovators, the general public seemed to think Martin was crazy. People approached to tell him that it wasn’t possible to take pictures in the dark, and that he should go home to his wife, or maybe back to the asylum! On more than one occasion he was accosted by the “bobbies,” who questioned his motives.

These are experiences shared by almost anyone who has been photographing at night for more than a few years. Though, for better or worse, night photography has become so commonplace today that unless you find yourself on the wrong side of a fence, you rarely have to explain your motives to the police or anyone else.

Paul Martin, "A wet night on the embankment," 1895. Martin covered his camera lens during the exposure to shield it from a curious policeman’s lantern.

Back in the 1890s, police carried kerosene lanterns with them on their beats, because flashlights (or what the British call “torches”) hadn’t been invented yet. On more than one occasion, Martin had a long exposure ruined when a policeman walked in front of his camera and raised a lantern to get a better look at the photographer and his gear. (Remember that in those days, street lights were dimmer, and far fewer in number, so the nighttime environment was considerably darker in London than it is today.) Eventually Martin was able to anticipate and react to impending disaster by removing his hat and placing it over the lens until the policeman’s curiosity was satisfied!

New Jersey Photographer Laureate George Tice’s best-known image is the remarkable “Petit’s Mobile Station, Cherry Hill, NJ, 1974.” Tice told me some years ago that the 2-minute exposure on 8x10-inch film actually required about 10 minutes to make because he had to cover the lens whenever cars passed in front of the camera. He would get only 10 or 15 seconds of exposure on the film before a car pulled into the station or passed on the road on the left side of the image. Each and every time, he covered the lens.

George Tice, "Petit’s Mobil Station, Cherry Hill, NJ, 1974." Tice’s best-known image was a 2-minute exposure on 8x10 film that took 10 minutes to expose because the photographer had to repeatedly cover his lens due to cars passing through the scene.

No doubt many of us have employed this same device used by Martin and Tice to prevent an unwanted car or plane trail in our compositions; it’s something I’ve done for decades in my own images. Some things never change.

But most do.

Deliberation

Many of the changes in night photography since digital replaced film are obvious. The ability to “chimp” is a good example. Night photography has become far more accessible because of the instant feedback we get from the image preview, the blinking highlights and the histogram.

Other related changes are less obvious unless you have had the experience of shooting at night with film. There is certainly a great satisfaction in knowing that you’ve “got the shot,” but what is lost is the sense of anticipation that comes from not knowing until you unwind the wet film from the reel in the darkroom.

Working so deliberately usually leads to a higher success rate, and that’s one aspect of my field workflow that I have maintained as much as possible.

The combination of low sensitivity and reciprocity failure meant that night photographers shooting film were lucky to make 10 or 15 exposures per night, and without the ability to review images in the field, we generally took a slow and methodical approach to our work. When considering variations for exposure uncertainty and complex light painting, a good night meant one or two “keepers.” Working so deliberately usually leads to a higher success rate, and that’s one aspect of my field workflow that I have maintained as much as possible over the years. Still, there have been nights in the digital age when I’ve made over 100 exposures––quite a lot for a night photographer.

Justification

I have already alluded to one of the other changes I’ve noticed over the course of my career. Back in the 1990s, I would be questioned all of the time by passers-by wondering what I could be photographing in the dark. Non-photographers would say things like, “There isn’t any light, how can you take a picture?” or “Are you a ghost hunter?” or “There’s nothing there, why are you photographing that old building?” Sometimes I still get those questions, and if the person seems genuinely interested, at least now I can show them the back of the camera.

That leads to another change worth noting. I used to carry a small selection of prints in my camera bag to show to the police or security guards who invariably caught me on the wrong side of the fence. More than once, being able to show a print or two along with a business card eased the concern of the authorities and kept me from being arrested, or at least from being detained. They could somehow understand that an “artist” with a camera was not a threat. In the jittery years following 9/11, that was a real concern. Although to my knowledge there has never been a terrorism event that involved photography, somehow night photographers have often been suspected of bad intent.

Balboa Park. It looks like they mean it.

Gear

We all know how much technology has changed the way we work. Our cameras have improved to the point where almost any can record sharp images of the Milky Way, whereas cameras used to be limited to long exposures and star trails. Moreover, lenses are sharper, batteries last longer, tripods are lighter and flashlights are brighter.

Until very recently, one incredibly frustrating camera feature remained stubbornly stuck at 30 seconds: the shutter speed dial! Over the years, I’ve spoken with numerous camera company reps about why their camera’s shutter speeds don’t go any longer than 30 seconds, and unfailingly I’d get the same answer: “Why would you need to expose for longer than 30 seconds? You could just raise the ISO.” Despite the relative ease and lack of engineering required to enable longer shutter speeds, it wasn’t until the Nikon D750 that we even had a Time setting at our disposal.

Many recent cameras have built-in intervalometers, but again with exposures limited to 30 seconds. Finally, with the release of the Canon 5D Mark IV and 6D Mark II, we have DSLRs with programmable shutter speeds that extend exposures not just to minutes, but as long as 99 hours! Hopefully other manufacturers will follow suit with their future models.

Color

Mixed lighting was always the bane of architectural photographers, especially when natural color rendering was important. For night photographers, it’s often that same mixed lighting that attracts us to a scene in the first place. The early work of photographer Jan Staller was a major influence on me, and his technique of printing to correct for one light source while allowing the others to do what they would created some of the most surreal images I had ever seen.

Lance Keimig, "Mixed Lighting Examples," 1995. These two images were shot on Fuji color negative film in 1995 under a combination of sodium and mercury vapor lights. There is no right or wrong white balance here–– whatever looks right to the photographer, is right.

The incredible control we have over color in our pictures, and the flexibility to set white balance after the image has been captured, both give today’s photographer a flexibility that was inconceivable only 20 years ago. Back then, if you couldn’t control the light sources, you either shot black and white or accepted the crazy colors as they were recorded.

Composition

One thing that hasn’t changed—and will never change—are the principles of composition and design. A good photograph will always be a good photograph, and a crummy one will always be a crummy one regardless of the technology that was used to create it. For that, we can sleep well in the morning.

Lance Keimig, Stromness, 2008. Shot on Fuji Neon Across 120 film with an Ebony 23SW view camera and Nikkor 65mm f/4 lens. 10 minutes, f11. This image was made in the tiny fishing village of Stromness on Orkney in northern Scotland. It was the house of the poet George Mackay Brown. The technology doesn’t matter, the image works because of the combination of vision and craft.

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Conferences, Clubs and Excursions, Oh My! Come Join Us for an Event This Fall

One of our favorite parts of doing what we do is getting out into the photography community to meet and talk with like-minded photographers. It gives us a chance to share what we know, to learn from the experiences of others, and to swap stories about working in the dark and working in the parks.

We do this all year round, but autumn seems to be the time when some of the biggest opportunities fall into a line of quick succession. It’s kind of like the “Conference District” of our collective schedule.

With that in mind, we wanted to share some of the events we’ll be participating in this fall. We hope you can join us at some of these amazing gatherings!

Out of Acadia Photography Conference

Bar Harbor, Maine

This one actually just ended, and was the first landscape photography conference organized by the Out of Chicago group. They’ve been running tours, workshops and walks in their home city since 2011, and conferences since 2016. Gabe and I were honored to speak and lead walks at their Out of New York Photography Conference last year, and last week I did the same at their conference in Maine’s Acadia National Park.

I taught a class on photographing the night sky, and delivered the conference’s closing session, “From Acadia to Zion: 59 Parks to Inspire Your Photography.” In addition to the myriad classes and presentations by the instructors and leaders, the conference had a very shooting-friendly format. Each morning, afternoon and night featured scores of photo walks and excursions, to places like Monument Cove, Boulder Beach, Cadillac Mountain, Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, Schoodic Peninsula and many, many more.

Me, during an Out of Acadia photo excursion up to North Bubble. Great photo courtesy of conference attendee and new friend Ron Johnson.

Me, during an Out of Acadia photo excursion up to North Bubble. Great photo courtesy of conference attendee and new friend Ron Johnson.

Out of Acadia was a dynamic event that left the attendees, instructors and organization exhausted (in a good way) and creatively fulfilled. If you were there, you’re probably still sorting through images. If you weren’t there, you can look into attending their next landscape event: the Out of Moab Photography Conference, to be held in October 2018. I’ll be there too!

PhotoPlus International Conference + Expo

New York City, New York

It’s one of the kings of the photo-conference world, held in New York City at the famous Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. And we’ll be speaking there on the final morning, for the third successive year. This time, we’re sponsored by one of the biggest supporters of the National Parks at Night workshop program: NIKON.

On Saturday, October 28, from 10:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., Matt, Gabe and I will deliver a two-hour presentation titled “Seize the Night—Taking your Night Photography to the Next Level.” From the session description:

“The National Parks at Night Team is excited to share their expertise and nocturnal visions with you. Go behind the scenes of some of their most challenging shots and see how they prevailed or failed. Take a look at the many aspects of night photography: astro-landscape, light painting, urban and Milky Way. Have your work reviewed and get valuable feedback on how you can elevate your night photography. You'll learn about essential gear, post-production tips, light painting, star trails, star points and urban night photography.”

If you’re not yet registered for PhotoPlus and would like to do so at 15 percent off, feel free to use our speakers’ link.

Lance Keimig will also be at PhotoPlus, delivering two presentations at the Irix booth during the day (at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.), and leading a night photo walk on the famed High Line (from 6 to 8 p.m.). For more information, see the event page on Facebook.

The Great Smoky Mountains Photography Summit

Townsend, Tennessee

From November 1-5, I’ll be on the road again, this time to Tennessee and North Carolina, where I’ll be speaking at this singular event held at one of the jewels of the park system, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Clouds in the valleys of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. © 2013 Chris Nicholson.

Clouds in the valleys of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. © 2013 Chris Nicholson.

I’ll be one of 12 instructors delivering presentations, offering image critiques and leading field sessions in the park. I’ll be talking about light painting and national park photography, and others will be discussing topics as diverse as metering, creativity, master field techniques and more. There’s also a print competition, with a grand prize of a Fuji X-E3 kit.

If you’ve never been to or photographed the Smoky Mountains, this is an excellent opportunity. See the Great Smoky Mountains Photography Summit website for more information about how to register.

Camera Clubs, etc.

After mid-fall, things slow down for us a bit in terms of speaking at conferences. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be out and talking about photography whenever we get the chance. We’re currently booked to speak at camera clubs in four states between now and mid-winter, including the Churchville Photography Club in Pennsylvania, the New Haven Camera Club in Connecticut, the Englewood Camera Club in Florida and the Greater Lynn Photographic Association in Massachusetts.

Last year we partnered with the New York Adventure Club, sponsored by by B&H photo and Hudson Mercantile, to host a light painting class on a secret rooftop in Manhattan.

Last year we partnered with the New York Adventure Club, sponsored by by B&H photo and Hudson Mercantile, to host a light painting class on a secret rooftop in Manhattan.

And we’ll happily add more to the schedule! If you belong to a club 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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT