Long Nights on Long Island: Wrapping our First Summit

On November 2 to 4, 2018, National Parks at Night hosted our very first Night Photography Summit. It was a remarkable success, and we are delighted.

Thank you to all the eager photographers who attended. Most were from Long Island and New York City. But not all! We had attendees com all the way from California and even Belgium!

We partnered with Rafael Pons, The Bard of PhotoPills. Rafael was on-hand during the entire event to coach people on how to use PhotoPills to plan for their shoots, and also how to use some of the incredibly versatile tools contained within that awesome little yellow app.

We also partnered with the Photographic Federation of Long Island, a federation of camera clubs spanning the region, to promote and host the event. PFLI generously helped us choose a proper venue, work with local authorities to obtain permissions for the night photography mini-workshops, and even shuttle students back and forth from the parking lots in the evenings. Best of all, they were shooting alongside us every night. :-)

Our lovely and generous sponsors were also on hand to support our passion for night photography education.

  • B&H Photo brought all kinds of tempting gear (and some very special promotions during the event). And, of course, they also brought Zaza candies and supercool buttons and stickers. ;-)

  • BenQ brought their line of photographic displays, as well as knowledgeable imaging experts to talk about how seeing your images at their best on a BenQ display is a final step for serious photographers around the world.

  • Bay Photo Lab sent an envelope full of gift certificates for free prints to give away at the end of each day.

And then the education. ... Wow, what a full offering. We did our very best to fill up the attendees’ heads with useful tips and inspiration, and we answered every single question. Here was the conference schedule:

Day 1

One of my favorite moments each day was Gabe’s early- morning group stretching sessions, with “seize the night” chants (below). It really put us in a mindset for success, right down to the last person. (Thanks, Gabe.)


The first day, we talked through some favorite images with Chris, Gabe, Lance and Matt:

One of our cherished (and proven) mantras is that it’s possible to make a good night photograph under any conditions. To that end, Gabe and Lance inspired the crowd with a presentation titled “How to Nail a Night Photo—Anytime, Anywhere.”

Rafael then stepped onto stage, connected his phone to the projector and proved that PhotoPills is not only the right choice for the night photographer, but that there is “a pill for every pain you have.” His presentation, “PhotoPills: A World of Possibilities on your Hand” had something for everyone.

Then Chris and Matt took the stage to present, “10 Steps to Mastering Light Painting,” during which they walked the audience through, step by step, the successful ways you can apply light painting to tell your stories with photography at night.

Rounding out Day 1 was an enthusiastic Q&A session with all four NPAN instructors and Rafael. We had to save some questions for the next day!

That evening our first group of intrepid night photographers braved drizzle, clouds and fog to photograph the iconic Fire Island Lighthouse. Proving our point that bad weather makes for great night photography, Gabe made this image during a demonstration:

Day 2

On Day 2, after our inspiring stretches and chants, Gabe and Matt opened up Lightroom and showed a live demo, “After the Shutter Closes: Processing the Night.” Each spent a good amount of time working through RAW images to bring out the very best in them.

Rafael once again showed us the magic on his phone with “Planning Star Trails and the Milky Way with PhotoPills” (below), which was full of fantastic questions (and answers)—not to mention a whole lot of people using their phones and tablets during the presentation to see that magic happen under their own fingertips.

After lunch, Lance and Chris returned to present “Photographing Lighthouses, the Sentinels of the Seas” (below). Truly germane to the work later that evening, they presented how to go about photographing lighthouses, including many techniques for planning and success.

We had one more group Q&A to cover anything at all. And we did. Love that part. Excellent attendees.

Our second and final night out started with a huddle at the base of the lighthouse.


After a confab about the plan for the evening, we headed to the northern end of the beach to look south for a half-hour glimpse of the galactic core of the Milky Way creeping to the right of the lighthouse.

After this, we broke up into three groups and worked on Low-level Landscape Lighting (LLL), star stacking and long exposures. The night was clear, brisk and a little windy. But everyone walked away with images to be proud of!

Day 3

Our final day began with a deep exploration of some of our favorites places with Chris and Lance, in “A Daydreamer’s Guide to Night in the National Parks.” Covering 32 NPS locations, and rich with photographic examples, we saw many people wildly taking notes about their next dream destinations for night photography. (Hint, we have some spots open for 2019 workshops!)

Lastly, we spent a few hours on image review. We dipped into Lightroom and gave feedback and instruction to attending students on images shot during the conference and at other times. Always a good way to wrap up, with clear ideas on how to grow and improve.

With gladness in our hearts, and stars in our eyes, we called the Summit to a close. It was three days (and two nights) of sharing, learning and growing.

We’re so delighted that you like what we do. Thank you for supporting us as we share what we love with you. Our success is your success.

We can’t wait to do this all over again with the crew of photographers on Long Island and PFLI. #gratitude

Note: Want to see us come to your area? We’re considering taking this show on the road. Do you run a regional camera club federation, or even a really strong, passionate group that wants to collaborate and host an experience like this near you? Drop us a line and let us know.

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 Students' Work, From the Redwood Forests to the Gulf Stream Waters

Happy Anniversary Biscayne and Redwood national parks! We were so very thrilled and honored to be part of your 50th-year celebrations.

We obviously love going to all the parks, but when we can work closely with the rangers and officials that help run these amazing places, it makes the experience even more worthwhile.  In 2018 we formed a very strong relationship with both the aforementioned parks. We were so excited to take our students there for workshops earlier in the year as well as keep the communications building to create a cross-country “From the Redwood Forests to the Gulf Stream Waters” celebration. It was absolutely wonderful to see the friends we made this year, in addition to meeting more creative lovers of the parks during the festivities.

A very big thank you goes out to Bay Photo Lab, which believed in our students’ work and printed a combined show of 42 night photographs, twice, so we that we could have the focal point of the celebrations be a gallery show at both parks.


Our opening weekend at Biscayne had a ton of activities. We kicked things off Friday night, when 30 people joined us for a scenic boat ride to Boca Chita. We disembarked and had time to scout and explore the many vantage points on the island. At the end of civil twilight we gathered our group, plus two law enforcement park rangers joined us and were excited to see what we were creating.

I had prepared a special “Birthday Wish” (below) on the Fotorgear Magilite, which is an LED light stick that you can program with an endless amount of colors, shapes and art and then “walk the image” into the scene.

That is always a perfect example of how we can write anything with light. From there we broke into smaller groups and did night portraits and light painting—all in all, seizing the night!

Saturday was a full day at the park. We were very excited to see our dear friend, National Park Patch Lady (below), who led a sunrise photo shoot, scavenger hunt and Biscayne quiz. Lots of fun Biscayne and national park stickers were finding their way to knowledgeable park goers. There was also a variety of ranger talks spearheaded by Ranger Gary Bremen.

That kept most people busy until we kicked off the gallery opening and official party. We had live music (below) and over 100 people came to enjoy our images and share stories about Biscayne as we sipped wine and (of course) gobbled up birthday cake. We were also honored to have in attendance Lloyd Miller, who was instrumental in saving and creating Biscayne National Park half a century ago.

That night we led another walk around Convoy Point (below) and the visitor center, and we were thrilled to be joined by a student from each of the Biscayne and Redwood workshops, in a truly wonderful weekend of celebration!


by Lance Keimig

That very same weekend we made a return visit to Redwood National and State Parks to help celebrate their 50th anniversary with an exhibit of student and instructor photographs from our June workshop, which will be on display at the Hiouchi Visitor Center in the park until January 2019.

The “From the Redwood Forests to the Gulf Stream Waters” exhibit opened on Friday, October 19, and was attended by the park staff, as well as members of the Save the Redwoods League, Redwood Parks Conservancy and the local community. About 50 people attended the opening during the course of the too-short evening. A highlight of the reception was ranger Michael Glore leading a singalong of Woodie Guthrie’s, “This Land is Your Land” (below), which alone was worth the trip to California.

In addition to the exhibit reception, and a gallery talk led by Chris and I the following day, we also taught a one-night mini-workshop for the local community on Saturday, October 20. We had a small group of eager students and a great night in the redwoods at Jedediah State Park, photographing along the banks of the Smith River.

We’d like to offer our thanks and congratulations to Michael, Chief Interpretive Ranger Candace Tinkler and Biscayne’s Ranger Gary for all of their hard work in putting together the events around the anniversary. It was a dream come true for National Parks at Night to collaborate with the parks in this way, and we hope to do more of these types of projects in the future.

Prints for Parks

Bay Photo was more than just a sponsor—they made the events possible. The prints for both the Redwood exhibit and the concurrent one at Biscayne were made with Bay’s patented Xpozer system, our new favorite way to display our work.

All of the images from the exhibits are available for purchase at our online gallery, with all profits going to benefit both Redwood and Biscayne.

Bay is a great partner to work with and they have stepped up in a big way to support both the parks and National Parks at Night.

One final note is that under Candace’s leadership, Redwood National and State Parks is pursuing dark sky certification from the International Dark Sky Association, and plans to hold more dark sky events in the future. We look forward to seizing the night with them more in the years to come.

Reminder: The exhibits are up in both parks until January 13; check visitors hours to see when you can view the prints. Or, you can support the parks by purchasing one of the prints at our online gallery.

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.


Five Questions: Yes, Light Painting is Allowed in National Parks, and More

You ask questions, we give answers. (For the record, we do other things too. And we assume you do as well. But we all love night photography, so here we go.)

This installment of our “Five Questions” series features inquiries about light painting in national parks (hint: yes), focusing at night, an amazing national park in Utah, better batteries for the Luxli Viola, and the direction of star trails.

If you have any questions you would like to throw our way, please contact us anytime. Questions could be about gear, national parks or other photo locations, post-processing techniques, field etiquette, or anything else related to night photography. #SeizeTheNight!

1. Yes, Light Painting is Allowed in National Parks

 A great example of low-level lighting: In Joshua Tree National Park, Arch Rock, at 30 feet high, was light-painted by just three battery-operated votive candles. Illumination barely visible to the naked eye even from close-up. Six stitched frames shot with a  Nikon D750  and a  Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8  lens at 15mm Photo © 2017 Lance Keimig.

A great example of low-level lighting: In Joshua Tree National Park, Arch Rock, at 30 feet high, was light-painted by just three battery-operated votive candles. Illumination barely visible to the naked eye even from close-up. Six stitched frames shot with a Nikon D750 and a Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens at 15mm Photo © 2017 Lance Keimig.

Q: I saw an article online that said light painting is no longer allowed in national parks. Is this true? — Pretty Much Everyone Who Has Emailed or Spoken to Us in the Last 18 Months

A: The headline of that article misled the reality of the situation. About 18 months later we still get this question, so let’s set the record straight.

First of all, it is true that a few National Park Service units have gotten hesitant about light painting. However, as far as we are aware, this has happened at only five NPS units—out of about 420. So to insinuate that night photography is being hampered at all national parks is a massive overstatement.

It should also be noted that of those five units, four (Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument) are administered by the same office, so it’s mostly just one rule that’s affecting a few places. It’s not like a bunch of parks have independently decided they don’t like night photography. In fact, we find that almost every park we visit loves the night, loves night photography, and encourages visitors to enjoy the darkness of the parkness either without or with a camera.

Those four Utah NPS units acted with exactly that feeling in mind. Michael Hill, who works in the district, and with whom we have communicated, is very clear that they felt light painting “confuses visitors” and they leave because of this confusion. We get that, and we are respectful of it.

However, that rule has been amended. As of earlier this year, those Utah parks allow Low-level Landscape Lightning (LLL), which is essentially very low levels of light that build up over the course of a long exposure.

In Lassen Volcanic National Park, Lance and I used a pair of Luxli Viola panel lights to illuminate Cinder Cone, which is approximately 1,000 feet in diameter. We were relatively far away from our giant subject with relatively dim illumination. We could barely see where the light was hitting, but over the course of a 15-second exposure at a high ISO, that little bit of light was enough to do the job. Nikon D5 and 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 15 seconds, f/3.2, ISO 6400. Photo © 2018 Chris Nicholson.

For example, at our workshops we often employ LLL by using a Luxli Viola set to 1 percent brightness. That gentle glow is barely visible to the naked eye, but is extraordinary for cameras at high ISOs. That works out very well, and we cannot imagine that it would ruin the experience of any non-photographer who might happen to be there too. (For the record, usually no one else is there. We find it rare to encounter anyone else out at 1 a.m. other than—seldom but occasionally—other night photographers.)

In the case of the Utah parks, how low is acceptably “low-level”? Good follow-up question. When in Canyonlands last month, I asked a ranger, and he admitted the threshold is a bit subjective. He added that as long as the light isn’t disturbing wildlife or interfering with the enjoyment of other park visitors, then it’s probably OK. For commercial groups, the permit regulations stipulate that waving flashlights around is a no-no, but low-level static lighting is fine.

So, that’s the scoop with that set of four Utah units. The fifth unit in question is Grand Teton National Park in the beautiful state of Wyoming.

Grand Teton is an interesting case, because the park’s concern appears to really be in regard to shining artificial light on wildlife. We’re on board with whatever helps in that regard. Of course we don’t want to use flashlights for “spotting” wildlife, which in hunting is known as “jacklighting.” As people who use the parks for artistic inspiration and growth, we also have a responsibility to respect and preserve the natural environment, and that includes not disturbing the animals that call those places home.

There are many ways to photograph Grand Teton National Park in low light without light painting—such as by moonlight. Nikon D3 and 28-70mm f/2.8 lens. 1/50, f/ 4, ISO 400. Photo © 2012 Chris Nicholson.

That said, Grand Teton curbing light painting is a curious decision, as the park has a highway that runs right through it, along with plenty of private property that people drive on. Cars have headlights. There’s also an international airport that’s in park boundaries, and airplanes have lights too. The however-many cars and planes in the park each night illuminate far more than a few photographers’ flashlights do. So we’re not sure why photographers are the ones getting their lights extinguished. (We’ve heard of at least one photographer who light-painted by “accidentally” sweeping his flashlight across the scene. Perhaps that kind of behavior has something to do with photographers being mistrusted there.)

Regardless of our personal feelings about any of this, National Parks at Night always preaches respect for the land, and that means respect for the park regulations, for equal access for all visitors, and for the rights of animals not to be blinded with sun-guns.

To that end, on our workshops we are very clear that if someone from outside our group approaches with a light on or wants to walk where we are shooting, they have a right to do so. If they want to linger in the same place we’re shooting, they have a right to that too. We should all share the space, and we should all share the darkness. If what we as photographers are doing will disrupt another visitor’s enjoyment of the park, we can find another way or another moment to do it.

Let’s end with this thought: Rather than making negative assumptions and predictions based on some (very few) new obstacles at a tiny minority of parks, we instead implore our fellow night photographers to ensure this does not become an actual issue anywhere else.

How? By being responsible with our practices. That could be by employing LLL lighting techniques, or by light painting at a location only when alone or with other night photographers, or by shooting just the dark skies. Whatever works for you in the moment.

And finally, by encouraging other night photographers to do the same. — Chris

2. Focusing from Foreground to Infinity

Pemaquid Point, Maine, sharp from front to back after focusing to a hyperfocal distance of 18 feet. Nikon D750, Sigma 24mm f/4 lens. 488 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 800.

Q: On a recent night shoot at the Devils Garden in Utah, I was really disappointed in the fuzziness (not in good focus) of the rocks in the foreground of my shots. I may just have screwed up the focus on infinity, and I should have zoomed in on the first few shots to ensure clarity. Should I have focused on infinity and assured/assumed that the depth of field would maintain focus throughout the range, or should I have focused on a hyperfocal distance to ensure the full range of focus, which would have included my foreground rocks and out to infinity? — Michael D.

A: Anytime you have foreground subject matter, hyperfocal (providing it is done accurately) is the way to go. It’s a technique that is designed to maximize the available depth of field rather than focusing at infinity and sacrificing sharpness in your foreground.

To learn more about that technique, read my 2016 blog post “Use Hyperfocal Distance to Maximize Depth of Field at Night.” Then follow that up with a post that Chris wrote, “Staying Sharp: 8 Ways to Focus in the Dark.” — Lance

3. Capitol Reef Night Programs

The night skies of Capitol Reef National Park are worth a trip. Nikon D750, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. 154 seconds, f/4, ISO 100. Photo © 2016 Matt Hill.

Q: I would love to go to Capitol Reef National Park to see the stars. Are there any nighttime programs available? — Nancy

A: There certainly are! Capitol Reef is an awesome place to view and photograph night skies—and they know it, and they’re happy to help you enjoy what they have.

Check the Ranger Programs resource on the park website. They recommend the following special programs (check at the visitor center for schedules and meeting points):

  • guided hikes—60 to 90 minutes

  • star programs—tour the night sky in a gold-tier International Dark Sky Park

  • full moon walks

Have fun, send pictures! — Matt

4. Superpowering the Luxli Viola

Q: I was first introduced to Matt and Chris through a seminar held at B&H Photo in New York City. I proceeded to order the Luxli Viola LED light and am looking forward to working with it. I recall a reference to a better battery to use with the Viola than the one that comes with it (due to the short life of the battery), but I can’t find it in my notes. Please help me find the best battery for this kit. — Debi F.

A: First, I wouldn’t say the Viola’s battery has a short life. In fact, Chris claims to recharge his only every couple of months or so. That’s because he shoots mostly still photos, and he uses it only at night when very little power is needed to light a scene.

But if your usage drains your Viola faster than you prefer, you can get more run time by using the Watson NP-F550 replacement battery, which from my experience is very reliable.

If you want even longer run time for other applications—say, if you’re shooting video, when you’d probably leave the light on for hours at a time at full power—you can get the even larger Watson NP-F770 battery. That should about double your run time.

If you want to spend a little more, the Sony versions of the NP-F battery are supposedly the best to be found. — Matt

5. Stars Trailing in Different Directions

Sotheast view in Sedona, Arizona. Nikon D4s, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 4 minutes, f/4, ISO 200. Photo © Tim Cooper.

Q: In Tim’s recent blog post “Making the Move to Manual White Balance,” I can’t figure out how, in the last pair of photos outside Sedona, he managed to get the stars moving other than in concentric circles. Were some of them mirror-imaged to fill in areas where there was too much light, to let the stars show through? Thank you for satisfying my curiosity! — Marilyn O.

A: No mirror-imaging involved or required! Star trails move in different directions, angles and arcs depending on which direction you’re facing.

  • You get concentric rings from star trails only when you are shooting due north.  

  • When you are shooting east, they move from upper right to lower left.    

  • When you are facing west, stars move from upper left to lower right.

  • When facing due south, the stars go nearly horizontal across your frame.

For the image in question, I was facing southeast, so you are seeing the divergence of the east and south views.  If I had turned right a little bit more (south), I would have ended up with nearly all horizontal trails. If I had turned a little more to the left (east), the trails would have moved from upper right to lower left. I shot this photo with a very wide 14mm lens—so wide that I actually captured a little of both views! — Tim

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.


Working in (and with) the Dead of Night—Photographing in Cemeteries

Burrishoole Abbey, County Mayo, Ireland, 2009. This image was made while leading a photo tour of western Ireland. The headstone was illuminated from the left with a Surefire G2 flashlight, and minimum aperture was chosen to maximize depth of field with the longer focal length. The underexposed background has just enough information to provide context, and the moon rising in the distance provides an additional counterpoint to the foreground subject. Canon 5D, Canon 28-135mm lens at 70mm. 13 seconds, f/32, ISO 100.

Wherever I travel, somehow I end up in graveyards. Ireland, Japan, Cuba, Texas …

It’s not that I’m preoccupied with death, but just that I find cemeteries to be interesting places reflective of culture, and most importantly, the residents usually don’t complain about trespassers. Oddly enough, Matt Hill and I first met in a cemetery while photographing the Headless Horseman in 2010! What better place to do some night photography in late October?

If you are lucky enough to live in a place with an intriguing graveyard, I recommend that you give it a try––but you might want to take a friend, especially if you are wary of headless horsemen or things that go bump in the night.

In the paragraphs that follow, I’ll offer some guidelines and suggestions for night photography in cemeteries. Be sure to pay attention to the image captions, as they contain all of the technical details and explanations of the illustrations.

Challenges and Opportunities

Aside from the creepy factor, there are no particular peculiarities to night photography in a cemetery any more than in our more usual nocturnal haunts. The terrain and lighting can vary from one to the next just as it can in any environment. Making successful images in a graveyard is dependent on finding an interesting subject and combining it with interesting light, whether you find that light or create it yourself. If you are fortunate enough to have a little fog as well, then you really can’t go wrong.

These two images were made on the same foggy night in May 2016. The cool-toned image is dominated by backlighting with a Coast HP5R LED flashlight supplemented by moonlight. Nikon D750, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 lens at 24mm. 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 800.

The warm-toned image is dominated by light from fog-diffused high pressure sodium vapor streetlights, with a key light on the cross from a Coast HP5R flashlight to camera right. Note that the 90-degree sidelighting exaggerates the texture in the cross, creating strong contrast in an otherwise soft scene. Nikon D750, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 lens at 50mm. 10 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 1600.

Conditions and opportunities in large urban graveyards might be very different from small rural ones, with the urban options being relatively unaffected by moonlight due to streetlight, while lighting in more remote cemeteries may be totally dependent on the phase of the moon. Just as with any other landscape, graveyards can be photographed in starlight, moonlight, streetlight, with light painting, or any combination of light sources.

If you’ve read many of my previous articles, you know that I like to revisit locations over time in different conditions (see “Revisiting Locations Can Lead to Seeing with New Eyes”). The two images below were made in the ghost town of Terlingua outside Big Bend National Park—the first under a full moon in 2007 and the second nine years later under a new moon. I tried as best as I could to recreate the composition from memory in the later shot, but the conditions were so different that the resulting images look like they were made in different places altogether.

I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite between the two, as I like them both. They are just different. Of course it’s more difficult to work in starlight, and we’re faced with the usual challenges of bumping up against the limits of our equipment with noise from high ISOs, short exposure times to preserve star points, and shallow depth of field from wide apertures; therefore, compromises will have to be made on a case-by-case basis to get the best results. Foregrounds are more dependent on light painting and will usually be underexposed in the absence of added light.

These two images were made nine years apart at the same location. The 2007 image was shot during a full moon at Dia de los Muertos, when candles illuminated many of the grave sites. The orange glow is from one such candle. There was no added light painting. Canon 5D and an adapted Nikon 28mm f/3.5 PC lens. 5 minutes, f/8, ISO 200.

The 2016 image was shot on a moonless night with fast-moving clouds in April, with Coast HP5R backlighting from camera left and a brief pop of bounced light in front of the fence with the same light source. Atmospheric conditions and added lighting make these two images of the same subject completely different. Nikon D750, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 lens at 24mm. 30 seconds, f/4.5, ISO 6400.

Modern vs. Historic

Every boneyard is different, and reflects the spirit(s) of the people buried there. The old cemetery at Terlingua is full of mostly Mexican and Mexican-American miners, many of whom died as a result of breathing the toxic mercury vapors that were part of the smelting process at the nearby cinnabar mine at Villa de la Mina. The humble wooden crosses lean in all different directions, and the place seems abandoned and forgotten except at Dia de los Muertos on November 1, when elaborate decorations festoon the graveyard and many of the graves are adorned with little skulls made of sugar.

Jacob Taylor has resided at Sleepy Hollow in Concord, Massachusetts, since 1767. The image was made in 2010 with a Surefire G2 flashlight from slightly above the stone, flagged with black mat board so the camera didn’t see the light. The three headstones in the middleground were lit with the same light source, but indirectly. I bounced the light off of a 12-inch Wescott reflector from behind the central stone. The shallow depth of field and strong vignetting also help to isolate the primary subject. Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens. 3 minutes, f/4, 100 ISO.

Jacob Taylor is buried in the Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. Many of the graves there date to the late 17th and 18th centuries, and the elaborately hand-carved tombstones chronicle the evolution of styles and trends in funerary art during the Colonial period of U.S. history.

The modern side of a different Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York, dates from the first half of the 20th century and contains large family crypts and mausoleums of wealthy industrialists. The image below is the Rockefeller family mausoleum, which reflects the wealth and power its residents. The Sleepy Hollow in Tarrytown is the final resting place of Washington Irving, the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the tale of the previously mentioned truncated equestrian. More on him in a minute.

The Rockefeller Crypt at Sleepy Hollow in Tarrytown cost $2 million to construct in 1920. That would be about $22.5 million in today’s dollar. That’s a lot of money to house the family after they are dead and gone, but when your name is Rockefeller, you can afford it. Shot in 2012, with varying cloud cover reflecting mixed streetlighting from Tarrytown and the Tappan Zee Bridge, the combination of which is responsible for the color in the sky. The monument was lit from left, right and low to the ground with a Surefire G2 incandescent flashlight for three of the four minutes during the exposure. Canon 5D Mark II and an adapted Nikon 28mm f/3.5 PC lens. 4 minutes, f/8, ISO 100, with a second, shorter exposure for the moon.


Take advantage of multiple mixed lighting sources rather than trying to fight them. Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is a fantastic example of a graveyard that beckons photographers to explore the grounds and very old headstones. Many of the Mayflower Pilgrims and their descendants are buried here, and the varied terrain, the large, ornate stones, and especially the variety of light all make for great photo opportunities. There are no lights in the graveyard proper, but it is in the heart of downtown Plymouth and is surrounded by the lights of the small city of 60,000.

Burial Hill in Plymouth, Massachusetts, is one of my favorite cemeteries. This image, made on top of the hill, shows trees lit by the sodium vapor lights of town, but the top of the hill is relatively dark except for some moonlight. The headstones were backlit with a Coast HP7R LED flashlight, with a little “ghosting.” Image made in 2014. Canon 5D Mark II and an adapted Nikon 28mm f/3.5 PC lens. 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

As is often the case with light painting, sidelighting and backlighting are particularly effective techniques to show the engraved text on gravestones. Mary Meriam and the cheerful winged skull that adorns her gravestone have resided six feet under in Concord since 1693, but despite the many years that have passed, both the ornaments and text on the remarkably well-preserved stone are easy to read, made more so by the strong sidelighting. The key to using this technique effectively is to balance the ratio of added to ambient light in such a way that it draws attention to the stone, but still gives enough exposure to the background to provide context.

This image was made in 2010 with an LED flashlight from camera right and slightly above, just out of frame. I held the light even with the edge of the stone to emphasize the deep and well-preserved engraving. I also swept the light across the ground behind the stone to help separate the middleground and background. Canon 5D Mark II and Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens. 2 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.


Sometimes the best models are the dead ones. I’ve had the good fortune to both photograph and teach workshops at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown at the invitation of the cemetery director.

It was at the first of these workshops that Matt and I first met while coaxing the elusive Headless Horseman into posing for our students. Aside from the issues of ectoplasm not usually registering on sensors or film, the transient and transparent nature of ectoplasmic beings, and their generally unpleasant temperament, Matt and I have been able to document his regal countenance on multiple occasions. We eventually figured out that the promise of a fresh pumpkin (or a six-pack of Captain Lawrence IPA) was all it took to get him and his noble steed to stand still for a few minutes while we fiddled with lights and made a few exposures.

All kidding aside, adding models to your graveyard images is a great way to add some life to the scene. Costuming appropriate to the locale is important, and lighting the figure separately from the background is key. Flash is usually easier to control, and also works well for animate or semi-animate objects that tend to move during long exposures. Combining a long exposure for the overall scene with a burst of light from a strobe can be used to great effect. Backlighting is a great way to separate a dark figure from a dark background, just as silhouetting your model against an open sky may also be. Lighting from below is a way to make anyone look scary.

Hugh Francis is the official Headless Horseman of both Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow, New York. He’s held that unusual position for many years. Outside of the Halloween season, he maintains a farm in upstate New York where he cares for retired New York City police horses, which he recruits to accompany him when he goes out to search for his head. These images were made between 2011 and 2014.

Lighting by Matt with a Profoto AcuteB with a Magnum Reflector and grid on a stand with a small softbox directly behind the horse, and I used a Surefire G2 incandescent flashlight for fill from camera right. Canon 5D Mark II and an adapted Olympus Zuiko Shift 35mm f/2.8 lens. 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 1600.

Lighting by Matt with a Profoto AcuteB bare-bulb directly below the horse and rider, and I used a snooted Surefire G2 incandescent flashlight for the cross edge lighting from camera right. Canon 5D Mark II and an adapted Nikon 20mm f/3.5 lens. 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 1600.

Lighting by Matt with a Profoto AcuteB on a stand with a small softbox directly behind the horse, and I used a Surefire G2 incandescent flashlight for fill from camera left. Canon 5D Mark II and an adapted Nikon 20mm f/3.5 lens. 4 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 1600.


There are a few logistical considerations that should be addressed.

Many cemeteries are officially closed at night, and some have fences to keep photographers and teenagers out, and the spooks in. It’s usually the larger historic cemeteries that are restricted. Sleepy Hollow in New York is one such place, while the smaller but equally compelling Sleepy Hollow in Massachusetts is wide open 24/7.

Do your homework and make a few calls if you want to go through the gate rather than climb over the fence and take a chance on getting kicked out, arrested or buried alive. It may be possible to gain access with the promise of sharing your images, or by simply showing some examples of what you would like to do.

Remember, asking to take pictures in a graveyard at night might seem a little out of the ordinary, so having a way to show that you’re not a weirdo can be helpful.


Perhaps the most likely thing to go bump in the night when photographing is graveyards is your head or camera hitting a gravestone after tripping over other stones or the precariously low fences sometimes placed around family burial plots. Take a partner with you, or go alone if you dare—but just for peace of mind, this kind of activity is better with a friend.

Have a Grave Time!

Opportunities abound for photographing in cemeteries at night, and it’s good fun too. Just be sure to get permission, as they tend to be busier this time of year with ghost hunters, teenagers and disgruntled spirits, and the police make frequent patrols in many places. Take a friend or two to keep you company and to help with the lighting.

We’d love to see whatever you come up with, so please post in the Comments section, to our Facebook page, or to Instagram and tag us (@nationalparksatnight).

Be careful out there, and Happy Halloween!

Hugh trying to figure out where to pour his beer after a hard night’s work, 2016. Coast HP5R flashlight from camera left. Hugh’s dark cape is severely underexposed, but that seems to be the least of his worries. This was a quick grab shot at the end of a long night and we were all having a good laugh at his expense. Hugh is a true gentleman, and a very good sport. Nikon D750, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 lens at 27mm. 8 seconds, f/4.5 at ISO 800.

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.


(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.