Muses from the Past: The Night Photographs of Volkmar Kurt Wentzel

Analyzing classic photographs can be an effective way to progress in one’s own work. The key is not to simply mimic someone else’s great ideas, but to use the knowledge that comes with reproducing the work of masters and move on to create something new. With this in mind, National Parks at Night's Lance Keimig offers this ongoing series highlighting some of the early masters of night photography. We'd love to see any photographs you create after learning more about the pioneers of this niche—please share in the comments section!

The great Hungarian photographer Brassai is arguably the most influential night photographer of all time, particularly due to his work during the 1930s after the release of his seminal book, Paris De Nuit. I was introduced to Brassai while studying with Steve Harper in San Francisco in the late 1980s, shortly after Paris De Nuit was reprinted in the classic Parthenon edition in 1987.

Last year I wrote about Howard Burdekin and John Morrison, who paid a backhanded compliment to Brassai in their own book London Night. The English photographer Bill Brandt admired and even copied Brassai’s night work. But this article is not about Brassai, but rather about Volkmar Kurt Wentzel, a German American photographer who also found inspiration in the pages of Brassai’s Parisian nocturnes.

“Lafayette Square.” A silhouetted sculpture of Andrew Jackson on a rearing horse opposite the North Portico of the White House. Wentzel used an exposure that kept the sculpture in shadow, but preserved the detail of the illuminated White House. As was typical of this series, Wentzel chose to photograph on a wet and foggy night, a strategy that he no doubt observed in the night work of Brassai, and perhaps in Stieglitz’s as well.

Wentzel moved to America in 1926 at the age of 9, when his father, an amateur photographer and photo chemical salesman from Dresden, Germany, was offered a job as director of an Ansco photographic paper manufacturing plant in New York. Wentzel’s mother died a few years later, after which he set off with a friend on foot for South America.

After three days of walking and hitch-hiking, they found themselves in Washington, D.C., where the two parted ways. The friend went home to his mother, and Wentzel rented a room in Lafayette Square near the White House. He found a job working in the darkroom of Underwood & Underwood portraiture studio and news agency, where he also assisted the staff photographers. His first break came when one of his images was published in a Washington newspaper.

“The Waterfront.” The Washington canal was where fishermen delivered and sold their catch from the Chesapeake Bay to the restaurants and wealthy homes of Washington, D.C. In this image, a fisherman shows his catch to a customer in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

“National Archives.” The National Archives building had just been completed in 1935 when Wentzel made this image on a foggy night. Two groups of people illustrate the grand scale of the building, and the looming presence of the bare trees in the foreground add an air of mystery to the image.

After being given a copy of Paris De Nuit by a friend, Wentzel began to photograph the well-known landmarks of D.C. at night. He often would process his images the same night, and then go out again to reshoot to improve his exposures, often staying out until dawn.

Wentzel’s next big break came in 1936 when a chance tour of the photographic facilities of National Geographic led him to discover that there was a job opening. He fortuitously had some of his night prints with him, and was granted an interview and then the job.

“U.S. Capitol.” Shot on a rainy night, the squares in the plaza reflect a darker side of the dome of the Capitol. There is a great irony in our majestic Capitol building–– the finial atop the dome is a nearly 20-foot statue of a woman titled “Freedom,” designed by sculptor Thomas Crawford, and cast in bronze by slave labor in 1863.

“The Mall.” The classic view of Washington: the Capitol peeking out from behind the Washington Monument as viewed from between the columns of the Lincoln Memorial. The shadowy figure in the foreground is Wentzel’s friend Eric Menke, the man who gave him his copy of Barassai’s book.

“Pennsylvania Avenue.” An image made on a snowy night from behind the gates of the Treasury building to the Capitol. Note the reflections off of the street car tracks, and the trails from car headlights, but not tail lights. Perhaps tail lights didn’t yet exist in the 1930s, or they were so dim as to not register on Wentzel’s film. The tower on the right is the old post office.

Although he was hired as a darkroom technician, in less than a year Wentzel had an opportunity to complete an assignment for the magazine when a photographer was pulled from a job in West Virginia for another story. Wentzel had spent time in West Virginia, and his familiarity landed him the assignment. It was the beginning of a career that spanned nearly 50 years at the magazine, where he photographed 45 stories and authored 10. He traveled extensively in Africa and Asia, and was later named the director of the National Geographic archives, where he was responsible for saving millions of images that had been destined for the rubbish bin.

Wentzel did not photograph extensively at night after his early Washington images, but they were shown at the Royal Photographic Society in England and at other venues in Europe before being published in the April 1940 issue of National Geographic. An exhibition of the work was presented by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and published in book form as Washington By Night in 1992.

“Decatur House.” A shallow depth of field detail image of Decatur House at the corner of Jackson Place and H Street in Lafayette Square. The square had long been one of the most prestigious addresses in Washington, with the residences of presidents, vice presidents, secretaries of state, and other wealthy and powerful people. Wentzel planted the light bulb behind the frame of the lamp to minimize overexposure, but the light bled out from the sides all the same. You can just make out a row of late-1930s cars in the middle ground.

“National Archives II.” A dramatic image of the sculpture “Guardianship” by James Earle Fraser, best-known as the designer of the buffalo nickel. Fraser’s sculpture graces many of the buildings constructed during the New Deal era. Beneath the sculpture is a quote by Thomas Jefferson: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Careful placement of a light source behind the sculpture adds to the drama.

Wentzel died in 2006 at age 92. Unfortunately, little is known about the technical aspects of his early night work, other than that he printed it at Underwood & Underwood studios, “surreptitiously using their best portrait paper” (as he writes in his book). He used a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera, occasionally supplementing the existing light with flashbulbs that, as he wrote, “were in fashion at the time.”

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


A Guide to Light Writing Tools

When you turn your lights away from your subject and toward the lens, a world of creative opportunity opens up to you.

Light writing can be a fun and fantastic way to add "something extra" to a night photo, whether you're shooting a city scene, a natural landscape or night portraits. (In fact, we'll be playing with a lot of light writing tools and toys during our Catskills Night Portraiture this spring and fall.)

But what to use? Where do we start? Help, Matt!

Fear not, explorer of the night. … Grab a mug of cocoa and settle in. Let's get jiggy with light.

The Basic Tools


You can use a really bright flashlight (like a Coast HP7R) to make a visible beam in the sky, or a low-powered penlight (like the Coast A9R) or a simple keychain LED light for delicate scribing in the air.

Lomo also makes the really interesting Light Painter Z140TORCH.

Flashlight Add-Ons

When you use a flashlight, you can accessorize it by adding some cool tools made just for light writing (and painting, but that's another topic …).

Light Painting Brushes is the premier manufacturer that really understands light painters/writers. Jason Page (the creator) has made a robust system of tools to choose from, including plexiglass bladesfiber optic wands, color filters, light painting bottles and light swords. But if you really want to get serious about drawing in the air, snag a Light Writer set and loosen up your shoulder muscles.

Be sure to grab a Universal Connector and get started! FWIW, having this one accessory doubles as a great snoot. Kill the spill from the edges of your flashlight for more control.

Laser Pointers

Laser pointers aren't just for making cats dizzy. They are also a cool way to scribe really sharp lines on objects. Tip: Never point it directly at your lens—it can irrevocably damage your camera's sensor.

Kerosene Lanterns

I love October, because there are lantern tours at cool places like Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Waiting for a tour to walk through with that gorgeous upglow makes for delicious, warm light. 

A less combustible option is an LED camping lantern.


Gosh, I haven't done this since I was a teenager (can't you tell by the above photo?). But grabbing a simple cigarette lighter and using it behind objects can create smooth, warm light trails. Just be careful not to burn your thumb!

Specialized Professional Tools


The classic commercial realization of being able to write images in the air, one row of pixels at a time. Load your designs into the 6-foot Pixelstick and swing it around for massive light writing effects. 


This 3-foot tool, currently still in crowdfunding mode on Indiegogo at the time of writing, promises some upgrades versus the Pixelstick, including a splash-proof design, a sliding/rotating handle, mini LED stick accessory and more. Fingers crossed they make it to production, and on time, because I can't wait to get my hands on one. (Or two!)

Make your own Digital Light Wand

Are you handy with electronics and programming? Well, you can make your own Pixeltstick/Magilight with the instructions provided by Michael Ross on his website. He released this project back in 2010, making him the O.G. digital light writing wizard.

Westcott Icelight 2

This powerful handheld LED wand has a rechargeable battery, diffuser, tungsten gel filter and more. Pointed toward the lens, it makes a smooth bar of light.

Night Writer

Darren Pearson (aka prolific and talented artist @dariustwin) created the Night Writer light writing system with interchangeable color tips so you can craft your fantasies in the air like Picasso.

Lapiz Freehand RGB

The Lapiz Freehand RGB is a tool I haven't used (yet …) but I had to share. It's for the artist who wants to draw their visions freehand. RGB controls, dimmer and 20 color presets with memory. Hella cool. Visit the website (link above) for some images showing what you can do.


Digital projectors are tiny now! Pocket Pico Projectors even come with batteries. So, you can bring your images or designs out into the field and project them onto surfaces, people and more!

The Less-Than-Obvious Tools

Your phone or tablet

The flashlight and screen are both light sources. Plus, I bet you already have one! The larger the light source, the softer the effect.

I often use the GlowStickGo app to make pretty colors. The $0.99 upgrade is worth it.

Using other people's lights

In the above examples, I noticed hikers or climbers using headlamps and flashlights in my scene. Rather than gnashing my teeth, I said, "Heck, let's use this as an advantage."

My Favorite Toys


Either stuff a glow stick inside pearlescent balloons, or get some with the LEDs already inside. Makes a soft, ethereal effect.

Battery-powered Christmas lights

Christmas lights make sharp, crisp lines of light. And if you tape them together in a bundle, you can create a bright grouping of light streaks. Or you can be like one our Death Valley attendees and make a suit out of them, put it on, then frolic in front of your open shutter. Be sure to get battery-powered lights, or you'll have to bring a noisy gas-powered AC generator.

LED Frisbees

Want a good workout? Try throwing an LED Frisbee back and forth with a pal for eight minutes without pause. It will test your endurance, but makes for fun night photography!

LED Helicopters

I love these little rubber-band launched LED toy helicopters. Keeping three to five of these in my bag takes up barely any room at all. Creating mysterious alien landings anytime is easy.

Glow Sticks

I love the foxfire effect that glow sticks have. They aren't very bright, but they can add a subtle mystery to your light writing, and are small and easy to carry.

Poi Balls

Poi Balls are as fun as a Hula Hoop—without need for bodily coordination.

EL Wire

Slightly brighter than a glow stick. I use EL Wire to make fire effects, without the danger. 

Dangerous Things You Should not do Within a National Park or Without Safety & Planning


Duh. Fireworks are forbidden in national parks. Don't do it. But when and where you are allowed to use sparklers, there is no substitute! Sparkly, drippy fun.

Steel Wool

Again, don't light fires in national parks except where expressly permitted. Like in campsites. In fire rings. And not with steel wool—stick to a lighter, or rubbing two sticks together. But for those times when you're in a place that does not have those restrictions, and it's near/on water or in the rain, and not on or near wood, spinning steel wool in a wire whisk on a string makes for some amazing effects.

Household Lighting Fixtures

Some lighting fixtures have an AC cord (not hard-wired). I've experimented with swinging them through a long exposure with great success.

Wrapping Up

So, you may think I'm nuts. Couldn't agree with you more. I am nuts about lights, and experimenting with them. I hope you try all of the above!

Have you tried something I didn't mention? Let me know in the comments! I'm game for some more light writing fun.

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


Five Questions: Meteors Showers, Pano Stitching, and Lots and Lots of Gear

Welcome again to the National Parks at Night Q&A, where we share some of the great questions we’ve received via email. This time around we're featuring Q’s and A’s about post-producing meteor shower photos, advice about five different camera systems, pano vignetting and wide-angle lens choice from the Nikon world.

If you have any questions you would would like to throw our way, 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. Meteor Showers Post-Production

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. Nikon D750, 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 lens. 234 images at 22 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400, plus a single exposure at 382 seconds, ISO 2000 for the landscape after moonrise. Photo © 2017 Matt Hill.

Q: Regarding your recent blog post “Meteors and Eclipses and Comets, Oh My!—The Celestial Events of 2018,” one of the spectacular photos that has me asking “How did he do that?” the loudest is Matt’s photo of the meteor shower in Great Sand Dunes National Park.

As a novice to post-processing, I can only assume that the 234 photos were somehow aligned so that the stars did not turn into trails, while ignoring the meteor shower streaks that were not in the all of the other frames, and then overlaying or merging in the foreground. Is that an oversimplification? — Rex

A: We are planning an in-depth post about this exact technique that will run this summer. But I’m happy to give you a light preview that should answer your question. The heart of the technique is this:

I used PhotoPills to scout the shot. It was also my fourth visit to Great Sand Dunes, and my second during the Pereid Meteor Shower (the first time I totally botched it!). This time I approached it with better planning (and with better physical conditioning—those dunes are difficult to climb!). From PhotoPills, I knew that astronomical twilight ended at a certain time and the moon rose at a certain time. The latter was important because I knew that the dunes just don’t look right without a little sidelight.

I set up my shot, started the sequence of exposures and waited patiently for moonrise. Others in our group who didn’t wait for the moon to side-light the landscape have radically different foregrounds in their final images, with less detail and muddy shadows. But I understand their hesitance to stay out so late; honestly, I would have light painted the dunes instead if the descent and subsequent ascent wasn’t so difficult. Besides, I was enjoying the show—lots of meteors all over the sky that evening.

When it came to post-processing, I was deeply inspired by David Kingham’s generous video from a few years ago. An even better explanation that you can hold in your hand is available courtesy of my National Parks at Night colleague Lance Keimig, who has a full description of the technique in his book Night Photography and Light Painting—Finding Your Way in the Dark (on pages 114 to 119).

I used a very similar technique to isolate the meteors with layer masking in Photoshop, and rotated those layers to align with the stars in the base image layer. (Another option is to use Starry Landscape Stacker.) I then layered in that moonlit foreground, performed some minor tweaking, and voila!

(You can also see my sequence of images rendered as a time-lapse on our Instagram account.)

So, in short, your guess about the technique is in part not oversimplified, but in part is. Watching the video, reading Lance’s book and waiting for our summer blog post will all help to clarify this in-some-ways simple yet in-some-ways complex technique that is, either way, tremendously rewarding.

Also, we are planning a one-night event during the Perseids this year—to be announced. Stay tuned for details! — Matt

2. Full-frame Camera for Milky Way Photography

Q: In one of your blog posts (by Lance Keimig, I believe), a comment was made about full-frame cameras being best for star and/or Milky Way photos. In the same post it was mentioned that most of the newer full-frame cameras should be able to handle ISOs in the 3200 to 6400 range. My question is: How new?

I am looking to upgrade from a crop-sensor to a full-frame DSLR in the Nikon series. The D810 is way out of my price range, but I am thinking about the D610, or possibly the D750 if I can get a great deal on a used model. Would the D610, which entered the market in 2013, handle the 3200 to 6400 ISO range well, or should I really focus on trying to find a D750 in my price range? — Larry G.

A: I would strongly recommend going for the D750. It is without a doubt the best value in DSLRs for night and astro-landscape photography. If you want a minimal kit, consider adding a Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens, and that will be pretty much all you need, provided that you already have a decent tripod. The D610 is OK, but the D750 is stellar! — Lance

3. Pano Vignetting

Milky Way pano over Montana. Seven stitched images shot at 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400. Nikon D750 with Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm. Photo © Gabriel Biderman.

Q: In shooting panos of the Milky Way and sunrises, etc., I’m having vignetting issues in Lightroom. When stitching, it creates vertical darker areas at the overlap portions of pano. Do you guys use third-party software to make night panos, or do you use Lightroom and Photoshop? — Steve W.

A: We are big fans of panorama night photography, but it definitely has its challenges.

While I have not noticed a heavy vignette in any of my panos, you might want to make sure you are applying your lens corrections prior to stitching. We generally work on all the individual images and correct them before stitching in Lightroom. Wider lenses definitely vignette more, especially when shooting wide open.

Lightroom and Photoshop do a pretty good job at single-row panos, but they can struggle with double-row and low-contrast scenes. I’ve just started playing with Autoan, which lets you take more manual control over your stitching. We will definitely be bringing this topic to our blog in the next few months as we do more testing and stitching! — Gabe

4. Canon, Phase One, Sony Options for Night Photography

Q: In building a kit for astro-landscape photography, do you know about the results from the Canon 5D as well as the 50-megapixel Canon camera? How about the Phase One IQ3 100-megapixel system? I have also heard the Sony system is great for astro-landscape images. — Jeannine H.

A: For astro-landscape photography, the best Canon cameras would be, in order of preference:

The 5DS and 5DS R are not built for high ISO or high dynamic range imaging, and as such are not well-suited for astro-landscape photography.

In terms of value, the 6D will by far get you the most for your money, but it is also an older camera that should be replaced soon. The next best value would be the 5D Mark IV. The minimal quality gain from the 1D X is not worth the extra money or weight in your bag. If you were stuck on Canon, I’d go for the 5D Mark IV.

As for the Phase One, in general, I have not been impressed by the high ISO performance of any of the medium format cameras, and the return on investment is definitely not there for night photography.

Regarding Sony, the a7S II and a7R II perform very well in low light and at high ISOs, and the live view in low light is great. However, I find the menu navigation is so awkward that it makes the cameras burdensome to use. (But it should be noted that learning menu structures from brand to brand tends to be like learning a language—the first you learn is the easiest, and everything after seems foreign.)

At National Parks at Night, most of us use the Nikon D750 at least part-time, if not full-time. It’s a great all-around camera, and a great value. The D750 and D850 outperform all of the Canons.

Another viable option you didn’t ask about is Pentax. The Pentax K1 combined with the 15-30mm f/2.8 lens is an outstanding value and is excellent for night photography. — Lance

5. Nikon Wides vs. Wide Zoom

Q: What is the advantage of the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 at $1,900 versus, say, their 24mm f/1.4 at about the same price? There’s more flexibility with the zoom, of course, but the f/1.4 is two full f-stops better. In night shooting, I guess that is really significant. But can’t you just increase the exposure time (leaving ISO alone) to compensate for the slower lens and obtain the same result? It seems the 14-24mm would be more useful presuming that f/2.8 will get the shot. Also, is there much difference in f/1.4 (24mm) versus f/1.8 (20mm) besides $1,200? — B.R.

A: Lots to consider here! But first, allow me to point out a misconception in your premise: You can’t just increase the exposure time and get the same results. Why? Because stars move. A 15-second exposure at f/1.4 would become (while leaving ISO alone, as you indicated) a 1-minute exposure at f/2.8; the former would likely produce sharp star points, while the latter would produce short star trails.

Now, on to the crux of your question: Why would we choose the slower 14-24mm over the faster 24mm f/1.4 or 20mm f/1.8?

Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. Nikon D810 and 14-24mm f/2.8. 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400. Photo © 2017 Chris Nicholson.

Yes, a wider aperture will allow you to expose with a faster shutter speed, which is important if you want to shoot a sharp Milky Way or star points, rather than longer exposures that create star trails. For example, say we’re shooting at a focal length of 20mm on a standard-size full-frame camera. Using the relatively accurate 400 Rule, we’d know that our maximum shutter speed for keeping the stars as points is 20 seconds. With that shutter speed on a new-moon night, at f/2.8 we’d need to shoot at about ISO 6400 to get a correct exposure. Whereas if you could shoot at f/1.8—an aperture 1 1/3 two stops wider—you could use ISO 2500, resulting in less high ISO noise in the image. Shooting at f/1.4 would be even better, because you could get the same exposure at ISO 1600.

That makes it sound like we should always use the widest aperture (and thus the fastest lens) possible. The caveat, though, is that not all lenses are created equal. For our purposes, there are two main points to consider:

  • Many lenses are sharpest (in terms of focus) with the aperture closed down a couple of stops.
  • All lenses suffer from some degree of comatic aberration, otherwise known as "coma." This aberration can cause stars—particularly those in the corners of the frame—to appear distorted, looking like tiny comets or flying saucers when viewed at 100 percent.

That brings us back to your question about why we might recommend the Nikon 14-24mm over the 24mm f/1.4 or the 20mm f/1.8. The reason is because from our experience with those latter two lenses, they show very apparent coma when shot wide open; with both, you need to stop down to about f/2.8 to get the coma to a level we believe is acceptable by our image quality standards. However, the 14-24mm produces so little coma that you can shoot it wide open and get the same results.

So, if you’d need to shoot those faster primes at f/2.8 anyway in order to get the same results as shooting the 14-24mm at f/2.8, then to us it makes sense to just use this fantastic wide-angle zoom instead and get the additional benefits of the variable focal lengths. — Chris

Do you have a question the NPAN team might able to answer? Email us today!

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


Dehaze: The Night Photographer's Secret Weapon

Did you know that Lightroom has a secret weapon for night photographers to make the Milky Way look fantastic? It’s way down toward the bottom of the Develop module: the Dehaze tool. In this post and in the video at the end, we’ll show you what this great tool was originally designed to do, plus how to use it to make stars sizzle!

The Dehaze slider was introduced in 2015 shortly after Adobe’s upgrades to their new cloud-based pricing structure. So, if you are still using an older standalone program (Lightroom 4/5/6) but want to take advantage of this awesome tool, then it’s time to update to Creative Cloud.

So what exactly is Dehaze? An official description from Adobe states, “Dehaze is a feature for removing haze/fog from pictures. It is based on a physical model that tries to estimate the amount of light transmission and how it varies across the picture. The user can then control how much haze to remove by adjusting a slider.”

Perhaps a less confusing way to think about it: Dehaze adds more contrast.

However, Dehaze is not like the Contrast slider. It adds contrast in a different way. A smarter way. The Contrast slider adds contrast mostly to the midtones and its affect tapers off in the highlights and the shadows. The Dehaze slider functions by targeting the lower-contrast areas of the scene and applying the bulk of its effect there. This means low-contrast areas of the scene get more of the effect than the higher-contrast areas of the scene. Brilliant! This is just what we need.

To apply the Dehaze filter, open an image, head to the Develop module and simply scroll down to the Effects panel. You’ll find the Dehaze slider at the bottom. Moving it to the right increases contrast, moving it the left decreases contrast.

Figure 1.

Figure 2 below shows a typical use of the Dehaze slider. Notice how moving the slider increases the contrast in the sky and mountains (which were lower-contrast to begin with) much more than it does in the flowers in the foreground (which were already higher-contrast).

Figure 2.

But, here’s some great news: The Dehaze slider works for more than just haze. Figure 3 shows how it can enhance a waterfall and the rainbow in its mist. Once again, notice the increase in the brighter and lower-contrast area of the scene. It’s receiving much more of the effect than the foreground hillside.

Figure 3.

Care should be taken with this slider, though. In addition to increasing contrast, it also increases saturation, especially in the blues. Too much of an increase can produce an overly saturated, false-looking image. Figure 4 shows how the blue tones increase in saturation when the Dehaze slider is cranked up.

Figure 4.

So how does all of this apply to night photography? Well, increasing contrast and saturation is precisely the way we emphasize our night skies and Milky Way! Figure 5 shows the before image of the Milky Way over Mount Reynolds in Glacier National Park and the same image after increasing the Dehaze slider to +67. Notice how the dimmer stars become more pronounced and the Milky Way seems to become more three-dimensional.

Figure 5.

For a more complete description and more examples of how the Dehaze slider can improve your night photos, check out our 13-minute video below:

The next time you want to intensify and emphasize your night skies, visit the Effects panel in Lightroom and increase the Dehaze slider. Just remember: Kid gloves—use a light touch. A little goes a long way.

Note: For a comprehensive tutorial on Lightroom’s Library and Develop Module, check out Tim’s 33-part, six-plus-hour video on Vimeo.

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.


Own Your Settings

It’s not as far as it looks from here to there. Fujifilm XT-1, 7Artisans 7.5mm f/2.8 lens. 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 1000.

It’s not as far as it looks from here to there. Fujifilm XT-1, 7Artisans 7.5mm f/2.8 lens. 1/60, f/2.8, ISO 1000.

What follows is one of my favorite moments of our 2017 season—a moment of candor and clarity from a student during our workshops at Olympic National Park.

During the daily group image review she expressed, “I learned that I need to own my settings.”

I paused. I sensed Chris pause, too. It was a pivotal moment for her.

She further elaborated, “Too often I counted on my fellow students to aid me when choosing the right settings. And this took part of the ‘work’ out of this workshop. I’m taking it back. I will own my own settings.”

This was a poignant moment. I was awfully proud of her, and actively thanked her for sharing and committing to the idea—and for stating it in a manner so succinct that it became profound. For the remainder of the workshop, she made rapid progress and took ownership of her mistakes, and explored what she learned from each.

You can be transparent in many ways. Nikon D750 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. 2 seconds, f/16, ISO 100.

You can be transparent in many ways. Nikon D750 and 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. 2 seconds, f/16, ISO 100.

Moments like these are a core reason we love holding workshops. You have good chances for making extraordinary images, but the true purpose is to put in the hard work by facing your own gaps in knowledge by trying things outside your comfort zone.

Often photographers, or anyone learning challenging material in the field, look for any lead to follow. It’s natural, it’s human nature. Much can be learned by doing what the photographer next to you is doing. But it works best when it’s followed by two more steps: 1) dissecting why the borrowed knowledge works, and 2) taking off those training wheels and figuring it out yourself. Or, as this student said, by owning your settings.

I’ll take that even further. To “own your settings” I suggest you commit to:

  1. doing the math
  2. trying things that may not work
  3. asking why a photo failed and making a process to ensure you won’t make the same mistake repeatedly
  4. exploring your gear, including its strong capabilities and disadvantages
  5. developing your own system of process

Let’s break these down.

Doing the Math

We supply “cheat sheets” to workshop attendees for the 400 Rule and the high ISO test. It’s intended as a backup for when you have what I lovingly call a “brain fart.”

But knowing the math is vital. Doubling and halving the shutter speed or ISO is something that should come as easy as breathing. Well, breathing doesn’t take practice, but getting used to these numbers does. And you get used to them by shooting over and over again—you know, while working through your first 10,000 photos.

Similarly, being able to perform a high ISO test on demand will increase your enjoyment of night photography forever. Knowing you got a proper exposure frees your mind to bend on creativity.

Trying Things That May Not Work

As a rule, doesn’t this apply to shooting in darkness? LOL.

What I intend by this is truly to adopt an attitude that rewards creative risk-taking. There is no harm when making a photograph that does not work.

But what if it does work? Then you have another piece of evidence you can file away in your mental bank of “settings” for future use.

This may not have worked … but it did. Nikon D750, 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 lens. 75 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 400.

This may not have worked … but it did. Nikon D750, 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 lens. 75 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 400.

Asking Why A Photo Failed

… And Making A Process To Ensure You Won’t Make The Same Mistake Repeatedly

Great leaders often say, “I learned more from my mistakes than my successes.” There are many reasons for this. Some are emotional. Some are scientific.

My favorite quote about learning from failure comes from Seth Godin:

The rule is simple: The person who fails the most will win. If I fail more than you do, I will win. Because in order to keep failing, you’ve got to be good enough to keep playing.
So, if you fail cataclysmically and never play again, you only fail once. But if you are always there shipping, putting your work into the world, creating and starting things, you will learn endless things.
You will learn to see more accurately, you will learn the difference between a good idea and a bad idea and, most of all, you will keep producing.

Developing a habit to accelerate the study of failure includes:

  • acknowledging your mistakes via self-review
  • engaging in peer review
  • soliciting feedback from people whom you aspire to be like, or hold in high technical or creative esteem
  • putting your work out there, be it on Facebook, Instagram, your website or on gallery walls

On the technical side, if you have trouble identifying how a photo went sideways and your peers fail you for an explanation, you can always book some time with us for a remote critique.

But please fail often, and well.

Exploring Your Gear

… Including Its Strong Capabilities And Disadvantages

I know that my Nikon D750 can’t make a quality file over 60 seconds in duration when the temperature is above 90 F. When does your gear fail? Knowing is important.

I also know that I can shoot a half-hour single exposure at 45 F with no quality degradation. At the same temperature I also know that after 8 minutes I should turn on Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR).

Elwha Valley, Olympic National Park. Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 lens. 60 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 400, plus LENR.

Elwha Valley, Olympic National Park. Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 lens. 60 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 400, plus LENR.

How do I know these things? I scrub my Lightroom. I look at the settings. I take notes. And I keep this info in my backpack just in case I need a reference about the technical boundaries of my camera.

Another example: You may have a lens that can’t focus on stars via live view, but does OK with a strong flashlight and a subject relatively nearby.

Knowing these things helps you avoid the future frustration of committing time making exposures when your gear just can’t handle it. No one camera system can do everything right. So it’s a practice of working within the boundaries of possibility.

Developing Your Own System Of Process

What works for me may not work for you. So please don’t take any of this as dogma. A final belief you may choose to hold about owning your settings is to make a system that helps you recall the things you need to do at the right time.

I’ve recently started using the Bullet Journal to manage my priorities, ideas and commitments. I started a page in there where I have a living list of steps for night photography that I had (until recently) kept only in my head.

Zig when others zag. Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8lens. 26 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Zig when others zag. Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8lens. 26 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

No matter how you choose to do it, establishing a process—instead of trusting your brain to have perfect recall—is a sound choice. Because when it’s dark, and when everything is unfamiliar, wouldn’t having your own step-by-step guide, tailored to you, help appease anxiety and help you focus on making gorgeous night photography?

It does for me.

Wrapping Up, Taking Ownership

The path to owning your settings is just that: a path, a journey. It’s not a destination reached quickly or by accident, especially in night photography. But it’s a journey worth making, because when you get there, you will have the confidence required to take responsibility for your own creative process, which includes mastering the techniques necessary to level up.

We love the “work” part of workshop. When participants choose to share images that didn’t work, expressly to learn how to avoid that mistake in the future, it helps the whole group grow.

Many thanks to our student who had the clarity to speak aloud, in front of her peers, “I will own my settings.”

And thank you, dear reader, for being part of the adventure. Now go, and seize the night, as well as your settings.

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