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

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

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

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

You’re Special

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

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

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

Cooperate & Collaborate

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

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

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

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

‘When everybody zigs, zag’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try a Different Angle

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

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

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

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

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

Walk away—Wipe the slate clean—Do something unexpected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plan to be Different

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

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

Get Meta—Photograph the Photographers

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

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

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

By doing this, I:

1) get amazing time-lapses

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

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

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

Use Hikers and Headlamps as an Advantage

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

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

It’s Just a Jump to the Left …

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

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

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

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Finding Your Way in the Dark: A Guide to Seeing at Night

One of the biggest challenges of night photography can be simply finding your way in the dark. In the age of astro-landscape photography, navigating in unfamiliar territory under a new moon can be difficult, and sometimes just plain dangerous. Choosing the right light source is critical to the comfort and success of your photographic outing, for finding your footing, for setting up and adjusting your camera, and also for not ruining the experience of those you are photographing with.

Death Valley National Park. Photographers using red lights for light painting, walking around and focusing. This behind-the-scenes shot was a happy accident!

Seeing at Night

It’s tempting to use the brightest light you have to see where you’re going. But it’s actually better to forego the light whenever possible and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. Doing so lets you see the overall environment rather than just a garishly illuminated swath of light surrounded by a sea of black.

Ten to 15 minutes is enough time for most people’s eyes to adapt in order to walk around by starlight without a light. You might be surprised to know that it’s possible to drive by the light of the full moon if your eyes are fully dark-adapted! It’s quite an experience to be able to see the entire landscape at night while driving with the lights off. I’m not suggesting that you try this yourself, but I’ve done it out in the desert many times. It just goes to show how little light is needed in order to see.

This past winter Chris Nicholson was able to drive in Everglades National Park without headlights—just the moonlight over the landscape was plenty to light the way. Photo by Chris Nicholson.

Do Unto Others …

Another consideration when working with other photographers is that your light may adversely affect your colleagues’ images. It’s easy to forget that your light is on and walk into someone else’s photo, leaving a trail of light where it isn’t wanted.

Or, if you are working in close proximity to others, shining a light on your camera to make adjustments before an exposure might accidentally light paint someone else’s foreground. Even the red lights on the back of some cameras or intervalometers can be enough to cause problems at high ISOs, and I recommend putting a piece of gaffer tape over them to prevent accidents. If you rely on the on camera or intervalometer light to help find your camera in the dark, make sure the light faces away from the scene you are photographing.

Night-Vision Tools

Some people will always need to use a light to get around, either due to low vision, balance issues or simply being afraid of the dark. That’s OK—I’m here to offer some solutions and guidelines for Finding Your Way In The Dark. (After all, I wrote the book on the subject!)

A time-lapse of a group of photographers at Olympic National Park. That’s a lot of light! Photo by Matt Hill.

Headlights

Many people use headlamps for hands-free convenience in the field, but after about the 7,000th time a student approached me to ask a question with their headlight shining in my face, I’ve banned them from my workshops.

Besides, a headlamp on your head has more or less the same effect as a headlight on your car–– it lights the path in front of you quite well, but you won’t see a thing outside the beam of the headlight. That makes it difficult to visualize your images, and to understand the terrain you have to work with.

If you do use a headlight (on your own outings), look for one with multiple brightness settings, a variable angle beam and a red light option. Our recommendation is the Coast FL75r. It has all of the features mentioned, and it’s rechargeable!

Red Lights

Another popular option (mentioned above) is to use a red light to help preserve night vision. Astronomers have long used red flashlights in the observatory or in the field for this purpose, and it does help to preserve dark adaptation.

However, there are a number of downsides to using a red light. The highly saturated color of red LED lights tends to “bleed” into photographs in ways that are not desirable. Using a red light to get from point A to B is fine on flat ground, but can be downright dangerous on uneven ground because the red light severely limits your depth perception, as Gabe and I were recently reminded of while scrambling over the rock formations in Joshua Tree National Park.

Notice how the red light “bleeds” into the area surrounding these photographers at Great Sand Dunes National Park. Photo by Matt Hill.

Multi-Brightness Lights

Many flashlights these days have a variety of brightness settings from dim to super bright. Variable brightness comes in handy, as different jobs require different intensities.

Unfortunately, most flashlights default to the brightest setting, meaning that you have to click through the various options to find the one you want, often blasting your retinas with 600 lumens in the process. If you do use a flashlight with multiple brightness options, look for one that remembers the last used setting when next you turn it on—or, even better, one that lets you program your favorite settings. (The FourSevens Quark lights do just that, but are temporarily unavailable as of this writing.)

Using an overly bright flashlight for focusing at Key’s Ranch in Joshua Tree National Park. This is a good way to knock out your dark adapted eyes for a good 20 minutes!

No Lights

If you have the luxury of time to wait for your eyes to dark adapt, you have good eyesight and you’re traveling on level ground, I suggest trying to work without a flashlight except for light painting. It can take some to get used to, but is really quite enjoyable once you do.

Of course, it helps to memorize the key buttons on your camera–– exposure controls, info, image review, live view and magnify. Some cameras—like the Nikon D500, D5 and D850—have illuminated buttons, and the Pentax K1 has onboard LED lights in a few locations to illuminate the camera controls. If we’re lucky, these features will become more common on future cameras.

Dim Lights

Perhaps the best option for most people is to find an exceptionally dim flashlight to use both for moving around and for adjusting your camera or finding things in your bag. I have found that a dim white light is just as good as a red light for preserving night vision, and is easier to work with.

Just as we adjust the brightness of our camera LCDs to match ambient light levels, we should do the same with our flashlights. The challenge is that flashlight manufacturers generally produce the brightest lights they can. There’s been a “lumen war” with flashlights that parallels the megapixel war between camera manufacturers. An easy solution that’s already in your pocket is to use the lock screen or home screen on your phone. It has an adjustable brightness level and should be adequate for most situations. A single AAA cell Mini Maglite is another option.

DIY Dim Lights

Regular readers of this blog will know that we are big fans of Coast flashlights, and since our first season, our workshop students have received free HP1 flashlights compliments of Coast. It’s a great little light, and quite bright for its size.

Last fall, I was having a conversation with our Coast representative about the difficulty of finding a light that was dim enough for the purposes mentioned above, and he told me about a new model we might be interested in, the G9. It’s tiny, uses a single AAA battery and has a relatively dim, fixed beam. He sent me a sample, and with a quick and easy hack it turns out to be perfectly suited for illuminating your camera or the inside of your bag without ruining your night vision. I’m pleased to say that this year, our workshop participants will all receive a Coast G9 flashlight.

 The Coast G9 flashlight is a great choice for night photographers.

The Coast G9 flashlight is a great choice for night photographers.

Now about that hack I mentioned: Unscrew the headpiece, place a bit of tissue or toilet paper behind the bezel, then screw the headpiece back on. The result is a soft, dim light that’s perfect for astro-landscape photography uses in dark sky environments. It’s also possible to add color-correcting gels while you have it open, if you prefer a warm light to the native daylight balance of the light. (Tim wrote a blog post about color-correcting flashlights last year.)

Most modern flashlights don’t allow you to add diffusion behind the bezel, but you could always reduce the brightness of a flashlight with tissue or neutral density filters taped to the front of the light; it’s just not as convenient.

In Conclusion

No matter how you light it, safety should be your first concern. If you need a brighter light to get around, by all means use one. Night photographers have been known to get themselves into questionable situations to get the shot, be it at the edge of a cliff, balanced on a rock ledge, or sneaking into condemned buildings full of broken glass and rusty metal.

Even if you’re sticking to level ground, being prepared with the right light for the situation will make your experience better in the end. Be safe, and be mindful of those around you when working with flashlights in group situations.

I challenge you to Seize The Night and Find Your Way In The Dark!

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

The Write Stuff: Sergey Churkin and the Light Painting World Alliance

In 2011, Russian photographer Sergey Churkin founded what is now known as the Light Painting World Alliance (LPWA). Its goal is not only to unite artists who practice this niche within a niche within a niche, but also to help light writers around the globe develop their own skills as a way to elevate the quality of the art form as a whole so that it’s more globally recognized in the art world. It’s a lofty goal. And it’s one we applaud.

Since its inception, LPWA has brought light writers together in various ways, including its website, Facebook and Instagram presences, international exhibitions, award presentations, meetups, and meetings and conferences hosted throughout the world.

Fighting in the Rain. Light writing artwork done in collaboration with Nikolay Trebukhin. Olympus E-M1, Olympus M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 lens. 5 minutes, f/22, ISO 500. © Sergey Churkin and Nikolay Trebukhin.

The group has announced its newest venture: International Light Painting Day (ILPD), which will occur on May 16—the date that UNESCO declared as the International Day of Light. “As in any social action, participation is even more important than results,” reads the ILPD website. “International Light Painting Day will attract people to our art, give them a new way of self-expression, and will make friends between participants.”

LPWA encourages night photographers everywhere in the world to participate, whether through official ILPD events, with a local photography group, or even just by sharing the art form with friends and acquaintances at personal gatherings.

Recently we were able to chat with Sergey about his own growth as a light writer, how all of this got started, where it’s going, and what to expect on May 16.

(We should note a terminology difference. What LPWA calls “light painting” is largely what we at National Parks at Night term as “light writing.” We define the former as illuminating a subject with a light source, and the latter as recording the actual light source as part of the composition. For the purposes of being consistent for our audience, we will use our terminology and definitions in this post, except when mentioning the official names of organizations and events.)


Q: Can you tell me about your passion for light writing? How did you start doing it, and how has it affected your development as an artist?

Sergey: In my work I am constantly looking for new visual forms and new technologies. In 2008, when I first saw light graffiti, I thought it was computer graphics, and I wondered how to achieve the same effect. So I tried drawing something like it on my computer, but all my attempts were futile. That upset me. I thought, “How is it someone else can draw this, but not me?” Then I discovered that the picture I was trying to model wasn’t computer graphics—it was photography with patterns of light!

That’s when I discovered a galaxy called Light Writing. Almost at the same time, my eldest son showed me his own drawings with light.

Relax Time. From the series “Real Life of Unreal Person.” Canon 5D Mark II with a 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. 202 seconds, f/8, ISO 200. © Sergey Churkin.

Everything came together for me. I understood this technology. I realized that in my hands was a new, powerful and versatile tool for design.

I spent nearly a year attempting to combine light writing with video, but it turned out that the specialties of drawing light impose fairly strict limits on its use in video projects. I do not like  restrictions in the art process, so I decided that photography would give me more opportunities to express myself. Since then, I paint with light.

I’m a professional video designer, so I know a lot about designing nice images. Light writing for me is another way to express my visual fantasies, with much more effective and natural execution. So, I already was a visual artist before falling into light writing. But light writing taught me to be more patient—to spend more time for planning and preconstruction of my artworks. I started to develop my own techniques and tools, which could give me limitless purposes. Thus, light writing brings the sense into my life.

Q: What are some of your favorite light writing tools?

Sergey: I prefer to use light tools like I would use real paint brushes. And I love handmade tools. Manufacturer’s tools bring comfort in making art, but also limitations of art itself. That is why I also try to develop my own techniques and my own tools.

Portrait of Sergey's friend Vikthor Clarke, part of the series “Friends in Light.” Created with a handmade custom light brush. © Sergey Churkin.

Q: What prompted you to spread this passion by forming LPWA?

Sergey: I realized that our genre had two problems. First was low awareness, both among the ordinary public and among the art business. Most people simply do not know what light writing is. Second was the problem of quality. Too many people were doing light drawing just for funny snapshots.

After some thought, I came to the conclusion that anyone alone does not change anything. By improving my own skill, I can achieve success and recognition, but that wouldn’t resolve those problems. To promote light writing to the masses needed a collective effort. I had a little experience with creative associations for Russian TV designers and promoters in the 2000s, so I saw what a collective mind with an active nucleus can do. I figured, why not do the same for artists writing with light?

But of course, it would be ridiculous to think that all the work of making this huge Alliance since 2011 was done just by one person. It was done mostly by artists themselves. I only help them with ideas, inspiration and courage. I am happy to be friends with dozens, or even hundreds, of artists around the globe. And I am very grateful to all my light friends for their countless support, which really makes LPWA what it is.

Dissected Guitar. Canon 5D Mark II with a 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. 19 seconds, f/13, ISO 160. © Sergey Churkin.

Q: How quickly did LPWA grow?

Sergey: Since 2011, the Alliance has grown to about 650 registered members. In fact, after 2015 I didn’t pursue more members as a goal anymore. What’s most important for me now is to inspire the community to be more active in making and learning art. The things we’ve been doing the last two years have showed me that this goal is very possible.

Now I am concentrating more on organizations, developing relationships between LPWA and museums, galleries, festivals and other cultural institutions.

Q: What’s next for LPWA—how do you hope it evolves?

Sergey: Honestly, right now I am at a crossroads regarding LPWA’s future. Eight years of effort has told me that sometimes I need to take a break, to analyze past experiences. I see how much our community has grown since 2011, I see what is going on in our industry, and I see how new trends are born and die. So I keep that all in mind.

Some of the goals of our starting years were realized successfully, and now the community requires new ones. We’d like to get regular columns in the world's largest magazines about art and photography, and over time would like to publish our own magazine, Light Painted World.

Red Treble Clef. Image made with customized light blades. © Surgey Churkin.

We’re also working to develop close contact with manufacturers of software and light tools, because they are not necessarily light painters and don’t always know what features should be in these devices. We need fine-tuned software and new light tools for professional light writing.

We’d also like to develop close contacts with interior designers, the manufacturers of decoration accessories, and fashion designers. Light writing should be more than only photos or prints—we can use our artworks as a basis for many more goods.

And off course, a major aspiration for the near future is to get official recognition from UNESCO for our art form, in the form of May 16—International Light Painting Day!

Q: you have organized some huge collaborations of photographers working on one image. Can you talk about that?

Sergey: It’s another inspiring and powerful way to involve an audience with the light writing world, to do these massive collaborative artworks.

Our first experience like this was done in 2013 at our second LPWA worldwide exhibition in Paris, when 20 artists all together made a light writing animation on Place Concorde. Next was a massive collaboration on Plaza de la Gesta in 2014, when 34 artists made the IYoL2015 logo; and at the Dorum (Germany) LightHouse Meet-up, 24 artists created the same logo. An outstanding collaboration was made in Longhushan, China, where 13 light painters created a massive image and animation.

This is a very, very cool activity for all our artists.

Collaboration light writing made during the LPWA Roma Meet-up 2017. Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, Olympus M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 lens. 1.3 minutes, f/6.3, ISO 200. Click here to see all credited artists.

Q: Why do you think light writing is such an intriguing part of night photography?

Sergey: For me, all parts of night photography are intriguing. Choosing a location, waiting for the proper time, finding particular details of a scene that can make this place magic, testing camera settings and tools.

But light writing itself is an endless experience with an indeterminate end. Mostly I know what I want to draw, but I always pray for a lucky chance that could give me a moment of something incredible. Experiences like that are what really intrigue me.

Q: What is your advice for someone who wants to get started in light writing, or someone who wants to learn more about it?

Sergey: The only good advice is to start with regular tutorials, regular tools and then just copy the masters. Get your first experience—try to feel the light. Make a lot of senseless images just to understand how you can use light.

Then forget all of it. Throw everything away and start to make your own light art. That is when you start following your own way, and when you no longer copy others.

Lion and His Guest. Made with light brush by Bernhard Rauscher. Canon 5D Mark II with a 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. 116 seconds, f/8, ISO 250. © Sergey Churkin.

Q: Tell us about Light Painting Day. What is the goal, and how can people get involved?

Sergey: International Light Painting Day is intended to give anyone—not only light artists—more motivation to learn about light painting and light writing. I really think that light writing is a much more inspiring art than more traditional drawing and painting. I would love to see light writing become a “family art.” Whole families could make this kind of art as a good and kind collaboration of father, mother and children! The best gratification for me could be if International Light Painting Day became a widely observed family celebration.

Of course, light painting is not just for May 16—we can celebrate this art form 365 days a year. So, International Light Painting Day is not for only professional photographers, but also for their friends, mates, family or even neighbors.

For more information about attending an International Light Painting Day gathering, see the official Event Programme. Sergey encourages individuals, camera clubs, and other groups and organizations to coordinate their own ILPD events as part of the global celebration. More more information, visit the ILPD webpage.

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

The Night Photography Mindset: Seeing Beyond the Milky Way

Ever since the introduction of cameras that were capable of producing quality images at high ISOs, night photographers have understandably been obsessed with photographing the Milky Way. For the first time in the history of photography, it was possible to make images of the starry night sky with short enough exposures to register stars as points of light rather than as star trails. It’s hard to understate the significance of this development, as it allowed us for the first time to see in a photograph the densest part of the Milky Way galaxy in the context of our place in the universe.

Keys Desert Queen Ranch, Joshua Tree National Park, 2018. Nikon D750, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 lens. 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 5000.

Beginning in late 2008 with Nikon’s introduction of the D700 and then the D3S a year later, photographers began making nighttime exposures in nature by starlight. By using the previously unheard-of ISO of 6400 with an f/2.8 lens, one could expose the landscape under a starry sky for 20 or 30 seconds and end up with a clear image of the galactic core of the Milky Way in all its glory. In the decade since, even entry-level cameras have become capable of producing decent-quality images at high ISOs, making astro-landscape photography accessible to almost anyone with a tripod.

Today, such images are commonplace enough to be taken for granted by people who have never stood under a sky dark enough to see the Milky Way with their own eyes. I’m reminded of Edward Steichen’s images of Rodin’s Balzac taken by moonlight in 1908. The authenticity of these remarkable images was questioned repeatedly because it was believed to be impossible to make photographs by moonlight.

Edward Steichen, Rodin’s plaster cast of his Balzac Sculpture, photographed by moonlight in 1908. Some of the earliest extant photographs made by moonlight are Steichen’s series of Rodin’s sculpture made in France in 1908 over a period of three nights. Steichen experimented with a range of exposures and lighting, resulting in a series of images that are now considered among his most important works.

Fast-forward to today and it feels like the concept of night photography is synonymous with astro-landscape, the term we now use for short-exposure high-ISO photography of the night sky. Most night photography workshops are planned around the new moon phase when the sky is darkest, and we giddily await the return of “Milky Way Season” (which coincidentally is just starting as I write this). In April, the galactic core rises above the horizon very late at night, and those who venture out two or three hours before dawn will be rewarded with the rich sight that the rest of us have to wait until late May to see at the “more reasonable” time of two hours after sunset when the sky first gets dark.

However, as all of the images made before the era of astro-landscape photography have taught us, night photography is about much more than just the Milky Way. This is a point I discussed in this space last summer (see “Beyond the Milky Way”). I ended that piece suggesting that night photographers create images that are “about more than just that great big galactic cloud in the sky.”

That sentiment is something I’d like to elaborate on now. The remainder of this article is about the attitudes and approaches of working in different nighttime conditions.

Urban Night Photography

Most people’s first attempts at night photography are made in brightly lit urban environments because that is where most of us live. Photographically speaking, the city is a sea of darkness punctuated with pools of light, and the main challenges are finding light that’s interesting and controlling contrast in the scene.

An SUV waits at the rail crossing, Houston, Texas, 2011. Canon 5D Mark II with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. 15 seconds, f/8, ISO 200. Everything came together in this spontaneous image–– the timing of the train, the composition and the lighting. The red warning light at the crossing provides a color accent and the cool xenon headlights of the SUV illuminate the passing train.

Broad cityscape images made at night often yield disappointing results. Images can be exposed for the overall scene, which leads to clusters of blown-out highlights or to dark, underexposed scenes with puddles of well-exposed highlights near the light sources. Learning to “see” what works for urban night photography is a skill that takes some time to develop.

In my own experience, I tend to see light before subject matter in these conditions. The alluring combination of different-colored light sources or the strong interplay of light and shadow draw me to a scene first, and then I try to find an interesting composition that takes advantage of that light. The best photographs are the ones where the light and subject matter complement each other. In situations with a dominant monochromatic light source, such as low pressure sodium vapor or mercury vapor, I often plan to convert to black and white. The quality of light from these sources is usually appealing only when used in conjunction with a contrasting light source.

Photographing By Moonlight

When I first began teaching night photography back in the late 1990s, workshops were always scheduled around the full moon, because film and early digital cameras were not capable of making usable images by starlight. Exposures of 15 minutes to an hour or more were the norm. The moonlit landscape is a subtle environment, and one that naturally leads a photographer to slow down and quietly observe the world around them. The romantic notions often associated with the night––loneliness, solitude, mystery and danger—can easily be appreciated by a long walk alone under a full moon. The best photographs made by moonlight often reflect these sensitivities.

Study Butte, Texas, 2007. The moon rises behind a rock formation in the Texas desert. I achieved careful exposure and backlight by placing the rising moon behind the rock, which made this a much more interesting photograph than it would have been if it were front-lit and fully exposed. Canon 5D, lens unrecorded. 268 seconds, aperture unrecorded, ISO 100.

In contrast, fully exposed moonlit images often lack those very qualities that make moonlight special. If one follows traditional exposure guidelines and exposes for a right-biased histogram, any sense of mystery is lost and the result is a strangely bluish scene that looks like weak sunlight. I often say that a good night photograph leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. Rather than revealing everything there is to know about a scene, a successful moonlit image pulls the viewer into the scene, and it evokes that irresistible but slightly uneasy voyeuristic feeling of being somewhere or doing something that we shouldn’t. Careful underexposure, supplemented with well-conceived light painting, can lead to powerful images that are suggestive rather than revelatory.

Astro-Landscape Photography

I’ve often thought of those first few years of astro-landscape photography in the same way as the earliest incarnations of Adobe Photoshop, when filters and silly composites ruled the day, because We Could. Another example might be the heady days when Photomatix was first released, along with those briefly seductive and garish HDR images we are all trying to forget. Perhaps it wasn’t quite that bad, but the idea was the same.

The Discovery, Death Valley National Park, 2015. Nikon D750, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens at 26mm. 25 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 6400. The combination of bizarre subject matter and light painting make this photograph about more than just the Milky Way. There’s a story here, and the viewer is left with more questions than answers after studying the image.

Likewise, astro-landscape photography was something new, and there was a pervasive energy to explore and test the limits–– the very qualities that lead to advances in art and science in the first place. Now that we are a bit more accustomed to seeing and photographing the Milky Way, galactic imagery has become a bit more sophisticated. Technically, it’s a relatively straightforward process to make a galactic core photograph. Be in the right place at the right time, point your camera in the right direction, focus carefully, and make an exposure.

What makes for the most successful images is context. Rather than just a simple horizon line and starry sky, strive for more complex images where the Milky Way core is just one element of the photograph. Compose an image where that element relates to the foreground, and use the foreground to convey the scale of the night sky and all those stars. Pay attention to the principles of design, and place the various elements smartly within the confines of the image frame the same way that you would with any other good photograph.

Bring It Home, Make It Yours

Some people have strong preferences about where and when they like to photograph at night. Perhaps the energy of the city at night, the pensive solitude of the moonlit landscape or the awesome grandeur of the Milky Way in one of our great national parks is what most attracts you. By all means, follow your heart, and do what you love. Just know that great night photographs can be made at any time of the year and during any phase of the lunar cycle, in the middle of Manhattan or deep in Yosemite.

Different skills or approaches may be required. No self-respecting daytime photographer would limit themselves to photographing at only certain times of the month or during only a few months of the year, and neither should you. Be an anytime, anywhere photographer and make the most of the conditions that you find before you.

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

Five Questions: Moon Lenses, Smoky Summer Landscapes, Noise Tests and More

We get a lot of questions. We hope we have a lot of answers. Today, at least, we have the same number of each. Five, to be specific. Five questions from night photographers just like you, and five answers from the five of us.

If you have any questions you would would like to throw our way for a future Five Questions blog post, 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. Moon Lenses

 The moon rising over Mesquite Flat Dunes,  Death Valley  National Park.  Nikon D750 ,  Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 . Dunes light painted with a  Coast HP5R  flashlight. © 2016 Lance Keimig.

The moon rising over Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park. Nikon D750, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8. Dunes light painted with a Coast HP5R flashlight. © 2016 Lance Keimig.

Q: I wanted to get a shot of the recent super blue moon full lunar eclipse, but I wasn’t sure which lens would be a good one to use. I wanted to get the moon as part of the landscape, with an in-camera shot (rather than just a zoomed shot of the moon). It would have been OK if the moon wasn’t super huge in my shot—I just wanted a nice overall image. This was with my Nikon D750, and I have a 70-200mm lens. For the next time, should I rent something zoomier (a 200-500mm)?  — Tracy W.B.

A: Lens choice questions are really hard to answer. So much depends on the shot that you have in mind. We recommend using PhotoPills (see their website or in-app links for tutorials and ideas) to plan your shot if you have a location in mind, and then plan your strategy from there. If you don’t have a specific location in mind, then start by thinking about places you could shoot with a good view of the moonrise, figure out exactly where the moonrise will be using PhotoPills, and do some test shots beforehand to see which focal length will work best.

You shouldn’t need to rent a lens since you don’t have a specific shot in mind. Instead, build a shot around the lens you already have! — Lance

2. Cords vs. L-Brackets

Q: When I shoot in portrait orientation with my L-bracket on, I have the problem of not having access to my USB port to connect a remote release, since it is on the left side of the camera where the mounting bracket also is. Do you know of a way to solve that issue? — Michael M.

Custom-designed L-brackets (such as the Kirk model for the Nikon D750, pictured here) allow the photographer to access all the jacks, ports, controls and so on.

A: I love that you’re using an L-bracket! I could barely survive on a shoot without mine. But yes, I understand your issue, as it’s one I’ve had.

First, if you’re using a generic L-bracket, that could certainly cause this issue. Generic models have the advantage of being less expensive. But the more-expensive custom models (such as those made by Really Right Stuff and Kirk Photo) are designed for specific camera bodies. One of the advantages is that space is left around each jack and port, so you should have ready access to plug in anything you want.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t still run into problems. For instance, on my Nikon D3s with the Kirk L-bracket attached, I can’t connect a proprietary power cable to an external battery because of the way the plug is designed. Another example is exactly what’s happening to you: Plugs that stick straight out from the jack (rather than at a right angle) might not work when the L-bracket is mounted to a tripod head vertically (which kinda defeats the reason for using the bracket).

I suggest contacting the manufacturer of the accessory you’re trying to plug in and asking if they can supply or recommend an alternative cable. Or, if the accessory is the cable, only buy one with that right-angle-type connector.

Ironically enough, this could also be a case where a generic L-bracket could serve you better; one that’s designed a little taller than your camera could allow enough space to mount the vertically oriented body off-center, providing room for your connector underneath, out of the way of the tripod head. — Chris

3. Wildfires and Smoke in the Northwest U.S.

Q: My experience living in the Pacific Northwest is that, over the past four to five summers, forest fires in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and British Columbia have produced serious haze conditions for both day and night photography in July, August and September. You’re doing a workshop in Glacier National Park this summer. How would you adjust shooting for this possibility? — Dave E.

A: Yes, the past couple of years have been kind of smoky up here! I live in Montana, so I know what you mean.

However, I have been visiting Glacier National Park in summer for over 20 years and have been unable to make images only a couple of times. The images below are from last summer during the height of the fire season and during the infamous Sprague Fire in Glacier that burned down the Sperry Chalet. (Which, incidentally, is being rebuilt!)

Night photos in Glacier National Park during the 2017 Sprague Fire. Nikon D4s. © 2017 Tim Cooper.

That’s not to say there is no risk, but wind conditions, locations of fires, etc., play such a big part. It’s really hard to guess when fires will happen and when they will inhibit photography.

That being said, if I did run into an abundance of smoke, I would be looking all over the park and surrounding areas for clearer skies. All of us at National Parks at Night love light painting, full-moon shooting and all types of night photography. Shooting the Milky Way and star trails is just one part of what we focus on, so smoke certainly wouldn’t make us pack up the cameras for the night. I’ve been in many situations where the skies were overcast and the image-making was great due to other aspects of the scene. — Tim

4. Intervalometers for Fuji X-T Bodies

Q: I recently attended one of Matt’s speaking engagements and it definitely sparked an interest to experiment with some night photography in the coming months. I have a Fuji X-T2 kit that includes a 10-24mm lens, along with a nice stable tripod. I’m planning to purchase an intervalometer cable release next week. Have you used a wired or wireless intervalometer shutter release with an X-T2 with success? — Elliot R.

A: Yup. There are two intervalometers that I find work well with the X-T2. For a wired model, I recommend the Vello ShutterBoss II (ignore that it says it’s for Canon—it also works with your Fuji!). For wireless, I recommend (surprise!) the Vello Wireless ShutterBoss II.

I use the wired model all the time with my X-T1 for time-lapses. Gabe uses an X-T2 with the same wired release.

However, before choosing, I do recommend considering the pros and cons of a wired versus wireless intervalometer. See my 2017 blog post “Remote Question: Wireless or Wired Intervalometers for Camera Triggering?” — Matt

5. Noise With Varying-Quality Cameras

A side-by-side comparison of ISO 100 (left) and ISO 51,200 (right) images from a camera noise test.

Q: In the descriptions of your workshops you say to know your DSLR or high-end mirrorless, but I’m not sure what is considered “high-end.” I have a Sony Alpha a6000. I have tried a few times doing night photography using that with a Samyang 12mm f/2. I also see you guys mention full-frame; how important is full-frame versus crop sensor when doing night photography? I have seen amazing night photography pictures using the Sony a6000. — Kylee W.

A: While there are plenty of crop-sensor cameras that do well with night photography, I have found the a6000 and a6300 get rather noisy with long exposures. But everything is definitely subjective, and my tolerance for noise might be less than yours. The best advice I would offer is to test your camera, figure out how noisy it gets and establish your own parameters. You can run this test either in the field or in the comfort of your home.

Take a picture of something that has shadows in it (because noise appears in the shadow areas first). Put your camera on a tripod and take a series of shots at ISOs of 1600, 3200, 6400, etc.

Then (and, for this, you might have to turn your lights low and stop down your ISO and apertures), do a series of images at various shutter speeds: 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes. ... Keep doubling your time and adjust your ISO and apertures (or lighting), and end at somewhere around 8 minutes.

Do these tests with your camera’s noise reduction features off, and then again with the noise reduction features on. See if that makes a difference.

Download the images to your computer and inspect them at 100 percent. Look for two things:

  1. When your image gets too grainy for your taste, that is the ISO that you will want to avoid.
  2. In your long-exposure images, look for red, purple and other colored specks. That is color noise from the long exposures. Again, determine the ISO at which that becomes unacceptable to you.

This test will help you establish the parameters in which you can successfully operate your camera (according to your own tastes) with both the high ISOs and the long shutter speeds that are needed for most night photography.

If you’d like to see a more detailed rundown on how to perform a high ISO test, along with sample images, see our 2016 blog post “Keep The Noise Down: How To Take An ISO Test With Your Camera.” — Gabriel

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