Creativity

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.

Lighting

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.

Models

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.

Access

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.

Safety

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

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

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

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

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

You’re Special

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

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

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

Cooperate & Collaborate

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

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

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

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

‘When everybody zigs, zag’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try a Different Angle

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

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

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

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

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

Walk away—Wipe the slate clean—Do something unexpected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plan to be Different

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

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

Get Meta—Photograph the Photographers

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

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

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

By doing this, I:

1) get amazing time-lapses

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

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

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

Use Hikers and Headlamps as an Advantage

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

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

It’s Just a Jump to the Left …

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

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

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

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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.

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Beyond the Milky Way: There’s More to Night Photography Than the Trendy

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, Maine. 20 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 6400. Pano of six stitched frames, with clouds, Milky Way and light pollution.

A couple of years ago during a conversation about trends in night photography, a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) said, “If I see one more Milky Way picture, I’m gonna puke.”

While I don’t exactly share the sentiment, I understand where he was coming from. Since the advent of digital cameras that perform well at high ISOs––the Nikon D700 and Canon 6D are the best early examples—night photographers have understandably been obsessed with photographing the core, or galactic center, of our galaxy.

Experiencing the Milky Way for the first time under a truly dark sky is an unforgettable experience. Seeing the core light up the LCD on the back of your camera screen for the first time is another “Holy Shit!” moment for many people. It’s easy to be smitten with the Milky Way, with its 100 billion to 400 billion stars. Every star we see in the sky from anywhere on Earth is part of the Milky Way galaxy, which is one of an estimated 100 billion galaxies in the universe.

Lady Boot Arch, Alabama Hills. 15 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 200 for the foreground, combined with 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400 for the sky, with tea lights and flashlight.

Lady Boot Arch. 15 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 200, with tea lights and flashlight.

Spend any time on social media or photo sharing websites like Flickr or 500px, and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of images of the Milky Way core. Many of them are heavily processed and rendered in an unrealistic way. They remind me of the images of early HDR enthusiasts––wild, colorful and dynamic, but full of post-processing artifacts, and far from believable. Nowadays, people use HDR imaging more responsibly, and the true power of the technique comes through in stunning examples.

With Milky Way photography, we are just starting to get to that point. Rather than simply photographing the core because it was suddenly possible, without much consideration for anything else, many night photographers are now including the Milky Way in their images in much more fulfilling ways.

Steve’s Rock, Olmsted Point, Yosemite National Park. 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 800. Clouds back-lit with moonlight high in the Sierra with light from a Coast HP5R filtered with two gels, a 1/2 CTO and a 1/8 minus green.

Instead of images of the core rising over a dark and empty foreground, I’m seeing much more interesting compositions where the Milky Way is just one component of a composition. People are developing more sophisticated ways of capturing and processing foreground detail combined with core exposures. Panoramas of the arch of the Milky Way have been popular for some time, but now photographers are using the arch to frame interesting foreground subjects. This trend is encouraging.

Where we’ve come from

Throughout the history of night photography, photographers were limited to long exposures in natural light situations due to the limited sensitivity of film or early digital sensors. Star trails, rather than star points, were the norm.

Reciprocity failure—which caused film to become less sensitive the longer it was exposed—also played a part in making star point or Milky Way photography next to impossible. Most films began to show signs of reciprocity failure in as little as 1 second! Fuji’s amazing Neopan Acros was a game-changer, as it maintained its sensitivity up to 2 minutes, and then only slowly lost it with longer exposures. Acros is only a 100 speed film however, which means star point exposures were not an option.

2 minutes, f/4, ISO 6400. Star points, clouds and light pollution over the Sound of Rassay on the Scotland’s Isle of Skye.

15 minutes, f/4, ISO 400.

In late 2002, students at my night photography class at the New England School of Photography began showing up with new digital cameras: first the Nikon D100, and then a few months later the Canon 10D. For the first time, non-professional photographers began to take digital photography seriously, and these cameras made reasonably good night images––at 100 ISO and if the exposures were kept to 30 seconds or less.

Later, when the D700 came out in 2007, and the 5D Mark II the following year, digital night photography took a huge leap forward. A few brave souls cranked up their ISOs to 1600, 3200 and beyond, and began making exposures under moonless skies. They discovered that not only was it possible to record stars as points of light, but it was also possible to show the incredible galactic core of the Milky Way. A new chapter in the history of night photography had begun.

Where we are now

These days, it’s not uncommon for National Parks at Night to encounter other night photographers, or even other workshops, when we are out in the field with our groups––if we happen to be holding a workshop during the new moon.

Joshua Tree National Park. 20 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 6400. Lingering twilight in the western sky combined with light painting on the foreground.

But when we hold workshops around the full moon, or first or last quarter, we rarely encounter anyone else. This is almost the opposite of when I first started teaching workshops, in that we went out to photograph only within a day or two of the full moon, because that was the only time the light was strong enough to be particularly useful for film work.

It’s great to have amazing locations at Joshua Tree National Park or Yosemite to ourselves, but I feel like we are keeping a secret. For all of those photographers who never shot at night with film, or with those first-generation DSLRs, don’t limit yourselves to photographing just during the high Milky Way season at 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400 around the new moon! There are amazing photographs to be had all year long, during all phases of the moon, at all ISOs.

Where do we go next?

One of the things we try to emphasize in our workshops is just that point: There’s never a bad time for night photography!

Maine. 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400. Clouds and the light from Marshall Point Lighthouse on the distant shore and foreground, combined with lingering twilight.

Make your images about more than just that great big galactic cloud in the sky. By all means, photograph the Milky Way and show it in all its glory. But try to push outside of the boundaries of your comfort zone. How about a Milky Way trail image, or a moon trail? Combine star points and the Milky Way with partly cloudy skies, rather than cursing the clouds. Shoot under a quarter or crescent moon. Combine a light-painted foreground with the Milky Way. See if you can photograph star trails in the city.

Most importantly, challenge yourself to learn new techniques and to make images that are different from what you have done before.

Note: Please read Michael Frye's excellent related blog post for a tangential view on this topic. I encourage you to subscribe to Michael's blog, as he always has interesting, relevant content, outstanding images, and frequently photographs at night and writes about night photography.

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

A Year of Shooting in the Dark: Reflecting on Our Fave Photos of 2016

A new year always brings the promise—or the hope—of change. And such is the case with the National Parks at Night blog. With a quick look at your calendar, you’ll know for sure that today is not Tuesday, but Saturday. The former was our new-post day since we launched this blog last January, but 48 posts later, we’re changing to the latter. We hope the weekends will afford you more time to relax with the words we write.


The end of the year is always a nostalgic time to look back and reflect on your accomplishments. 2016 officially marked National Parks at Night’s first year in business, and we couldn’t be happier with how it went! We sold out all of our workshops, collectively explored over 20 parks, spoke at five major conferences, presented at countless camera clubs, and taught one of the most popular classes of the year—Night Photography Week—on Creative Live. And in between, we have been scheming to offer even more experiences and opportunities to learn with us in 2017!

As 2016 wraps, we’re also doing what many photographers do at this time of year: We’re reflecting on our creative endeavors, seeing ways we developed, and looking through our catalog to spot our favorite images. So join us for a stroll through 2016 as we share our favorite night photos from the year.

Matt Hill

While on our workshop in Arches National Park, Tim Cooper and I were finishing up at Balanced Rock when the clouds started to break. I thought about how wide my lens was and said to myself, "I have a feeling about this—let's see what happens." Looking over my shoulder when the image came up on the LCD, Tim said, “You’re a cloud whisperer now!” Boy, did I feel good. Sometimes experience helps you make better decisions, like placing the moon behind something, watching skies and manually closing the shutter just as the moon crests the edge. And sometimes fortune smiles on you. Thus goes the magic unpredictability of night photography. · Nikon D750 with a Nikon Fisheye 16mm f/2.8 lens; 7.5 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

This is my favorite image of the year, because it captures everything I feel about what we do. Exploring, creative risk-taking, appreciation for national parks and collaboration. I shot this in Capitol Reef National Park during our National Parks Week road trip in April. We were hiking back through Capitol Gorge after an epic night of photographing at The Tanks, when I turned around and saw the possibilities for this composition. Everyone was tired (and concerned about some weather rolling in), but they still were happy to pose and to help light-paint the rock face. · Nikon D750 with a Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8 lens; 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200.

Tim Cooper

This shot made in Zion National Park was created with the idea of mixing the motion of car trails with the motion of the moving stars. To keep the western sky from overexposing, I was limited to a 10-minute shutter speed, so I chose to shoot multiple exposures to stack later in post-processing. I made three test shots to determine the overall exposure and test for time and intensity with light painting. The final image combines four different exposures of 10 minutes each with light painting in various areas with the Coast HP7 flashlight gelled with a Bastard Orange Filter. · Nikon D4 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens; four 10-minute exposures, f/5, ISO 400.

Before I even landed in Arches National Park, I knew I wanted to create a composition with this tree that my friend Doug Johnson had pointed out to me years earlier. The brilliant light of full moon illumination meant that I had to keep my exposures to a maximum of 3 minutes so that the overall scene would not become too bright. Because I had envisioned the North Star and its “rings” through the trees, I set my Vello ShutterBoss intervalometer to shoot 17 separate images at 3 minutes each. The old tree received extra illumination via my Coast HP7 flashlight gelled with a Bastard Orange filter. · Nikon D4s with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens; 17 3-minute exposures, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Lance Keimig

This image of the Mexican miner’s cemetery in Terlingua, Texas, is one of my favorites of the year for multiple reasons. First, Terlingua and the Big Bend region in general are unique in so many ways, including geology, geography and especially character. It’s one of my favorite places to visit, and this image is special to me because it is a remake of one that I created on my first visit to the area in 2007. The first time there, conditions were very different—the moon was full, and it was just before La Dia de los Muertos, the biggest day of the year in any Mexican cemetery. The original image was my favorite from the first trip, and the new one from this past March turned out to be my favorite from the 2016 trip. The composition is very similar, but the lighting and the sky were completely different. I was also working with my newly found friend, Hal Mitzenmacher, who was one of the workshop participants. The two of us worked together on the shot for about an hour, and I think Hal would agree that this hour was the highlight of the journey. · Nikon D750 with Nikon 24-120mm f/4.0 lens; 30 seconds, f/4.5, ISO 6400. Light painting from behind and from left with a Coast HP5R flashlight, as well as from both sides on the fence in front.

This image from Death Valley National Park exemplifies what I love about night photography. It’s simple, yet powerful. The lone streetlight that illuminates the dirt road leading up to the employee dormitories behind the Furnace Creek Inn takes the strange and beautiful natural landscape and turns it upside down. Why is there a streetlight in the middle of nowhere? It just adds thick layers of mystery and surrealism. As I walked up the pathway and crested the hill, the light came into view and I immediately saw the shot. I made several different versions, but this was my favorite. I love the quiet simplicity of the scene, and the secret knowledge of what lays outside the frame makes it special to me. · Nikon D750 with Nikon 24mm f/1.4 lens; 30 seconds, f/8, ISO 400. Lit with existing streetlight and moonlight.

Chris Nicholson

One of my favorite spots to photograph in Olympic National Park is the Hoh Rain Forest. But until this year, I'd never tried it at night. This image required a few hours of work (including hiking!) and employing all the best practices of night photography. I needed to scout the location during the day, including setting up the composition and tripod placement, and walking through the scene to see how I could move around safely in the dark to various points for light painting. The final exposure was made hours later toward the end of twilight, using a Coast HP7R flashlight and 1/2-cut CTO gel. · Nikon D3s with a Nikon 28-70mm f/2.8 lens; 4 minutes, f/16, ISO 1600.

During our Death Valley National Park workshop, we spent an entire evening on the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, shooting under black skies for a couple of hours until the moon rose. When the moon finally made its appearance, everyone was in awe; walking among the dunes under the light of a full moon is one of the best experiences in the park. At one point I saw attendee Karen taking a break from shooting and enjoying a moment to savor the experience. I quickly planted my tripod, composed, focused and called out, “Karen, please stand still for ten seconds!” I light-painted her from the side with just a quick swipe of my Coast HP5R. This image, I think, speaks to all we do as national park night photographers, and to all the five of us do as night photography instructors. Its not just about the photography, its also about the experience. · Nikon D5 with a Nikon 17-35mm f/2.8 lens; 10 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 3200.

Gabriel Biderman

I’m constantly looking for new ways to interpret the night and have been playing with 360-degree cameras for several years now. 2016 was the year that the 360 technology took a leap forward for long exposures! This image was taken on the last night of our first workshop in Acadia National Park. I knew I wanted to get the Milky Way and myself as a “Little Prince” on the world. I was walking away and previewing the proper distance I needed to be and I loved how the red light turned me into a mysterious silhouette as well as lit up the tiny planet perfectly. · Ricoh Theta S Spherical Digital Camera; 1 minute, f/2, ISO 800.

I was suffering from shooter’s envy as all the other NPAN guys were teaching workshops in Arches & Death Valley national parks during the supermoon on November 14. So I called out an impromptu moon shoot with some fellow local nocturnalists in NYC. We used the PhotoPills app to figure out the best location to capture the moon rising over the trifecta of iconic NYC bridges. The challenge was that we had only about a four-minute window to see and shoot the moon before it was completely hidden behind thick blanket of clouds. I used a super telephoto lens to create a tight composition that emphasized the car trails over the bridges as well as the super size of la luna! · Nikon D750 with a Sigma 150-600mm f/5-6.3 lens; 1/2 second, f/11, ISO 400.

Your Images

Now that we’ve shown you some of our favorite night photographs from 2016, we’d love to see yours! Head over to the National Parks at Night Facebook page and share the best shot of your year, along with some info about how you made it. We can have fun seeing one another’s work, then we can all get back out into the night to start creating our 2017 portfolios!

We hope that you had a creative and productive year, and look forward to sharing more adventures with you in 2017!

Gabriel Biderman is a Brooklyn-based fine art and travel photographer, and author of Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (Peachpit, 2014). During the daytime hours you'll often find Gabe at one of many photo events around the world working for B&H Photo’s road marketing team. See his portfolio and workshop lineup at www.ruinism.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT