Travel

Tips for Packing for a Night Photography Trip

A common question we get at National Parks at Night is, “What should I bring on one of your photo adventures?” It’s a question that applies to any trip where the purpose is night photography.

Trips like this require specific gear that you might not normally take on a regular photo excursion or vacation. The ultimate goal is not to overpack and burden yourself with extraneous stuff. My goal is to pack in a way where I end up using everything I brought, and I take notes on things that could have enhanced the experience.

The Packing List

These travel notes have turned into a Workshop Packing List that I can review each time I’m getting ready for the next adventure. This is invaluable, because it keeps me on track and not packing for hours and days sifting through all my gear! Feel free to download my list below and customize it to fit your needs.

This list covers about 90 percent of what I need to bring, but I also suggest doing research on the locations and thinking of anything specific you’ll need that will help enhance or interpret that location better. Definitely check the weather predictions—for both days and nights—so you can be prepared and comfortable for what’s heading your way.

Know Your Gear/Vision

I always advise bringing gear you are familiar with on workshops. When you order or rent new gear, try to have it arrive at least a few days before you leave and set aside time to get to know it. The last thing you want is to be fumbling around in the dark with unfamiliar equipment.

If you’re looking to build a kit, our recommended gear page is a good starting point. But everyone sees the world differently, so gear is a very personal choice. Study the way you see, and really understand the tools that are helping create your masterpieces.

LR 20mm.jpg

You can easily do that in Lightroom. Look at your favorite 4- to 5-star photos in the Library module and then scroll down the right hand side to the Metadata section. What lens did you use? If it was a zoom lens, what focal length? If a lot of your images were shot with a 14-24mm lens set at 20mm (as in the above screen shot), then perhaps you should consider investing in a 20mm prime lens. Often the prime lens will have a faster aperture than the zoom, which can help us collect more light for the dark skies we are visiting. Plus, that’s how you are seeing the world, so embrace it! (For more about this, see my 2016 blog post “Finding Your Focal Length: Use Metadata to Divulge Your Tendencies.”)

Insurance

I highly recommend investing in photography or travel insurance that will cover your expensive gear at home and on the road. Home owner/renter’s insurance often doesn’t cover your photo gear, especially if you are making money with it. Travel insurance isn’t that expensive, but I travel so much that photography insurance covers my gear 365 days of the year.

One thing that any insurance company will ask you to do is list all your gear with serial numbers. This is a good practice anyway, and I have this document accessible to me on the road just in case.

Which Bag is Best?

When I first started working at B&H Photo in 2001, I worked in the bag and tripod department. Obviously it was my job to find the best match for the customers’ needs, but what happened was that I became convinced that so many of their solutions could also be mine. Much to the chagrin of my wife, one of our rooms quickly filled up with 20 bags in the first three months! I didn’t know which one was best for me, so I had to try them all!

I can’t recommend that strategy for others. But I can pass along the valuable lesson I learned: It is, in fact, good to have a variety of bags that can offer multiple carrying experiences.

Understand what your body is capable of carrying and which styles of bag you prefer. Bringing a roller bag of gear is great on your back but not conducive to moving around on the trails at parks or on the cobblestone streets of Europe. For me, a compromise is best: I do bring a lot of photo gear on most trips, and for me a roller and a backpack is the best way to carry it all.

Roller

For a roller, my hardy, well-traveled companion is The Large case by Away Travel. It’s guaranteed for life, and large enough to carry pretty much anything I need to pack, from tripods to clothing. I generally use this case for any trip of five days or more. For shorter trips, I use a smaller roller by Travelpro.

Backpack

For a non-roller option, the Peak Design Everyday Backpack suits my needs perfectly. The 30L model fits up to a 15-inch laptop, plus a tablet and most of my cameras and lenses. It is super comfortable and the innovative divider system keeps me organized.

However, I always like to also bring a smaller bag on my trips. When I get on-site and go out for a shoot, I don’t need or want to carry all my gear all the time. When Peak Design released their Everyday Sling bag, I found my perfect daily companion.

The Sling is my go-to work bag, which fits lunch, an iPad and a little camera. When I went to the Galapagos Islands, I was able to fit any non-vertical-grip DSLR camera with a 150-600mm style lens! You can fit a whole mirrorless system in the bag as well. Don’t believe me? Check out the video I did with that bag in Galapagos:

Does It Fit?

Bags are definitely a personal choice, and, like with a good pair of shoes, we often don’t know how a bag “fits” us until we try it on. Some things to look for are:

  • Does it safely protect your gear?
  • Is it comfortable to carry or wear?
  • Does it fit your style?

B&H has a 30-day return policy that really can help you take the time to figure it out which of their 500-plus bags fits you best.

Just as important as bags are cable organizers and pouches. Tenba’s Cable Duo 4 helps me keep the variety of cables, cords, remotes, and other little bits and bobs organized inside my bag. Another option is the Duo 8 if you travel with lots of cables and cords!

Tenba Cable Duo 4 (above) and Duo 8

I always have two to six flashlights in the field at night. Instead of putting them all in my pockets, I use the Peak Design Field Pouch matched with their Leash Camera Strap, which gives me easy access to not only my assortment of lights, but also filters, Allen wrenches and Arca-Swiss plates.

Check-in vs. Carry-on

Traveling as a photographer isn’t easy. If you don’t have TSA Pre or Clear status, most U.S. airports want you to take all of your large electronics out of your bag—sometimes even all your cameras! That could mean needing to arrive to the airport even earlier. Be familiar with the restrictions, which definitely vary from country to country.

Also, pay attention to what sizes and weights your airline allows. Camera gear adds significant weight to our bags, and going over the limits could incur some serious fees. Plus, smaller planes can’t fit rollers. I’ve found that my Everyday Backpack fits on even the smaller airplanes, albeit sometimes only under the seat.

All I need for a night photography trip in two bags: My Peak Design backpack (top) containing my cameras and lenses comes on the plane as a carry-on, and my roller with everything else gets checked into the plane’'s belly.

I try to carry on all my important and expensive gear, and I check in my cloths, tripods, liquids, cables, etc. in my roller.

The main thing to remember is that we always need to carry on lithium batteries, no matter how small or big. These cannot be checked in. And they need to be either in a device, or stowed in a way so that the ends can’t come into contact with each other (wrapping them with a rubber band will suffice, though more techie options are available).

Final Thoughts and 3 Things We Can’t Live Without

That covers a lot about one half of packing, but the other half—the gear itself—is a whole other monster. I could explain my strategy here in even more words, but instead I decided I’d show you. So we created the following video, which breaks down all the gear I typically bring on a night photography workshop or trip. It goes into more detail about the gear and why each piece is important to me

Hopefully this will help you game-plan even better for your next adventure! Remember to take notes in the field and on your trip so that you can keep track of the gear that you brought and didn’t use, or that you left home and missed having. Creating your own checklist will make your gear, vision and packing experience a whole lot better!

Finally, not everything we travel with is a camera or lens. We all have ancillary items that might not help us take a picture, but they do help make our trip better. Here are three such items from each of the five of us:

For more information about the gear in Gabe’s bag and packing list:

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

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Revisiting Locations Can Lead to Seeing with New Eyes, Boosting Creativity

Over the years, I’ve had many opportunities to revisit some of the great locations I’ve photographed. There have been times when a photograph I had envisioned didn’t quite work out for one reason or another—an errant plane leaving a trail across the sky, the moon or the Milky Way being in the wrong part of the sky, or simply me not getting the lighting quite right, or the stars being just a little bit soft.

I count myself fortunate to have the chance to reshoot, but I have learned not to expect to be able to recreate the original image, because if one thing is certain, it's that nothing stays the same for long. It could be that the light has changed, a tree has fallen over, or a gate is locked where once it was open.

On other occasions, I’ve made a successful image and am simply hoping to make another. Because I teach workshops in national parks and monuments, my students and I are often photographing well-known views in popular locations, and it can be a challenge to make an original photograph. It’s a worthy endeavor to try to make a unique image of Yosemite Valley, the church at Bodie, or of Mobius Arch in the Alabama Hills. I push myself, and encourage my students, to come up with compositions that they have never seen before.

Mobius is typically photographed at sunrise, as the arch runs from north to south, and Mt. Whitney can be framed within the arch just as the sun’s first rays light up the Sierra to the west. The most obvious shot is a horizontal one, and that is what most people choose to do. There are plenty of nocturnal versions too, with low moonlight on the Sierra, and the arch in shadow, which provides a great opportunity for light painting.

I challenge myself to make at least one unique view of the famous Mobius Arch every time I visit the Alabama Hills, a rocky landscape in the foothills of the Eastern Sierra in California. It’s a way to refine my vision and to stay sharp, and to appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to visit these places on a semiregular basis.

If one thing is certain, it’s that nothing stays the same for long.
— Lance

In 2007, I was invited by the Texas Photo Society to teach a night photography workshop in Big Bend National Park. The landscape, culture, and geology were all new and exotic to me (coming from Massachusetts) and I was excited to explore.

One of the unexpected highlights of the workshop was a visit to Terlingua Ghost Town, a former cinnabar mining town just outside of the park. Mining is always a dangerous occupation, and smelting cinnabar to extract mercury made it doubly so. Terlingua’s miners were mostly Mexican, and many of them died there.

The cemetery in Terlingua is a fascinating place to explore, and we were lucky enough to visit during Dia de los Meurtos, when the graves are decorated with sugar skulls, fresh flowers and candles. I made the following image during that workshop, and it was my favorite from the trip.

Tres Cruces, Terlingua, 2007. ISO 200, 5 minutes, f/8. Canon 5D, Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 PC lens. Nearly full moon.

Tres Cruces, Terlingua, 2007. ISO 200, 5 minutes, f/8. Canon 5D, Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 PC lens. Nearly full moon.

This image was made with existing light, consisting of moonlight and the orange glow from a candle that was inside the fenced grave in the foreground. I positioned the camera so that the candle was hidden behind one of the fence posts which kept the highlights from being blown out. The candle glow contrasted nicely with the cool blue moonlight, and I felt like the image captured the spirit of the place.

I have just come back from another West Texas workshop, this one based entirely in Terlingua Ghost Town and the surrounding area, which is so rich with subject matter. I wanted to see how the graveyard had changed, thinking perhaps that one of the crosses might have fallen over, or at least be leaning over further than it was nine years ago.

Much to my surprise, very little had changed aside from the lack of Dia de los Meurtos paraphernalia. What was different was that I was there at the end of the lunar cycle, and the moon was below the horizon. The Big Bend region is the darkest area in the lower 48, so it was truly very dark.

One of the workshop students and I decided to do a reshoot of the photograph I had made in 2007. We worked together for about an hour and came up with a dramatic image of nearly the same composition. But the results were very different due to the lack of moonlight, to light painting, and to the partly cloudy sky.

I still like the original image, but very much enjoyed the opportunity to revise the location with different eyes.

Tres Cruces, Terlingua, 2016.  ISO 6400, 30 seconds, f/4.5.  Nikon  D750, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 lens at 24mm,  Coast  HP7 flashlight (back-lighting) and Coast HP3 flashlight (fence lighting). New moon.

Tres Cruces, Terlingua, 2016.  ISO 6400, 30 seconds, f/4.5. Nikon D750, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 lens at 24mm, Coast HP7 flashlight (back-lighting) and Coast HP3 flashlight (fence lighting). New moon.

For more information about the equipment mentioned in this post, see the Our Gear page and the following links:

Lance Keimig 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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