Catskills

So Far, So Awesome! Recapping Our First Workshops of 2018

It’s hard to believe that the year is almost half over. Our workshop season, however, is just kicking into high gear. Matt and Gabe are leading a group in Capitol Reef National Park, and Chris and I are about to do the same in Redwood National and State Parks. But this week’s post is about celebrating the amazing experiences we had with the attendees of our first six workshops and tours of 2018.

We started the year by visiting one of the lesser-known national parks, Biscayne in Florida, and in the spring we offered our very first night portraiture workshop, in Catskill, New York. For 2018 we added a second international tour, and notched both Iceland and Scotland in our passports before the end of spring. We also partnered with two of our favorite institutions—Rocky Mountain School of Photography and Atlas Obscura—to create two opportunities to seize the night in California.

We’re also working hard on a new series of workshops and programs for 2019, to be announced later this summer. (Want to be among the first to know about them? Be sure you’re on our email list!)

It may sound like we’re tooting our own horn, but what all of this really means is that (as Matt proclaimed in a lecture earlier this year) this is the golden age of night photography. It is not because we are teaching a lot of workshops, but because so many of you are out there photographing at night and continuing to produce so many amazing images.

As we move on with the second half of 2018, let’s see where the first half brought us …

Biscayne National Park

January 29-February 3
By Gabriel Biderman

They said it couldn’t be done—a night photography workshop was impossible at a location that’s 90 percent water. Well, here at National Parks at Night, we love a good challenge and we made the most of the 10 percent of land in Biscayne National Park!

The first night of the workshop was the day before the second blue supermoon of 2018, and we came prepared. Our friends at Nikon shipped us an 800mm lens with a 1.25X teleconverter, which we matched to the D500 with its 1.5X-crop APS-C sensor. With that, we practically lassoed the moon. That “kit” was set up on a Gitzo tripod and students could stick their memory card in the camera and track and capture the moon. The rest of the first night was spent getting our night feet wet with the many subjects to photograph around the Dante Fascall Visitor Center, the only mainland section of the park.

The next two nights we were transported by charter boat to Elliot and Boca Chita keys. Elliott provided a supermoon moonrise, mangroves, dock and other subjects. But Boca Chita is definitely the crown jewel of the location. We literally “lit up” the ornamental Honeywell lighthouse, photographed the Miami skyline, light painted the cutest little chapel, and explored the many views along this picturesque curved key.

We also got to spend an evening at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park, which offered spectacular views of off-shore Stilstsville at sunset, which is in the northernmost part of Biscayne National Park. Baggs is also home of the oldest standing structure in greater Miami—the Cape Florida Light, which we were able to wrap lots of star trails around as well as climb up and sing an opera song or two!

Our last night was even more special, as we were able to gain access to Stiltsville, a grouping of wooden stilt houses that are 1 mile from Miami.  The structures are still recovering/rebuilding from Hurricane Irma, but we were able to watch a spectacular moonrise over Leshaw House as well as shoot a few other unique “floating" houses from the dreamlike location of the Baldwin-Sessions house.

Tim and I have taught many workshops, but this was definitely one to remember—from being transported to and from the islands by boat at night, to just the amazing camaraderie that we had with all the students and people who helped make this adventure happen. We want to give a big thank you to Biscayne National Park, Biscayne National Park Institute, Stiltsville Trust and Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park for helping us put together this amazing experience.

Iceland South Coast

March 12-20
By Lance Keimig

Our first international tour of 2018 was remarkable for two things: some really bad weather, and a truly extraordinary group of travelers.

After an outstanding exploration of the remote Westfjords of Iceland in the late summer of 2017, we scheduled our second Iceland adventure to the more frequently visited south coast. This is where most visitors to Iceland end up, and for good reason. Some of the most spectacular waterfalls, along with the famous glacial lagoons and the ice beach can be found there.

We arrived and spent our first day and night in Reykjavik, and had an amazing meal at the Fish Market with many courses of truly delicious and innovatively prepared seafood dishes. The next day we headed south under sunny skies and spent some time with a friendly herd of Icelandic horses before making our way to Vik.

Alas, then the weather took a turn for the worse, with rain and ferocious winds. Our intrepid group made the best of it and we photographed when and where we could, and we even had an impromptu light painting lesson in the hotel meeting room when it was too wet to go out and photograph.

The nasty weather continued the next day, and the forecast was only getting worse––100 percent chance of nothing but cold, wind and rain for the entire remainder of our trip. Iceland can be like that sometimes, and you do what you can to make the best of it.

I’d never seen it quite that bad before, but we had a hardy group of outside-the-box thinkers who found a solution and presented it to Chris and I. The next thing we knew, we had changed our entire itinerary and were headed to the north coast, where the forecast was not only for clear skies, but also for lots of aurora borealis. Yup, we did it! The entire group agreed, and we changed our plans and our fortunes, and we found some great new locations and made a lot of great photographs.

I won’t ever forget how this group collectively transformed a gloomy experience into a very memorable trip. Don’t be surprised if you see a National Parks at Night trip to North Iceland show up on our website in the next few years. Maybe the weather on that one will lead us back to the south, and we can finish what we started.

Joshua Tree at Night

April 15-20
By Lance Keimig

Our friends at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography invited us to lead another workshop for them in 2018, and Gabe and I did that at Joshua Tree National Park in mid-April.

This was our first chance at the Milky Way for the year, and we planned the workshop to begin at the new moon and progress to nearly the first quarter. Conditions were perfect––cool nights, clear skies and a largely novice group of night photography converts. We had a few welcome NPAN alumni from Zion, Great Sand Dunes and Cape Cod to help lead the newbies on our dessert adventure.

Arch Rock, Hidden Valley and of course Key’s Ranch were highlight locations again this year, and we were happy to be working with the Desert Institute again as our park liaison. After our RMSP workshop, we led a second, one-night outing for the Desert Institute.

In addition to some truly stellar images, one of the memorable aspects of this workshop is that our group was not hesitant to stay out late and wait for the Milky Way to rise over the horizon—which, depending on the location, was not until 1 a.m. or later. Way to go, gang!

Catskills Night Portraiture

April 27-29 (Spring Session)
By Matt Hill

Students, model, Matt and Mabel in our headquarters backyard shortly after a massive thunderstorm.

In April, I hosted our very first night portraiture workshop. It was also the inaugural workshop in the newly renovated teaching space at our headquarters in the village of Catskill, New York.

This workshop was very intimate, catered farm-to-table by a local chef and designed for advanced students who want to make long exposure portraits of people at night.

From Friday afternoon until Sunday afternoon, we worked on lighting, posing and storytelling. Our wonderful local model, Galaexius Quasar, worked with us in studio and on location in the area to bring to life fantastic ideas.

We had challenging weather, but on the first night, that was a real boon. The clouds and misty rain added a moodiness that complemented the scene.

Nikon D750 with a Nikon 105mm f/1.4 lens. 15 seconds, f/4, ISO 200.

The second night brought a very energetic thunderstorm. We decided to stay dry and warm and proceeded to build long exposure portraits in the studio until the weather cleared. After that, we went in the backyard, popped a couple of smoke grenades and made some more magic.

By spending time working on individual skills, both students really leveled up. I’m so happy we did it, and I’m looking forward to the six-person workshop in the fall that I am co-teaching with Tim Cooper.

Dark Skies, Desert Beasts: Borrego Springs, California

May 10-13
By Gabriel Biderman

Dark Skies and Desert Beasts was the official title of our first Ambassador Series workshop with Atlas Obscura. It was held in the dark sky community of Borrego Springs, California, and our focus was the 130-plus surreal sculptures of Ricardo Breceda that created an amazing “Night Sky Museum” with the Milky Way as our backdrop.

For those who are unfamiliar with Atlas Obscura, they have been the go-to online guide to the strange and unusual all over the world for the last 10 years. It was an honor to work with their team, to introduce them to the beauty of the night and to create a unique experience.

Borrego Springs is part of the Sonoran Desert and has been an oasis in the valley for many years—though now more people seek its dark skies than ever before. We enhanced the California vibes even more by staying at an Old West and vintage trailer themed resort!

We spent our afternoons in class, reviewing students’ work and going over the many techniques of night photography. We explored a different section of the Galleta Meadows each night. The variety of sculptures—from the iconic “dragon” serpent that cuts through the main road to the spectacular standoff between the grasshopper and scorpion—were just amazing to aim our lenses toward. But there were so many other beasts to play with too, from dinosaurs and wild horses, to sabertooth tigers, camels, sloths and jeeps driving into the stars!

We scouted each area during the day, and we dropped Google pins and took test shots for sculptures that inspired us so that we could be more productive once the sun set.

Our group of students were amazing and worked so well together, each taking a crack at light painting to reinterpret these pieces of art into something they could call their own.

It was definitely a challenging workshop, operating under little to no moon and maintaining focus on some fairly close subject matter while keeping those background stars sharp!

However, both Tim and I were incredibly impressed with the work that was created and the camaraderie that was forged with all! We had so much fun that we are already planning on a return to Borrego and more collaborations with Atlas. Stay tuned!

Scotland: The Hebrides

May 13-23
By Lance Keimig

Our second international trip of 2018 was to the Isle of Skye, and the Hebridean Isles of Lewis and Harris.

Skye has some of the best landscapes in Europe, and Lewis and Harris are rich in Neolithic archeology. I had been there the year before in March, and things were pretty quiet as you might expect at that time of year. It was immediately apparent that like Iceland, Scotland has seen a major increase in tourism in the last couple of years, and no place in Scotland more than Skye. It was interesting to note that unlike in Iceland, where it seems that much if not most of the tourism centers around photography, that wasn’t the case in Scotland. Some of the locations I’d been visiting for years, often having them to myself, were now absolutely swarming with tourists (and the busy season was only just beginning).

Fortunately, there are still plenty of places to appreciate the spectacular landscapes and appreciate the culture and history of Scotland if you’re willing to come back after dark! That’s what we did!

We had five full days and nights at the wonderful Uig Lodge on the Isle of Lewis. We had some good weather, some mediocre weather, a smashed iPhone (mine) and a real beater of a minibus (thanks, Sixt, but we’ll look elsewhere next time). Again NPAN travelers showed their mettle and faced every challenge head-on to come home with new friends, good memories and great images.

Chris and I took a couple of days before the tour to explore an area in the southwest of Scotland, and he even found the exact apartment in Campbeltown where he had lived for six months as a child while his dad was stationed at the U.S. naval station nearby. National Parks at Night will be leading more tours to some of the other Scottish islands in the future, so stay tuned!

Partner Participation

When we form brand partnerships, we look for the relationship to benefit our workshop attendees too. Nikon, Coast Portland, B&H Photo, Peak Design, Light Painting Brushes, X-Rite, BenQ, Bay Photo, Irix Lenses, Valleret, PhotoPills and Luxli all offered loaner gear, discounts, gifts and other perks at various locations. As always, our gratitude is unending.

Looking Forward

As you can see, it’s been a pretty exciting year so far, with more to come. As of June 22, all of our remaining 2018 workshops are full with the exception of our second week at Glacier National Park led by Tim and myself. You can still sign up for the waitlist for any workshop at no cost and with no risk. If a spot opens up, we’ll invite you to apply.

We’ll be announcing our 2019 workshops and tours in August, first to our esteemed alumni, then to our email subscribers, and then to the general public. We hope to see you out there under the Milky Way!

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

Safety First: Know Your Wildlife Before You Head Into the Wild

Ah, the call of the night. I get goosebumps thinking about locations, moon phases and opportunities to create something in concert with nature.

But nature has other creatures besides night photographers. Such as bears. And coyotes. Some are dangerous to humans, some are not. Knowing your wildlife and their habits before you head out is vital. Safety first!

A Story

I want to tell you a tale about last night. ... We'll get to the safety part toward the end, so come along with me for a spell.

I was scouting a location near National Parks at Night's (NPAN) headquarters in the beautiful village of Catskill, New York. To the west and into the mountains is New York state's tallest two-stage waterfall, Kaaterskill Falls. It's in the northeast corner of Catskill State Park, and well worth the effort to visit. Must be why it's so popular ;-)

I read all about it on blogs, the official Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) website and some hiking books I have that detail adventures in the park. I was mostly focused on the difficulty of the hike, how well marked the trail is, and how long it would take.

I consulted the PhotoPills app to see when the half moon would scoot around the lip of the gorge. It happened to be not so long after dusk. Perfect. I decided to hike up during twilight to see the trail markers and note them mentally, and to identify places where I could make a navigation mistake on the way down. Fortunately for the traveler (not for the environment), I noted that this trail is well-worn and marked.

Image uploaded from iOS.jpg

PhotoPills

... helped me plan the shot.

My 30-pound backpack weighed on me as I made my way along dry and wet earth, stone and mud. The 330-foot elevation gain from the trailhead was fairly easy, except for some aggressive staircases (covered with mosquitoes waiting for fools like me wearing no insect repellent).

I made it to the bottom of the topmost stage of the falls. I took a breather, and noticed the trail broke left (away from the falls). Honestly, I was not happy about that. I wanted to get a good view of the tallest portion and it looked like the yellow trail just ... kept ... going.

I kept thinking to myself about the biggest mistake I’d made that night. I was alone.

I tried it for a while and gave myself a pass. Turning around and coming back down, I was feeling silly, coming all this way only to turn back. But there was one area off to the left (toward the falls) I had not tried yet. So I followed this side path and voila! I was exactly where I wanted to be.

It was civil twilight by then, so I relaxed, meditated and waited for stars to appear. When they did, I set up to test for exposure and focus, and to find a spot dry enough to shoot (at the bottom of the falls there is a ton of mist blowing away). I chose a spot that gave me a good peekaboo look at the entire waterfall without standing in the rain-like wind.

I had a wonderful "What if?" moment while shooting my way toward the moon cresting the gorge edge. I asked how orange light painting would look against the deep blue of the night sky. See Figure 1 for the best image.

Figure 1. 8 minutes, f/4, ISO 100. Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8 lens, Coast HP7R with Light Painting Tools Universal Connector and orange cone, plus a half moon.

Wow. Complementary colors are amazing. I decided to ride that train and work the scene with fiery water below and cool, icy blues above.

Here are a few more images that made the trip worth it. The last one is from after I hiked down and moved to another location. But...

During the shoot, I kept thinking to myself about the biggest mistake I'd made that night. I was alone. Figures that I ignored my own advice and not used the buddy system. So, my vivid imagination being what it is, I started hearing noises. Animal noises! It wasn't really happening, especially over the roaring din of the waterfalls. But the worry stayed at the back of my mind. I solo night stuff all the time, right?

In the end, I packed up and began my way back down the steep staircase. Slow. One step at a time. Safe.

I know it's important to stop and look around, even though it bugs me out. So I continued to do this, focusing in and out with my headlamp. I'd scan the trail for markers first, scan the surrounding bushes for movement or sparkly eyes (yeah, I do that), and the trees for ... and then I saw it.

About four feet up on a tree in the middle of the path was heavily scratched bark. Bear markings. Yup, the survivalist in me started clamoring inside. Yet I stayed calm and chose to be even more aware. (I did not stop, take out my tripod and take a photo complete with beautiful light painting, forgive me. Enjoy these instead.)

I kept moving at a safe pace. I started saying, "Hey bear!" loudly and clapping my hands.

I saw a couple of holes dug in the soft earth. Another bear sign. They love ants. (Again, I did not stop to take a picture, so look at this.)

The road was near, along with salvation from this possibly dangerous situation.

I kept on moving. Steady and careful. My boot soles were wet from mud and water from runoff that crossed the path. I knew it would be easy to slip, so I slowed down a little.

I saw headlights! Yeah, baby. The road was near, along with salvation from this possibly dangerous situation. Another 100 steps and I came upon a very dark pile of scat. Now, if I said I wasn't alarmed by this, I'd by lying. I was. It was, plainly, bear shit. (Once again, I did not think it was an ideal time to be taking photos, so check this out to aid your imagination.)

So I scanned in a circle, looking for movement or sparkly eyes. Nothing. Good. Move on, baby.

In my increased haste, I did slip once, in plain sight of the trailhead. I was navigating some scree and my wet boot slipped on rock. I didn't tumble—it was just an awkward slide. My heavy backpack actually helped to counterbalance me.

I brushed off some blood from my shin and hustled to the trailhead. I was so relieved to see cars coming. And I was safe at last. I made it to my car and jumped in, locking the doors. I know, it's foolish to think a car window can stop a bear, but it made me feel good anyway.

So the moral of the story is that I can share some tips with you!

Advice:

1. Read about the wildlife where you will be visiting.

Great sources are the brochure you get when entering a park, the posted signs, official NPS or state park websites, and more.

Learn when they are active, what they eat (so you can avoid being near it), if they travel on human paths (which black bears do) and how to deal with any encounters.

If you are unsure, ask a ranger. Park rangers rock.

When I was warming up in the car after this shoot, I found this amazing page on CatskillMountaineer.com detailing black bears. All the things I'd learned as a boy in the Adirondacks rang true with their points. And the natural signs I had observed were affirmed when reading this.

So seek out local naturalists and hikers for the area you want to explore and sit under their learning tree. It will be time well spent.

If you  want  to find a black bear, try Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has more of them per square mile than any other place in the U.S. Nikon D3S,  Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8  lens at 200mm. Photo © 2013 Chris Nicholson. (He doesn't have any night photos of light-painted bears. I can't understand why.)

If you want to find a black bear, try Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It has more of them per square mile than any other place in the U.S. Nikon D3S, Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm. Photo © 2013 Chris Nicholson. (He doesn't have any night photos of light-painted bears. I can't understand why.)

2. Use the buddy system.

Bring a friend or two with you. The more noise you make, and smells you offer, the less your chances of surprising any animals that could be dangerous.

3. If it's a short hike, try not to bring food.

If animals don't smell something they enjoy eating, they will most likely stay away. If you have to bring food, try to seal it as much as possible.

If you're bringing food into bear country, the current advice is to use a bear canister, because Yogi is smart enough to know about the food you hang from a rope between two trees. ;-)

4. Assume that most animals don't want to be near you.

As fellow NPANer Lance Keimig always says, there are far more plants that want to hurt you than animals. Animals usually attack only when feeling threatened and especially when their young are nearby. So don't freak out if you see a wild animal. Stay calm. Think.

5. Look for telltale signs.

Do you observe tracks, scat or other markers of animals nearby? Are they fresh?

6. Look around.

When you hike, it's normal to be looking at your feet all the time. Stop or slow down and look around into underbrush, shadows, etc.

7. When the wind is blowing in your face, be even more cautious.

Why? Your smell is not being blown ahead of your travel path.

8. Be aware of space.

If you know animals are near, try not to corner them in a gorge or canyon, because they may choose to escape right through you.

9. Stay Navigated.

This is not specific to animals, but always carry a compass, and know the basics of its use. It won't protect you from wildlife, but it will keep you moving in the right direction.

What animals live near you? What do you know about them? Had any close encounters? Let us know in the comments.

Locals bonus: More info on black bears, cougars and coyotes from the New York State DEC.

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