favorite photos

Tales of Two Photos: Our Favorite Pairs of Images from 2018

For one last moment, as a group, we’re taking time to reflect on the incredible journey we embarked on in 2018. We visited even more destinations and had even more adventures than the previous year.

All in all, it’s a moment where I say, “I am so proud to be doing this with these people.” That not only includes my esteemed National Parks at Night partners and fellow educators, but also the workshop attendees who make this all worth it. Bravo and brava to all of you for inspiring us to be more and to do more every day.

And now, the hardest assignment of them all: The five of us choose only our two favorite images each from the entire year, and tell the stories behind their births.

This is our final look back—and then it’s all 2019, baby!

Gabriel Biderman

Reality is Outside the Skull. Nikon D750, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. Light painting exposure: 80 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600, painted with a Coast HP5R; star exposure: eight frames at 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 10,000 blended in Starry Landscape Stacker.

I love revisiting locations to search for new visions. I’ve been very lucky to travel to one of our favorite dark sky parks, Joshua Tree, for each of the last two years. The first time is always the discovery phase—getting to know the place. You can do all the research prior, but nothing beats being on location, and for Joshua Tree you feel like you are in a Dr. Seuss book.

This year, for me, the park was all about the rocks. On one of our scouts during the day I had discovered this wide-open area that had tons of smaller but randomly wonderful rock formations. I found so many scenes to get lost in! When I happened upon this “skull rock” with its eye open to the southeast, I immediately went to the Night AR in PhotoPills to confirm the orientation of the formation. Indeed, I could see that on that night the core of the Milky Way could be placed inside the “eye of the skull.”

The scene reminded me of the George Orwell quote from 1984: “Reality is inside the skull.” However, in this case the breathtaking reality of the Milky Way is outside and available to all.

It was a very challenging shot because I needed to position the camera about 3 to 4 feet from the skull. Hyperfocusing wasn’t a viable solution because the foreground subject was just too close. I was shooting with my favorite rig: the Nikon D750 and 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm, low to the ground. After a few test shots it seemed like my best option was to do a focus blend—take one shot focused on the close rock formation and then a second shot with the focus on infinity to keep the stars sharp.

The light painting was added to an exposure of 80 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600 with two passes of a Coast HP5R flashlight from an oblique angle. I then refocused and took eight shots for the stars at 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 10,000. I stacked those images in Starry Landscape Stacker to get a cleaner, sharper sky with minimal star movement. That result was then blended as masked layers in Photoshop with the light-painted frame. It took a while to finesse this image, and even though I shot it eight months ago, it is an image that I’ve cherished but not shown until recently.

Ironically this image had gotten inside my skull, from original concept, to complex capture and blend, to finally being able to release it to the world. A reminder that a wonderful reality can be found just outside our mind.

Fire Island Lighthouse. Nikon D750, Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. Multiple exposures at 1/2 second, f/2.4, ISO 6400.

When we were preparing for our New York Night Photography Summit shoot at the Fire Island lighthouse, one of the main questions was, “What if we have bad weather?” The obvious tendency is to get disheartened when you’re expecting stars and then the clouds cover the sky.

However, we love all the challenges of the night. Well, maybe not 60 mph winds mixed with rain, sleet and snow, but there are many opportunities to create unique images in inclement weather. So many that we decided to teach a class on it at the summit, and it totally prepared us for the first night!

When we arrived at Fire Island, our minds were blown—the light precipitation was capturing the light beams and extending them out to the farthest reaches of the ocean. Our previous clear nights of photographing this location were good, but this was awesome! The light beams on a clear night don’t have the added benefit of passing through particles and clouds that reflect the light back. An overcast night is actually the perfect time to shoot a lighthouse, as the beams are truly defined and the lighthouse effect is remarkably enhanced!

On this particular night, everyone who had been so bummed to be shooting in the rain and under the clouds was now elated with this new heightened experience. There wasn’t a bad angle to capture the ever-reaching beams, but this symmetrical angle ended up being my favorite. I worked together with a group of friends to light paint the foreground and to get the timing of the beams down. (I’ll be sharing a more in-depth capture-and-post breakdown of this image in a “How I Got the Shot” blog this winter, so stay tuned.)

In the end, the “bad” conditions were a boon. I’m now excited to go shoot in the fog, snow and overcast conditions more than ever. I hope this inspires you too!

Lance Keimig

Raufarhöfn, Arctic Henge. Nikon D750, Nikon 24-120mm f/4 lens. Lit by four Luxli Viola lights controlled remotely via the Luxli Conductor phone app. 30 seconds, f/4.5, ISO 5000.

For the second year in a row, one of my favorite photographs is from Iceland. Last year’s was a simple image of a familiar place, and what made me choose it was how it transported me back to Djupavik, one of my favorite places on the planet.

This year’s image is a different story altogether. It was made in a place I had never been before, and one that required determination, spontaneity and flexibility on the part of the group I was traveling with, along with a significant amount of expectation management. If you read our 2018 first-half workshop wrap-up, you may remember that our plans in Iceland were derailed by some truly awful weather, and that the group came together with clarity and force to reorganize and change our itinerary midway through the trip.

That change of plans made for some serious logistical hoop-jumping, but in the end it was truly worth the effort as we saw some wonderful aurora, we mostly avoided the horrid weather, and when we did encounter some, we were able to work with it.

Once we had changed course and wandered into uncharted territory in the north of Iceland, we came across images of Arctic Henge in the far northeast of the country. We were intrigued.

The aurora forecast called for a level of 5 Kp, meaning a very high probability of seeing the northern lights. We were starting from 4-plus hours away, but guided by the seemingly boundless spirit of our group, we decided to make the drive and see what this henge thing was all about. Through hour after hour of lonely road, and mile after mile of increasingly overcast skies, our confidence was wavering. But the weather forecast insisted we would have clear skies, so we doggedly soldiered on, despite what our eyes (and windshield wipers) were telling us.

We arrived at the beginning of twilight to find an enormous but only partially finished stone henge. And it was moist. Very moist. The tiny nearby village was shuttered—there were no open shops, hotels or (most importantly for some) bathrooms.

Moreover, there was no clear sky. So we made do, and adjusted our expectations. Out came the Luxli lights, and we made a few images, many of them looking more like a Las Vegas spectacle than a pagan ritual site. As the natural light faded and the sodium vapor lights from the village a few miles away began to lend their orangeness into our images, a magical transformation occurred. The spaceship appeared in the sky above the henge, and a lone alien life form was transported to the surface, conveniently positioned in front of our cameras.

Nah, I’m kidding. Chris walked into the scene and positioned himself in front of the light from the nearest Luxli, and history was made.

Marshall Point Lighthouse, Port Clyde, Maine. Nikon D750, Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens at 15mm. 110 seconds, f/4, ISO 400 for the foreground, plus a second exposure at 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 100 for the lighthouse. Light painted with a Luxli Viola at about 20 percent brightness, swept across the foreground to illuminate the dark rock.

Just like the Arctic Henge image, this one required a bit of luck––being in the right place at the right time. In the opposite of the way that the world conspired against our Iceland group to create a perfect storm of challenges, this night at Marshall Point Lighthouse in Maine presented a perfect storm of photographic opportunities.

I was at the lighthouse with a class from Maine Media Workshops. It’s a place I always bring my classes to when I teach in Maine. Marshall Point is a fixed beam lighthouse, meaning that the light is always on. Not flashing, pulsing, rotating or anything else. It just shines—and oh, does it shine.

A couple of years ago the old incandescent light was replaced with a far brighter and cooler LED light that makes it more difficult to photograph. In order to get a good shot of the Lighthouse without majorly blown highlights, one has to get almost directly below the tower, which obscures the light source from the camera. This is a precarious activity, as it requires crossing a rocky beach that’s covered with slimy, seaweed-encrusted round stones. You have to be there at low tide, and you have to be sure-footed.

Luckily for us, conditions were perfect. The tide was receding, and there was enough moisture in the air to show beams of light around the lighthouse, exaggerated by the shadows of the lighthouse window frames. There was a small tide pool in the foreground where I was able to position myself in such a way to get the lantern room reflected in the water, the tower with its glorious beams, and—the icing on this maritime cake—a lightning storm in the distance seen below the bridge that leads from the shore to the lighthouse. Boom!

I did have to make a second, shorter exposure for the light to complement the longer exposure. The latter allowed enough time to light paint the dark foreground stones, and to capture the rest of the scene and a few bolts of lightning. But the image came together quickly and easily once I found the right spot.

Tim Cooper

Serpent—Borrego Springs. Nikon D4s, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens set at 24mm. Three exposures at 15 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

Two years ago, I had never heard of Borrego Springs, California, or of Ricardo Breceda, or of the art he has created. Even after I heard about all of this, I was not prepared for the scope of beauty and sheer volume of the installation. So, I thank the intrepid explorers at Atlas Obscura and our NPAN partner Gabriel Biderman for introducing me to this truly unique collaboration of earth, man and sky.

I was lucky enough to visit the area with 14 curious photographers during our 2018 Ambassador Series workshop with Atlas Obscura titled Dark Skies, Desert Beasts. With over 130 free-standing metal sculptures in the desert surrounding Borrego Springs, it was hard to choose a favorite. But I did really like the serpent.

I chose this as one my favorites for the year for several reasons. The first is that the photograph was a collaborative effort on the part of the workshop participants and myself. Taking turns as director of the shoot and working together on light painting is a great way to learn and use the many hands to help bring a vision to life.

The second reason is the serendipity of the cloud mimicking “smoke” coming from the serpent’s mouth. Sometimes you just get really lucky. I could go back there a hundred times and never see it like this again.

The last reason is the serpent itself. As a lover of light painting, I’m always looking for interesting subjects to illuminate against the night sky. I couldn’t have asked for a more detailed, textured and beautifully sculpted subject. Couple that with the clear dark skies of the desert, and you’ve got a recipe for night of fun!

(FYI, we just announced new dates for another Dark Skies, Desert Beasts workshop with Atlas in 2019.)

Star Trails over Golden Gate Bridge. Fuji X-T2, Fuji XF 10-24mm f/4 lens set at 10mm. Sixty exposures, each 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 200.

San Francisco is set in one of most beautiful locations in this country. The headlands, the bay, the shoreline and the city are all just simply gorgeous. I also really, really like The Bridge. I can’t say why, precisely. Perhaps it’s the engineering. Maybe it's the color. Or most likely a combination of those things plus its location. Whatever the reasons, I can’t go to San Francisco without visiting the headlands and making images of the bridge as the sun goes down.

I can’t count how many times I’ve stood in this spot and contemplated the view as I made image after image. Most of the time, however, I was there only for dusk and blue hour. Rarely did I get a chance to stay well into the night, and when I did the skies were not conducive to star trails.

This night proved to be different. All of the elements came together for a star trail shot. The trick here was to capture the stars without overexposing the city and the bridge. When you give enough exposure to reveal the stars, the bridge and city lights completely blow out. If you limit the exposure to make the city look good, the stars are barely visible. To address this dichotomy, my plan was to break up the exposures into separate ones for the bridge and city lights and ones for the sky and the star stack.

After focusing, I took several test shots and settled on a focal length, composition and initial exposure. I found that using an ISO of 200 for 30 seconds at f/4 produced an exposure that made the stars visible, but overexposed the bridge. A 15-second exposure at the same ISO and aperture retained highlight detail in the bridge and city. I made these two images and proceeded to the next step.

I set the intervalometer on my Fuji X-T2 to shoot 60 images at 30 seconds with a 1-second delay between frames. Once I plunged the shutter, I sat back for half an hour to enjoy the view.

When I returned to the computer, I opened all 60 frames in Photoshop, selected all of the layers and then chose the Lighten blend mode to create the star trails. My next step was to flatten the file to minimize its footprint on the hard drive. I then opened the 15-second exposure and copied it onto a layer in my first file. This darker image allowed me to mask in the properly exposed city lights and bridge while keeping the lighter sky with the stars.

Shooting star trails near cities takes a little planning and some post-processing work, but it’s also a ton of fun. I can’t wait to return to San Francisco this year with Gabriel Biderman to run our Golden Gate National Recreation Area & San Francisco Workshop in November!

Chris Nicholson

Boathouse near Campbeltown, Scotland. Nikon D5, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. Light painted with a Luxli Viola. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 2000.

I’m an ardent believer in the idea that a good photograph should not be just of something, but also about something. And this image is definitely about something important to me.

When I was four years old, I lived in Scotland for about half a year because the U.S. Navy stationed my father at the Royal Air Force Machrihanish base at the tip of the Kintyre peninsula. We lived in nearby Campbeltown, and I still carry a fair number of memories from the experience.

So when National Parks at Night began scheduling a night photography tour of The Hebrides for the spring of 2018, I knew for sure that I wanted to work it. I hadn’t been to Scotland since my family left in 1976, and this was an excellent chance to revisit one of my childhood haunts. So it was that Lance and I jumped over the pond a few days before our tour began and drove up to the Kintyre peninsula.

The couple of days I got to spend in Campbeltown were incredible. I found our old apartment on Queen Street, traced the steps I used to make to the nearby beach, and drove downtown past my old playground and along the fishing port. We stayed overnight at an old captain’s house we found on Airbnb, and that’s where we based our night shoot.

I focused all my attention on this old boathouse. I set up the camera on a jetty, and walked back onto the land atop some rocks to light paint the structure and water with a Luxli Viola. My goal was to mimic the warm tones of the light with the warm twilight sky, and to illuminate the crashing waves just enough to capture some motion and reveal some detail.

I liked the resulting photograph enough so that it truly is one of my favorites of 2018. I like the light, the color, the composition. But the most important part of the image for me is the experience of those two days: reconnecting with memories of my mom, who I talked to several times while strolling the streets, and with memories of my dad, who passed in 2006, and with memories of who I was 42 years ago as a little boy in a faraway land.

Moonlight in Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park. Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 17mm. 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 5000.

If you’ve ever been to Big Bend National Park and photographed Santa Elena Canyon, you know that the light at this amazing location can work well at both ends of the day. You can shoot in the morning when the sunrise light hits the face of the canyon, or you can shoot at the end of the day when the setting sun bounces into the canyon and reflects off the walls. The latter is a more challenging exposure, but often results in more satisfying creative options.

So when I saw in PhotoPills that the moon would be setting behind the canyon during my winter 2018 trip to the park, I had the idea to use that same late-day strategy for shooting there at night—having no idea if it would work well or not.

Well, it worked splendidly. The night was perfectly clear, which allowed for a spectacularly starry sky, and the setting moon did exactly what I was hoping: It bounced into the canyon, lighting up the 1,500-foot cliff face that flanks the Rio Grande.

Shooting from a low angle with a wide lens portrayed the magnitude of Santa Elena’s size. It also—for me, anyway—inspired another adventure. Looking at the moonlight spilling into the canyon, I could imagine the thrill of canoeing the river at night. Next time, perhaps?

Matt Hill

Zig When They Zag. Nikon D500, Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens. 30 seconds, f/2, ISO 125.

My two favorite images of 2018 reflect my developing tastes in composition and motion. And they both happened at Rocky Mountain National Park.

After hiking up the Tundra Communities Trail, I faced west (to catch my breath). Whilst helping workshop attendees, I saw the switchback leading toward the visitor center in the distance, and my eyes were drawn to the car traffic there.

I popped on my Nikon 50mm f/1.4G lens for a nice composition of thirds that allowed me to pit the energy of the cars passing to and fro against the stars angled almost perpendicular against this zigzag of light. After shooting four frames at 30 seconds each, I knew I had enough car trails to make the stack and moved on to another breathless scene. You know, the air is really thin up there. ;-)

Moonset Over Tyndall Gorge. Nikon D850, Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. Ten frames at 10 seconds, f/5, ISO 6400.

The second Rocky Mountain image was from the hike down from Emerald Lake during our add-on adventure a few nights later. We got to this spot just in time to see the setting moon scraping across this vast valley and mountain range.

After fiddling with my circular polarizer experiment for a bit, I saw that the moon would soon set in the trees to my right, so I hustled to swap in my Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens, go vertical, level out the Acratech GP-ss head on the leveling base and throw on the nodal rail.

This is a 10-frame pano stitch, with each frame shot at 10 seconds, f/5, ISO 6400, then assembled in Lightroom Classic CC. At the time, I did not see the crazy cool things the clouds were doing. I was, after all, a bit exhausted from the 650-foot-in-1.5-mile ascent at altitude while wearing “the kitchen sink” (my Shimoda 60L backpack full o’ gear). During the edit, I was simply astounded by the soft yet kinetic cloud movements and so darn happy that I’d timed it just right to get the moonset in the tree line.

Your Turn!

Now that you’ve seen our favorite photos from 2018, we’d like to see yours! Join us in the fun and post your favorite night photography image from the past year in the comments section below or on our Facebook page, and tell us a little about it. And if you’re on Instagram, give us a follow. We will soon be announcing a contest of your best night shots of 2018!

Next, start 2019 strong. Put on your mittens (or shorts if you’re in the Southern Hemisphere) and get shooting. Let’s make 2019 the biggest year for night photography yet.

With stars in our eyes and gratitude in our hearts, thank you from the entire National Parks at Night team. Hugs.

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

10 For 2017: Breaking Down Our Favorite Images of the Year

While we look forward to 2018, we can’t help but look back and take stock of what a great 2017 we’ve had. It was an incredible year filled with awesome people, magical destinations and inspiring photography. These experiences simply would not have been possible without the folks who attended our workshops, lectures and events. To all of the National Parks at Night alumni, supporters and followers, we say thank you. You’ve made our year a truly memorable one.

As we all move from this year into the next, it’s natural to look back at work we’ve done and art we’ve created, to remember great experiences, or to see how we’ve grown creatively. For our final blog post of the year, the National Parks at Night crew did just that. Below we share with you our favorites two images each from 2017, and our thoughts about how we created them.

Carpe noctem!


Chris Nicholson

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts. Nikon D5, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 20 seconds, f/3.5 ISO 8000.

My two favorite photos of 2017 were both from the coast—probably not a surprise if you know me, as I love being on the shore, and I love shooting on the shore.

The first of my favorites is a photograph I made the night before our Cape Cod National Seashore workshop started in May. I was out with Lance, his fiancée Katherine, and a former workshop participant and friend, Wendi. We went out to a spot suggested by a couple of rangers that afternoon (always talk to rangers, they know the best spots!). The hike involved some wet shoes and a lost filter, but also brought us to an amazing boathouse that I spent most of our time there shooting.

I was the first one to finish up, and I had gotten (if I’m to be honest) kind of bored with the location. But the others were still working, so I started tooling around with this composition instead, framing the shore in the foreground with the water in the middle and two distant boathouses in back, all topped with a beautiful starry sky. I added subtle light painting to the foreground by bouncing the light from a Coast HP7R off my palm and laying the reflected soft illumination along the rocks and grass. A little artificial ambient light did the rest, filling in the shadows of the background.

Then I forgot about the photo for a few days, thinking my real treasure from the night was from my earlier attempts. I remember the moment when I was skimming through thumbnails in Lightroom and I saw this image. “Oh,” I said to myself. “Yeah, that’s the one.”

 

Olympic National Park, Washington. Nikon D3s, 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 lens. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 8000.

In the shoulder season between late summer and early fall, Matt and I were leading two workshops in Olympic, one of my very favorite of the national parks. I got a text from Stacy, another of our former workshop participants, who happens to live in nearby Seattle, alerting us that a high Kp rating meant we should keep our eyes on the northern sky that night. We might see aurora!

Sure enough, as we combed Ruby Beach looking for night compositions, the northern light show started. It was my very first time seeing and photographing an aurora. Moreover, the moon was just about to set on the Pacific horizon, the Milky Way was arching over us, and blue bioluminescence glowed in the crashing waves. It was hard to know which direction to point the camera.

This is one of my favorite photos from 2017 not because I think it’s a spectacular artistic achievement, and not because it accomplishes any hefty technical goal—but because of the memory, because of the experience. With all of that going on in the same night sky, reflected in the shimmer of a recently submerged shore, above my favorite spot to shoot in one of my favorite national parks, how could I be anything but awed? And … did I mention it was my birthday?


Gabriel Biderman

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah. Set of two exposures using the Nikon D750 and 14-24mm f/2.8 lens set at 14mm. Sky exposure: 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200. Foreground: 3 minutes, f/2.8 ISO, 1600.

I love that night photography has many challenges. If it is too easy, I don’t want to click. The constant search for pushing my visions yielded some exciting results in 2017!

For the last few years I have been wanting to master the night panorama. It is one of the only solutions for the hero shot of the arching Milky Way. Hovenweep National Monument offered the perfect foreground and location for such a challenge.

The night sky was dark and full of stars but the 90 F temperatures would definitely test what I could get out of my gear, because extreme heat can generate noise in images during longer exposures. My initial tests were showing red flecks at exposures longer than 45 seconds.

I assessed that my pano would need to be made up of six shots, however the sky and foreground were at least three stops apart. My sky exposure was 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200 and my foreground was 3 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 1600. I did the series of sky shots first, as the Milky Way was quickly moving out of my composition. The foreground was taking over 6 minutes per shot, because I needed to turn on Long Exposure Noise Reduction.

After I worked on general adjustments to the images, I was pleasantly surprised that Lightroom and Photoshop were able to align the whole batch fairly easily. I attempted a few more panoramas more recently that needed a dedicated panorama program, as Adobe was having a hard time aligning the dark subject matter.

However, I absolutely love the final image as well as the slow, methodical thought and post-processing that needed to happen to make this work.

 

Total solar eclipse, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho. Fuji X-T2, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens 1/15 second, f/22, ISO 400.

The biggest celestial event of the year was definitely the Great American Eclipse.

I was thrilled to be leading a workshop around it in a place that was surrounded by an incredible landscape, Montana’s Centennial Valley. The challenge for most of us attempting to photograph this was that it would be something we would be experiencing for the first time. The window for success was small, because the total eclipse is so fleeting—we wanted to choose the best spot for clear skies and totality. It was easy to find the path of totality, but difficult to predict the weather. Add to that new gear—solar filters which made it difficult to operate our cameras and lenses in normal ways—and it required plenty of practice.

We opted to experience the eclipse in a remote location sandwiched between the Sawtooth Mountains and Beaverhead Mountains. We arrived early and assessed the path of the sun with the PhotoPills app, which was invaluable to scouting and pre-visualizing. Most of us were running two rigs on tripod—a wide shot and a telephoto. The telephoto needed the most attention as it required constantly tracking the sun across the sky.

When the eclipse began, the clicking and adjusting of exposures started to build to a bit of a frenzy. Capturing the corona, diamond ring effect and Bailey’s beads were all high on our list. But the real challenge was controlling our excitement during the moment. It was hard to make the quick adjustments while simultaneously experiencing such a thrilling moment! As we entered full totality, a strange silvery twilight light encompassed us all and a quiet hush fell across the land. The best thing I did during the 2-plus minutes of darkness was take 15 seconds to just stare at the eclipse and take it all in. I’m still searching for the words to explain the experience. The one thing I do know is that I want to be part of it again, so … see you in 2024!


Lance Keimig

Westfjords, Iceland. Nikon D750, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art lens, 5 1/2 minutes, f/5, ISO 800.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at this scene––it’s right in front of the Hotel Djupavik in the Westfjords of Iceland. It’s a special place, one that has a calming energy that’s hard to describe. It’s hard to be stressed or unhappy or angry there. It’s hard not to be taken in by the charm of the place, the people, the peace. So you see, to me this photograph is about much more than a landscape—it’s about a state of mind.

The making of the image was rather unremarkable. The one streetlight in the village illuminates the remains of the pier, 50 yards offshore. It was late in astronomical twilight, with just a hint of glow across the fjord in the western sky. The clouds were dragging slowly across the frame, reluctant to let go of the mountaintops. It was almost as if they were afraid of being carried out to sea. I remember being torn between using a short, high ISO exposure to keep the stars sharp, and a longer one to capture the movement in the clouds.

After making the first trial exposure, I noticed that the streetlight was reflecting off a few of the patches of seaweed, so I had the idea to sweep a light across the foreground to illuminate the rest of the seaweed to try to connect the foreground and middle ground. I had to put a couple of layers of CTO warming gel over my flashlight to match the orange of the sodium glow, but it seemed to work.

To me, a photograph that can transport me back to a time and place is doing its job. I’ve been using this one as my screen saver since I made it during our Westfjords photo tour back in early September, and I’ve been dreaming of making a big print to hang in my home. I think I’ll make that print.

 

Alabama Hills, California. Nikon D850, Irix 11mm f/4 Blackstone lens. 15 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 3200.

One of the things that I love about this image is that it’s virtually unrecognizable for what it is. Lady Boot Arch is one of the better-known and certainly among the most distinctive rock formations in California’s Alabama Hills. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the shape of a woman’s high-heeled, over-the-calf boot––when viewing from the spot where most people first lay their eyes on it. That also happens to be the perspective where most people choose to photograph it from, as I have done on multiple occasions. Being fortunate in that I get to revisit places like this on a fairly regular basis, I often find myself looking for unique vantage points to photograph a familiar subject.

Toward the end of this particular night, after most of the participants had left for bed, I had the chance to pull out one of the new D850 cameras that Nikon had sent to our workshop. I was excited to see what this camera could do. I wanted to try it with the crazy-wide Irix 11mm lens.

Conditions were great. It was cool, but not cold, the air was clear, and the three-quarter moon was over my left shoulder, high in the southwestern sky. I chose a 15-second exposure to keep the stars nice and sharp, as that 45-megapixel sensor likes to show every bit of detail. The challenge was lighting both the foreground and the back of the arch in that short time frame while squeezing between and scrambling over rocks. That was fun.


Matt Hill

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

My fourth visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park and my second during a Perseids Meteor Shower finally yielded the photograph I’d been dreaming of making. This image is a perfect example of the value of persistence. Climbing the dunes at over 8,000 feet elevation is no easy task, nor is waiting patiently for hours to capture 15 meteors and the gentle kiss of moonlight rising on the dunes.

I’m really proud of the group we had on the workshop—everyone made the trek up the dunes. And everyone set up to capture the glory of this active meteor shower. I’m especially delighted that careful planning put us in the right place at the right time to make a singularly gentle and powerful photograph combining the tallest sand dunes in the U.S., the Milky Way and meteors arcing across the night sky.

 

Olympic National Park, Washington. Nikon D750, 35mm f/1.4 Sigma Art lens. 61 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

I’ve always been drawn to water. It calls to me. Its power to overwhelm anything while holding no strict form has always mystified me. It refracts and reflects light. And it changes everything it touches, such as the sea stacks at Olympic National Park.

Low tide at Rialto Beach gave us an opportunity to use the wet sand as a massive mirror. The setting moon wrapped the left side, and a decisive placement of light painting warmed up the right and brought out the texture of the stalwart stone and tenacious trees. A harmony of color, time and movement keeps this at the top of my list of favorites.


Tim Cooper

Alabama Hills, California. Fuji X-T2, 16mm f/1.4 lens. 23 exposures at 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Serendipity is one part luck, one part preparation and one part faith. This image—“Boulder, North Star Ring, Alabama Hills”—is a perfect case in point.

I’ve been enamored with the boulders of the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra of California since the first time I saw them. The texture and unusual formations of these boulders is simply otherworldly. I had the opportunity to return to this area for our November Eastern Sierra workshop with Lance. On the first day of scouting, something sparked in my mind and I began to imagine a round boulder lit from either side, composed underneath the concentric star rings of the north sky. This type of pre-visualization doesn’t happen with every image and it rarely turns out exactly the way I want.

Over the course of the week, I kept searching for the perfect round boulder—one that had a good background to the north, and was positioned such that I could paint it from either side. Finally, on day 4 of the workshop, I stumbled onto the perfect specimen.

The trick here was to stack enough exposures to give the impression of star rings. The moon was nearly full so I was limited to a 4-minute exposure at f/5.6, ISO 100. I set my ShutterBoss intervalometer to shoot 40 frames, knowing my battery would probably run out before draining completely. By the time that happened, the camera was able to capture 23 images, resulting in roughly 1 1/2 hours of cumulative exposure. After replacing the battery, I took several more exposures while experimenting with the light painting. The final image is a Photoshop composite of the 23 frames of star trails and one image with light painting.

For me, this was one of those rare instances where a preconceived idea closely matched the final product.

 

Sedona, Arizona. Nikon D4s, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens set at 14mm. Eight exposures at 4 minutes, f/4, ISO 200.

Setting up an image for capturing star trails is always an exercise in anticipation. Which direction will the stars trail? How long will they be? Will they be sparse or thick? For this image taken outside Sedona, Arizona, I had a good idea of the outcome before plunging the shutter. The reason? I had shot from this location before. This is not unusual for me. I’ll often try to improve upon locations I’ve shot in the past. My first attempt at this scene was made with a medium wide-angle lens (24mm on a full-frame camera). That image portrayed the stars moving diagonally, but in only one direction.

For this last visit, I was carrying my venerable Nikon 14mm-24mm f/2.8. The wider (14mm) focal length included much more of the sky. My earlier image contained only the mountain to the right, but with this wider 14mm I was able to include both peaks. Facing southwest allowed me to capture longer trails as stars raced across the sky in the south, as opposed to the shorter trails in the north. The wide view to the east also produced another cool feature: the divergence of star trails. Longer lenses capture the trails all moving in one direction. By facing east and using a super-wide lens I was able to capture the area where the stars begin to move in opposite directions.


Your Turn!

We’ve shown you our favorite photos from 2017. Now we’d love to see yours! Post your No. 1 favorite night photography image from the past year in the Comments section or on our Facebook page, and tell us a little bit about it.

And then of course the next step—for all of us—is to get back out into the night in 2018 and make something even better!

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.

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