flashlights

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

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

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

Seeing at Night

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

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

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

Do Unto Others …

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

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

Night-Vision Tools

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

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

Headlights

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

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

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

Red Lights

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

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

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

Multi-Brightness Lights

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

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

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

No Lights

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

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

Dim Lights

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

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

DIY Dim Lights

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

Lance Keimig is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at www.thenightskye.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Tools for Illuminating the Night: Building a Light Painting and Writing Kit

One of the most fun parts of being a night photographer is experimenting with light during long exposures. Some people do it for practical reasons, like adding light where it's dark. Some use it to add creative or artistic flair to an image. Whatever your purpose, I am going to show you how to build a kit for both painting and writing with light.  

I want to first establish some definitions:

Light painting: adding light to something within your frame—e.g. shining lights on the grass, trees, people, rocks, etc. This light bounces off those objects, defines them, and comes back to the lens.

Light writing: turning your light source toward the lens—in effect, you are "writing" with the light, capturing its vector, or path, through space in single or multiple exposures.

For the record, my definitions are not universally adopted or applied. Many people refer to "writing" as "painting." It's neither right or wrong, as long as we all get along. ;-) But for the purpose of this article, let's agree on the above.

I use both methods to make long exposures at night. Both practices have a practical purpose and identifiable effects.

Identifying Light Painting versus Light Writing

In Figure 1, you'll note that a proper exposure that does not blow out highlight details in the sky leaves the foreground lacking sufficient detail. Light painting to the rescue in Figure 2. Both images are from the backcountry of Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada. 

In Figure 3, you'll see a starlit scene with a Pixelstick used to light-write around a tree in the foreground.

Figure 3. The Windows at Arches National Park just before moonrise, with light writing done with a Pixelstick. 68 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400 with a Nikon D750 and Nikkor 16mm f/2.8 fisheye lens.

And just for fun, Figure 4 is an example where I played catch with my friend using a Frisbee with a blue LED in it. 

Figure 4. Three 2-minute exposures stacked. You try vigorously throwing a Frisbee for six minutes in Denver. I'm still catching my breath.

Figure 5. From left to right: Coast HP14 (629 lumens, 813-foot beam), Coast HP7R (300 lumens, 754-foot beam), Coast HP5R (185 lumens, 600-foot beam) and Coast A8R (low-power, 62-foot inspection beam).

Light Painting Starter Kit

If you're just starting out with light painting, let me be the first to say, "Welcome!" You're going to have a blast. You'll want just a few items to get you on your way to opening up more creative roads than you'll know what to do with. Here's what you need to get started:

1. One high-power flashlight with a tight or focusing beam for illuminating objects in the distance. I suggest 300 lumens or more. I use the Coast HP7R (Figure 5) most often.

2. One penlight for writing stuff in the air and for observing things on your camera. (I just fell in love with the Coast A8R, seen in Figure 5.)

3. One pack of Rosco sample gels to warm or cool your light temperature or to make funky colors.

4. Some gaffer tape. Because, you know, gaff solves nearly anything for a night.

Figure 6. Coast FL75R dual-beam focusing rechargeable headlamp.

Light Painting Advanced Kit

Wanna level up and get serious? Roll up your sleeves and bring a bigger bag. Include all of the above, plus:

1. One headlamp (Figure 6) for hands-free safety while trekking around in the dark, and/or for hands-free gear operation. Just be careful not to ruin anyone else's shots when wearing it. Or to blind them by looking at them when it's on.

2. One massively high-power flashlight for light-painting distant objects. I carry the Coast HP14 for this (Figure 5).

3. One kinda-low-light flashlight for delicate work—around 100 to 200 lumens at most. See the Coast HP5R (Figure 5).

4. One good incandescent flashlight for painting with a warmer color temperature than sans-filter LEDs. It might stay in your bag a lot, but sometimes it's just the right solution.

5. One roll of Cinefoil. Cut some, fold it up and put it in the bottom of your bag. Use it to make your own snoots anytime.

LIGHT WRITING KIT

Mechanisms for light writing are a bit different, and come in all shapes, sizes and builds for varied situations. You can learn how to use these tools for their intended purposes, and then use them for anything else you can think of too. Creativity is the key.

Here are some good options to get ya going.

1. One Pixlelstick (I was backer No. 243 on Kickstarter!), or the similar Lumibrush, or any of the fabulous DIY LED arrays if you are technically inclined. (Figure 3.)

2. One Light Painting Brushes Deluxe Starter Kit. This collection of awesome creative tools will keep you playing around in the dark for months. It has everything from the essential Universal Connector (which alone is a great snoot to control light spill), to color cones, a fiber optic wand (I call it the light octopus) and a Jedi-esque light sword.

Figure 7. (No audio.) See the light-beam spread demo from a Coast HP7R, and a quick overview of Light Painting Brushes items mounted on same flashlight, with zoom in/out.

Figure 8. EL Wire.

3. EL Wire. It's inexpensive and makes soft, glowing trails like foxfire. Be careful, though—it's sometimes delicate when transporting and swinging around.

Figure 9. Battery-powered Christmas lights.

4. Battery-powered Christmas lights. With the advent of LEDs, you no longer have to use C or D cells to power them—now it's a pair of AA batteries (light!) and you're good to go. Swing them around to make orbs and light trails. I like to buy them for a dollar or so right after Christmas!

Additional Toys (um ... Tools)

Here is a brief list of other things you may consider using on your path to becoming the night photographer you aspire to be:

  • fire (be careful—and do not use inside national parks!)
  • fireworks (be even more careful, and be legal!)
  • steel wool + whisk + metal cable (I wait for wet, rainy nights to do this or I stand in water—and again, fire, not in national parks!)
  • glow sticks
  • programmable LED strips
  • toys with lights in them
  • balloons with glow sticks in them
  • LED votive lights
  • DIY light painting tools and shapers of all kinds
  • professional light painting tools
  • lasers
  • car headlights and taillights

I use all of these indiscriminately. Why? Well, when you say no to something, your options are limited. So why not try everything and then some?

Now take a deep breath. You can't possibly carry all that with you. Though I have tried...

Below are some more images I've made while experimenting with light writing and painting.

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