national parks

Five Questions: Yes, Light Painting is Allowed in National Parks, and More

You ask questions, we give answers. (For the record, we do other things too. And we assume you do as well. But we all love night photography, so here we go.)

This installment of our “Five Questions” series features inquiries about light painting in national parks (hint: yes), focusing at night, an amazing national park in Utah, better batteries for the Luxli Viola, and the direction of star trails.

If you have any questions you would like to throw our way, please contact us anytime. Questions could be about gear, national parks or other photo locations, post-processing techniques, field etiquette, or anything else related to night photography. #SeizeTheNight!

1. Yes, Light Painting is Allowed in National Parks

A great example of low-level lighting: In Joshua Tree National Park, Arch Rock, at 30 feet high, was light-painted by just three battery-operated votive candles. Illumination barely visible to the naked eye even from close-up. Six stitched frames shot with a  Nikon D750  and a  Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8  lens at 15mm Photo © 2017 Lance Keimig.

A great example of low-level lighting: In Joshua Tree National Park, Arch Rock, at 30 feet high, was light-painted by just three battery-operated votive candles. Illumination barely visible to the naked eye even from close-up. Six stitched frames shot with a Nikon D750 and a Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8 lens at 15mm Photo © 2017 Lance Keimig.

Q: I saw an article online that said light painting is no longer allowed in national parks. Is this true? — Pretty Much Everyone Who Has Emailed or Spoken to Us in the Last 18 Months

A: The headline of that article misled the reality of the situation. About 18 months later we still get this question, so let’s set the record straight.

First of all, it is true that a few National Park Service units have gotten hesitant about light painting. However, as far as we are aware, this has happened at only five NPS units—out of about 420. So to insinuate that night photography is being hampered at all national parks is a massive overstatement.

It should also be noted that of those five units, four (Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Natural Bridges National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument) are administered by the same office, so it’s mostly just one rule that’s affecting a few places. It’s not like a bunch of parks have independently decided they don’t like night photography. In fact, we find that almost every park we visit loves the night, loves night photography, and encourages visitors to enjoy the darkness of the parkness either without or with a camera.

Those four Utah NPS units acted with exactly that feeling in mind. Michael Hill, who works in the district, and with whom we have communicated, is very clear that they felt light painting “confuses visitors” and they leave because of this confusion. We get that, and we are respectful of it.

However, that rule has been amended. As of earlier this year, those Utah parks allow Low-level Landscape Lightning (LLL), which is essentially very low levels of light that build up over the course of a long exposure.

In Lassen Volcanic National Park, Lance and I used a pair of Luxli Viola panel lights to illuminate Cinder Cone, which is approximately 1,000 feet in diameter. We were relatively far away from our giant subject with relatively dim illumination. We could barely see where the light was hitting, but over the course of a 15-second exposure at a high ISO, that little bit of light was enough to do the job. Nikon D5 and 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 15 seconds, f/3.2, ISO 6400. Photo © 2018 Chris Nicholson.

For example, at our workshops we often employ LLL by using a Luxli Viola set to 1 percent brightness. That gentle glow is barely visible to the naked eye, but is extraordinary for cameras at high ISOs. That works out very well, and we cannot imagine that it would ruin the experience of any non-photographer who might happen to be there too. (For the record, usually no one else is there. We find it rare to encounter anyone else out at 1 a.m. other than—seldom but occasionally—other night photographers.)

In the case of the Utah parks, how low is acceptably “low-level”? Good follow-up question. When in Canyonlands last month, I asked a ranger, and he admitted the threshold is a bit subjective. He added that as long as the light isn’t disturbing wildlife or interfering with the enjoyment of other park visitors, then it’s probably OK. For commercial groups, the permit regulations stipulate that waving flashlights around is a no-no, but low-level static lighting is fine.

So, that’s the scoop with that set of four Utah units. The fifth unit in question is Grand Teton National Park in the beautiful state of Wyoming.

Grand Teton is an interesting case, because the park’s concern appears to really be in regard to shining artificial light on wildlife. We’re on board with whatever helps in that regard. Of course we don’t want to use flashlights for “spotting” wildlife, which in hunting is known as “jacklighting.” As people who use the parks for artistic inspiration and growth, we also have a responsibility to respect and preserve the natural environment, and that includes not disturbing the animals that call those places home.

There are many ways to photograph Grand Teton National Park in low light without light painting—such as by moonlight. Nikon D3 and 28-70mm f/2.8 lens. 1/50, f/ 4, ISO 400. Photo © 2012 Chris Nicholson.

That said, Grand Teton curbing light painting is a curious decision, as the park has a highway that runs right through it, along with plenty of private property that people drive on. Cars have headlights. There’s also an international airport that’s in park boundaries, and airplanes have lights too. The however-many cars and planes in the park each night illuminate far more than a few photographers’ flashlights do. So we’re not sure why photographers are the ones getting their lights extinguished. (We’ve heard of at least one photographer who light-painted by “accidentally” sweeping his flashlight across the scene. Perhaps that kind of behavior has something to do with photographers being mistrusted there.)

Regardless of our personal feelings about any of this, National Parks at Night always preaches respect for the land, and that means respect for the park regulations, for equal access for all visitors, and for the rights of animals not to be blinded with sun-guns.

To that end, on our workshops we are very clear that if someone from outside our group approaches with a light on or wants to walk where we are shooting, they have a right to do so. If they want to linger in the same place we’re shooting, they have a right to that too. We should all share the space, and we should all share the darkness. If what we as photographers are doing will disrupt another visitor’s enjoyment of the park, we can find another way or another moment to do it.

Let’s end with this thought: Rather than making negative assumptions and predictions based on some (very few) new obstacles at a tiny minority of parks, we instead implore our fellow night photographers to ensure this does not become an actual issue anywhere else.

How? By being responsible with our practices. That could be by employing LLL lighting techniques, or by light painting at a location only when alone or with other night photographers, or by shooting just the dark skies. Whatever works for you in the moment.

And finally, by encouraging other night photographers to do the same. — Chris

2. Focusing from Foreground to Infinity

Pemaquid Point, Maine, sharp from front to back after focusing to a hyperfocal distance of 18 feet. Nikon D750, Sigma 24mm f/4 lens. 488 seconds, f/3.5, ISO 800.

Q: On a recent night shoot at the Devils Garden in Utah, I was really disappointed in the fuzziness (not in good focus) of the rocks in the foreground of my shots. I may just have screwed up the focus on infinity, and I should have zoomed in on the first few shots to ensure clarity. Should I have focused on infinity and assured/assumed that the depth of field would maintain focus throughout the range, or should I have focused on a hyperfocal distance to ensure the full range of focus, which would have included my foreground rocks and out to infinity? — Michael D.

A: Anytime you have foreground subject matter, hyperfocal (providing it is done accurately) is the way to go. It’s a technique that is designed to maximize the available depth of field rather than focusing at infinity and sacrificing sharpness in your foreground.

To learn more about that technique, read my 2016 blog post “Use Hyperfocal Distance to Maximize Depth of Field at Night.” Then follow that up with a post that Chris wrote, “Staying Sharp: 8 Ways to Focus in the Dark.” — Lance

3. Capitol Reef Night Programs

The night skies of Capitol Reef National Park are worth a trip. Nikon D750, Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. 154 seconds, f/4, ISO 100. Photo © 2016 Matt Hill.

Q: I would love to go to Capitol Reef National Park to see the stars. Are there any nighttime programs available? — Nancy

A: There certainly are! Capitol Reef is an awesome place to view and photograph night skies—and they know it, and they’re happy to help you enjoy what they have.

Check the Ranger Programs resource on the park website. They recommend the following special programs (check at the visitor center for schedules and meeting points):

  • guided hikes—60 to 90 minutes

  • star programs—tour the night sky in a gold-tier International Dark Sky Park

  • full moon walks

Have fun, send pictures! — Matt

4. Superpowering the Luxli Viola

Q: I was first introduced to Matt and Chris through a seminar held at B&H Photo in New York City. I proceeded to order the Luxli Viola LED light and am looking forward to working with it. I recall a reference to a better battery to use with the Viola than the one that comes with it (due to the short life of the battery), but I can’t find it in my notes. Please help me find the best battery for this kit. — Debi F.

A: First, I wouldn’t say the Viola’s battery has a short life. In fact, Chris claims to recharge his only every couple of months or so. That’s because he shoots mostly still photos, and he uses it only at night when very little power is needed to light a scene.

But if your usage drains your Viola faster than you prefer, you can get more run time by using the Watson NP-F550 replacement battery, which from my experience is very reliable.

If you want even longer run time for other applications—say, if you’re shooting video, when you’d probably leave the light on for hours at a time at full power—you can get the even larger Watson NP-F770 battery. That should about double your run time.

If you want to spend a little more, the Sony versions of the NP-F battery are supposedly the best to be found. — Matt

5. Stars Trailing in Different Directions

Sotheast view in Sedona, Arizona. Nikon D4s, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 4 minutes, f/4, ISO 200. Photo © Tim Cooper.

Q: In Tim’s recent blog post “Making the Move to Manual White Balance,” I can’t figure out how, in the last pair of photos outside Sedona, he managed to get the stars moving other than in concentric circles. Were some of them mirror-imaged to fill in areas where there was too much light, to let the stars show through? Thank you for satisfying my curiosity! — Marilyn O.

A: No mirror-imaging involved or required! Star trails move in different directions, angles and arcs depending on which direction you’re facing.

  • You get concentric rings from star trails only when you are shooting due north.  

  • When you are shooting east, they move from upper right to lower left.    

  • When you are facing west, stars move from upper left to lower right.

  • When facing due south, the stars go nearly horizontal across your frame.

For the image in question, I was facing southeast, so you are seeing the divergence of the east and south views.  If I had turned right a little bit more (south), I would have ended up with nearly all horizontal trails. If I had turned a little more to the left (east), the trails would have moved from upper right to lower left. I shot this photo with a very wide 14mm lens—so wide that I actually captured a little of both views! — Tim

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

Oh, the Places We’ll Go—15 Destinations for Epic Night Adventures in 2019

It’s hard to believe that we are entering our fourth year of leading night workshops to beautiful and spectacular places. But here we are, announcing our adventures for the next year.

We threw our dream darts all over the globe, from the mysterious giant stone Moai statues of Easter Island to the sand dunes of Morocco. In between, volcanoes, canyons, towers, ghost towns, lighthouses and great, smoky mountains will be our subjects under the stars.

We will also offer a trio of National Parks at Night firsts:

  • our first backcountry camping adventure
  • our first urban night workshop
  • our first dedicated post-processing course

Oh, and did we mention we are going to Cuba and will tour the country in the very cars we love to photograph there?

So come dream with us and dedicate some time to leveling up your night visions!

Note: Several workshops have already sold out, as we announce them to our alumni and email list first. However, if that workshop truly speaks to you, be sure to sign up for the waitlist! There is no fee to do that, and we’ve had many waitlisters become happy alumni!

A Trio of Trip Types

We offer three styles of learning experiences: our Passport Series and Adventure Series, and our brand new skills development workshops.

Passport Series

At Passport Series workshops, we take you to a national park and teach you how to interpret the night sky against a variety of landscapes and lighting elements. We often have these cherished locations to ourselves and offer classroom time as well as hands-on education.

Adventure Series

At Adventure Series workshops, we take you to other fascinating natural wonders that may be on or near national and/or protected lands in in the U.S. or beyond! These workshops may have a little less “classroom” time and a bit more field time as we are constantly exploring beautiful places during the day and night.

Skills Development

In 2019 we’re introducing the skills development workshops, designed to kick up your processing power in Lightroom and Photoshop! We will guide you to get your photographs organized and looking better than ever before. It’s time to take it to the next level. Five nights and six days of skills improvement, plus a little shooting at night and then applying what you learned to those RAW files during the day.

The Amazing Destinations

You can click on any of the links below to learn a lot more about all the workshop locations. For a quick read about what each experience will entail, read on …

Dates Location Series
January 20-25 Post-Processing Intensive in the Catskills Skills
Feb 19-March 1 Easter Island Adventure
March 20-29 Morocco Adventure
April 11-16 Valley of Fire & Nelson Ghost Town Adventure
April 21-26 Great Smoky Mountains National Park Passport
May 19-24 Outer Banks & Cape Hatteras National Seashore Adventure
June 9-14 Bryce Canyon National Park Passport
June 16-21 Grand Canyon National Park South Rim Passport
July 8-12 Devils Tower National Monument Adventure
August 5-10 Shi Shi Beach Backcountry Adventure
August 18-22 Lassen Volcanic National Park Passport
October 2-6 Cape Cod and the Province Lands Adventure
October 13-18 Big Bend National Park Passport
November 3-8 Golden Gate NRA & San Francisco Adventure
December 7-15 Cuba Adventure
 

Passport Series

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Join us for the gently moon-kissed cliffs, mountains, coves, riversides, preserved cabins and churches of this historically pivotal national park. From the rolling valley of Cades Cove to the peak of Clingman’s Dome, we’ll explore the mercurial and mystifying skies of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Dates: April 21-26, 2019
More Information: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

In the surreal and vast expanses of the Utah landscape, we will spend a magical week exploring the otherworldly hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park. The crimson, orange and yellow rock spires make the perfect foreground for our night photography.

Dates: June 9-14, 2019
More Information: Bryce Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park South Rim

It’s one of the greatest natural spectacles in the world. Join us in our first year of exploring the many layers of the Grand Canyon. Our focus during the 100-year anniversary of the park will be the popular South Rim. Known for its spectacular sunrises and sunsets, this workshop will emphasize many ways we can interpret the rim—from long exposures to panoramic and time-lapse techniques. We will also prove that the Grand Canyon is much more than a “rim shot.” We will seek the many traces of humankind that can be found along the canyon: Native American ruins, historical buildings and woman-made structures.

Dates: June 16-21, 2019
More Information: Grand Canyon National Park South Rim

Lassen Volcanic National Park

Lassen Volcanic National Park is home to steaming fumaroles, meadows freckled with wildflowers, clear mountain lakes and all four different types of volcanos. Jagged peaks tell the story of its eruptive past while hot water continues to shape the land. Lassen Volcanic National Park offers opportunities to explore and photograph a majestic landscape that is distinctly a part of the American West.

Dates: August 18-22, 2019
More Information: Lassen Volcanic National Park

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is pretty raw country. It’s also pretty. Especially in the right light, and double especially at night. All the rock formations, all the canyons, all the mountains and valleys and dirt roads and ruins—all sit under some of the quietest and darkest night skies of North America. The landscape is at once harsh and beautiful, at once hard and delicate, at once tough and mesmerizing. And we’ll be there to capture it all under the October stars of Texas.

Dates: October 13-18, 2019
More Information: Big Bend National Park

Adventure Series

Easter Island

Few places on earth are as mysterious or compelling as Easter Island. The giant stone figures known as Moai oversee this remote island 2,200 miles off of the coast of Chile. Most of Rapa Nui, as it’s known to the locals, is a national park. Not only is it hard to get to here, but it is notoriously difficult to access the park at night. In February of 2019, National Parks at Night will be taking 10 lucky people to do just that.

Dates: February 19-March 1, 2019
More Information: Easter Island

Morocco

Morocco is a land of large bustling cities, tranquil seaside towns and remote mountain villages. Our photo tour avoids the major cities in favor of smaller, quiet places away from most of the tourists and tourist traps. The port city of Essaouira, the kasbah at Ait BenHaddou and glamping in the Sahara desert will be the highlights of our adventure.

Dates: March 20-29, 2019
More Information: Morocco

Valley of Fire & Nelson Ghost Town

Join us for the broad, red mountains, valleys and arches within Valley of Fire State Park and the abandoned wonderland of the Nelson ghost town. We’ll explore having fun with light and stars in these desert jewels of the American southwest.

Dates: April 11-16, 2019
More Information: Valley of Fire & Nelson Ghost Town

Outer Banks & Cape Hatteras National Seashore

The Outer Banks—what a name, and what a place! Home to tasty crab cakes, the honored ground of first flight, pristine national seashore and perhaps the most iconic lighthouse in the United States. And at night, when you look up, oh my! You take in the stars and the Milky Way in that incredible Atlantic darkness while the ocean breezes tousle your hair and bring salt to your lips. And beneath it all, a camera and a tripod, capturing the majesty of what this special place offers.

Dates: May 19-24, 2019
More Information: Outer Banks & Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Devils Tower National Monument

Join us to explore the strange stone mountain of America’s first national monument. Revered by Native Americans in folklore, shrouded in mystery, we’ll explore the mercurial skies of Devils Tower.

Dates: July 8-12, 2019
More Information: Devils Tower National Monument

Shi Shi Beach Backcountry

Shi Shi Beach is a remote photographer’s paradise, reachable by six miles of round-trip hiking, plus a little more to reach nearby Point of the Arches. We will hike first to Second Beach for a warm-up night of camping and photography, then to Shi Shi for a two-night, three-day, adventure among the stars and the starfish, the sand and the sea stacks. We will photograph ebbing and flowing ocean waters, tidal pools, Pacific sunsets, and of course the Milky Way and the beautiful Olympic night skies.

Dates: August 5-10, 2019
More Information: Shi Shi Beach Backcountry

Cape Cod and the Province Lands

Cape Cod’s Province Lands comprise a captivating collection of simple scenic wonders. Ponds. Beaches. Sandy dunes. Pine forests. Lighthouses. Old dune shacks. Cranberry bogs. Atlantic waves cascading onto the coast. These old shores hold countless treasures for the night photographer. We’ll explore them all, and more of what Cape Cod offers, during one of the peak of the region’s finest season: a New England autumn.

Dates: October 2-6, 2019
More Information: Cape Cod and the Province Lands

Golden Gate National Recreation Area & San Francisco

Like a beacon at the end of the world, San Francisco’s diverse land and skyscape will guide our exploration into our first urban workshop. We will focus our lenses on the winding streets and bright city lights, but also explore the coastline, bunkers, bridges and ruins that intersect the beautiful Bay Area. We will challenge you to re-interpret the city with a multitude of long exposure and processing techniques that will leave you with a unique and fresh view of The City by the Bay.

Dates: November 3-8, 2019
More Information: Golden Gate National Recreation Area & San Francisco

Cuba

On this photography and cultural tour you’ll experience the best of Cuban culture on an island with photo opportunities everywhere you look. In Havana we’ll explore life in the streets both day and night, plus the vibrant art and music scenes, architecture, people and cuisine. We’ll road-trip to Las Terrazas and Viñales Valley (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to photograph Cuba’s magical landscapes. This boutique tour will give you access to Cuban experiences you’d never be able to create on your own. All you’ll need is an adventurous spirit and flexible mindset (it’s Cuba!).

Dates: December 7-15, 2019
More Information: Cuba

Skills Development

Post-Processing Intensive in the Catskills

You’ve spent a lot of time building your camera skills and honing your photographic vision. Now it’s time to take it to the next level. Post-processing has become an integral part of nearly every discipline of photography. Just as the black and white photographers of the 20th century were able to creatively interpret their work in the darkroom, we can now use modern technology to enhance our photos, and even to create images that were impossible only a few short years ago.

Dates:  January 20-25, 2019
More Information: Post-Processing Intensive in the Catskills

But Wait, There’s More!

Don’t see the perfect fit for your schedule or location? In the coming months we will announce our 2019 Ambassador Series destinations with our partners at Atlas Obscura, Rocky Mountain School of Photography, and a brand new partner whose name we’re not yet mentioning. (Hint: It’s big.)

Also, remember to always monitor our Speaking Engagements page. We give lectures and photo walks in the New York City area and all over the country. And if you want us to come directly to your camera club or meet-up group, feel free to contact us. (Click here to see what we can offer.)

We also offer one-on-one tutoring in-person or via videoconference that can help you build your portfolio, organize your images or give you targeted, individualized education to elevate your photography skills.

Finally, we’d like to express a deep thanks to all our alumni—the 300 fine photographers who have accompanied us over the past 2.5 years to wonderful night photography locations such as Acadia, Biscayne, Capitol Reef, Dry Tortugas, Death Valley, Redwood, Zion, Great Sand Dunes, Cape Cod, Centennial Valley and more. We appreciate you so very much.

Do you want to see their work? Check out this playlist of all the workshop slideshows. Want to see some of their accomplishments? Check out our Alumni Spotlight.

Seize the Night

2019 will have 365 nights. Which will you be spending with us? Sign up today to #seizethenight!

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT