safety

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

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