Five Questions

Five Questions: Very Large Files, Pollution Filters, Fuji lenses and More

This installment of our “Five Questions” series features inquiries about large image files, light pollution filters, lenses for Fuji, organizing files in Lightroom and old Canon cameras..

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!

Giant Files Missing from Lightroom


A 4 GB, 38-layer PSB file from Matt. Files this big don’t show up in the Lightroom catalog.

Q: I have run into an issue with large file sizes when image stacking. In Lightroom, after I choose Open as Layers in Photoshop, the final layered file is greater than 2 GB. I saved it in PSB large document format. The file was saved to the disk, but is not showing up in my Lightroom catalog like PSD files do, nor does it show up in the Import window in Lightroom. It looks like Lightroom cannot see the file at all. So I tried flattening the file, but then I got a moiré pattern in the image. Have you seen this before? What is your process for saving and working with very large Photoshop files? — Craig

A: That is correct—for some reason, Adobe hasn’t allowed Lightroom to see PSB files. So your options are to either work with that file only in Photoshop, or to flatten it so it saves as a smaller PSD file.

But yes, flattening can occasionally create its own challenges. We have seen that moiré issue with stacked photos before. It happens sometimes, but not others, and we haven’t been able to identify a pattern of when or why. We’ve asked others who are Adobe-knowledgeable, and haven’t found an answer—but we’ll keep trying! What I can tell you is that the moiré seems to happen more often when working with images from higher-resolution cameras, and that sizing down the image a little before flattening seems to help. — Chris

Filtering Light Pollution

Light pollution from Miami over Everglades National Park. Nikon D3s, Nikon 17-24mm f/2.8. 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400. © 2013 Chris Nicholson.

Q: Do you use light pollution filters of any kind? I don’t remember any of you mentioning them, and I don’t see them in your gear list. Are they just a scam? It seems like such a filter would help when you can’t get to a dark sky area. — Brien

A: Night sky filters mostly help with color shifts from light pollution, and can increase contrast in the sky. We’ve tried a couple of them, but have not tested them scientifically––yet. There will be a blog post comparing them for effectiveness before too long.

That said, I think the general consensus is these filters they can improve skies somewhat, but probably don’t provide $250 to $300 worth of improvement, which is what they tend to cost. I wouldn’t call them scams, but I also probably wouldn’t call them a great investment if resources are limited.

If you decide to try one, please let us know what you think by sharing in the Comments section or on our Facebook page. — Lance

Night Lenses for Fuji

Q: I own a Fuji X-T2 and have a 14mm f/2.8 lens. I notice that at least one of you has posted photos using an X-T2 with their 10-24mm f/4 lens. These photos look great. I have been looking at that lens and/or the Fuji 16mm f/1.4 to get a stop or two of additional light, given that the tests I see appear to indicate the corners are much softer at f/1.4, better at f/2 and pretty good at f/2.8. My interest in the 10-24mm is the flexibility and range down to 10mm, but I am concerned about the stops of light I would give up. What is your experience with these lenses, and do you think I should instead look more deeply at a Samyang or Rokinon 12mm or 10mm? — Larry G.

fuji lenses.jpg

A: Several of us have been shooting with Fujifilm since the X system came out, and our two favorite lenses for the night are the Fuji 10-24mm f/4 and the 16mm f/1.4.

The 10-24mm gives an excellent zoom range that’s good for including lots of night sky. The f/4 does limit light, which makes it challenging for Milky Way shots, but if you were to shoot at ISO 6400 or 12,800 and use Starry Landscape Stacker, then you could get away with it. However, the 16mm f/1.4 would be our preferred Milky Way lens for Fuji—it’s an excellent focal length and you can shoot wide open or stop down to f/2 without a worry.

That being said, if I were to buy into the Fujifilm lens system now, I’d have to give their new 8-16mm f/2.8 lens some serious consideration. It’s wider, faster and heavier than the 10-24mm, but the f/2.8 aperture gives it the versatility to shoot in any day or night situation.

On the higher end of tried-and-tested night lenses, I’d also recommend:

For budget and manual focus lenses:

  • I’m not a fan of the Rokinon/Samyang lenses—I’ve had too many with soft, out-of-focus edges. (Though I might try Samyang’s new 10mm f/2.8.)

  • Matt and I both own the inexpensive 7Artisans lenses—the 12mm f/2.8 is pretty good and Matt really likes his 7.5mm f/2.8 fisheye.

Finally, with adapters, any lens can be at your disposal:

  • Our favorite night lens is the Irix 15mm f/2.4 that comes in Canon, Nikon and Pentax mounts. It’s manual focus with a click stop at true infinity, it has hyperfocus markings, and you can lock your focus. It comes in two versions: Firefly and Blackstone. Optically they’re the same, but the Firefly is polycarbonate and the Blackstone is magnesium alloy. The former is lighter, and is best for hikers and photographers who are otherwise weight-conscious; the latter is more rugged, made for extreme situations, and has engraved fluorescent markings that are easy to read at night. — Gabriel

Organizing Photos in Lightroom

Q: I really want to move into Lightroom, but I do not organize my images by date. It just won’t work for me because I really want to group photos by place and such so I can look at a “place” together with all times I’ve been there. I know that’s what collections are for, but I cannot even begin to fathom reorganizing everything into dates and collections. Can I use Lightroom that way? — Therese I.

A: You’re in luck, because the Lightroom engineers designed the catalog to be pliable enough to use in whatever way feels comfortable to individual photographers. So when organizing photos, do whatever makes sense to you.

There are two strategies I see most often:

  • Organize into folders by date, and use keywords, collections, etc., to catalog and find them. This is what I do. That works very well for the way I think, because I have a very good memory for dates—show me an image of mine and I can tell you the month and year I shot it. A folder in my catalog might be “2016-05-20_Acadia.” So I do have location info in the folder name, but it’s only secondary. However, this approach doesn’t necessarily work so well for a fair number of other people whose brains don’t categorize information the same way mine does. Many other folks tend to …

  • Organize images into folders by region, country, city, etc. So there might be a folder structure of United States -> Southwest -> Arizona -> Grand Canyon. Using this strategy, you could still search by date, as that info is built into the metadata.

Really, it just comes down to which way your brain tracks these things better. Like I said, I’m in Group 1, as are Gabe, Matt and Lance. Tim is in Group 2. Lightroom is flexible enough to make your own system within the confines of the software. The important thing is to pick a strategy that is easy enough to implement while effective enough to be useful, and then to be diligent about sticking with the procedure you choose so that you can always find your images quickly and effortlessly. — Chris

Old Canon vs. New Anything

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Q: What is your thought on the Canon XSi for landscape and night photography? I was thinking of upgrading to a their DLSR cameras, but was wondering if a Nikon camera would be a better option. — Nichole P.

A: The Canon XSi is more or less an entry level camera from 2008, and, to put it mildly, would be a subpar choice for night photography. We recommend a current camera that is at least one notch up from entry level.

To an extent, it matters what kind of photography you’d like to do. If you want to photograph the Milky Way, then the above recommendation is a minimum, and we’d encourage you to step up to a full-frame camera like the Canon 6D Mark II, or even the original 6D (which you could get on eBay for about $500) if you are on a tight budget. Over at Nikon, the D750 is an outstanding value, or the D5500 or D5600 would be OK.

Most importantly, I recommend buying a current generation camera. Even with lower-priced models, current cameras are far superior to those that were made even just a few years ago. — Lance

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

Five Questions: Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Bryce, Black and White Printing, and More

You ask questions, we give answers. (And then you ask more questions, and we give more answers. Let’s keep the conversation rollin’!)

This installment of our “Five Questions” series features inquiries about camera choice, Lightroom’s Dehaze feature, file settings for black and white printing, and location info at Great Smoky Mountains, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.

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. Great Smoky Mountains Closed at Night?

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Nikon D850 with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 64. © 2018 Matt Hill.

Q: Your Smoky Mountains National Park workshop looks interesting, but isn’t the park closed at night? I once tried to get in before dawn and the gate was locked. — Linda

A: Yes, the workshop will be both interesting and fun. (Promise!)

Great Smoky Mountains is usually open 24/7/365.25. But there’s a caveat. You may have been trying to enter Cades Cove—one of the most popular destinations at GSM. The gates at the beginning of that 11-mile loop road are closed at dusk and opened at dawn. But that is only to keep motorvehicles out; visitors can park nearby and walk or bike through Cades Cove anytime.

In fact, we will be going into Cades Cove twice during our workshop. The first time will be on foot. We’ll saunter a comfortable walking distance, which still offers plenty of shooting opportunities, such as the horse meadow, Sparks Lane, the Carter Shields Cabin and the Oliver Cabin. Our second jaunt into Cades Cove will be as an add-on opportunity that will avail the entire loop road to us.

Night photography in Cades Cove can be a blast, and is worth venturing into for sure. You’ll find amazing sky views, as well as loads to light paint. — Matt

Note: We still have a few spots open for our Great Smoky Mountains workshop this spring. Interested? Click here!

2. Missing dehaze

Q: How come my Lightroom 6 does not have the Dehaze slider? Are there any add-ons to LR that have the same quality Dehaze function that I can use?  — Bailing L.

A: The reason Dehaze slider isn't showing up for you in Lightroom 6 is because the feature wasn't added until the next version of the software, which was when the subscription-only model of Lightroom Creative Cloud was launched. In fact, Dehaze was the major feature added to the program right after launch to entice more people to sign up.

And I gotta say, while I’m not a fan of the subscription-only model, there’s an argument to be made that the Dehaze feature alone is worth the upgrade. It's an amazing tool with a lot of ancillary uses. One such application is to make starry skies and the Milky Way “pop,” as can be seen in this blog post by Tim.

If you don’t want to upgrade, there is one alternative that I’ve heard about, but I’ve never tested it: Prolost Dehaze. If you take it for a spin, please let us know how it works out for you. — Chris

3. Things to Shoot in Zion and Bryce

The Amphitheater at dusk, Bryce Canyon National Park. Fuji X-T2 with a 10-24mm f/4 lens at 10mm. 3 seconds, f/7.1, ISO 200. © 2018 Tim Cooper.

Q: I’ve already booked hotels for your Valley of Fire and Grand Canyon workshops. So excited! While in the region, I'm thinking about hitting Bryce Canyon and Zion. Do you have any advice about good areas to shoot without 4-mile hikes? — Julianne K.

A: There’s a ton to see and shoot at both parks without having to hit long trails.

In Zion, be sure to drive into the main canyon and also up through the tunnel toward Checkerboard Mesa. Stop at any pullout along these roads and enjoy the incredible scenery! You can’t miss.

For short walks in Zion I recommend:

  • Weeping Rock and the trails around it

  • Temple of Sinawava and the trail to The Narrows (though not into The Narrows, as that’s a more serious endeavor)

  • the area near the bridge that crosses Pine Creek

At Bryce, any viewpoints along the 15-mile road offer awesome overlooks of the canyon. Think sunrise for these viewpoints (especially Sunrise Point).

Middle-of-the-day shooting is better when you hike down a bit below the rim. Check out Navajo Loop Trail and Queens Garden Trail. No need to hike the entire loop of either, but just going down a little will get you into some terrific scenery! — Tim

Note: Due to a cancellation, a spot just opened up for our Bryce Canyon workshop this summer. Interested? Click here!

4. Choice for Multipurpose Camera

Q: I have two specific photography interests—night and underwater. I’ve been using a Canon 5D Mark III for night photography and time-lapse. I also use a Nikon D7000 for underwater. I’m planning to replace the D7000 with a higher-resolution camera, hopefully one that I can use for both underwater and night photography. My options are to buy an underwater housing and lenses for the 5D Mark II, or stay with a DX-format (Nikon D500) with a new housing, or go with something else like a Nikon D850. I would like to get to the point where I am using Nikon or Canon, not both. Which camera would you recommend to meet my needs? — Richard R.

A: Camera choice is a personal decision, and there are lots of factors to consider. I have yet to find the perfect camera, or one that offers everything I’m looking for in one package.

Given that you have Canon glass for full-frame cameras, I’d concentrate on comparing the 5D Mark IV to the D850. I think the Mark IV is the best camera Canon has ever made, and the first one that surpasses the 6D for high ISO night photography. The D850 is an awesome camera, but if you use live view focusing at night, I’d probably go with the Mark IV, especially if you have a number of L lenses. Why not rent them both and see which feels better?

The D500 is certainly a capable camera, but if you can afford to go full-frame, I think you’ll be happier that way. If you favor wide lenses, definitely go full-frame; if you tend to shoot long, then the D500 might be a better choice. — Lance

5. Image Settings for Printing in Black and White

Q: I sent a black and white image from the Sloss Furnaces workshop to Bay Photo to have printed for the NPAN exhibit there. I converted to black and white in Lightroom, exported to Photoshop for star stacking, flattened, and then brought the file back in to Lightroom. But Bay Photo is telling me that the image is not in the correct format—that instead of grayscale it needs to be converted back to RGB to make a black and white print. So I then tried keeping the photo in color and just dropping Saturation and Hue to 0 to create a black and white image “in color,” but that washed out the shadows. I’m lost here. Any suggestions or insight? — Martha H.

A: Very cool that you’ll be participating in the exhibit! This is the third park that our workshop attendees will have a show in. It will be running April 1 to June 1 at the Sloss Furnaces visitor center.

As for your question: In short, any file that is sent to a printer should be an RGB image, not grayscale. Even if you convert an image to black and while in Lightroom, it still sends an RGB image over to Photoshop. Below is a screenshot of an image that I converted to black and white in Lightroom and then sent to Photoshop. If I go to Image > Mode, you can see that the file is a 16-bit RGB image. This is normal and the way it should be.

The difference? An RGB image can be black and white, or it can be color. A grayscale image can only be black and white. My guess is that you did something in Photoshop to convert it, intentionally or not.

To fix the problem for Bay Photo:

  1. Reopen that image in Photoshop (from Lightroom, choose Photo > Edit In > Edit in Adobe Photoshop CC 2019).

  2. Go to Image > Mode, and click on RGB Color.

  3. Save the file.

Now when you export the image from Lightroom, you will create a JPG in RGB. — 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

Five Questions: Light Painting Headlights, Moonrises and Sunsets, Auroras and More

You ask questions, we give answers. (When we’re not shooting. Which is why we don’t do this feature more often.)

This installment of our “Five Questions” series features inquiries about light painting headlights, tripods, open hours for national parks, moonrises at sunset and lens choices for aurora.

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. Light Painting Headlights

Pickup in Nelson Ghost Town, Nevada. © Tim Cooper. Nikon D4, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. 3 minutes, f/8, ISO 100.

Q: When light painting old cars/trucks at night, how do you get the headlights to look like they are on? I have an old tractor in a field that I would like to practice on. — Brien R.

A: We love light painting, especially old cars! Who doesn’t?

Light painting the headlights is a tricky but rewarding thing to practice.

If the headlights have the glass still intact, use a very low-power light source (e.g., a Maglite or a Coast G5). Stand about 2 to 3 feet from the headlight, but to the side so you aren’t blocking the camera. Shine the flashlight into the headlight briefly—1 to 3 seconds is generally enough. Then walk over to the next headlight and do the same.

Here’s a key to this working: Stay invisible. Be careful and use your body to block the light source (i.e., the bulb) from being seen by the camera—we want to capture only the light reflecting from the headlights. I also advise dressing all in black, including black gloves. Sometimes the light bouncing off the headlights can freeze your hand or face in the frame, and you end up being ghosted in the picture. If that is the case, you’ll need to move farther out of the scene and then snoot your flashlight with a long tube— think PVC or a paper towel core. This will give you a more precise paintbrush to place the light.

Finally practice, practice, practice! And then feel free to share your results with us. — Gabriel

2. Lance’s Tripod

Q: I’m trying to figure out which tripod Lance showed in your CreativeLive class. I went back and watched the class again and figured out that it may be a Manfrotto 190 carbon fiber with a leveling center column. Can you please confirm this? Also, for a tripod this size would you still suggest that setup or has something else come out that you like better? Finally, which ball head would you suggest for this combo? — Marc S.

A: You are correct that I was using the Manfrotto 190 with a leveling head in the video. The head is great, but only for panoramas. It’s unnecessary otherwise.

If I were to buy today, I’d go with the Manfrotto 190go! Carbon Fiber M-Series Tripod with MHXP RO-BHQ2 XPRO Ball Head RC2 Kit. I like the twist locks better than the flip locks, which can pinch if you are not careful. However, these days I’m mostly using my Gitzo Series 2 Traveler Carbon Fiber Tripod with Center Ball Head.

Several of us at National Parks at Night are big fans of the Acratech GP-ss Ballhead With Lever Clamp. It is designed for compact travel tripods. It’s not quite as compact as the Gitzo head, but is easier to work with and the lever clamp is awesome. — Lance

3. Hours at National Parks and Monuments

Arch Rock, Valley of Fire. © 2014 Matt Hill. Nikon D750, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 500.

Q: Thank you for your recent article on whether light painting is allowed in national parks. However, it seems there is an even more important issue, which is if visitors are actually allowed to enter certain parks at night. My wife and I visited a number of national parks and monuments in recent years, but in places like Valley of Fire, Hovenweep or National Bridges we were told by rangers that we’d be in trouble if we were seen out there at night. On the other hand I have seen plenty of photos taken by the National Parks at Night team or other professionals at exactly these places. Are there different rules for the average photographer? — Lambert

A: Most of the 400-plus National Park Service units are open 24 hours to all visitors—including Natural Bridges National Monument, so I’m not sure why that ranger told you otherwise. In fact, night skies are part of how Natural Bridges actively entices people to visit. It’s also a feature that Hovenweep plays up, though only some sections of the park are open at night.

All of the national parks are open 24 hours per day, except Petrified Forest, but you can get a camping permit to stay overnight, or pay for a Special Use Permit to shoot after hours. Some of the national seashores are closed at night unless you have a camping or special use permit. National wildlife refuges are mostly closed at night, but those are units of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, not the NPS.

The Oliver Cabin is one of the many wonderful night photography subjects in Great Smoky Mountains National Parks’ Cades Cove region. Cades Cove is closed to vehicles at night, but you can walk or bike the 11-mile loop road all night if you’d like. © 2017 Chris Nicholson. Nikon D3s, 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, light painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight. 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 3200.

However, note that even if a park is open at night, there’s a chance that certain features are closed. In addition to Hovenweep, this is also the case at Mesa Verde National Park, which closes access to the ruins after sundown. Another example is Great Smoky Mountains National Park (where we’re hosting a workshop this April): Cades Cove, an amazing place to shoot; it is closed to motor vehicles at night, yet remains open to foot traffic.

As for Valley of Fire, that’s a state park, and as with any state land is run under local regulations that the NPS guidelines don’t affect. For night access to Valley of Fire, you need either a permit or to be camping in the park. (Or you to be on our workshop this April, which happens to have one spot remaining.)

No matter where you’re going to shoot at night, we always recommend checking the hours and letting the rangers (or other appropriate authorities) know what you’ll be up to. Not because you necessarily need permission to engage in night photography on public lands, but because it sometimes makes their jobs easier if they know you’ll be out there. Not to mention that they might share some valuable local knowledge about the location. — Chris

4. Aurora Lenses

Aurora over Westfjords, Iceland. © 2012 Lance Keimig. Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon 20mm f/3.5 lens. 15 seconds, f/5.6 ISO 3200.

Q: I’ll be traveling to Iceland in March to shoot auroras. Which lens would you recommend between a Sigma 20mm f/1.4 and a Sigma 14mm f/1.8? Or is there another lens you’d recommend instead? I’m shooting with a Sony a7R III. — Jeff

A: Congrats on your Iceland trip! Our No. 1 bit of advice is to get off of the main ring road and explore the random back roads to avoid the crowds. It can be busy over there!

As for your lens question, the wider-aperture model will probably be more useful, but it’s always good to have options. If the sky really lights up, you’ll want the widest lens you can get, but the 14mm is crazy wide for general shooting. Also, you don’t necessarily need superfast lenses—with a good aurora, you will probably be stopping down a few stops anyway.

For more advice on shooting the northern lights, see our two blog posts “Capturing Clouds of Light: How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis.” and “Northern Exposure: 8 Illuminating tips for Photographing Auroras.” — Lance

5. Moonrises at Sunset

Day before full moon, Death Valley National Park. © 2005 Tim Cooper. Canon 1Ds, 16-35mm lens at 31mm. 4 seconds, f/8, ISO 100.

Q: We learned from PhotoPills that sunsets can be spectacular when the moonrise and sunset occur within an hour of each other. But the moon rises in the east and the sun sets in the west, so we’re stumped. Any ideas? — Barbara E.

A: I suggesting thinking about it this way: What will be illuminated from the west when you’re facing east, with a great view of the moon rising behind it? The idea isn’t to shoot the sun and moon together, but rather to shoot the full moon rising among beautifully sunlit scenery or among the delicate light of a just-set sun.

The other advantage to this scenario is that the brightness of sunset balances well with the moon, which equalizes the intensities to get it all in one shot (as opposed to having to HDR the scene, which is so often the need when trying to shoot the moon over a landscape).

For a crispy moon, keep those exposure times short—don’t be afraid to ramp up your ISO to keep things sharp. Ideally, you want a big ol’ moon coming just off the horizon with gentle, ruddy sunlight kissing your subjects.

Grab your phone and scout with PhotoPills! Use it to see just where that moon will peek up to be sure you will see it during that sweet spot of sunset with the moon on the horizon.

And please send us photos of your success! — Matt

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

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

Five Questions: Flashlights, Big Bend, Fireflies and More

Once again, we’re ready to take a swing at the questions you pitch. This installment of our “Five Questions” series features inquiries about light painting tools, built-in timers, hot parks, dewy lenses and bright bugs. If that all seems fuzzy, read on and it will all come into focus.

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. Shedding Light on Coast

The Twins, Capitol Reef National Park. Nikon D750, Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8, Coast HP7R flashlight. 26 seconds, f/3.2, ISO 6400. © 2018 Matt Hill.

Q: Can you tell me what you like in particular about Coast flashlights? Other than sturdy durability, which seems obvious. Are the beams adjustable? The couple of times I’ve fooled around with light painting, I found it was difficult to be exact with what I had. — Therese I.

A: You hit it the nail on the head. The Coast flashlights feature an adjustable zoom optic. At its widest, it is an even illumination with a crisp edge. This is fantastic for slowly illuminating a large area evenly. At its narrowest, it is very intense with a rapid falloff from center to edge. This is ideal for lighting something distant.

We often add a Light Painting Brushes Universal Connector as a snoot for very small detail work, or we cup our hands around the end and squeeze open a small crack for fine lighting work. On top of that, Coast lights are waterproof and the rechargeable versions have long-lasting batteries you can charge via USB.

The only downside is that the color temperature of Coast lights is kind of cool for night photography work. But a small CTO gel fixes that. Warms it right up. (You can read more about this in Tim Cooper’s blog post “Level Up With Light Painting: Correcting the Color of Your Flashlight.”)

Light painting is part science and part art. Exact is something you obtain only after thousands of hours of practice. And even then it’s generous to call the craft exact. — Matt

2. Built-In Intervalometers

Q. I just got a Fuji X-T2 and I have a question. Do I still need an intervalometer? There’s one built in, so I’m not sure if I need another. — Anne K.

A: Generally speaking, the built-in intervalometers are more complex to use than an external intervalometer. There’s also the issue that in many cameras, the length of the shutter speed is limited (often to a maximum of 30 seconds) with the internal option. Not ideal for long-exposure work.

However, with the X-T2 in particular, I’ve used the built-in intervalometer with star stacks and had no problem. The built-in shutter speeds for that camera (with the latest firmware upgrade) go to 1 minute, 2 minutes, 4 minutes, 8 minutes, 15 minutes! It’s awesome. If you are comfortable with the internal option, then go for it! If not, nothing wrong with using an external option. — Chris & Tim

3. Big Bend in Summer

Agave on the South Rim, Big Bend National Park. Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. 2 minutes, f/5, ISO 1000. Light painted with a Coast HP7R. © 2018 Chris Nicholson.

Q: I noticed you haven’t offered a workshop at Big Bend last year or this year. I am headed there this summer in hopes of photographing the Milky Way and other nighttime objects under a new moon sky. Do you not offer workshops there because the location just isn’t that great? I’m wondering if you’d turn me on to any spots that are preferred for astro-landscape photography. — Alison C.

A: It’s not that we don’t offer a workshop in Big Bend, just that we haven’t yet. I can assure you that this Texas park is amazing for photography, day or night.

However, as for your trip, not to dissuade you, but summer is an incredibly uncomfortable time of year to be in Big Bend. There’s always a chance that you’ll catch a break with the weather, but generally summer there is stifling and unbearable. Moreover, that same heat at night will likely create considerable long exposure noise in your Milky Way photos. I’d avoid any exposures over 30 seconds or so (depending on your camera), and I’d certainly use Long Exposure Noise Reduction.

As for locations, probably the best in the park is the South Rim, but I wouldn't advise hiking out there in summer. There are a lot of fantastic spots accessible via the primitive roads, but again, I can’t advise venturing out those ways at this time of year, because of safety in the extreme heat should the car break down or get a flat tire.

However, you can find plenty of great spots to photograph that are closer to the safety of the main roads. I would definitely check out the Chisos Basin and Santa Elena Canyon, and you can find interesting ruins in the surrounding towns that are good for light painting.

No matter where you go, always have a good supply of extra water in the car—not just enough to drink for the shoot duration, but enough to drink in desert heat should you run into car issues. Have I mentioned this place is hot in summer? — Chris

4. Aurora and Condensation

Aurora, Westfjords, Iceland. Nikon D750. © Lance Keimig.

Aurora, Westfjords, Iceland. Nikon D750. © Lance Keimig.

Q: I’ve taken an interest in nighttime photography in Canada to capture the aurora. It appears to my eyes to be just a white glow (only my rods are sensing the light), but when I take the photo, voila, it is green! One of the main problems I’ve had—both in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, in February (-24 C), and in Ontario in September—is condensation on my lens or filter as the camera cools off. I recently purchased a wrap-around lens heater, and am excited to try it in Ontario this August during the Perseids meteor shower. — Gil J.

A: Yes, faint aurora can be hard to differentiate from plain old clouds sometimes, which is why using an app like Aurora Forecast can give you a heads-up to be on the lookout.

As for lens wraps for condensation, they can make the difference between the end of your night and a killer shot. Once the temperature reaches the dew point, condensation can form quickly. I’ve been in situations where I had to wipe the lens mid-exposure, which can introduce all sorts of problems. For a DIY version, I’ve cut a beer koozie so it can wrap around the lens, and put a chemical hand warmer inside. Sometimes even a hand warmer with a rubber band to hold it to the lens will work in a pinch! — Lance

5. Fireflies

Fireflies in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Nikon D3s, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8. 90 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600. © 2018 Chris Nicholson.

Q: I have a pressing summer question: How does one photograph fireflies? I’ve seen them and I want to try it! — Susanne H.

A: That’s a fun question, and definitely a fun thing to do. We’re about to start our workshop on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and we’re hoping to see some fireflies on those mountain nights!

I recommend a few strategies:

  • Get into into a dark, wooded area, or at the edge of one, that has lots of firefly activity.
  • Focus on the closest trees or a solid subject.
  • Use a fast telephoto lens, like a 70-200mm f/2.8, so that you can zoom into the area of activity and concentrate a bunch of fireflies in the frame. I was recently trying with a wide-angle lens and didn’t get any good results.
  • Shoot wide open to collect all the light.
  • To really maximize the effect, shoot a lot of frames and stack them in Photoshop (using the Lighten blend mode, just like we do for star stacking).

Have fun and please share your results in the Comment section! — Gabe

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