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


NPAN + Nikon + B&H + Brooklyn Bridge = Epic Day of Night Photography!

Last Wednesday, National Parks at Night ran our first-ever major event, an epic day in New York City that included five lectures, a panel discussion and a two-hour night-photography walk in one of NYC’s hottest and most intriguing spots for photography.

B&H Photo was an awesome host, providing their great Event Space and handling all the logistics. Nikon sponsored the whole day and night and provided some of their best new gear for participants to use. And Manfrotto was there at night too, providing additional support (figuratively and literally!).

The B&H Event Space full of people interested in seizing the night!

The B&H Event Space full of people interested in seizing the night!

The B&H Event Space hosted the afternoon session, which comprised all of the talking. The house was packed with over 80 people filling the seats and a few dedicated stragglers standing in the back for four hours. We couldn’t have been more happy with the turnout—we greatly appreciate how many people came to B&H to hear us talk about this topic we love so much, and we were thrilled that so many photographers are interested in this dynamic niche of our industry and artform.

We presented five back-to-back lectures that covered:

  • Essential gear for night photography (Gabriel Biderman)
  • Scouting national park locations for photo shoots (Chris Nicholson)
  • Creating visual distinction in your work (Lance Keimig)
  • Best practices and creative effects of light-painting (Tim Cooper)
  • How to get the most out of a workshop experience (Matt Hill)

Afterward, Deborah Gilbert of the Event Space moderated a half-hour panel discussion about night photography. Both she and the audience had some great questions. We particularly liked getting into the philosophy of why the night-photography niche is so intriguing and so creatively inspiring.

Also, the front of the Event Space was decorated with 20x30 prints of our night images provided by Digital Silver Imaging. We couldn’t have been more happy with how it all looked—they do fantastic work!

Tim talks light painting with the Event Space crowd.

Tim talks light painting with the Event Space crowd.

Videos of the lectures will be posted on the B&H YouTube channel in the coming weeks. Keep an eye on our website and social media, as well as the Event Space Twitter feed—we’ll be sure to announce as soon as they’re published.

From there, everyone headed to the photo walk in Brooklyn, where we emerged from the subway in a rainfall. Despite the precipitation, more than 60 photographers attended. And their patience paid off. The weather cleared only ten minutes into the program, leaving behind a wet sheen to all the foreground elements of Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Dumbo neighborhood’s waterfront.

We set up five shooting and education stations:

  • Gabe and Chris were positioned at spots looking over the East River at the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, respectively, advising on composition and focusing
  • Lance worked with participants on exposure at a calm, rocky shore at the edge of the park
  • Tim helped people with composition and camera settings on a point of land right under the Manhattan Bridge
  • Matt led participants through working with a Pixelstick, a great and fun light tool for night photography
One of the fabulous images we saw created during the evening, showing the shores of the East River with the Manhattan Bridge stretching toward the bright lights of the big city. © 2016 Marco Catini, .

One of the fabulous images we saw created during the evening, showing the shores of the East River with the Manhattan Bridge stretching toward the bright lights of the big city. © 2016 Marco Catini,

Nikon’s JC Carey also attended the walk, bringing a caseload of Nikon lenses and bodies for people to borrow and use during the evening, including the amazing Nikon D750. JC was great working with everyone. He's always high-energy, charismatic and knows anything you want to ask him about Nikon gear.

Manfrotto came to the walk too, bringing tripods for participants to use. We’re very grateful to both companies, as they made the experience for everyone even better by providing access to some of the best new gear by two of the industry’s elite brands. So a huge thank you to Nikon and Manfrotto, and of course to B&H. We couldn't have pulled this off without the topnotch support and collaboration from all of you.

Flagged from behind by Matt's Pixelstick is the portion of the photo walk crowd who stayed until the end of the night. Photo © 2016 JC Carey.

Flagged from behind by Matt's Pixelstick is the portion of the photo walk crowd who stayed until the end of the night. Photo © 2016 JC Carey.

All in all, it was a great day. So many people came up to us to say how much they learned, or how much fun they had. Both of those sentiments are exactly what we were hoping to provide: We want people to learn more about night photography so they have the same great experience we do when we head into the dark with our cameras.

Thank you to everyone who attended and made our event so special. If you couldn’t make it to this one, stayed tuned—we will definitely do this again!

Chris Nicholson is the 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

Upcoming workshops from National Parks at Night

National Parks at Night’s First Official Event is Going to be EPIC!

We are very excited to be hosting our first gathering of all five NPAN instructors on March 16 at the B&H Event Space from 1-5 p.m. and 7-9 p.m.: "Night Photography Panel and Night Walk With National Parks at Night Sponsored by Nikon."

Chris, Lance, Matt, Tim and I have been building the foundation of NPAN for nearly a year, and this is one of the events that we wanted to share with you from the beginning!

This will not be your typical seminar. Each one of us will spend about 30 minutes discussing a specific topic about night photography, and then we will open the floor for an hour to answer your questions in a no-holds-barred panel discussion.

It would be crazy to get us all together and not do any hands-on instruction, so after we’ve filled you full of words and visions we will take it to the streets … or at least to Brooklyn Bridge Park!

That’s right, starting at 7 p.m. we will set up five shooting stations for you to try out different night photography techniques at one of the most scenic spots to photograph in New York City.

We’d like to give a big shout out to Nikon for sponsoring this event. We are all big fans of their cameras and glass, and Nikon will join us at Brooklyn Bridge Park where you’ll be able to try out a selection of their gear.

Need a better tripod to steady those long exposures? Manfrotto will be there too, and they’ll have loaner tripods for you to use during our night walk.

This lectures and discussion panel booked to capacity in just a few days, but that doesn't mean you can't be part of it! You can still get on the wait list by arriving at the Event Space 15-30 minutes beforehand. And if you can’t attend, you can still watch laterB&H will be recording the “classroom” aspect of the day and publishing it to their YouTube channel later.

As for the night portion, as of last night the Event Space is taking registrations for that separately, and as of right now there are still slots available. Check out "Night Photography Photo Walk With National Parks at Night" for more information and to register. I recommend signing up immediately, because this will book up fast too!

Seize the Night!

Gabriel Biderman is a Brooklyn-based fine art and travel photographer, and author of Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (Peachpit, 2014). During the daytime hours you'll often find Gabe at one of many photo events around the world working for B&H Photo’s road marketing team. See his portfolio and workshop lineup at