Olympic National Park

10 For 2017: Breaking Down Our Favorite Images of the Year

While we look forward to 2018, we can’t help but look back and take stock of what a great 2017 we’ve had. It was an incredible year filled with awesome people, magical destinations and inspiring photography. These experiences simply would not have been possible without the folks who attended our workshops, lectures and events. To all of the National Parks at Night alumni, supporters and followers, we say thank you. You’ve made our year a truly memorable one.

As we all move from this year into the next, it’s natural to look back at work we’ve done and art we’ve created, to remember great experiences, or to see how we’ve grown creatively. For our final blog post of the year, the National Parks at Night crew did just that. Below we share with you our favorites two images each from 2017, and our thoughts about how we created them.

Carpe noctem!

Chris Nicholson

Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts. Nikon D5, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 20 seconds, f/3.5 ISO 8000.

My two favorite photos of 2017 were both from the coast—probably not a surprise if you know me, as I love being on the shore, and I love shooting on the shore.

The first of my favorites is a photograph I made the night before our Cape Cod National Seashore workshop started in May. I was out with Lance, his fiancée Katherine, and a former workshop participant and friend, Wendi. We went out to a spot suggested by a couple of rangers that afternoon (always talk to rangers, they know the best spots!). The hike involved some wet shoes and a lost filter, but also brought us to an amazing boathouse that I spent most of our time there shooting.

I was the first one to finish up, and I had gotten (if I’m to be honest) kind of bored with the location. But the others were still working, so I started tooling around with this composition instead, framing the shore in the foreground with the water in the middle and two distant boathouses in back, all topped with a beautiful starry sky. I added subtle light painting to the foreground by bouncing the light from a Coast HP7R off my palm and laying the reflected soft illumination along the rocks and grass. A little artificial ambient light did the rest, filling in the shadows of the background.

Then I forgot about the photo for a few days, thinking my real treasure from the night was from my earlier attempts. I remember the moment when I was skimming through thumbnails in Lightroom and I saw this image. “Oh,” I said to myself. “Yeah, that’s the one.”


Olympic National Park, Washington. Nikon D3s, 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 lens. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 8000.

In the shoulder season between late summer and early fall, Matt and I were leading two workshops in Olympic, one of my very favorite of the national parks. I got a text from Stacy, another of our former workshop participants, who happens to live in nearby Seattle, alerting us that a high Kp rating meant we should keep our eyes on the northern sky that night. We might see aurora!

Sure enough, as we combed Ruby Beach looking for night compositions, the northern light show started. It was my very first time seeing and photographing an aurora. Moreover, the moon was just about to set on the Pacific horizon, the Milky Way was arching over us, and blue bioluminescence glowed in the crashing waves. It was hard to know which direction to point the camera.

This is one of my favorite photos from 2017 not because I think it’s a spectacular artistic achievement, and not because it accomplishes any hefty technical goal—but because of the memory, because of the experience. With all of that going on in the same night sky, reflected in the shimmer of a recently submerged shore, above my favorite spot to shoot in one of my favorite national parks, how could I be anything but awed? And … did I mention it was my birthday?

Gabriel Biderman

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah. Set of two exposures using the Nikon D750 and 14-24mm f/2.8 lens set at 14mm. Sky exposure: 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200. Foreground: 3 minutes, f/2.8 ISO, 1600.

I love that night photography has many challenges. If it is too easy, I don’t want to click. The constant search for pushing my visions yielded some exciting results in 2017!

For the last few years I have been wanting to master the night panorama. It is one of the only solutions for the hero shot of the arching Milky Way. Hovenweep National Monument offered the perfect foreground and location for such a challenge.

The night sky was dark and full of stars but the 90 F temperatures would definitely test what I could get out of my gear, because extreme heat can generate noise in images during longer exposures. My initial tests were showing red flecks at exposures longer than 45 seconds.

I assessed that my pano would need to be made up of six shots, however the sky and foreground were at least three stops apart. My sky exposure was 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200 and my foreground was 3 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 1600. I did the series of sky shots first, as the Milky Way was quickly moving out of my composition. The foreground was taking over 6 minutes per shot, because I needed to turn on Long Exposure Noise Reduction.

After I worked on general adjustments to the images, I was pleasantly surprised that Lightroom and Photoshop were able to align the whole batch fairly easily. I attempted a few more panoramas more recently that needed a dedicated panorama program, as Adobe was having a hard time aligning the dark subject matter.

However, I absolutely love the final image as well as the slow, methodical thought and post-processing that needed to happen to make this work.


Total solar eclipse, Sawtooth Mountains, Idaho. Fuji X-T2, 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 lens 1/15 second, f/22, ISO 400.

The biggest celestial event of the year was definitely the Great American Eclipse.

I was thrilled to be leading a workshop around it in a place that was surrounded by an incredible landscape, Montana’s Centennial Valley. The challenge for most of us attempting to photograph this was that it would be something we would be experiencing for the first time. The window for success was small, because the total eclipse is so fleeting—we wanted to choose the best spot for clear skies and totality. It was easy to find the path of totality, but difficult to predict the weather. Add to that new gear—solar filters which made it difficult to operate our cameras and lenses in normal ways—and it required plenty of practice.

We opted to experience the eclipse in a remote location sandwiched between the Sawtooth Mountains and Beaverhead Mountains. We arrived early and assessed the path of the sun with the PhotoPills app, which was invaluable to scouting and pre-visualizing. Most of us were running two rigs on tripod—a wide shot and a telephoto. The telephoto needed the most attention as it required constantly tracking the sun across the sky.

When the eclipse began, the clicking and adjusting of exposures started to build to a bit of a frenzy. Capturing the corona, diamond ring effect and Bailey’s beads were all high on our list. But the real challenge was controlling our excitement during the moment. It was hard to make the quick adjustments while simultaneously experiencing such a thrilling moment! As we entered full totality, a strange silvery twilight light encompassed us all and a quiet hush fell across the land. The best thing I did during the 2-plus minutes of darkness was take 15 seconds to just stare at the eclipse and take it all in. I’m still searching for the words to explain the experience. The one thing I do know is that I want to be part of it again, so … see you in 2024!

Lance Keimig

Westfjords, Iceland. Nikon D750, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art lens, 5 1/2 minutes, f/5, ISO 800.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at this scene––it’s right in front of the Hotel Djupavik in the Westfjords of Iceland. It’s a special place, one that has a calming energy that’s hard to describe. It’s hard to be stressed or unhappy or angry there. It’s hard not to be taken in by the charm of the place, the people, the peace. So you see, to me this photograph is about much more than a landscape—it’s about a state of mind.

The making of the image was rather unremarkable. The one streetlight in the village illuminates the remains of the pier, 50 yards offshore. It was late in astronomical twilight, with just a hint of glow across the fjord in the western sky. The clouds were dragging slowly across the frame, reluctant to let go of the mountaintops. It was almost as if they were afraid of being carried out to sea. I remember being torn between using a short, high ISO exposure to keep the stars sharp, and a longer one to capture the movement in the clouds.

After making the first trial exposure, I noticed that the streetlight was reflecting off a few of the patches of seaweed, so I had the idea to sweep a light across the foreground to illuminate the rest of the seaweed to try to connect the foreground and middle ground. I had to put a couple of layers of CTO warming gel over my flashlight to match the orange of the sodium glow, but it seemed to work.

To me, a photograph that can transport me back to a time and place is doing its job. I’ve been using this one as my screen saver since I made it during our Westfjords photo tour back in early September, and I’ve been dreaming of making a big print to hang in my home. I think I’ll make that print.


Alabama Hills, California. Nikon D850, Irix 11mm f/4 Blackstone lens. 15 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 3200.

One of the things that I love about this image is that it’s virtually unrecognizable for what it is. Lady Boot Arch is one of the better-known and certainly among the most distinctive rock formations in California’s Alabama Hills. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see the shape of a woman’s high-heeled, over-the-calf boot––when viewing from the spot where most people first lay their eyes on it. That also happens to be the perspective where most people choose to photograph it from, as I have done on multiple occasions. Being fortunate in that I get to revisit places like this on a fairly regular basis, I often find myself looking for unique vantage points to photograph a familiar subject.

Toward the end of this particular night, after most of the participants had left for bed, I had the chance to pull out one of the new D850 cameras that Nikon had sent to our workshop. I was excited to see what this camera could do. I wanted to try it with the crazy-wide Irix 11mm lens.

Conditions were great. It was cool, but not cold, the air was clear, and the three-quarter moon was over my left shoulder, high in the southwestern sky. I chose a 15-second exposure to keep the stars nice and sharp, as that 45-megapixel sensor likes to show every bit of detail. The challenge was lighting both the foreground and the back of the arch in that short time frame while squeezing between and scrambling over rocks. That was fun.

Matt Hill

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. Nikon D750, 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 lens. 234 images at 22 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400, plus a single exposure at 382 seconds, ISO 2000 for the landscape after moonrise.

My fourth visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park and my second during a Perseids Meteor Shower finally yielded the photograph I’d been dreaming of making. This image is a perfect example of the value of persistence. Climbing the dunes at over 8,000 feet elevation is no easy task, nor is waiting patiently for hours to capture 15 meteors and the gentle kiss of moonlight rising on the dunes.

I’m really proud of the group we had on the workshop—everyone made the trek up the dunes. And everyone set up to capture the glory of this active meteor shower. I’m especially delighted that careful planning put us in the right place at the right time to make a singularly gentle and powerful photograph combining the tallest sand dunes in the U.S., the Milky Way and meteors arcing across the night sky.


Olympic National Park, Washington. Nikon D750, 35mm f/1.4 Sigma Art lens. 61 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

I’ve always been drawn to water. It calls to me. Its power to overwhelm anything while holding no strict form has always mystified me. It refracts and reflects light. And it changes everything it touches, such as the sea stacks at Olympic National Park.

Low tide at Rialto Beach gave us an opportunity to use the wet sand as a massive mirror. The setting moon wrapped the left side, and a decisive placement of light painting warmed up the right and brought out the texture of the stalwart stone and tenacious trees. A harmony of color, time and movement keeps this at the top of my list of favorites.

Tim Cooper

Alabama Hills, California. Fuji X-T2, 16mm f/1.4 lens. 23 exposures at 4 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Serendipity is one part luck, one part preparation and one part faith. This image—“Boulder, North Star Ring, Alabama Hills”—is a perfect case in point.

I’ve been enamored with the boulders of the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierra of California since the first time I saw them. The texture and unusual formations of these boulders is simply otherworldly. I had the opportunity to return to this area for our November Eastern Sierra workshop with Lance. On the first day of scouting, something sparked in my mind and I began to imagine a round boulder lit from either side, composed underneath the concentric star rings of the north sky. This type of pre-visualization doesn’t happen with every image and it rarely turns out exactly the way I want.

Over the course of the week, I kept searching for the perfect round boulder—one that had a good background to the north, and was positioned such that I could paint it from either side. Finally, on day 4 of the workshop, I stumbled onto the perfect specimen.

The trick here was to stack enough exposures to give the impression of star rings. The moon was nearly full so I was limited to a 4-minute exposure at f/5.6, ISO 100. I set my ShutterBoss intervalometer to shoot 40 frames, knowing my battery would probably run out before draining completely. By the time that happened, the camera was able to capture 23 images, resulting in roughly 1 1/2 hours of cumulative exposure. After replacing the battery, I took several more exposures while experimenting with the light painting. The final image is a Photoshop composite of the 23 frames of star trails and one image with light painting.

For me, this was one of those rare instances where a preconceived idea closely matched the final product.


Sedona, Arizona. Nikon D4s, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens set at 14mm. Eight exposures at 4 minutes, f/4, ISO 200.

Setting up an image for capturing star trails is always an exercise in anticipation. Which direction will the stars trail? How long will they be? Will they be sparse or thick? For this image taken outside Sedona, Arizona, I had a good idea of the outcome before plunging the shutter. The reason? I had shot from this location before. This is not unusual for me. I’ll often try to improve upon locations I’ve shot in the past. My first attempt at this scene was made with a medium wide-angle lens (24mm on a full-frame camera). That image portrayed the stars moving diagonally, but in only one direction.

For this last visit, I was carrying my venerable Nikon 14mm-24mm f/2.8. The wider (14mm) focal length included much more of the sky. My earlier image contained only the mountain to the right, but with this wider 14mm I was able to include both peaks. Facing southwest allowed me to capture longer trails as stars raced across the sky in the south, as opposed to the shorter trails in the north. The wide view to the east also produced another cool feature: the divergence of star trails. Longer lenses capture the trails all moving in one direction. By facing east and using a super-wide lens I was able to capture the area where the stars begin to move in opposite directions.

Your Turn!

We’ve shown you our favorite photos from 2017. Now we’d love to see yours! Post your No. 1 favorite night photography image from the past year in the Comments section or on our Facebook page, and tell us a little bit about it.

And then of course the next step—for all of us—is to get back out into the night in 2018 and make something even better!

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.


It's a Wrap! Recapping The Second Half of Our Second Year

Earlier this year we recapped our first three workshops of 2017. Now that the year is nearly over, after finishing our last workshop of the fall just a few weeks ago, we run down how the rest of itinerary went.

Rounding out our second year of workshops was a procession of amazing locations, students and celestial events, including the total solar eclipse, an impregnable fort in the ocean, deep canyons and dark skies, ancient Puebloan ruins, eye-popping aurora borealis, and alien desert landscapes.

Enjoy this review of the highlights. …

Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments

June 21-25, 2017

By Gabriel Biderman

Each year we have partnered with the Rocky Mountain School of Photography to offer a night photography workshop. This year we were very excited to teach for them at one of the darkest sky locations in the United States: Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument.

This was a very challenging workshop, but as with any challenge, if you succeed then it is incredibly rewarding. The biggest hurdle was part of the beauty—both locations are very remote. We based our workshop in the town of Bluff, which was one hour from Natural Bridges and about 50 minutes from Hovenweep. Combine that with a summer Milky Way focus, and we weren’t starting to shoot until 9:30 to 10 p.m. and weren’t calling last shot until 2 or 3 a.m. To everyone’s credit, we were thrilled with each location and got home safely each night!

The first two nights we divided the class in two and had them either climb the 1-mile descent down the slippery rocks and ladders to the majestic Sipapu Bridge or photograph the Milky Way perfectly aligned over the Owachomo Bridge. The third night we explored the smaller canyon that was lined with Indian “castles” and ruins along the edge.

We had stellar Milky Way skies but the challenge again was hot, hot, summer nights. The daytime temperature was 114 F and at night it cooled to a pleasant 85 F. Long exposures without noise reduction were limited to 30 seconds or 1 minute to prevent excessive noise from the heat.

Natural Bridges National Monument.  Nikon D750  with a   
   15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 lens   
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 . 75 stacked 1-minute exposures at f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Natural Bridges National Monument. Nikon D750 with a 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 lens. 75 stacked 1-minute exposures at f/2.8, ISO 6400.

The last night of the workshop we gave the students a choice: Go back to either Hovenweep or Natural Bridges. I led a group to Hovenweep, where we collaborated on a 2-plus-hour star trail, while Matt led a group of daring souls to the edge of Sipapu. Matt asked, “Who wants to do something creatively risky that might not work—but if it does, it will be a shot to remember?" In short, they split into two teams—one for shooting on the canyon rim, and one for safely hiking 600 feet down into the canyon, then hiking through with flashlights for the 45-minute star stack. (See above.)

Dry Tortugas National Park

July 27-30, 2017

By Gabriel Biderman

One of our more adventurous Passport Series workshops of 2017 was in Dry Tortugas National Park, which sits about 70 miles from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. We were very fortunate to partner with the Key West Art and Historical Society and Dry Tortugas National Park for this immersive experience.

We kicked things off the day before the workshop with Tim and I presenting our favorite night park images at the Night Sky Symposium held at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. Kelly Clark, cultural resources specialist from Dry Tortugas, led off with an overview of the restoration and upkeep of the massive Fort Jefferson, then two local astronomers gave a very thorough overview of Florida night skies.

The next day we met the entire workshop class and spent the day going over night photography as well as learning the history of Key West with a private tour of the museum at the Art and Historical Society.

That night we put our night photography skills to the test at Fort Martello, where we practiced light painting and tested our high ISOs and long exposure parameters in the hot and humid heat of Florida. Then at midnight we boarded our private boat for a three-day tour. We woke to Fort Jefferson tiny on the horizon. The next two days and nights would be a full-on focus of Dry Tortugas. Most people get to visit this park for only two to three hours when the Yankee Clipper boat brings them in and out. Though the park has room for about 20 people to tent-camp, visitors don’t get access to the inside of Fort Jefferson after sundown. But we did!

We kept cool during the day by snorkeling and swimming, and also used daylight hours to scout for the best compositions. At night we had full access to the fort, and each window and path led us to fantastic nightscape images.

Life on the boat was a little cramped but the crew was amazing and the food top-notch! On our ride back to Key West we all started working on editing our photos for a public presentation at the Art and Historical Society. This turned out to be a huge hit—about 50 people attended. We put all the students’ work together and gave a brief talk about our recent adventures, followed by an hourlong Q&A and a celebratory group dinner.

Follow-up: Key West and Dry Tortugas were hit hard by Hurricane Irma. Fortunately our friends were safe and damage was minimal to their lives. A part of the famous walkway around the moat of Fort Jefferson was broken, so you can no longer walk all the way around—but I guess that makes for new picture opportunities. Stay tuned; we hope to partner with Dry Tortugas and the Key West Art and Historical Society again in the near future.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

August 10-14, 2017

By Matt Hill

Our intrepid group of night photography adventurers joined Lance and I in the mysterious and wildly unpredictable southern oasis of beauty in Colorado. Great Sand Dunes is a rather small park with only one entrance and basically one parking lot from which you can access the dune field and Medano Creek. That is, without renting a 4x4, deflating your tires and driving in the arid backcountry.

This was my fourth visit to Great Sand Dunes, and my second visit during the Perseid Meteor Showers—the very event we came to teach and capture. August is also monsoon season. Yeah. The park is nestled against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the east in a valley 50 by 100 miles wide. When a storm rolls through, it can come from practically any direction, including over the 13,000-plus-foot mountains towering over the dunes, which start at about 8,000 feet and rise to over 8,700 feet. Needless to say, we had to roll with whatever the weather threw at us, and boy did it throw.

We began with a night by Medano Creek at the foot of the dunes. The creek was abnormally high from the recent daily afternoon thunderstorms. We witnessed the surreal “surges” that look and sound like rolling waves on the ocean, only they rush downcreek up to 3 inches higher than the normal flow—an odd sight in what otherwise appears to be a strictly dry, desert scene. A couple hours into shooting, a storm front came blowing in from the east over the mountains and whipped sand around madly. So we packed up and headed into Alamosa to finish out night-shooting historic train cars.

Our second evening we planned for an ascent onto the dunes, but heavy clouds helped us choose Plan C instead: a Tibetan Stupa high on the mountainside overlooking the valley a bit north of the park and accessed from a primitive road leading south from quaint Crestone, Colorado. The group spent the evening marveling over the somber beauty of the spiritual space, with the Milky Way arcing overhead and with the view of the valley below.

Our third evening was the big one—the hike up the dunes. The skies played nice and we huffed and puffed our way up the equivalent of 70 flights of stairs on what felt like cane sugar. At 8,000-plus feet! Not for the faint of heart, yet our entire group made the hike (and we’re hella proud of them!). We were rewarded with an amazing view of the Perseids, a lightning storm playing behind the Sangre de Cristo mountains, and the obvious signs of civilized life (read: light pollution) to the south in Alamosa.

Our fourth and final evening included sunset at Zapata Falls overlooking the valley, some far-off storms and a compressed view of the dunes snuggled up to the mountains.

We had a ton of fun playing with light writing, light painting and doing some night portraiture. Everyone got to do some work on their goals and the result was a grand slideshow of our students’ efforts. Bravo and brava to all of our students. This workshop was challenging in so many ways, yet they exceeded, and we are really honored to have had this killer adventure together.

Centennial Valley, J Bar L Ranch & Solar Eclipse

August 17-22, 2017

By Gabriel Biderman

The green and luscious Centennial Valley has miles of big night sky and a population under 100 in the summer. The beauty is eternal, the community kind, and the cowboy hats fit like a fedora! Add to that the first total solar eclipse that any of us on the workshop had ever photographed and you have the makings of an ultimate experience.

Weather is always a factor, and when we landed in Montana, smoke-filled skies burnt our eyes. Montana and much of the rest of the West was experiencing some of the worst forest fires in history. Luckily for us some rain came just in time, right before the workshop kicked off. So we headed south to Exit 0 in high spirits.

Everyone arrived in time for dinner on the first night, created by our Chef Eric, who was catering all our meals from his free-range kitchen. Our first night brought us crisp, clear and star-tactic skies. We strolled down to the river and shot the reflecting and rising Milky Way over the water. We had a very experienced group and everyone experimented a little bit and came away with some spectacular shots.

The daily schedule consisted of breakfast, morning horse rides or nature walks, group lunches, one-on-one sessions with me, down time, a group dinner, and then night shoots. I really enjoyed the bonding aspect of this workshop; everyone had solo or shared a rustic cabins, but were often found hanging out and working together on images or practicing shooting the sun.

Instead of formal classes, I opted for the aforementioned one-hour individual sessions with each participant. This proved to be incredibly successful to further bond us, as well as to help answer attendees’ specific questions and push their visions along. Some people showed portfolios, others went over gear, and some were a combination of all.

Bailey’s beads (aka, the diamond ring effect) during the 2017 total eclipse. 1/15, f/22, ISO 800. © 2017 Gabriel Biderman.

Of course this was all building up to Monday, August 21—the day of the total solar eclipse. We had all been practicing tracking and shooting the sun during the day, which slightly calmed our nerves about how much the sun moves across the frame through telephoto lenses! We pushed the Planner feature of the PhotoPills app to the max to find the perfect location to view the eclipse—a remote, crowd-free place with an interesting landscape. We ended up on a dirt road sandwiched between the Sawtooth Mountains and Beaverhead Mountains. (To read more about how we photographed the eclipse, see our August blog post, “Eclipse Lessons: What We Learned from Our Day in the Sun.”)

All in all, it was an incredibly thrilling workshop and experience. I look forward to more adventures with my friends, and to experiencing the next total eclipse in 2024!

Westfjords of Iceland

August 27-September 5, 2017

By Lance Keimig

Gabe and I led National Parks at Night’s first international trip, to the Westfjords of Iceland at the very end of August and beginning of September. We chose the Westfjords because it is the least visited part of the country, and we chose to go at the end of their short summer because of the possibility of seeing the northern lights without having to suffer the dead of winter.

I think the group would tell you that it was worth every bit of effort to get to that far northwestern corner of the tiny island nation in the North Atlantic. We were fortunate too in that auroras graced us with their amazing presence on multiple nights, including one night when the entire sky glowed green for hours on end. We had chosen a location with panoramic views in all directions to photograph, because at 64 degrees north latitude, an aurora can appear anywhere in the sky––and it did! The lights were so ubiquitous and long-lasting that Gabe even made a series of individual “aurora portraits” of the entire group (see our “group photo”collage, above).

It was unanimous that Djupavik was the group’s favorite location, and it’s ours too. The site of a former herring processing factory, Djupavik was converted into a small hotel in the late 1970s by a couple from Reykjavik with a unique vision, and is now lovingly run by their son-in-law Magnus. There’s little doubt that we’ll be back.

Note: Speaking of going back, we have a few spots remaining in our upcoming March trip to Iceland, which will take us along the south coast to see both some of the best-known waterfalls in the country, and also to some off-the-beaten-path locations that are just as amazing for photography.

Olympic National Park

September 17-22, 2017 and September 24-29, 2017

By Chris Nicholson

If you’ve ever heard me talk about Olympic National Park, then you know it’s one of my favorite places. So it could probably go unsaid that I was very much looking forward to leading a workshop there—to share the experience of Olympic with my co-instructor Matt and with the 18 amazing photographers attending the two back-to-back workshops, many of whom had never been there.

The two workshops were similar, but also varied a bit, as weather and other factors often allow for a fair amount of serendipity.

During the first week we started at Lake Crescent and later Elwah River Valley (which just a few years ago was a lake, until the century-old dam was dismantled to restore historic salmon runs). At the latter, we were able to use information gathered during our daytime scouting with PhotoPills to plan on shooting the Milky Way hovering over the valley with the river leading right to it. It was an amazing scene! On the second night, fog and snow greeted us at Hurricane Ridge, and we used the conditions to create some moody light painting. Later we moved down to sea level, where we shot for the rest of the night at the Port Angeles waterfront.

Then we headed out to the coast to shoot at Ruby Beach on the third night, the Hoh Rain Forest (and Ruby again, as the stars returned) on the fourth, and ended the workshop under beautiful skies at Second Beach.

The second week we changed a few locations. We started at Hurricane Ridge, and on the second night we hiked to Marymere Falls, where we light painted the 90-foot waterfall with a pair of Luxli Viola LED panel lights, with Matt changing the intensity and color temperature remotely via his iPhone. On the way out through the new-growth rainforest, everyone stopped at different points to photograph the majestic trees, before ending the night on the shores of Lake Crescent.

Once on the coast, we started with the hike along Rialto Beach to shoot the entire third night near and at Hole-in-the-Wall. The fourth night we shot at the Hoh Rain Forest and Ruby Beach again, where we got the amazing treat of seeing and photographing an aurora over the sea stacks and coastal cliffs, as bioluminescent plankton lit up the waves beneath. Then we once again ended the workshop at Second Beach, albeit this time in moody fog and mist.

During both workshops we focused primarily on light painting, Milky Way and star trails, and Matt did a fair amount of side instruction for participants who wanted to learn about night portraiture. Over the course of both workshops, Matt and I got to spend 17 days in this amazing place (which we talked about in a video we released shortly afterward). There were a variety of experiences that we won’t soon forget—a sentiment I hope and trust that the attendees share.

Eastern Sierra

October 30-November 4, 2017

By Lance Keimig

Tim and I led the last National Parks at Night workshop of 2017, to California’s Eastern Sierra. Highway 395 stretches across the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, and passes through some of the best night photography locations in the U.S. This workshop focused on the southern end of the route, where we photographed at the Alabama Hills for three nights, and the Owen’s Valley Radio Observatory and Laws Railroad Museum for one night each. We had hoped to visit the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest too, but with temperatures in the single digits at night, the group’s sentiment was a resounding “No!” (A few members of the group also stayed an extra night and followed the Bishop petroglyph trail through the BLM-managed Volcanic Tablelands.)

The arches and rock formations of the Alabama Hills are challenging to photograph and light paint, but our group took to it with aplomb. Lighting the arches well requires some scrambling over steep and uneven surfaces, and in the case of Lathe Arch, wedging yourself and your camera into a narrow crevice to get low enough to have a good angle.

We chose to hold this workshop around the full moon because of the challenging nature of the topography, and because we wanted to emphasize light painting. With so much emphasis on Milky Way photography these days, it was great to get back to our night photography roots and work in bright moonlight for a change.

The sheer scale and number of radio telescopes at the observatory was a treat for all to experience. The Cal Tech staff was generous in giving us access to their facility, and we made the most of it.

Even though we normally scout each location in person and try to plan every detail of our workshops before the attendees arrive, sometimes opportunities appear that are too good to pass up. Such was the case with our surprise visit to the Laws Museum, a place that was unknown to both Tim and I until the signal tower caught our eye as we were passing by on the way to check out the petroglyphs.

Considering the richness and diversity of both the natural and historical sites in the region, a workshop along the northern part of the Highway 395 corridor is sure to follow someday.

Wrapping Up

Last, but always first in our hearts, is a big thank you to the most important people in our program—our participants. The energy and enthusiasm these photographers brought to the workshops cannot be paralleled.

We were thrilled to work with everyone who attended our workshops in 2017, and look forward to all the new places where we’re learning and shooting in 2018. Browse our new adventures here and grab a seat before they sell out.

BenQ sent a SW2700PT 27-inch display to some workshops this year, including Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio (above), for attendees to use for image editing and review.

Secondly, we’d like to thank all our brand partners who helped make the experience that much better for the workshop attendees:

  • Nikon sent some of the best photography gear ever made for students to use for free. The kit they shipped to each workshop included a wide range of cameras, including the D5, D850, D810A, D810, D750 and D500, plus a huge selection of lenses, including the awesome 14-24mm f/2.8, 20mm f/1.8, 28mm f/1.4 and more!
  • Coast gave away HP1 flashlights at our Passport Series events, provided a grand assortment of free loaner lights at all our workshops, and 30 percent discounts for all our participants and followers. (Want to take advantage of that last one? Use code “parksatnight” at www.coastportland.com.)
  • B&H Photo sent along loaner gear such as intervalometers, remote shutter releases and bubble levels.
  • BenQ provided projectors for presentations and the crystal-clear SW2700PT 27-inch display at two of our workshops for attendees to use while editing.
  • Light Painting Brushes provided a Deluxe Starter Kit for attendees to practice light writing.
  • X-Rite supplied an i1Display Pro to profile and calibrate anyone’s laptops and the instructors’ projectors.
  • Bay Photo provided free prints to award to attendees in random drawings, as well as a 25 percent discount to all the students.
  • Peak Design supplied a random giveaway as well, in the form of their Clutch strap.
  • Irix Lenses sent 11mm f/4 and 15mm f/2.4 Blackstone lenses to several workshops for students to borrow and love.
  • Luxli sent their brand new Viola light panels to several workshops as free loaners, prompting all five instructors and scores of students to buy them.

Finally, here’s to you, for reading, subscribing and attending. We appreciate you, and your support. Seize the night, y’all.

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.


How I Got The Shot: Star Stacks and Sea Stacks in Olympic National Park

Sea Stack at Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park. Nikon D3s, Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8. 120 stacked exposures shot at 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600. Light-painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight. © 2016 Chris Nicholson.

The Location

It’s hard for me to choose a “favorite” national park, because it’s like trying pick a favorite item from a buffet of candy and ice creams. But Olympic National Park would certainly be near be near the tippy-top of my list, if not the cherry at the very top.

Not only is Olympic simply beautiful, but its three distinct ecosystems—mountain, rain forest and coast—all present unique photography opportunities. You could literally be shooting an entirely different scene and genre from one hour to the next.

My favorite of those ecosystems? That’s an easier question to answer: the coast. I grew up in New England only a mile from the shore, so my affinity for the water is strong. And my favorite spot on the Olympic coast to photograph? Ruby Beach.

Ruby Beach is a stunning stretch of coastline ... flanked by high cliffs, lined with hundreds of ancient, massive driftwood logs, divided by Cedar Creek, and punctuated by picturesque sea stacks amid the crashing Pacific waves.

During my four visits and shoots at Olympic National Park, I’ve shot at Ruby Beach in three of them. When I visit the park again this September to prepare for the two workshops we’re hosting there, I’m certain to shoot at Ruby again.

Ruby Beach is a stunning stretch of coastline that is a perfect location for photographing sunsets, in sunset light, on overcast days (tide pools!) and, of course, at night. The shore is flanked by high cliffs, lined with hundreds of ancient, massive driftwood logs, divided by Cedar Creek, and punctuated by picturesque sea stacks amid the crashing Pacific waves.

(Shameless plug: I’d be happy to personally show you around Ruby Beach this September, when Matt Hill and I run our two workshops there. A couple of seats are still open for each week—September 17 to 22 and September 24 to 29—so sign up today!)

Here are a few of photos to give a sense of what Ruby Beach looks and feels like:

The Setup

On a July afternoon in 2016 I scouted Ruby Beach for a night shoot, and planned three setups for once the sky grew dark. I knew I would have a good view of the Milky Way, and intended to frame it with sea stacks in two of the setups, but also wanted to rip one long exposure to capture some southern star trails.

One thing I kept in mind while scouting is something that can be important when working around the coast: Changing tides affect the appearance of the shoreline. To get a good idea of what the water levels would look like once shooting at night, I used the Tide Graph Pro app. I looked up the tide chart for that date (see Figure 1), noticed where the water level would be during my nighttime shoot (about 9 pm. to 1 a.m.), found a corresponding tide level during daylight (about 1 p.m.), and visited at that time for scouting. This way I didn’t have to imagine what the water would look like later—I knew exactly.

Figure 1. Tide Graph Pro showed me that the tide level during my shoot would be at about 1 foot above the zero tide height. I saw that the water would be at about 1 foot also around 1 p.m., so that is when I did my daytime scouting.

Incidentally, knowing the tides is important for safety too, especially in Olympic National Park, where many headlands are impassable at high tide. You don’t want to venture around a promontory at low tide and get trapped a few hours later when the water floods your trail back.

The Gear

Ruby Beach is certainly not a long hike from the car—it’s only about a half-mile round-trip—but because I was working on a beach, I didn’t want to be burdened with a heavy bag that I’d be tempted to put down in the sand during my several planned hours out. So I left some of my gear in the car and brought along a one-camera, two-lens, one-tripod kit:

The Exposure

For the star trail photo, I chose a single sea stack about halfway between Cedar Creek and Abbey Island, and once set up I started to “work the scene”—i.e., I shot from several different angles, some without light painting, some with varying approaches to light painting, some including the Milky Way, some including reflections in the sand as the tide receded. You can see a couple of the variations in Figures 2 and 3.

Figure 2. My first composition included the reflection in the wet sand, which is how I visualized the photo during my daytime scouting, an approach I abandoned while adjusting the composition.

Figure 3. My second attempt at a composition included a little of the Milky Way to the left. I also tried scraping the wet, pebbly shore with some light painting to emphasize the texture of the wavy sand.

I ultimately chose an angle that allowed me to get a little of the Milky Way behind the sea stack. I didn’t like the position of the galactic core in the frame, but figured that as it moved over the next hour or so, it would eventually be in a spot I did like. This led me to a key decision in how I approached the exposure: I chose to create my star trails using a long series of short exposures that I would later stack in post-production.

I could have created the star trails using one very long exposure, but there are drawbacks to that approach, including a significant drain on the camera battery, along with the introduction of long-exposure noise, which would be particularly problematic in warm midsummer temperatures. So instead I opted for “star stacking.” Star stacking is a post-processing technique for creating star trails that solves many of the image-quality issues inherent in night photography. (I will likely write more about all of that in a future blog post, so please stayed tuned for a year or two.)

Star stacking involves shooting multiple frames of the scene that are later layered together in Photoshop in a way that combines the stars into the same trails they would have made in a long exposure. You can do this with shutter speeds of any length. For example, if you wanted to create one-hour star trails, you could star-stack 12 5-minute exposures, or 30 2-minute exposures, or 60 1-minutes exposures, or so on.

Star stacking is a post-processing technique for creating star trails that solves many of the image-quality issues inherent in night photography.

For this photo, I shot 120 20-second exposures, giving me the equivalent of 40 minutes of star trails. Shooting that many frames meant I’d have more work to do later in Lightroom and Photoshop, but there was a reason I chose this approach, and it goes back to the decision about the Milky Way. I wanted to be able to pick out of my sequence one frame in which I liked the position of the galactic core, and I wanted that frame to have crisp star points.

I had my lens zoomed to 19mm, and using the 400 Rule, I knew that my shutter speed could be no longer than 20 seconds before the stars would start to blur. Therefore, I set my shutter speed to 20 seconds, and calculated that I would need 120 frames to produce my 40-minute star trails.

I set my aperture to f/2.8, and I used hyperfocal distance to ensure that both the sea stack and the stars would be in focus. I set the ISO to 1600, which could normally be quite low for star points, except that the moon was close to rising—not close enough for its light to be seen by the naked eye, but close enough to brighten the sky a bit during a long exposure. Shooting at f/2.8, I would have plenty of stars to trail, so I wasn’t concerned about them being a little dim, and because I would be light painting the sea stack, I wasn’t concerned about lacking shadow detail.

The last piece of the puzzle was the light painting. The sea stack was too prominent in the frame to use as a silhouette—half the composition would have been pure black. So I wanted to light paint the rock in a way that would bring out its texture and color. I experimented with different angles and determined the best option was lighting from the right, standing as close to a 90-degree angle to the sea stack as I could without stepping into the waves. (See Figure 4.)

Figure 4. A self-portrait of me light painting the sea stack.

I also experimented with different flashlights and chose my Coast HP7R, because its wide, crisp edge-to-edge beam allowed me to evenly paint the entire sea stack from a relatively close distance without having to move the light. Figure 5 is the painting approach I settled on.

Figure 5. The final approach to the light painting, after trying several variations.

The Shoot

Once my exposure and light painting strategies were set, all I needed to do was execute the sequence. Because I was shooting 20-second exposures, I didn’t need an intervalometer, so I simplified matters by using a wired remote shutter release that I could lock (specifically, the Nikon MC-30A). The camera was set in Continuous shooting mode, so all I needed to do was push the button on the remote, set the lock, and let the camera do its thing 120 times.

During the first exposure, I did the light painting that I had already practiced. The remaining 119 frames have just a silhouetted sea stack. I went for a walk and enjoyed a quiet night on the coast under the dark skies of Olympic National Park.

Figure 6. The entire 120-frame sequence in Lightroom.

The Post-Production

The star-stack process is actually pretty simple for such a powerful technique.

After dumping the cards into Lightroom, I looked at the images and decided not to make any adjustments other than adding a standard touch of Vibrance and Clarity, and (this is important) in the Len Corrections panel I turned on Remove Chromatic Aberration and Enable Profile Corrections. I made those adjustments to one file, then selected the entire sequence and clicked the Sync button to apply those changes to all the highlighted files.

With the entire sequence still selected, I went to the menu and chose Photo – Edit In – Open as Layers in Photoshop. This maneuver created a new file by making a layer out of each of the selected frames of the sequence I had shot on the beach. (See Figure 7.) Because I initiated this process for over a gigabyte of collective data, once the computer was working I went to the kitchen and made a sandwich and a cup of coffee. My computer is no slouch, but it still needed a good 20 minutes to complete the job.

Figure 7. Each frame of the sequence was imported to Photoshop as individuals layers in one file.

The next step was to select all the layers (Figure 8), which can be done either by shift-clicking the first and last layers, or by pressing Control+Option+A (Mac) or Control+Alt+A (PC).

Figure 8. All layers selected.

Then, using the drop-down menu at the top of the Layers panel, I changed the blend mode to “Lighten.” (Figure 9.) The Lighten mode essentially looks at the layers as a pile of aligned images, searching through each of them pixel by pixel. It searches for the lightest pixel in each pixel pile, then brings that lightest pixel to the top. In the case of stars that are moving against a dark sky, that means the star point in each layer is brought forward, thus creating the trails. (Note to astronomers: Of course we know that it’s actually the Earth moving, not the stars, but it’s easier to explain this way, so please bear with me.)

Also, because I light-painted the sea stack in that one frame but left it silhouetted in the others, the sea stack is also brought forward. No masking needed—it happens automatically.

Figure 9.

That’s a sort-of technical explanation of how the Lighten mode works behind the scenes. What I see on-screen is some nifty magic of star trails appearing where before there were only star points and dark sky. (See Figure 10.) It looks pretty much the same as if I’d shot the 40-minute exposure, except it has no long exposure noise, and my camera battery didn’t have the life sucked out of it.

The Cleanup

The keen observer will note that while shooting those 120 frames, some planes flew through my composition, and they impolitely neglected to turn their lights off before doing so. Some photographers like to keep plane trails in their photos. I’m not one of those photographers. Getting rid of them is a simple matter of masking or cloning them out of the layers they appear in.

I also wasn’t crazy about the bright star trail in the upper right corner of the composition. It’s the brightest and thickest trail, and it’s right in the corner, where it draws attention far away from where I want attention drawn. So I masked it out.

One more bit of cleanup I did was in the lower right corner of the composition, where you can see a big blotch of light that was caused by a moving star being distorted in the reflections on the sand. That was relatively easy to mask out as well.

Figure 10. The artifacts from stacking that I masked out of the layers in Photoshop.

Figure 10. The artifacts from stacking that I masked out of the layers in Photoshop.

The Save

The final decision in creating a star stack is whether to save the layered PSD file. If I had shot the sequence using fewer longer exposures (for example, eight 5-minute exposures), then saving the layers file may have been feasible, and it would have come with the benefit of being able to make adjustments to the individual layers in the future. But I didn’t do that—I used 120 short exposures to create this stack, and if I saved that as a PSD—well, I wouldn’t be able to, because it would have resulted in an 8 GB file, which is too gigantic for the PSD format.

Rather, I would have had to save it as a PSB, which is Adobe’s large document format. But I still would have ended up with a giant file that I don’t want to deal with reserving space for or having to open again. So instead, I flattened the image and saved it as a 70 MB PSD, which while not as flexible for future edits, is much easier to maintain. Should I ever want to approach this image differently, I can always recreate it from the sequence files—and enjoy another sandwich and cup of coffee while doing so.

Once the star-stacked photo was saved and back in the Lightroom catalog, I made some minor adjustments to Clarity and Vibrance to optimize the look of the stars, and that was that—star trails over Ruby Beach.

Figure 11. The final image.

And what about that star-point Milky Way photo I wanted to pull out of the sequence? Well, I didn’t like the position of our galaxy in any of those 120 frames. So after I wrapped the star stack sequence, I reframed my composition and shot Figure 12 instead.

Figure 12. The Milky Way over Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park. © 2016 Chris Nicholson.

Speaking of the Milky Way, can you see it in the star trail photo (Figure 11)? It’s to the left of the sea stack, and you can discern it by the telltale cluster of denser star trails. It looks like a streaky cloud of light. That’s what our galaxy looks like in a long exposure!

Note: If you’re interested in joining NPAN instructors Chris Nicholson and Matt Hill in Olympic National Park, there are only a few spots left, so sign up today! We’re offering two weeks in this amazing national park: September 17 to 22 and September 24 to 29.

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.