Faces, Darkness, Experimentation and Time: How To Create Stellar Night Portraits

Making portraits at night is one of the most creative and challenging applications of night photography. In this post, I'm revealing some of the hardest-won lessons I've learned while honing the craft.

Tip #1: Dilate time

Figure 1. "Gymnos at Gantry Park" (2012) from Night Paper. Nikon D700. 30 seconds, f/8, ISO 200.

What truly defines the difference between a picture of someone at night and a true night portrait is incorporating elements that show a clear passage of time. In Figure 1, the soft water from a 30-second exposure adds a subtle note about time passing.

I deliberately include the following things in my night portraits; they overtly or subtly show time passing:

  • water flowing
  • clouds passing
  • cars moving
  • trees or grass waving in the wind
  • star trails

Figure 2: Skyler at Barr Lake State Park, Colorado (2012) from my Night Paper project. Mamiya 7 II. 60 minutes, f/11, ISO 200 (Ilford XP2).

Note the star and airplane trails in Figure 2. It's an extreme example, but drives home the point about dilating time.

What truly fascinates me about this is our brains are wired to comprehend only the moment we are in. We cannot see time as it compounds in a long photographic exposure. But somehow, we can comprehend the resulting photograph. So cool, right?

Tip #2: Do something That Would be impossible in daytime

Figure 3. Star Portraits the night prior to the Atlas Obscura Total Eclipse Event in Durkee, Oregon. Photographed with a Nikon D750 with a LOMO Petzval 85mm lens. 22 seconds, f/2, ISO 6400.

Your unique advantage whilst making night portraits is the duration of your exposure. Daytime portraits have hard limitations—exposure are all a fraction of a second.

Figure 4. Light Painting Brushes Black Fiber Optic Wand on Coast HP7R. Nikon D750 with Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

You have time—lots of time—to:

  • do some wicked cool light writing
  • execute some detailed and layered light painting
  • let your model stand nearly still, so the edges of their body blur
  • burn in star trails
  • expose a delicate net of stars arcing across the sky, including the Milky Way

Tip #3: Use scale to your advantage

Figure 5. Capitol Reef National Park (left), photographed with a Nikon D750 and a Zeiss Distagon T* 15mm f/2.8 lens at 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400. Olympic National Park (right), photographed with a Nikon D750 and a LOMO Petzval 85mm lens at 21 seconds, f/2, ISO 6400.

Since I often shoot in National Parks and other wilderness areas, I choose to make humans small in scale versus imposing and inspiring landscapes. You can accentuate this by adding a flashlight or headlamp beam.

Tip #4: Use a flash for your model's face and continuous lights for the other parts

Figure 6. My Night Paper and Noctavians projects. Various exposures. All incorporate a flash on the model's face, a flashlight for light writing or light painting, and sometimes a Luxli Viola via Bluetooth for brief, remote illumination.

The most delicious night portraits I've made have crispy eyes and facial features. It's classic portrait technique. Where I depart from the traditional is keeping that shutter open and painting in from behind, underneath and the side to reveal things that move after the flash pops.

You can even have your model move away after the flash, achieving a "ghosting" effect by letting the light illuminating whatever was behind them to pass through the space once occupied by their body.

You may ask, "Matt, can't I just use a flashlight?" Sure, but I recommend flash because even a quick burst from a flashlight isn't crisp enough to create the look I am after. Try both and you'll see what works for you.

Figure 7. Two portraits I made of Lance Keimig during our Great Sand Dunes workshop. Left was lit with a Coast HP7R from behind and on his face. Right was lit by his camera's LCD.

I strongly recommend that you get a flash meter to avoid the process of chimping your way to a proper flash exposure. It will save time, and batteries. TTL is OK, but I prefer something more consistent from one flash to the next. And not all TTL works well at night.

Tip #5: Stop thinking and experiment

Figure 8. A second camera set for behind-the-scenes captured this beautiful moment during our Great Sand Dunes workshop.

Our own expectations can get in our way. We can stifle our ability to make something unique by thinking too much and planning too hard.

One of my most successful methods is to say, "OK, I got something I liked, now try something weird or random."

Whatever I suggest here is likely to be my own taste and not yours. Find your experimental voice. And shout. Whisper. Cajole. Surprise yourself by letting the camera record what you cannot possibly see in a single moment.


Figure 9. Michael Hollander from B&H using a telescope at the eclipse event in Oregon. Photographed with a Fuji X-T1 and a 7artisans 7.5mm Fisheye f/2.8 lens at 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Night portraiture is difficult. No joke.

It requires mastery of the fundamentals of night photography, including focus, composition and exposure. You also need to have some knowledge of portrait lighting and how to use a flash.

You also need to have an ability to direct your models clearly (and in the dark). Practicing on your fellow night photographers is a great way to start. Work between their exposures.

Now that we've cleared the prerequisites, don't fret. You can learn simply by doing. Space on your memory card is free, so grab a friend and try it out.

Note: Wanna level up your night portraiture skills? Join me for intimate group sessions in April and October of 2018 in Catskill, New York.

Matt Hill is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. See more about his photography, art, workshops and writing at Follow Matt on Twitter Instagram Facebook.


Capture or Create: How Are You Approaching Your Photography?

To capture or create, that is the question.

We live in a world where every moment is precious and must be constantly captured. Some of us need to document to remember. These reasons are important and should not be overlooked. Silly selfies, family photos and pictures of our loved ones unify us. Look at your Facebook page. What are the most liked pictures? Are they your best shots or are they sentimental moments of good times?

Now let’s flip the coin. If you consider yourself a photographer, then you need to have a photographic vision. You can experiment and try different styles, but once you truly sync your eye to your camera, a whole new creative world is open to you.

I consider myself an artist and an educator, so I’m always pushing to look beyond the beauty of what is in front of us. I don’t want the same picture of the same place. I want to create something new, something that has my personal stamp.

This can be a difficult yet rewarding exercise. And when you are in the awe of an amazing location, such as Yosemite National Park, you are going to photograph El Capitan. But are you going to capture or create?

I advise to live in the awe of the moment and definitely capture a few of those staple shots. But keep looking, keep pressing on and see if you can create something special. Look for unique opportunities when the color, light or a new angle will yield inspiration.

That’s one of the main reasons I have chosen night photography as an artistic outlet. Typically my images are not something that you can see in-person with the naked eye. When we play with time and extend our exposures past a fraction of a second, we are opening a whole new door of possibilities. In my most successful shots, your eyes should wander with a sense of wonderment.

So let’s take a look at three shots where I pushed past the norm and explored more.


Devil’s Tower National Monument

When Matt Hill and I taught this three-night workshop last year, the main challenge was how to get a different interpretation of the tower each night. We scouted and found many different vantage points that would offer a great canvas to creativity. We kept getting closer and closer to the tower each night until on the last night it literally towered above us. I was inspired by watching a student light-paint and noticed the silhouette that could be formed quite easily. Adding the human element gave the image more of a sense of scale and wonderment.


Joshua Tree National Park

Sometimes it’s a piece of gear that helps fuel the imagination. On a recent trip to Joshua Tree, a friend brought his Pixelstick, and we each took turns picking a pattern and painting the light. This was my “interpretation” of the scene. I’m excited to continue to use a Pixelstick in my night work. The options are endless with what you can construct with this tool. But with many options comes the challenge to continue to forge something that shakes you out of your comfort zone.


Central Park, New York City

Finding the right time. This was shot with fellow NPAN teacher Chris Nicholson right after our 2016 NYC blizzard. The San Remo is an oft-photographed scene and the winter scenario definitely makes it a little more special. But what really makes you go “wow” on this image is the picture-perfect movement of the clouds. This was a two-minute exposure and the clouds were moving pretty quickly. If my exposure was 4 to 6 minutes, it would have smeared the whole sky. It is those breaks in the clouds that make the shot. I waited to pull the trigger until they cleared the tower lights. We get to play with time a lot at night. Learn to react quickly to the many movements and your night visions will flourish!


So I invite you to challenge yourself next time you are out shooting. Capture the moment but try to produce something special. It won’t always work, but at least you’ll be flexing those creative muscles and it will better prepare you for the next time.

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

Upcoming workshops from National Parks at Night

Experimenting with Uncommon Light Sources in Night Photography

One of the joys we have as night photographers is having extra time to make more deliberate choices about lighting for our imagery. Our common tools include flashlights, speedlites and larger flashes. But it certainly isn't limited to the usual, right?

Let's explore some alternate lighting experiments I've conducted:

Adjacent to Sand Arch in Arches National Park, Utah © Matt Hill

The above image combines me choosing to record another photographer's light painting while adding my own twist: toy LED "Rocket Copters." I had thrown them in my bag, knowing that I would be able to make some UFO-like descending lights.

Central Park in January © Matt Hill

Point light sources, such as battery-operated Christmas lights, are often used to make glowing orbs, but they are also fun to drag along the ground to illuminate and write with light simultaneously. This aided this photo in becoming an obvious long exposure. Without it, the only clue was the rising fog in the rear left.

Toy sword inside crashed plane in northern Arizona. 

At a trade show in Las Vegas, someone left a toy sword in our booth that lit up green. The kid in me was like, "YEAH!" The photographer in me was like, "I'm gonna use that for tonight's shoot." And I did.

Toys with cheap, colored LEDs in them can sit well in small places and provide that perfect color glow to make a scene.

Arches National Park © Matt Hill

A tablet is also a gorgeous source of light, with both very consistent and controllable output. On my iPad mini I have an app called Rave Magnet. It cycles through all chroma as you wave it around, making beautiful color gradients. The effect is excellent for light writing and painting.

Downtown Denver

Sometimes the tools you have can be repurposed. The above was my two flashlights in plastic bags, dragged along underwater.

This was the most exercise I'd gotten in weeks. My friend and I threw this light back and forth for eight minutes while the camera popped off sequential exposures. Stacked in post.

Have fun. Look at the world of light-emitting objects in a new way: How can I make cool new photos with that?

See more about Matt's photography, art, workshops and writing at Follow Matt on Twitter Instagram Facebook.

Upcoming workshops from National Parks at Night