By Kevin Adams
Someone once asked me what you can photograph at night. I was dumbfounded. That’s like asking what is there to shoot during the day. The answer is everything! If you can see it, you can photograph it. But the really cool thing about night photography is that you can also shoot things you can’t see.
Night photography is unique in that many subjects look totally different in the photo than they do when you shoot them. The long exposures typically used at night cause any moving lights to record as abstract streaks. The key to making the best images is to pre-visualize the effect for any given subject. In fact, with many night subjects, planning ahead is the only way to get the shot.
I enjoy all types of night photography, but light streaking is my favorite. If an object emits light and it moves, it’s a candidate. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.
Recording lights from moving vehicles is the easiest type of streaking you can do. Like most nighttime lights, vehicle streaks do not normally make good photo subjects by themselves, but they can make a strong compositional element in any scene. Cars are the obvious sources, but think about other possibilities. Set up near an airport and catch the lights from arriving and departing planes (though be careful of the potential for a “photographer = terrorist” security situation). Shoot boats in a busy harbor. Catch a train crossing a trestle or coming out of a tunnel. Get the neighborhood kids to ride around on their bikes with a headlight attached.
In this nighttime snow scene, the light path from hiker's headlamps is traced along switchbacks on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail north of Asheville, North Carolina. This section of the MST is located within the boundaries of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Exposure: 1,122 seconds at f/22, ISO 200.
Optimum exposure varies according to the brightness and number of the lights. Typically, you will choose aperture first, based on depth of field requirements, then balance the ISO and shutter speed. In some situations, even with the smallest aperture and lowest ISO, you can’t set a shutter speed long enough to record the light streaks without overexposing the overall scene. Try using a polarizing or neutral density filter to cut the light and allow longer shutter speeds. Also, shoot at twilight, when light from the sky is balanced with vehicle lights.
Back in the film days, we could load ISO 100 film in a camera and open the shutter for hours, never worrying about noise. Try that with digital and you’ll hit the delete button afterwards. However, pro digital cameras are fully capable of producing noise-free images at shutter speeds of several minutes. By shooting a lot of exposures and stacking them, we can achieve an even better result than we could with film.
Star trails streak across the night sky sky above the telescope known as 26-East. The radio telescope is on the grounds of Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute (PARI) in the mountains of western North Carolina. Exposure: 41 exposures stacked, each 180 seconds at f/4, ISO 400.
A photo of nothing but star trails might look cool at first glance, but the novelty wears off fast. You need something interesting in the foreground. Try campsite scenes, lighthouses, bridges, and striking buildings. I typically shoot star trails at ISO 200 and f/4. Shutter speed is based on the sky-fog limit, the point at which light pollution or skylight causes overexposure. At very dark sites, you might get by with 30 minutes or more, which would allow you to shoot a star trail scene in one exposure if noise weren’t an issue. In a heavily light-polluted region, you might not get a minute before it blows out. At reasonably dark sites, I’ve found that an exposure of 4 to 6 minutes works pretty well.
Stacking star trails can be extremely simple. If you have a compatible Windows system, you can download the free Startrails application from the startrails.de website. Just load your images and let it do all the work. Or you can stack in Photoshop by loading the files into layers and setting the blend mode to Lighten.