Shot in the Dark: Night Photography
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.
Iridium flares are a little-known phenomenon that occurs when sunlight reflects off the giant mirrors on an Iridium satellite, producing a flash of light that looks just like a meteor. But unlike unpredictable meteors, the Heavens Above website (heavens-above.com) will tell you precisely where and when an Iridium flare will occur at any location in the world. That’s cool!
An Iridium flare lights up the night sky above the the Haw River in the village of Saxapahaw, North Carolina. The flash of light comes from an Iridium satellite whose large mirrors are reflecting sunlight. Exposure: 25 seconds at f/4, ISO 1600.
Iridium flares happen quickly. To make sure you don’t miss the event, set your camera on Continuous mode and start shooting several minutes prior to the listed time. Use an ISO/aperture/shutter speed combination that allows the maximum amount of light without overexposing the overall scene. Keep in mind that shutter speeds longer than around 30 seconds will cause the stars to streak, an effect you may or may not want. If you end up with the flare showing up on more than one frame you can stack them in Photoshop.
Fireflies (lightning bugs to we Southerners) are my favorite subjects for streaking photography. To photograph fireflies in flight requires high ISOs and big apertures. I generally shoot at ISO 3200 and f/4. Even with this much light-gathering capacity, you’ll need to shoot multiple exposures and stack them. If you shoot a single exposure at a shutter speed long enough to record a sufficient number of flashes, noise will ruin the image. For a nice scenic, combine the flash exposures with another frame shot for the landscape at a lower ISO.
Watching fireflies or lightning bugs is popular in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This image depicts five minutes of the insects flashing at West Prong Little Pigeon River. Several species of firefly are shown, including Photinus carolinus, known locally as the "Synchronous Firefly." Exposure: 15 images stacked, each 30 seconds at f/2,8, ISO 6400.
If you really want to feel like a kid again, catch some fireflies and put them in a jar. Be sure to include some moist leaves or moss in the jar and DO NOT punch holes in the lid. There is plenty of air in there and holes will cause the critters to dry out. Set up the jar on a porch or in a windowsill for a nostalgic scene. Captured fireflies can go minutes without flashing or go crazy over a few seconds. To make sure you get plenty of flashes, try an ISO of 1600 and an aperture of f/4. Set the shutter for continuous 30-second exposures, lock down the cable release, and come back in an hour or two. Now shoot another frame for the surroundings at an appropriate exposure, refocusing on the background if necessary. Back at the computer, pick a selection of frames that have the most flashes and stack them with the frame of the overall scene. One of my fireflies-in-a-jar photos is a stack of 56 separate frames!
Fireflies or lightning bugs (Photinus pyralis) light up a jar on a June evening in North Carolina as a meteor streaks across the Milky Way.Exposure: 56 images stacked, each 30 seconds at f/4, ISO 1600.
Most important when photographing fireflies is to handle the critters carefully and let them go unharmed when finished. No photo is worth harming an animal to get it.
I think of light painting with handheld lights as photographer’s graffiti. The idea is to shine a light into the camera and move it around to spell letters or make interesting shapes and lines. Any type of light will work; the key is to have fun and let your imagination run wild.
For most light painting, I use a Mini Maglite LED flashlight. It’s cheap, powerful, runs on AAs, and you can get it at lots of places. To alter the color of the light, I use Rosco gel samples mounted in a GelGrip, a special holder that I designed myself.
With apologies to Forrest Gump’s mother, light painting into the camera is like a box of chocolates. You really don’t know what you’re going to get until you try it. Expect to go through several trial runs before you get the result you’re after. Typically, an ISO of 200 and an aperture of around f/8 are sufficient to record the light from an LED flashlight with a gel attached. A cool exposure trick is to create one exposure for the light painting and a second exposure for the background.
Star trails over Schoolhouse Falls on Greenland Creek in the Panthertown Valley region of Nantahala National Forest, N.C. The name of the waterfall is spelled out with light painting. Exposure: 21 stacked frames for the star trails, each 240 seconds at f/4, ISO 200 with light painting on the falls in one of the frames; another frame at 60 seconds, f/4, ISO 400 for the light painting of the waterfall name.
A naturalist, writer, teacher, and photographer, Kevin Adams has had a lifelong love affair with nature and the outdoors and he enjoys sharing his passion with others. A photographer for more than 25 years, Kevin is the author of nine books, including the bestselling "North Carolina Waterfalls." In addition to photography, he enjoys hiking, kayaking, and gazing up at the night sky. He also writes magazine articles and his photographs appear regularly in books, magazines, calendars, and advertisements across the country. Kevin travels extensively, leading photo tours to Hawaii and Venice, as well as locations all across his home state. He lives in the mountains of North Carolina with his lovely wife, Patricia, and their mischievous cats, Lucy and Titan.