10 night photography

Self-portrait of the photographer, Travis Burke, shooting the Milky Way under Utah’s Delicate Arch, with a little creative lighting from a flashlight. Camera settings: F/2.8, 50 sec., ISO 1600. Photo by Travis Burke

Have you ever visited a famous spot for landscape photography such as Utah’s Delicate Arch or Bryce Canyon and found yourself jostling for position, barely able to snap what you’ve traveled so far to capture? One of the best methods of getting around this photographer’s nuisance is to visit these spots at night.

While night photography can be intimidating, which is one reason why many photographers shun it, if you adopt a willingness to persevere and have patience, you’ll be snapping brilliant night photos in no time. To help you on your journey, here are a few tips.

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The Milky Way Galaxy rises above the oldest living organism on earth, a Bristlecone Pine, high in the mountains of California. Shining a flashlight all over the tree for a few seconds during exposure lights up the tree and creates a more dynamic photo. Camera settings: F/2.8, 40 sec., ISO 5000. Photo by Travis Burke

1. Night photography is full of its trials and errors, with each location and scene posing individual and unique challenges, so try this starting point the next time you find yourself ready for the challenge: set your lens aperture to the lowest possible F stop (e.g. F/2.8), the shutter speed to 30 seconds, and the ISO to 1600. Make sure your focus is set to infinity. Take a couple of shots, review the images, and start making adjustment to your liking. If you set your shutter speed to over 60 seconds, the stars in the sky will begin to look like they are moving, and your photo will depict star trails, which can be a desired effect (see below).

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To capture Havasu Falls in Arizona at night, the photographer left the shutter open for 55 seconds while David Hatfield used a flashlight to paint light on the waterfall and cliff. Photo by Travis Burke

2. Photographing the stars is great, but having a foreground subject makes a huge difference in taking your night photos to the next level. Try illuminating these foreground options with a flashlight or other light source. While it will take some trial and error to figure out how much light you should shine on each object, as a general rule of thumb try lighting the foreground object for a few seconds (usually less than 10 seconds) during the exposure. If you left the light on the entire exposure time, it would completely overexpose the foreground object, as the light is so much brighter than the rest of the scene. You also want to evenly distribute the light over the entire object and not just illuminate one spot. This effect is called “painting with light,” where you brush the light back and forth and up and down all over the object for a few seconds, thus evenly illuminating the entire foreground object.

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In this night photograph of Eagle Rock in Warner Springs, California, the photographer, Travis Burke, used a 25-minute exposure looking east. Three flashlights were used to illuminate the rock formation, with three people hitting the rock with light from different angles. Also notice the star trails, which begin any time you use an exposure of 60 seconds or longer.

3. Some of the basic tools you’ll need to take night photography include a sturdy tripod (it’s impossible to hold a camera still for even a half second, so a tripod is a necessity); a camera with manual controls so you can adjust shutter speed, ISO, and aperture value; a cable release, which will allow you to release the shutter without touching the camera and causing the photo to blur; a flashlight; warm clothes; an intervalometer, which is a remote that allows you to control the length of time your shutter is open; and a bubble level to keep the horizon straight.

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A self-portrait of the photographer, Travis Burke, heading out to do some night photography; photo by Travis Burke

4. When taking night photos, you’ll want to remember that you want clear skies, low humidity, and no light pollution, which is caused by big cities and street lights. High mountains and empty deserts are ideal locations. You’ll also want to brush up on your knowledge of the stars and moon phases so you can know what you’re photographing. (There are many phone apps available that help users navigate the night sky.)

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This photo titled “A window through time” was taken using an hour-long exposure, looking north at Polaris, or the North Star, through the Delicate Arch in Utah. If you look closely, you can see a satellite orbiting earth in the upper left-hand corner. Utah has some of the best places in the country to view the night sky. Photo by Travis Burke

5. Unlike with your daytime shot, night photos can take anywhere from a couple of seconds to a few hours to create a single image. Be sure to have all your batteries fully charged and to bring plenty of warm clothes to stay comfortable as your camera is capturing the light.

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This image was captured over a 30-minute timespan above Yosemite Falls in Yosemite National Park. The stars appear to spin due to the earth’s rotation, while the North Star stays almost perfectly still in the middle. Photo by Travis Burke

6. Don’t forget to sit back and enjoy the view. The world is beautiful at night, and if you gaze up at the sky long enough, you’ll probably see a few shooting stars or maybe a satellite or two. Plus, when you travel out to isolated locales far away from big cities, it’s almost like traveling back in time, as you’ll be staring up at the same night sky that people throughout all of human history used as a guide to cross oceans, grow crops, and even worship their gods. This sky is lost to most modern folks, who often cannot see a single star thanks to light pollution and city haze.

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A self-portrait of the photographer as he tries to stay warm in 15-degree weather in the middle of the night in Arizona. Camera settings: F/2.8, 50 sec., ISO 3200. Photo by Travis Burke

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Photographing the moon is a little different than photographing the stars. The moon is extremely bright, since it is lit by direct sunlight, and much brighter than the dark landscape beneath it. To replicate what the human eye sees when it views a moonlit landscape, photographers must take two separate images with two separate exposures and blend them together. For this photo, one shot was taken with a fairly slow shutter speed to let in enough light for the landscape to show up clearly (camera settings: F/4, 1/4 second, ISO 200), and the shot for the moon used a much faster shutter speed (camera settings: F/4, 1/250th of a second, ISO 200). The result is what you see here, and what Yahoo audiences saw during a rare blue moon event. Photo by Travis Burke


This photo by NASA demonstrates why there is so much light pollution in the sky, and why there are few remaining places where people can get good night photos.

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This photo from Wikimedia Commons demonstrates the difference between viewing the constellation Orion in a rural sky with little light pollution (left) and the urban sky (right).

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Some of the gear the photographer, Travis Burke, uses for night photography, including a Nikon D600 with 14-24mm lens, a bubble level on top of the camera to keep horizon straight, an intervalometer below it, a Nikon D300 with 10-24mm lens, Slik carbon fiber tripods, an air blower to clean off lenses, a Maglight flashlight for light painting, a headlamp with a red light so night vision isn’t lost when adjusting camera settings, and a Tamrac camera bag for safely getting all the gear to each location.

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