As a film photographer until just 3 years ago, I have some photography knowledge that seems to be sliding into obsolescence. It’s nothing to cry about and i’ve learned to embrace digital, it’s just a hard thing to see something you’ve done for years and learned so much about fade into history. The vast majority of what I learned has transitioned straight into digital, of course, and the process was mostly just building a knowledge of digital on top of everything I already knew, but some skills are falling by the wayside. One of which, probably my favorite, is the subject of this article.
I fell in love with night photography just a few years after getting a real camera, and some of my most wonderful photographic experiences took place between dusk and dawn. My experiments began mainly because it dovetailed perfectly with camping trips. After hiking all day i’d stop and cook my dinner, set up my tent and sleeping bag, and then start working on that night’s photo. After I set up the camera and locked the shutter open, i’d crawl into my bag for the night with my alarm set to wake me up before the first light in the eastern sky could register on the film. I’ve since realized that the alarm was usually unnecessary because it’s rare that a pair of partially used batteries will last the 8 or so hours until daybreak, and as the shutter on most cameras is held open by battery power, it will close automatically when they run out of juice. This is especially true in the winter when nights are long and cold. Sometimes, though, batteries can last till dawn. I’d wake up with the alarm and walk out to my tripod mounted camera, being very careful to approach from behind and to not shine my headlamp towards the lens, and end the exposure. The resulting shots were like little gifts i’d stumble across while looking through a roll of film, and often I would have forgotten about them entirely in the long period between taking the photo and getting the finished slides back from the developer.
Early on, my goal was just to get something to register on the film, and if that happened the photo was usually interesting. As time went on I began finding the North Star, keeping track of the phases of the moon, and developing other skills that enabled me to take much better nighttime exposures and actually have a good idea what they would look like before getting them back. Below, I’ll list what I think are the most important pieces of knowledge that go into making a great nighttime photograph, most of which are still just as important with digital.
1 : Find the North Star. This is important whether you intend to use it in the frame or not, because if you know what cardinal direction you’re aiming at, you have a pretty good idea what the resulting star trails will look like. You can see in the photographs below how different the star trails can look.
In the image at top, taken in Joshua Tree National Park in the dead of winter, I decided to frame the North Star right at the outmost tip of the branches on the side to which the tree was leaning, and could more or less visualize that the exposure would look like this, like the Joshua Tree is a radio tower sending out a signal. I did get two surprises in the image though, the straight, dotted, and very unpleasant line made by an airplane that cuts straight through the photograph, and the strange but beautiful pinkish glow on the horizon. Like the greenish glow in the above photo, it was probably caused by the light from a distant town, though I don’t know what determines the color.
There’s not much you can do nowadays about plane trails in your night photos. You’d have to be on the north or south pole to be confident of not getting one, so most people just photoshop them out. The photograph on bottom is taken to the south/southwest, so the star trails are elongated and nearly horizontal. If you shoot to the east or west, like the photo in the middle, the star trails are more vertical, and can look like meteors raining down to earth. If you look closely at the middle photo, you can see a middle point where the star trails are nearly straight. Above that point they are curved slightly up, and below it they are curved slightly down, that’s due east or west though I can’t remember which. It would be difficult for me to explain why the star trails look the way they do, but it has to do with the earth’s shape, its tilt, and our position in the northern hemisphere.
The easiest way to find the North Star is to find the Big Dipper, which is usually easy except for a period in winter when it doesn’t rise till very late at night. Imagine it’s a ladle that someone is holding out in front of you so that you’re looking at it from the side. Now pretend to draw a line vertically through the two stars at the end of the cup, a line which will be slightly slanted, and follow the line a distance through the sky that is a little greater than the length of the Big Dipper itself. This will put you right near the North Star, and it should be the only bright star nearby. As you can see in the photo below, it’s also the end of the handle of the Little Dipper, though oftentimes the Little Dipper is faint and not easy to make out. It might take you a minute at first, but once you’ve done it a few times, finding the North Star is a piece of cake.
2 - Keep track of the moon. This is actually much more critical than number 1. If the moon rises at 2AM because it was full a week ago, it will completely wash out your photo, even if it’s not in your composition. On the other hand, you shouldn’t think that you can only take night exposures during a new moon when the sky will be completely dark from dawn till dusk, because you can use the light from the moon in your exposure. After the new moon it will become a crescent that thickens, puts out more light, and sets later and later each night. If you begin your exposure with the crescent moon still above the western horizon but not too far from setting, you can get your foreground and any subjects illuminated while still retaining a dark, star-filled sky. The same effect can be achieved in the days before a new moon, only it will be in the east and will rise between 2 and 4 in the morning. Getting light on your subject can also be done with a headlamp, and I prefer LED light to incandescent for such uses, but the light from the moon is far preferable to me.
For the image above the camera was oriented North/Northeast, which you can tell because the circles get tighter towards the top left of the image, towards the North, and I began the exposure when the crescent moon had about 45 minutes left in the sky before setting. It didn’t take long to illuminate the foreground because it was white sand, which is nearly as reflective as snow, and the cottonwood bark was off-white also. Then the moon set and the rest of the 8 hour exposure took place in darkness. For the image below, there was about an hour of crescent moon light on the Saguaro before darkness set in. I remember how difficult it was setting up the camera with the composition
I wanted in near-darkness, and it’s even harder in total darkness. You just have to let your eyes adjust, and use your headlamp to illuminate the foreground while looking through the viewfinder to arrange the composition. For the image below of Jupiter and Venus, I began the exposure when the recently full moon rose in the East, and let it go long enough to get enough light on the sand and to allow the planets to register as long streaks. I knew where to position the camera so that their streaks would be centered because I had watched them for many nights and noticed that they would set at an angle, not straight down.
3 - Carry the Proper Equipment - This one’s easy, but critical. There are a few things necessary for a long night exposure, and they are
- Camera that has a Bulb exposure mode
- Cable release or remote cord. A simple one that can be locked Open is ok for film, but for digital you really need one that can be programmed to take many photos at regular intervals so you don’t have to stay up all night. These are available at amazon or bhphoto for about $120.
- Tripod, any kind
- Extra camera batteries
That’s it. If you have the above items, you’re ready.
4 – Use Correct Exposure Settings –
Film – The film I used almost always was Fuji Velvia 50, which is generally too slow for night photography. If you shoot an all-night exposure with it you’ll probably get decent star trails but no real light in the photo, so faster film is in order. On the other hand, if you’re incorporating moonlight into the image, 50 or 100 speed film is fine and will be harder to wash out. For an all night exposure using 400 speed film, f/2.8 will result in a very bright photo on all but the darkest nights, so i’d use f/.5.6.
Digital – After you’ve gotten your initial exposure for the background color and light and are ready to begin recording star trails, 5 minute exposures at f/5.6 and ISO 400 will give you bright star trails with minimal noise.
5 – Find a great composition. – Anyone can take night photos, and really anyone can take decent night photos. What’s difficult are really great ones, because it’s never easy or quick to find exceptional compositions, especially at night. You need to be able to visualize fairly accurately how a photograph will turn out, a skill which some people have to a greater degree than others but which anyone can improve with practice.
Difference between film and digital night exposures – Basically, with film your night shot will be a single long exposure, while with digital this is impossible due to noise buildup in the sensor, so it will be many shorter exposure sandwiched on top of one another. There are exceptions to this general rule, such as the photo below.
This is a multiple exposure shot on film, something I could easily do with my $300 film camera but isn’t possible on my $2300 Canon 5d Mark ii. You can take the exposures and combine them by hand in photoshop, but you can’t see the result in the field by that method and contests only allow in-camera multiple exposures, not those created with a computer. To make this image, I first used a 300mm telephoto lens to take a quick shot of the half-moon in the middle of the dark sky. Then I switched to my landscape lens and took a tripod-mounted photo of the last light fading in the west, and finally I turned the tripod to the north and arranged the composition so that the north star was right where I thought the moon had been in the first exposure. Luckily it was perfect, and the North Star is actually inside the visible dark side of the moon.
For a digital star trail photo, you find the composition you want and take a background photo around dusk that gives you good lighting and color. This should be a good photo in itself, because you’re basically just going to be adding star trails to it, and star trails on their own are interesting but can get cliche and boring pretty quickly. The image below is a good example. I shot it in Big Bend National Park in West Texas many winters ago, as the last light was fading from the western sky and a small crescent moon was about to drop below the hills. It’s a great photo on it’s own, but had I been using digital it could have been the base image of a long night exposure. It’s facing west, so the star trials would have been straighter and more vertical, and I think it would have been beautiful.
When I picked it up at 15, photography was just the latest in a long string of hobbies that had flamed up and died out pretty quickly, so I certainly wasn’t going to spend a ton of money on it (and neither were my parents). After a couple of years though, I decided that I had better buy at least one good lens if I hoped to become competitive. Austin, Texas is not exactly the High Sierra so I decided against a pro landscape lens, and the cost of a good telephoto made me sick, so I sort of chose macro by default. It turned out to be a great fit for me though, because i’d been interested in the critters that scurry and slither around beneath our feet since I was little, and had become really knowledgeable about their behavior just in the course of being a kid. For $500 I bought Minolta’s 100mm f/2.8 macro lens, and it opened up a whole new photographic world. At first it was just about the lens and I would point it at something small and be happy with the result, but over time I became a better photographer and my ability to find compositions improved. Your lenses are your eyes, and you are limited by what they can see and how well they can see it, so it’s extremely important to have equipment you can grow into. Unfortunately, after that purchase it would be 8 years until I would pony up more than $500 for a lens, which is not a course I recommend.
At first I had to get over a strange feeling that images shot handheld were somehow not as good as those shot from a tripod, but I managed to do so and couldn’t be more enthusiastic about ditching the tripod for macro work if at all possible. I’ve found two main advantages: the first is that it takes a while to set up a tripod and often the moment will pass while you’re fiddling with the legs or trying to work it into place, and the second has to do with the vast difference that results from changing your perspective even a tiny amount while working at a small scale. When your camera is mounted on a tripod, it’s not easy to move it around and experiment to find the best angle, and even if you take it off the tripod to find the best position, trying to find that exact spot once you’ve re-mounted the camera is not easy. With the camera in your hands, on an ISO of 400 or more and using Internal Stabilization and Live View to compose the shot, it’s far easier to move the camera around and find the best composition. Sometimes it’s still too dark out or I’m zoomed in too far to handhold shots, but i’ve been surprised how often I can take clean, we’ll focused photos without a tripod. In addition, my Canon 5d Mark ii allows me to zoom in really close while using Live View so I can get the focus exactly right.
To sum up what i’ve learned about macro photography over the last 15 years, I would just say that, like with cooking, the devil is in the details. Anyone can take decent macro photos, and almost anyone can take good macro photos, but relatively few people can take great, award-winning ones and in my opinion it’s partially due to not paying enough attention to the details. One reason I love it is because you have so much control over the scene and total freedom of movement. If you’re shooting a bear with a 600mm lens, you pretty much stay where you are and hope that the bear moves into a good position. If you’re shooting a praying mantis with a 100mm macro lens, you can come at it from every conceivable angle, including underneath looking up. Try that with a bear. This greater freedom means that you’re much more likely to find an excellent composition where everything comes together, and personally I’m just as impressed by a beautifully done image of a mantis or butterfly than by one of a grizzly bear or bald eagle.
Live View is incredibly useful in another way as well. I love shooting into the sun and using it’s light and color to take unusual photographs, but it’s pretty painful and damaging to look directly at it through the viewfinder. I shudder to think of all the times I stared at the sun through the viewfinder until the scene wasn’t that bright anymore and I could set the exposure and compose the shot. Now I can use Live View to do those things, and let the sensor take the brunt of it. I was concerned at one point that I would damage the sensor by exposing it to the sun so much, and found a story or two online about it happening, but it seems that unless you’re using a long telephoto lens that can really concentrate the sun’s light, and leaving the shutter open for a long time, it shouldn’t cause any damage.Once you’ve found a subject, the process of shooting it often feels to me like sketching. You experiment with angles and distances, taking shots when what you see through the viewfinder looks right. Often i’ll find myself getting closer and closer to the subject and lower and lower to the ground, paying as much attention to the background as to everything else. Any spots of light coming through brush or trees can be used to great effect, as can grass or something that partially blocks the subject from the lens. The most important thing is just to experiment. Don’t pack up and move on after 10 minutes because you’ve gotten a decent photo, hold the bar high and spend as much time as it takes to get an image you’re really happy with. Sometimes it won’t happen of course, and sometimes it’ll happen fairly quickly, but generally I find that it takes me an hour or so with a subject to feel satisfied that i’ve gotten as good a photo as I can, and after reviewing the progression of images later on they almost always get better and better the more time I spend, and i’ll often choose one of the last few as the best.Using spots of light in the background is one of the most useful things i’ve learned, and it’s not that hard to pick up. Again, experimentation is best because the way pinpricks of light appear in the viewfinder is not at all how they appear to the naked eye, so it takes some experience before you can visualize how something will look. The diaphragm inside the lens is roughly circular, and so a spot of light will take on the shape of the diaphragm. If the shot is taken with the aperture wide open, say at f2.8, the diaphragm will be a near-perfect circle and that’s how the light will register on the film, as in the photo below.
If on the other hand the aperture is stopped down to f5.6 or lower, you’ll get a wider depth of field but the aperture blades will contract and you’ll get more of an octagon shape. To see what I mean, just look into your lens with a light and hit the aperture preview or live view button to see how the diaphragm changes shape.
The size of the circle of light depends on the lens you are using, the longer the lens the larger the circle. So if I want to frame the subject, say a spider or butterfly, within the circle of light, i’ll use a longer lens like a 300mm f/4 ($900), instead of a shorter macro. If you’re focusing very close, however, the circle will be plenty large with a 100mm.
Shooting through vegetation is something i’ve started doing fairly recently, but if sort of feels like the next step for me with macro. It reduces the overall clarity of the photo, but can give it an ethereal quality that isn’t often seen. You can keep the subject crisp and clear if you want, just find a small gap in whatever you’re shooting through and frame the subject in it.