The dark of night is the closest thing to a blank canvas that we as photographers ever get. It is the only time when we are not merely at the mercy of the light falling on our chosen scene. Instead, the photographer can choose which parts of the scene get illuminated, using artificial light sources to reveal only the most important elements of the landscape. Flash, flashlights, lanterns, penlights, candles, campfires, and headlights all become creative tools in the hands of the night photographer. I even once used the lights of a jet airplane on a low approach to Jackson Hole Airport to illuminate the landscape during a twenty minute night exposure! Night photography gives you a chance to get your creative juices flowing, and to really shine (please pardon the extremely bad pun) as an artist.
The image above was taken in the Arizona desert during a cool, clear, moonless spring night. I had scouted the composition during the day, and set up at twilight while there was still enough light by which to focus and compose. Then I waited for twilight to give way to pitch dark. I made a series of test exposures to figure out how much flash I needed to light up the graceful ocotillo branches reaching for the sky. Once I worked out all of the technical details, I started an hour-long exposure, fired my flash through a red filter to light the branches, and then lay down on the desert floor to watch the stars slowly drift across the sky. At some point I realized that scorpions might be wandering about at night, so my prone vigil ended and I paced back and forth instead. When my exposure was complete, I started to make my way back to camp by flashlight, only to have my battery start to fail as I was traversing a particularly thorny section of teddy bear cholla. I was removing cacti spines from my back end for days.
By pointing my camera north, I was able to take advantage of the motion of the Earth spinning on its axis, which is what created these concentric star trails during the hour-long exposure. Although you, me, Earth, our solar system, the Milky Way, and all the stars out there are all moving through the universe at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour, it is our relative motion on the spinning Earth that makes the stars appear, to us, to move across the sky at night. Kinda makes you feel dizzy just thinking about it! By aligning your camera with the Earth’s axis of rotation (pointing north in the Northern Hemisphere or south in the Southern Hemisphere), you can create similar concentric star trails during a night exposure.
I’ll be posting more night images in the coming months along with lots of informative text (it will be a series of sorts), but in the meantime feel free to check out some of my other night work in my Nocturnal gallery on my website.
Chasing the Light: Essential Tips for Taking Great Landscape Photos: My downloadable PDF eBook filled with informative text, stunning full-color images, and plenty of insights and inspiration.
Sign up for my monthly newsletter, or follow me on Twitter or Facebook using the links below.