Light Up The Night 1

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.

Ocotillo Stars

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.

Off the Beaten Path

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    Hi Ian, Wonderful image. I am curious as to the iso, lens setting (mm) and F stop you used for this? Everything here looks in focus from top to bottom but I can’t imagine the star trail being so big with a stopped down lens. What about noise after a 1 hour exposure. I get great amounts on my canon 5D after far less than one hour. Again, super image and thanks for posting.

    Hi Steve, I used f/8, ISO 400 on a 14mm lens. I didn’t use noise reduction on this exposure. Long exposure noise builds up when the sensor heats up. Since it was a cool evening (around 40F), the sensor stayed cool enough to prevent noise build-up. Also, the 5D Mark II handles long exposure noise a little bit better than the original 5D. In any event, when temps are 60F or above, I always use noise reduction.

    Great article, Ian. I enjoy the way you constantly push the envelope. I’ve been experimenting with shots like this using candle light with good success – I like the warm glow that type of light leaves on rocks.

    Previously I did star trails with a Nikon D70, which required stacking multiple exposures of a minute or so each to keep the noise down. What is the longest single exposure time you think the 5D II could handle? I like the super long trails seen on multi-hour long film exposures; how would you approach achieving that effect?

    I’ve done exposures as long as 2 hours with no noise, but that was on a cold night with a temperature of -10F! Cold temps really allow one to push the envelope in terms of noise (as it prevents the sensor from heating up), but of course you run into battery issues, although the newest lithium ion batteries actually handle cold remarkably well.

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