Night Photography In Joshua Tree

Night photography: Twin palms and a passing cloud
Twin palms and a passing cloud in front of "Guest House" at 29 Palms Inn, basecamp for the workshop. Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR. Photo by Wes Pitts.

Last weekend I met up with a night photography workshop led by OP contributor Jason Bradley (whose series on printmaking in the digital age is a must read). I joined the group late—missing what by all accounts was a perfect night on Thursday—and we were rained out Friday.

Saturday was a better story, with clear skies for a great night in the park, learning about astrophotography and light painting from Jason and his team. This was my first attempt in earnest at capturing landscapes after dark, and call it beginner’s luck, but I got a few shots that I think turned out pretty darn good.

A prominent rock formation in Joshua Tree's Hidden Valley, just after sunset. Photo by Wes Pitts.
A prominent rock formation in Joshua Tree's Hidden Valley, just after sunset. Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR. Photo by Wes Pitts.

Essential Gear

I would have had a much rougher time of it without one piece of gear in particular: a remote shutter control. By good fortune, I had recently received a Hähnel Captur Pro for review, and I credit that system for allowing me to take long exposures without needing to handle my camera. It offers a variety of control modes, including an intervalometer, built-in sensors to trigger your shutter or flash when it detects sound, light, lasers and infrared (for camera trap setups), plus an auxiliary port to connect to third party sensors for more specialized applications. I was using it on this trip as a long-exposure shutter release, able to track my exposure time on the remote’s backlit LCD. The receiver unit mounts to your camera’s hot shoe and jacks in to its accessory port. From there the system is completely wireless.

Silhouettes can create a strong graphic composition for night work. Photo by Wes Pitts.
Silhouettes can create a strong graphic composition for night work. Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR. Photo by Wes Pitts.

Basic Night Photography Settings

Jason recommended ISO 1500 or 2000, f/4 and 15 to 30 seconds as a starting point for star exposures. Anything longer than 30 seconds, he explained, and you’d start to see star trails (if you want that effect, you’ll be doing much longer exposures of around 30 minutes or more). Read Jason's post with three tips for star trails for more on this.

The most challenging shot of the night for me, I attempted to paint this rock formation with light from my LED flashlight, but even from a considerable distance, the light was too bright and washed out the rock. I got lucky when a car drove by briefly and illuminated the rock more subtly. Photo by Wes Pitts..
The most challenging shot of the night for me, I attempted to paint this rock formation with light from my LED flashlight, but even from a considerable distance, the light was too bright and washed out the rock. I got lucky when a car drove by and illuminated the rock more subtly. Nikon D750, AF-S NIKKOR 24-120mm f/4G ED VR. Photo by Wes Pitts..

I did try a star trail exposure as my last frame at the end of the evening, and it’s OK … nothing spectacular. Several of the other workshop participants made much better star trail images, pointing their cameras at Polaris to get that perfect circular effect. If you want to find Polaris easily (or any star or constellation for that matter), Sky Guide is one of my favorite apps. The app knows where your phone is facing, displaying and identifying the stars in view, or you can search for a particular body and Sky Guide will point you to it. Fun stuff.

Most of the group was working with light painting techniques. One in particular, by Kerik Kouklis, stood out for me as something really special.

Kerik's awesome light painting image. Photo by Kerik Kouklis.
Kerik's awesome light painting image, with laser light. Photo by Kerik Kouklis.

I spent most of my time working solo, familiarizing myself with the basics of night photography. The moon provided enough light to illuminate the landscape, so I focused on terrestrial compositions that included the stars as a backdrop.

We all had a great time, some of which was at my expense. During our portfolio review, Jason noticed a vignette in my file, and asked if I had a filter attached. “Uh, yeah, I forgot to remove my polarizer,” I admitted sheepishly. Rookie mistake. Everyone thought this was hilarious—cue the jokes about more saturated skies and eliminating glare. This explained why I was shooting at ISO 4000 instead of 1500 or 2000. Lesson learned.

But that—and making some new friends—is what a photo workshop is all about.

Here are some inspirational night photography images by Jason to see what's possible when you get good at this:

The secret of Jason's technique here: paint light at the edges of objects for a glowing effect. Photo by Jason Bradley.
The secret of Jason's technique here: paint light at the edges of objects for a glowing effect. Photo by Jason Bradley.
Backlight can also create an very interesting (and less obvious) effect. Photo by Jason Bradley.
Backlight can also create an very interesting (and less obvious) effect. Photo by Jason Bradley.

Wes is the editor of Outdoor Photographer.

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