More Wild Waterfall Adventures & the Myth of Reality

Here’s another shot of the waterfall that Doug Gardner and I photographed at night for an upcoming Wild Photo Adventures TV show. How does it look to you? Does it look real? Whether or not you think it looks real, do you like it?

Waterfall at night

Light painted waterfall. Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, f/4, 20 seconds, ISO 1600.

In the online night photograph class that Donna Eaton and I teach each month for the Perfect Picture School of Photography, I often have to talk to the class about the “reality” of what we do. Some students take the lessons and run with them, others are a bit more reserved. They are afraid to try things that are so different from what they are used to doing in “regular” photography.

The first thing I tell them is that there is NO REALITY IN NIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY. Just get that out of your head. If the idea behind reality in photography is making an image that matches as closely as possible what we perceive when we take the shot, then very little of night photography even comes close. Cityscapes during twilight are about it, and even then only when there are no cars passing through the frame. Think about it, with night photography we’re using long exposures, wide apertures, and high ISOs, all of which conspire to create an image that looks nothing like what we see. With light painting, especially, you have to get the idea of reality out of your mind. The second you pull out those flashes, flashlights, and colored filters, real jumps out the window.

Check out the following image of the same waterfall. It’s about as close as I could get to showing you what I saw with my eyes when I first hiked to the falls and turned off my headlamp. How would you like to have this masterpiece hanging over your mantel? Didn’t think so. If I waited 20 minutes for my eyes to adapt, I would be able to see a lot better, but it still would be nothing like what the camera would capture.

This is closer to what I saw with my eyes when I first arrived at the waterfall.

By default, night photography is simply not real. So, if it’s not real, and all we’re doing is trying to make a pleasing image, then I think we should do whatever pleases us. I had to shine a flashlight on the waterfall and surroundings to make the first image. I used a gel filter mounted in a GelGrip™ to alter the color of the light. The mist from the waterfall filled the air and made an ethereal glow. A half-moon shone intermittently in the clouds. Orion blazed in the sky. The whole atmosphere was dreamy.

I think the image does a good job of interpreting the feeling I had while I was there, but it does nothing to translate my actual vision at the time. Remember, that flashlight illuminated only a tiny portion of the scene at any given second, so the light painting is a cumulative result, not something I could see as a whole with my eyes. The photo just isn’t real.

But I don’t care. I like it, and that’s all that matters. When I started processing it, I quickly realized that this is one of those images where any attempt at moderation resulted in a really boring image, so I decided to run with it. In the end, I created an image that is true to the FEELING I had when I shot it, but not to the VISION.

Now, I have a confession to make. I’m usually the first person to choose as my favorites photos that at least have some semblance of reality to them, and that includes night photos. That’s why I prefer blue gel filters for waterfalls instead of fuchsia. (I chose a cyan filter in this case because it matches the light given off by moonlight.) Light blue tends to make the water look natural, sometimes even more so than pure white light because of the coolness of the night. And that’s why I don’t take objects that I shot in Nebraska and combine with ones I shot in Alabama. Or full moons that I shot in January with a landscape that I shot in March. But I don’t have a problem with someone else doing it as long as you don’t try to hide behind what you did.

So if you’re being reserved about your night photography and thinking that your photos have to look real to be a success, I have only one thing to say. Don’t get real!

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