The Greatest Night Photo of All Time – And the Definition of Night Photography

I was thinking of making a list of the greatest night photos of all time, but quickly realized that the subjectivity of such a pursuit, coupled with my relative lack of knowledge of the history of night photography, would make the endeavor rather meaningless. Then I latched onto the idea of choosing the single greatest night photo of all time. Although even more subjective, the photo I had in mind would surely make everyone’s short list.

“Earthrise,” captured by William Anders in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission is among the most powerful images ever captured. It probably ranks among the top three published images of all time, along with the Wright Brother’s “First Flight” and “The Blue Marble,” Apollo 17’s 1972 view of the fully illuminated Earth.

Earthrise photo shot during Apollo 8 mission

"Earthrise" captured by William Anders in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission. The orientation is correct. This is how Anders saw the scene and shot it.


“Earthrise” caused people to view their planet and their existence in a way most had never done before. The inimitable Galen Rowell, my greatest inspiration, called the image “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Surely, “Earthrise” would be a good choice for the greatest night photo ever taken.

Except that it wasn’t taken at night.

My definition of night photography has always been taking pictures when the sun is below the horizon. Apollo 8 was in glorious sunshine when Anders snapped the image.

Okay, if “Earthrise” didn’t qualify, what about “Hubble Deep Field”? The 1995 view from Hubble Space Telescope covers a tiny portion of the night sky as we see it, yet it reveals nearly 3,000 galaxies. Like “Earthrise,” HDF caused everyday humans to change the way they view the universe, but its contribution to astronomical science is what makes it so remarkable. For the first time, astronomers had a glimpse into the distant and ancient space. Other deep-space images from HST followed, but being the first, surely HDF would make good candidate for the greatest night photo ever taken.

Hubble Deep Fied Image

"Hubble Deep Field" captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.


Except that it wasn’t taken at night, either.

HDF is a composite image assembled from hundreds of separate exposures made during some 150 orbits around Earth. During parts of these orbits, HST was on the dark side of Earth, but for a period of each orbit, it was on the sunlit side, just as Apollo 8 was when Anders shot “Earthrise.”

So then I was thinking maybe I needed to redefine night photography. It would be okay to have the sun occupying the same portion of space as the camera, so long as the object being photographed did not receive and reflect any sunlight.

Aha! Now HDF qualified!

But then photos of the moon taken at night were all of a sudden disqualified. Along with Iridium flares, zodiacal light, and even photos of the planets. Ugh!

At this point, I was thinking that I clearly needed to devise a precise definition for night photography. Of course, there is no official agency tasked with defining terms for night photographers, so I have created this “official” definition purely for personal use.

Night photography is defined as:

Acquiring photographic images outdoors at any time when the sun is visually below the true horizon. Images made while the camera is in an enclosure, such as a building, vehicle, cave or mine shaft, etc., qualify only if part of the photo shows an outdoor view or if lighting from the outside affects or shows up in the final image. Images made from satellites or spacecraft qualify only if they are acquired while on the dark (unlit by the sun) side of Earth, the moon, or another planet.

The unifying element in this definition is that the sun cannot be in the visible part of the sky during capture. The reason that I do not include indoor photos that do not look outside or are not affected by the outside is that there is no difference between them and a photo made during the day with the lights off or the windows covered. The “true” horizon is specified to exclude images made when a mountain, building, or other object is blocking the sun. I specified “visually” below the horizon in order to avoid the issue of atmospheric diffraction causing the sun to remain visible for a brief period even after it sinks below the horizon, as well as to address the issue of viewing altitude. Suffice it to say, if you can no longer see the sun above the horizon, you’re taking pictures at night.

I realize that this exercise offers nothing positive to humanity and serves only to satisfy my annalistic nerdiness. To that end, it does a fine job. Now I can continue in the conquest of “real” night photos!

Oh, if you have any candidates for the greatest night photos ever made, I’d love to hear from you.

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