With Night Photography, What You See Is Not What You Get

A painter is an artist who starts with a blank white canvas. A night photographer is an artist who starts with a blank black canvas.

Fireflies and star trails shine in the sky above a cabin in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Night photography is different from shooting in the daytime in many ways. Of course, the most obvious difference is that it’s DANG DARK when you’re shooting. But there are other major differences that at first don’t appear so obvious.

I think the biggest difference, and the one that has the greatest effect on the photographer’s technique, is that a day photographer photographs what he or she sees. A night photographer shoots what he or she THINKS.

Stay with me here while I explain.

Fireflies light up a jar on window sill while the Milky Way lights up the night sky.

With most night subjects, we’re using long shutter speeds, high ISOs, and big apertures. And, as mentioned above, it’s DARK outside! Combine all four of these and you can darn well bet that the resulting image is going to look nothing like what we see with our eyes.

This is a REALLY important distinction, because without understanding and embracing it, your success as a night photographer is virtually shot to hell. Day photographers can go out with no set agenda and shoot whatever they see, but night photographers can’t do that because they don’t see anything. They have to THINK it. Yes, I know that artsy fartsy photographers sometimes go out in the day to photograph a vision in their mind or to shoot what they “feel,” but in the end, they are still photographing what they see.

Night photographers don’t see star trails, light streaks, or the cumulative effect of light painting an object until AFTER they take the shot. So successful night photographers learn what happens when using big apertures, high ISOs, and long shutter speeds in various scenarios so they can visualize what the image is going to look like before they shoot. More important, they learn this so they can PREvisualize it.

Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24mm lens. One shot for the sky at ISO 2000, f/3.5, 25 seconds. Waterfall light painted on a separate layer using a flashlight and blue gel filter.

Except for cityscapes and street photography, where I’m often walking or driving around at night in search of potential shots, nearly every night photo I make starts with a vision in my mind. There are two categories of these previsualized photos. One is when I am familiar with the base subject because I have seen it before, usually in the daytime, and the other is where I envision a shot totally from scratch. An example of the first category is the cabin shot. I knew this cabin well from the daytime and envisioned how it would look with star trails streaking above and light painting with a flash and flashlight. An example of the second category is the firefly shot, which I built from scratch in my mind. Here’s an article on how I  photographed the fireflies.

With either category, you don’t fully see the photo when you go out and shoot. Part, or all, of it is only in your mind. So you are starting with a black canvas and “painting” the image in your mind.

You know the waterfall is there, for example, and if you shoot at f/3.5, ISO 2000, and 25 seconds you can record a nice sky full of starts, but the waterfall won’t show up at all. So you envision what it would look like if you light painted it with an LED flashlight and a blue gel filter. Then you envision what it would look like if you used a dive light to illuminate the pool. Now you think about painting the trees with a flashlight and green gel filter.

On a couple of different layers from the shot above, I used a dive light and blue gel filter to illuminate the pool.

You are previsualizing the scene, starting with a blank black canvas and recording the image in your mind before you go out and shoot. Once there, you’ll adapt as needed, but by learning what to expect and recording that image in your mind beforehand, you’ll come prepared with everything you need to get the shot.

Some of you will scoff at this notion. It’s too mechanical. Too contrived. It kicks Zen to the curb. Well, I disagree. When you start with a blank canvas, it takes a lot of creativity to make a great image. I don’t know anything about Zen and I don’t go around addressing people as Grasshopper, but I can assure you that my mind gets a good workout designing my night images.

On yet another layer, I light painted the trees with a flashlight and green gel filter.

So, if you want create good night photos, my advice is to go out and spend a lot of time playing with high ISOs, big apertures, and long shutter speeds. Do it in the city with existing light and in the country with flash and flashlights. Learn what the effects are with the various settings based on the subject matter. Once you become comfortable with that, load a fresh black canvas in your mind and start creating your image.

And then maybe you’ll hear the grasshopper at your feet.

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