Night Photography – Part 4

Digital Darkroom

Post Processing.


These words have gained a slightly negative connotation when talking about digital photography, but remember that post processing of digital images is based upon the alterations available to film photographer in darkrooms. I realized that it also included a plethora of other abilities like cloning out blemishes, but I do not like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, per say. Taken in its cleanest form, if you burn, dodge, or crop your image you are processing the data POST or after you captured a scene.

The negativity might stem from how quickly digital photography gained popularity. Photography was available to many and the editing of photos became fun, easy, wild, and maybe a little overdone - but that was the fun of it! The digital format made photography and editing accessible to nearly everyone with a computer. Photography has become even more accessible since the strengthening of cameras in smart phones. I think it is safe to say that we can enjoy photos from practically anyone around the world, with or without classic training, and with or without photo-journalistic rules that they go by. That can be exciting, frustrating, freeing.

So, the digital darkroom - are you a purist? Does that even exist anymore?!

I realize that some photographers share that they do not edit outside of the camera. I do not belong to such a group. I may not leverage post-processing as drastically as some, but I always apply some amount of processing. In fact, I do not believe that post processing is actually avoidable. When I say this, I am organizing the techniques of burning, dodging and cropping into the post-processing world. But I am also referring to how the operating systems built-in-software, your printers software, or the print group you send your work to affects the files you plan on printing. There is quite an array of built-in visual adjustments that each of these programs apply before you open things up or send things out to be printed.

But I am getting into the weeds. Post processing isn't a bad word. Maybe it is often overused, but it is a tool available to us as it was to any classic photographer. My favorite photographers had complete control over their resulting imagery and they did that my maintained their own Darkroom. They burned, they dodged, they cropped. The digital world has a digital version of those same tasks and though we can make far more drastic changes to our images, we should understand that the classic array of enhancements are and not to be feared.

For ME, night photography requires practically equal parts onsite work and computer development. Okay, I am overexerting, but still, the time commitment is there. I am not here to recommend a product. There are many. Some more affordable than others, some easier to use. You must make that choice alone. What I can share is what I use purely because of what I was first introduced to - Adobe Photoshop.

I should also share that I capture my photos using the raw format. They are large files. They are cumbersome. I constantly have to update my software to read my aging cameras format. Many photographers do not like raw because of its size and the lack of in-camera adjustments. They come out looking bland and they seem to lack contrast and color quality. However, the information is embedded, I assure you, in fact there is far more information stored in the darkest colors and lightest colors than in that of other formats. So, at the end of the night I potentially have more to work with during my digital Darkroom editing.

To cap off this section, I end with my most repeated adjustments on night sky imagery:

  1. I brighten the lights of an image about halfway
  2. I brighten the darks about halfway
  3. I darken the blacks by a quarter to remove any sudden spike in unwanted mid-tones
  4. I soften and remove obvious noise
  5. I play with broad dodging an burning at various levels of transparency to avoid drastic over adjustments
  6. Hopefully I am pleased, but some amount of saving and reapplying the same settings might be in order.

Night Photography – Part 3

Camera Setup


You will push your camera to the limit during night shoots. You will exhaust your batteries. You will crank up the ISO, making your image grainy... on purpose. You will set the exposure time longer and longer as you test how much light your camera can capture. And you will go to the lowest apparature you can,, virtually erasing the possibility of sharp definition on anythin closer to you than infinity.

Because clarity is overrated?

no, it is actually because you are attempting to find a happy balance between maximizing the amount of light that your camera can record and minimizing the degradation such a feat takes on your images.

You might already understand these concepts, but if you haven't manually adjusted your camera settings in this seemingly counterproductive way to producing clean, crisp images, then I am here to tell you... give it a shot.. see what happens. You can at least start out somewhere by using the following settings. I have found success using them with my 15 year old camera when I venture into the dark. Maybe they will help you start as well!

ISO => 1600

Exposure => 20 seconds

Aperture <= 3.8

The idea is to capture as much light as possible while limiting the noise or grain of a photograph. I am using an older camera, so I personally avoid setting my ISO to anything over 3200. My photos end up with too much noise at 3200. I simply do not have the skill and/or time to effectively remove that grain during post-processing. So that is my cap. My lenses do not go below 3.8 aperture, so they will be a bit on the darker side. This is the equipment I work with, and I still love pushing its limits. You may face similar limitations, but do not let that hold you back from trying out night photography if you are interested.


Looking for Clarity in Distant Objects?

Many of the compositions you might be interested in involve a distant object. Milky way shots, crescent moon shots. With these landscape scenes, you will want to focus on the farthest point of your composition. You want the moon and/or the stars to remain crisp. For these shots, you will need to set your camera to 'infinity' on its lens. Try using cloth tape to secure your lens if you do not have infinity marked or have an older camera with a persnickety infinity zone. Photographers often prefocus on a distant object during the day and then tape down the lens. This is very reliable if you only plan on one type of shot during the evening.

Or Are You Capturing Something Close?

With light painting, you are much closer to your subject, and you probably not use the taped-down infinity trick. You can always show up at your location of interest before the sun sets to properly focus on your subject, but that too comes with problems. In this case, you will need a high-powered flashlight to aid you in changing your camera's focus.

Night Photography – Part 2

Be mindful

You have everything - your tools, your plan, maybe even your friends to make the night shoot grand. No matter how familiar you are with your photo-friends, remember to keep a few things in mind, including being mindful of your surroundings. This includes the people you are spending time with.

Situational Awareness

It is essential to be respectful of other photographers during night shoots. A common situation we find ourselves in is the accidental altering of another photographer's shot. You have set up your composition, begun an exposure, walked away from your camera, and boom, the image is affected by the actions of another person. Another photographer began setting up their equipment near yours, mid snapshot. Lights, dim or not, are being used. Or a person inadvertently walks into your shot. Be careful; keep track of where your fellow photographers are. Use your voice - announce your position and announce that you are taking a photo. Clear communication is vital. It will help to minimize the number of aggravations between photographers.

Less is acceptable!

Many photographers of the digital era take hundreds of photos during a session. During a night shoot, you will not come close to that number. Finding your way to a location takes time. Equipment setup takes time. Composing a shot and testing the scene takes time. Safety and sure-footedness are of utmost importance, and you guessed it, it slows everything down! Everything must slow down during a night shoot, so do not be discouraged if by the end of the evening you have only a portion of your typical number of 'snaps.' 

Night Photography – Part 1

Suppose you are intrigued with capturing a crescent moon showering a landscape in dim light. Or is it the silhouettes of rocks and trees against the fall of starlight that calls to you? Or maybe you fancy a colorful glow on your favorite Joshua tree? If these scenes appeal to you, read on to learn what night photography entails and whether you are ready to jump in.

First and foremost, with low light photography, you must have a camera that you can manipulate manually (ISO, aperture, and shutter speed). A steady tripod is also required. Next, you should consider lighting, and when we plan for lighting, ask yourself this - do you prefer natural or false? With starlit and moonlit compositions, we attempt to work with natural lighting. We adjust our cameras to record as much available light as possible. We will end up with naturally lit scenes.

With light painting, we purposefully introduce unnatural light to an object that we hope to capture. In most cases, artificial light is produced by using LED lamps... and sometimes the headlights of our vehicles! With light painting, you must bring all of your lights with you, their batteries, and the means you plan on propping them up with. Consider starting small!

Note - regardless of your end goal (naturally or unnaturally lit scenes), you should have a high-powered light to aid you in focusing on your subjects.

So, you have your camera, your tripod, and the dim to high-powered light sources at the ready. Have you tested your equipment? Never take for granted your own backyard when trying your tools. You should be comfortable with the dials of your camera, even in dim light. You should be able to trust in the light sources you plan on using. So test everything in the comfort and safety of your home and backyard when possible.

The Camera

The most important thing is the camera, but it also needs to be capable of setting manual options. Does your camera allow you to control the exposure, ISO, and aperture?

The whole idea of night photography is to capture broad details of your surroundings by allowing the camera to take long exposures. Consider a daytime photograph - those shots only take a sixteenth of a second (or so). With dim-light pictures, you capture a scene for 10, 20, 30 seconds... or longer!

To do this, you need to know how to manually set these features on your camera, preferably before you go out to take photos in the darkness. Your comfort with your own tools will increase the enjoyment of the experience!

If you have questions, Chaparral Artists is full of answers, or at least recommendations. Our membership includes several photographers who love night photography excursions. 

The Tripod

So, those 10, 20, 30-second shots you plan will be 'nearly' impossible without a tripod. I have captured decent photos with a simple tripod. I plan to purchase something hefty one day to withstand slightly breezy situations. Take it from me, though; all you need is a tripod capable of securing your camera and holding it still. Nothing fancy. I do NOT recommend mini tripods for your DSLR equipment. They are typically incapable of securing heavier cameras and lenses.

And for those of you who noticed... I used the word 'nearly' because I have been in a bind before. I successfully made do with what I had - jackets, water bottles, random stuff that aided me in mocking up a reclined 'bed' for my camera. I didn't want to miss out, so I did what I needed to by using a little ingenuity, patience, and humor. 

Accessories for the shoot

  • Headlamps or neck lamps are nice to have, but a red setting is the best (if you can still see decently using the red filter). The red filter allows dull light to be cast that does not affect a person's light sensitivity. Try to avoid blinding fellow photographers or adversely alter their shots with a flash of brightness. 
  • Water and snacks - do not forget to stay hydrated and nourished.
  • Good shoes - you might be hiking the desert, but now you cannot see as well, make sure your shoes or boots provide adequate stability.
  • Seating? Some of your shots might be long, 30 seconds or more, and you might desire a place to sit down.

Night Photography

Are you interested in trying out night photography? It has become a very popular photographic expression, especially in regions such as ours, where the desert sky is relatively dark and clear. But what do you need? What kind of night photography are you drawn to? And where should you begin?

The first two questions are tied together. It goes without saying that nighttime photography requires a certain amount of supporting equipment. A DSLR camera, a steady tripod, and plenty of batteries will be essential! Then there is your comfort equipment for a pleasant trip outside, don't forget the water and snacks! And finally, bring your patience and a bit of enthusiasm, because any low-light photography can be challenging.

Your camera and your ability to manipulate its settings affect what you can capture effectively. A photographer then brings those images back to the studio and begins the digital darkroom dance! If you think your camera can work in low light, night photography seems to fall into three groups. Which are you drawn to?

1) Milky way and constellations over a landscape
2) The moon over a landscape (usually a crescent moon)
3) Light painting

There are other focuses, I assure you, but these three tend to draw everyone in at one time or another. The rest will probably require a decent amount of new equipment and endless hours at play!

So you have your equipment, a plan, and a mixed-up back of apprehension and excitement. What now? For Chaparral Artists, all we need to do is share our interest in the subject. Chaparral has several members that love to head out into the desert and snap up a few low-light scenes.

And for September 2021, we coordinated with the Desert Institute to visit Keys Ranch in Joshua Tree National Park. This opportunity will provide the first quarter moon in the sky as it begins its descent west, eventually setting by midnight. The natural illumination from the moon will offer pleasant light painting opportunities. The Milky way will not be as noticeable until the moon dips low in the sky. Still, you can always attempt to capture the fountain of stars later in the evening.

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