A few months ago I had the privilege of attending a presentation by Steph Abbegg to The Mountaineers. Besides filling up my list of trips to do in the next few years, her photography inspired me to do a bit more night photography.

Like most other photographers, I’ve been too quick to pack away the camera once the sun has slipped well below the horizon and the sky goes dark for the night. Steph’s images of streaky flashlights latched onto the helmets of climbers preparing for the summit and beautiful panorama of stars reminded me that it’s worth it to crawl out of the sleeping bag in the middle of the night (especially if you’re supposed to be one of those climbers prepping for the day)!

© Erik Turner

I’ll first discuss some simple night photography techniques that anyone with an advanced point and shoot or SLR camera can do, sometimes even without a tripod (gasp)! The most straightforward type of image you can take during the night is of pinpoint stars, and the vast majority of the time you want to set your shutter speed to 30 seconds. For some, here is the crux- you need a camera where you can enter at least a semi-manual mode in order to ensure you get the right settings. For most cameras, 30 seconds is the longest you’ll want to expose for (the camera, not you—it’s cold outside!) before those stars start to streak across the sky (if streaking is your thing fast forward to the next section, but put something on first). For best results you should also set your camera’s ISO setting to the highest it can go, and if you can, make the aperture wide open (smallest number). You are taking your camera to the extreme edge of its abilities… but nighttime photography requires it. You’ll of course need to keep your camera from moving during that 30 seconds- this can be accomplished with a tripod, or simply just placing your camera down on some rocks carefully. LCD screens are rather useless to compose with in the dark- I’d suggest taking an image and adjusting. If you can, decrease the brightness of your LCD screen to its lowest setting to avoid being unable to see for a minute after you review each image on the screen. In the first photo below I’ve used the settings outlined above and also included my tent with a small backpacking lantern on the inside. It took some experimentation to find out how long the lantern needed to be on for, but it didn’t waste much film. (Just batteries- and bring extra, because these long exposures eat batteries!) The second image is from the Mt. Baker ski area parking lot around midnight under a full moon. The full moon illuminated the foreground, but also limited the number of stars visible – a tradeoff that seemed to work out on this evening, but can sometimes be a hassle!

©Erik Turner
©Erik Turner

So you’ve mastered the pinpoint star technique and want to move on to those funky trails you’ve seen people do. Well you’ll likely need a real fancy point or shoot or an SLR, and a tripod is highly recommended. For star trails, I will typically make an initial exposure with a wide open aperture and a high ISO (making the shutter speed rather fast- around 30 seconds). This image just helps me to see if the sky is dark or blown out. If it’s dark, I’ll make the exposure longer (hint- check out BULB setting on your camera). If the sky is already too light, probably not a good night for star trails. In order to start making star trail images I will back the ISO back down to 100, place the aperture somewhere in the middle (~f/8) and increase the shutter speed such that the exposure remains the same. If this concept is confusing, check out this article (link to http://www.digital-photography-school.com/learning-exposure-in-digital-photography). You’re now shooting away somewhere around 5-15 minutes per exposure. You can adjust settings to arrive at a longer or shorter shutter speed as desired to change the length of the stars. The picture below was from a nighttime camp on Granite Mountain this winter.

©Erik Turner

Other possibilities to explore are using the light that is still available at night. Often while car camping there will be many fires giving off lots of light. This red light can illuminate things in interesting ways. The moon can also be a great subject, but it is very bright compared to the dark sky around it, a tricky situation for camera light sensors. Your best bet is to wait for the clearest night possible, experiment with your shutter speeds (it’ll probably end up being around 1/200 or more!) and use the longest lens you have or can steal from a friend.

©Erik Turner
©Erik Turner

I hope some of these ideas have persuaded you to crawl out of that sleeping bag and take some pictures during the nighttime! Enjoy the hopefully clearing spring skies!

 

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