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Backcountry Photography

First Steps in the Forests of the Night L'heure Bleue

By Tamia Nelson

November 6, 2012

When the sun sets, who doth not look for night?

I've always enjoyed exploring the country of the night. But even though I've taken tens of thousands of photos through the years, I don't have much to show from my travels in that largely unknown land — unknown to most paddlers and walkers, that is. Or so it seems. At any rate, I almost never encounter other two‑legged wanderers on my jaunts afloat and afield after the sun goes down.

As you've probably guessed, I've been giving the matter a lot of thought lately, now that the balance between the hours of daylight and dark in my home waters has tipped in favor of the latter. And I've been struck by the paucity of night shots in my photo archive. Why is this?

Part of the answer lies in simple laziness. After a long day — a day which sometimes combines cycling, paddling, and walking — I'm usually pretty bushed. Few of my muscles have been idle, and they're all reminding me that I need to take a break. By the time I've set up camp, changed into something warm and dry, cooked (and eaten) dinner, washed up, and put temptation out of the way of any nocturnal diners… By the time I've done all that, I've got just enough energy left to crawl into my sleeping bag. Often I'm asleep before I can even think about dipping into the book I've brought along. (It's usually one of those books I can't find time to read at home, either. Oh, well.)

Still, on those happy occasions when I can overmaster fatigue, I enjoy being up and about in the night. Animals who have good reason to fear the sight of humans feel free to move around after we've retired to our own too‑well‑lighted dens. That's just one of many treats in store for the nocturnal wanderer, however. A full moon may light a path on the rippling waters of a mountain lake, luring the weary paddler out of her tent. And on cloudless nights, when the moon has waned a bit, myriads of stars will shine forth, stars that are never seen by men and women who seldom venture beyond the yellow pall of sodium vapor. Sometimes I'll see meteorites plunging to a fiery death, or — as was the case recently — I'll get to watch Jupiter keep company with Aldebaran in a celestial pas de deux across the heavens.

All in all, Selene and her troupe of nightly players put on quite a show. And it's a performance that Disney hasn't found a way to copyright and charge for. But who knows what next year will bring? Which is why I've decided I'd better make the most of any opportunities to record the comings and goings in the forests of the night, while I still can. Of course, it's not as easy as I make it sound. Laziness isn't the only obstacle to be overcome. Photography depends on light, after all, and that's a commodity in short supply at night. But there's always at least a little natural light to work with, even on the darkest night. The secret to night photography, then? Make the most of whatever nature (or man, if you're taking photos where streetlights do battle with the dark) provides. And this, not surprisingly, brings us to the consideration of …

The Proper Equipment for Night Photography

There are two broad approaches to the problem. The first could be called the Cost Is No Object strategy. But I lack the price of admission to this exclusive circle. So if you have the wherewithal — do I have to add that I'm envious? — you'll need to look elsewhere for advice. And the other approach? Just use what you already have, even if it's an inexpensive point‑and‑shoot camera. Will you get professional results? No. But you'll get something. That's almost always better than nothing.

A camera isn't enough by itself, however. You'll need a few other things, as well. A tripod tops the list, though a monopod can be substituted, at least for shots taken during the half‑light at dusk and dawn. And occasionally — not often, but sometimes — you can get by without either one. When I saw two V's of geese flying under low cloud, just after sunset, I didn't have time to set up a tripod. But the shot worked, anyway.

Red Sky at Sunset

The sun had already dipped below the horizon, but it still illuminated the underside of the clouds in the western sky, providing a dramatic backdrop for the skeins of geese. I also hand‑held my camera when I took the photo below:

 la Recherche du Temps Perdu

A tall white pine gave me its shoulder to lean on here, and good breath control did the rest. The moral of my story? Even if you don't have a tripod when a nighttime shot comes your way, go ahead. Take a chance. You might get lucky. You don't have to pay to develop digital images, after all, and sometimes, even when the odds are running heavily against you, the result will still be worth keeping. By way of example, here's a photo that turned out right for all the wrong reasons:

Lake Effect

A lake‑effect squall roared through the northern Adirondacks one night last year. I was trudging home when I noticed how the glow spilling from town highlighted the blowing snow. So I "shot from the hip" at ⅓ of a second, not expecting to get anything worth hanging on to. But I liked what I got. Whatever its shortcomings in sharpness and clarity, the picture certainly captures the feel of that wild, windscoured evening.

On the other hand, there are many shots that would be flat‑out impossible without a tripod. Here's one:

White Night

On this occasion, night caught me on the trail. It was late November, and snow had been drifting down for several hours. The ground still retained enough heat to melt the flakes that reached it, but fresh snow now frosted both standing trees and deadfalls, imparting a ghostly gloss to the stark winter landscape. I wanted to capture that rather eerie scene, so I lost no time in setting up my tripod and snapping a couple of shots. (I also used an electronic shutter release, the high‑tech successor to the tried‑and‑true mechanical cable releases of old. And I locked up my SLR's mirror, too. Both are worth doing if you'll be leaving the shutter open for longer than a second.) Then I hurried home to warm my cold bones with a bowl of soup.

As important as they are, though, tripod (or monopod) and remote shutter release don't exhaust the night photographer's bag of tricks. Cold days get colder when the sun goes down, so you'll want to dress accordingly. You'll also need plenty of spare batteries for your camera. And if you use rechargeables — I do — make sure they're fully charged, then carry them in an inside pocket. Don't forget to bring a headlamp or flashlight, too, and you'll want spare batteries for this, as well. Navigating the forests of the night is a lot easier if you can see where you're stepping.

Let's recap. If you're keen to try your hand at shooting pictures in the dark, you'll need:

  • Camera and lenses (whatever you have will do)
  • Tripod or monopod
  • Electronic shutter release or equivalent
  • Headlamp or flashlight
  • Extra, fully‑charged batteries for all your electronic gear
  • Warm hat and jacket, plus gloves or mittens (or better yet, gloves and mittens, since you'll need both dexterity and warmth)

You might also want the following items, especially if it's going to be a very cold night or — in the case of the chair and tarp — if you're planning to stay in one location for an extended period:

  • A thermos, with something hot and restorative inside (I like cocoa)
  • A portable camp chair or insulated pad
  • An umbrella or tarp (to keep snow off your lens)
  • A planisphere or star finder
And then there's the most valuable accessory of all: a companion. Things can go badly wrong in a hurry in winter, especially at night, even when you're on familiar ground. Hypothermia is an ever‑present, insidious threat. It can have you in its grip before you know it, and by the time you realize what's happening, it may already be too late. That's when a buddy can be a life‑saver. It's also nice to have someone with you to pour the cocoa. (Keeps your fingers from getting sticky.)


OK. You're packed up and ready to go. It's …

Time to Talk Technique

The executive summary? Light is at a premium at night. You need to make the most of it. Here's how:

Shoot in the RAW.  And no, we're not talking skinny‑dipping here. It's going to be too cold for that. This is RAW as in format. RAW images preserve nearly every bit of information your camera's sensor gathers, and that information is your image. In low light, when every byte counts, RAW gives you a critical advantage. Is there a downside? Yes. In fact, there are several. First off, not all cameras offer a RAW format. If yours doesn't, it doesn't. There's no hack to overcome this limitation. You say your camera can shoot RAW? Good. But don't be surprised when you fill your memory card much faster than you would if you were shooting JPEGs. RAW files are HUGE. You'll have to wait longer between shots, too, and you'll also need to spend some time in your digital darkroom to make your RAW images fit for public display.

Is RAW essential? No. But it's mighty useful. Now let's look at …

Lens Filters.  UV filters protect your camera's lenses from greasy fingerprints, sharp twigs, and a variety of assaults (e.g., wind‑blown dust, driving rain, and blowing snow, among other things). That's why many photographers — I'm one — have a UV filter on every lens. But filters also increase the likelihood that flare will mar your low‑light shots. Sometimes the resulting artifacts can be cloned out in the digital darkroom. And sometimes they can't. That being the case, should you keep the UV filter on your lens? I can't make this decision for you. No one can. It's your call, and yours alone.

That's also true when it comes to …

Flash Units.  You'd think this was a no‑brainer, wouldn't you? If the problem with night photography is too little light, why not bring your own? But a camera's built‑in flash is seldom up to the job, even for snapshots, and getting good results from a pro's battery of external flash units takes a lot of practice. Me? I don't bother. And unless you want to devote a lot of your time to mastering flash photography, you probably won't want to, either.

Of course, there's another way to cope with too little light. Just ramp up your camera sensor's digital gain. Technically known as increasing the "exposure index" or EI, this is more commonly referred to as upping the ISO, a tag that had its origin in the Age of Film. The higher the EI (ISO) setting, the more sensitive a camera's sensor is to light. Back in the day, you bought a couple of rolls of "fast" (high ISO) film before a night shoot. Nowadays, you just turn a dial or select the menu item in your camera's LED display that gives you a …

High Exposure Index.  But you'll pay a price whenever you go this route. There's an unavoidable tradeoff between light sensitivity and image quality. The higher the EI, in other words, the less sharp the resulting image will be. Moreover, many otherwise good digital cameras produce "noisy" images at higher EIs — images marred by false‑color highlights in dark areas. My Pentax digital SLR is a pretty fair prosumer camera, but it can't cope with an EI higher than 400, as this photo of a cottontail rabbit hunkered down in a snowy clearing makes all too obvious:

Hunkered Down

If I'd had my druthers, I'd have used a tripod and shot this picture at EI 100. But I didn't think my subject would hold still long enough for that. (He was a rabbit, after all, and I was afraid he'd transit.) So I dialed in EI 800 and held the camera in my hand. The result speaks for itself. In fact, it was worse than the photo reproduced above suggests. The original full‑color image was a Rorschach of magenta blots. I had to make it monochrome to reveal the hidden rabbit.

You might have better luck than I did, though. Some newer cameras handle high EIs with aplomb. If this matters to you — and it will if you're serious about shooting in the dark — check the online reviews before you buy any new camera, and be guided accordingly.

But what if you're not be in the market for a new camera? What if you just want to get the most out of the one you have? Then you'll almost certainly be happier with your night shots if you …

Take Control.  Autoexposure can be a welcome time‑saver in daylight, but it's not your friend after the sun goes down. Instead, choose whatever exposure option offers you the most control. Better cameras will have a full manual mode. If yours does, use it, and then select the aperture that gives you the depth of field you want. Leave the choice of shutter speed to last, and don't forget to bracket your exposures whenever time and subject permit. This do‑it‑yourself approach also extends to …

Focus.  Many autofocus systems tend to "hunt" for an inordinately long time at night. The cure? As before, switch to manual mode.


So much for the big picture. Now let's revisit the subject at the heart of low‑light photography: shutter speed. Study your camera's user guide. Find out how slow you can go, and practice with the Bulb setting. A word of warning: It's not always easy to balance conflicting demands. Take this moon shot …


And this one:

Night Light

In both cases, I wanted the fastest shutter speed I could get away with. Why? Because the moon moves quickly in her travels across the night sky — I'm talking perception here, not astrophysics — and because I wanted the mergansers in the second photo to be something more than blurry dots. Luckily, the moon gets pretty bright as she approaches full (mean apparent magnitude −12.74), so I was able to use a comparatively fast shutter in both of these examples.

Stars are nowhere near as bright as a full moon, however. Sirius, the most brilliant star in the night sky, has an apparent magnitude of only −1.47. Which makes star photography interesting, to say the least. Actually, "challenging" might be a better word. Look closely at this photo of Orion's belt and sword:

The Sword of the Hunter

No, there's nothing wrong with your eyes. And no earth tremors jarred my tripod. I needed a slow shutter speed to capture the light from the Hunter's stars, but during the 30‑second exposure, those stars proved fidgety subjects, refusing to hold still. The result? Rather than appearing as brilliant pinpricks of light, the stars were blurry squiggles. But a shorter exposure wouldn't have worked, either. Then only the brighter stars would have been visible. Instead, I should have opted to go very long, keeping the shutter open several minutes or more. That would have given me a striking star trail image.

A word to the wise: All such long exposures make stringent demands on the photographer and her equipment. Her tripod must be rock‑solid, the mirror (digital SLRs only) must be locked up, and the camera's viewfinder should be covered. (Why cover the viewfinder? To prevent stray light from entering the camera body, where it can cause flare or muddle the exposure.)

Long exposures aren't just for star shots, of course. They make sense for many terrestrial subjects, too. Take one that's close to the heart of all paddlers: water. When flowing water is illuminated by a full moon and photographed with a tight aperture, a long exposure yields an otherworldly image. I'd like to show you an example. But I haven't got one I'm happy with. Yet. Which just goes to prove that exploring the forests of the night is no job for the impatient. But you knew that already, didn't you?


I'll have more to say on this subject in a later column. Now, however, I'm going to bed. I've got an appointment with the night in a few hours time, and I need a little sleep before I shoulder my rucksack. But first, I think I'll spend a couple of minutes reading that book I've been meaning to get around to, by the light of a headlamp…

Book at Bedtime

I love the night. And I enjoy the challenges of photography. Yet for far too long I've kept these two interests at arm's length. That's about to change. With the hours of darkness now outweighing those of daylight, this is the perfect time of year to head out for the country of the night. Sure, it's cold. But I've just filled a thermos with hot cocoa, and I've got my camera. I'm good to go.

What about you? Are you looking for new worlds to explore? Or are you already an old hand, as much at home in the forests of the night as you are on sparkling summer rivers and sun‑warmed white sand beaches? If so, why not share some of your secrets? Any journey is easier in company. We photographers are in the same boat, after all.



Related Articles from In the Same Boat

And here's an article from my own website:


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