Night Photography

Comet Over Mono Lake

Comet NEOWISE over Mono Lake, CA, USA

Comet NEOWISE over Mono Lake, California. 35mm, 10 seconds at f/4, ISO 1000.

Early this morning Claudia and I joined about a dozen other photographers along the shore of Mono Lake to photograph Comet NEOWISE.

I was expecting to search for a smudge in the sky to the northeast, and use a long lens to make the comet a prominent part of the photograph. But when I stepped out of the car I could see it right away – even before my eyes adjusted to the dark. It was bigger than I expected. It’s the brightest, largest comet I’ve seen since Hale-Bopp in 1997.


From the Archives: Footprints on Sand Dune

Footprints on sand dune, Death Valley, California
Footprints on sand dune, Death Valley, California

This photograph is from October of 1995 – deep in the archives.

Most of my photographic ideas arise spontaneously, as I react to the light, weather, and my surroundings. But sometimes an idea pops into my head at home, or while driving, or, especially, while falling asleep.

The idea for this footprint image was one of those occasions when an idea just popped into my head, though I don’t remember exactly where or when. I had been experimenting with light painting at dusk and at night, using flash and flashlights, and somewhere during that time I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to show a line of footprints on a sand dune, and use a flashlight to make the prints glow?”


Half Dome by Moonlight

Half Dome and the Merced River by moonlight, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Half Dome and the Merced River by moonlight, Yosemite

We had a long stretch of rather dry weather here in central California, with just a few light showers here and there. But last week we finally got a decent storm. A cold front created a brief – but intense – period of precipitation on Thursday afternoon. At our house in Mariposa we saw strong winds prior to the cold front’s arrival, then the sky started dumping ice pellets, which quickly changed to heavy snow. None of the forecasts predicted snow at our elevation, but we got about four inches. After an hour or two the front passed, and the snowfall eased off into scattered snow showers.

Of course I watched the weather closely to see when this brief storm might clear. All the forecasts and models predicted showers lingering through the evening, and skies clearing sometime after midnight – but well before sunrise. That meant it was unlikely there would still be any mist at sunrise, so my best bet to photograph a snowy clearing storm was to go up to Yosemite Valley during the night. A half-full moon was due to rise just after midnight, so that could provide some interesting light during those wee hours.


Winter Arrives in Yosemite

Snowy night along the Merced River, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Snowy night along the Merced River, Yosemite. 20mm, 20 seconds at f/2.5, ISO 6400.

I’m not sure who decided that the winter solstice should be the first official day of winter, but I think that official designation is rather absurd. Winter has definitely arrived in many parts of the country, whether it’s official or not, including here in the Sierra. This past week Yosemite got its first precipitation in months, in the form of a cold storm that dropped over a foot of snow on the valley floor.

The snow began on Tuesday, and I kept my eye on the weather, of course, hoping to photograph the storm clearing, and looking for potential rifts in the clouds. Judging by satellite images, some stars might have appeared during the wee hours of Wednesday morning, but that was just a brief break before the clouds closed in again. Late Friday morning the sun finally started to poke through the clouds, so Claudia and I headed up to the valley.


Illuminating Bodie

Old truck and shed underneath the Milky Way, Bodie SHP, CA, USA

Old truck and shed underneath the Milky Way, Bodie. Nighttime photography can get pretty complex, often requiring multiple frames to reduce noise, or create intricate lighting. Here I captured twelve frames of the Milky Way, and blended them together with Starry Landscape Stacker to reduce noise. Then I took that image into Photoshop, where I blended it with seven light-painting frames – the truck from two sides, the shed from two sides, a frame for the interior lights (small lights placed inside the shed and against the truck windows), and two frames for lighting the headlights.

On Thursday I had an opportunity to photograph Bodie at night. I’ve done that many times before, but always while leading a workshop group. This time I joined a small group of photographers on my friend Rick Whitacre‘s permit, and the five of us had this amazing ghost town to ourselves for an evening.

It’s always fun leading a group in Bodie, but it was nice, for a change, to just concentrate on my own photography. I had a mental checklist of images I hadn’t been able to try yet, and this was the perfect chance to do that. We also had a couple hours of daylight to scout, and I found several new possibilities. The most intriguing of these, to me, was a star-trail image of wagons in an old barn, which I ended up trying – it’s the first image below.


Death Valley after Dark

Stars, Orion, and zodiacal light over an eroded gully, Death Valley NP, CA, USA

Stars, Orion, and zodiacal light over an eroded gully, Death Valley. Robert Eckhardt, Claudia, and I found this twisting gully while scouting for the workshop, and I thought it might line up well with Orion and the zodiacal light just after dark. It was actually Robert’s idea to light-paint the gully, though he didn’t join me on the night I photographed it. The focal length had to be very wide (16mm) in order to fit everything in the frame. I made eight exposures for the sky, each at 15 seconds, f/4, ISO 12,800, and blended those together with Starry Landscape Stacker. I made another longer exposure to record more detail in the landscape (4 minutes at f/4, ISO 6400). Then I captured four light-painting frames, adding a little light from the right and left, and tracing the gully with a flashlight as I walked beside it. All these images were blended together in Photoshop.

Death Valley has been used as the setting for many Hollywood movies. Not surprisingly, some of these films use the austere, other-worldly landscapes of Death Valley as a stand in for another planet. (This includes two titles from the original Star Wars series – Episode IV: A New Hope, and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi.)

This same other-worldly feeling works beautifully for night photography. I’ve made many nighttime images in Death Valley, and had a chance to capture a few more both before and during our recent workshop there. We had some challenging conditions at times, with wind, and plenty of clouds. But we also had one clear, calm night out in the dunes.