Night Photography Catch Up

Life has been far too busy the last couple years and I haven’t kept up with posting photos from all of my trips.  Now, as I’m planning for a couple photography trips this summer and thinking about the night shots that I’m going to try to get, I thought I’d take a moment to share some of my favorite night shots from the past couple years.

First up is Delicate Arch in Arches National Park with stars behind.  Delicate Arch is an interesting place to shoot at night.  It’s a considerable hike in and back out, and getting your tripod set up for the “money shot” below the arch requires a willingness to walk down a slope just above a plummeting-to-your-death drop-off that’s mildly sketchy during the day and a whole lot more sketchy at night!  This particular shoot was a lesson in being less polite.  That night, another photographer had set up several cameras to shoot time lapses and I was being far more concerned about my impact on his shots than he was being about his impact on my shots… and when I was able to process my shots afterwards, I hadn’t really dialed things in as well as I needed to and ultimately didn’t get the shots that I wanted.  So one of these days I’ll have to go back and try again!


False Kiva in Utah.  I’d had a night shot at False Kiva on my wish list for some time.  Something about the place just spoke to me.  The shoot, however, was way on the outer edges of my comfort zone.  It involves a one-hour drive from the nearest town, followed by a one-hour hike from your car, then a primitive path halfway up a sheer cliff to a cave, then spending the night alone in that cave in the midst of Native American ruins.  More brave people than I might leave the cave and hike back out in the middle of the night, once they’ve gotten the shot, but you may notice a theme that I’m not really in favor of plummeting to my death in the middle of the night when out solo hiking in wild places.  I did try to sleep a little in the cave while waiting on my shot, but hadn’t hiked in a cot, the ground was pretty dusty with rodents skittering, and the one big flat rock that I tried out was a bit closer to the cliff edge that really seemed wise for sleeping.  It was, however, a great experience and I had a lot of fun experimenting with different ways to light the cave and kiva.


The Virgin River and The Watchman from Zion National Park.  Several attempts shown here, from a couple trips.  Night photography has gotten a lot more popular.  My first try at this shot I had the place to myself and very few people had taken this shot.  By my more recent attempts, there was a small gaggle of photographers (I think entirely photography guide and client pairs except for me) on the bridge in the middle of the night and the shot has become more common.  This is a theme; it gets harder and harder to find new & unique shots!

The classic view of The Watchman from the Canyon Junction Bridge in Zion National Park, where every sunset the bridge is lined with photographers. This photo was taken three hours after all the photographers left.


Looking down the Virgin River in Zion National Park towards The Watchman, lit by the lights of Springdale, Utah, under the night sky.


The Virgin River runs down past The Watchman rock formation under a night sky at blue hour. Zion National Park, Utah.


Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park.  Funny story to this shot.  Old Faithful erupts roughly every 90 minutes.  I wanted full dark, Milky Way arching a bit to the left, and not too many people still out and about–so I chose an eruption somewhere around 11 PM to midnight to head out and attempt the shot.  Perfect night, Milky Way in great position.  Did a couple test shots before the eruption and all looked good.  Eruption started and I triggered my shot.  30 second exposure.  20-25 seconds into my exposure and some nitwit off to the right turns on an absolute canon of a light and paints the eruption.  My shot is completely blown out and no way did this bozo get a shot either.  If s/he had a long exposure, the shot was blown out.  If a short exposure, the stars wouldn’t show.  With much grumbling I headed in to the lobby of the Old Faithful Inn to wait another 90 minutes and try the shot again.  By that time is would be closer to 1 AM and I would be out there all by myself.  Talked with the staff in the Inn and asked if there were ever bears out by the geysers in the middle of the night?  “You should see the security footage from a couple nights ago of a grizzly chasing a bison down the boardwalk by Old Faithful,” they said.  “Here, you should take this bear spray with you,” they said.  No bears, no nitwits with light bazookas for attempt #2.

Old Faithful Geyser erupting at night. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, USA.


Self-portrait of the photographer light-painting Thor’s Hammer in Bryce Canyon National Park at night.  Walking down into the amphitheater at Bryce by yourself at night?  Sketchy!


Silent City at Bryce at night.

Bryce Canyon hoodoos in the Silent City at night with the Milky Way arcing above. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, USA.


Two shots at Owachomo Bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument in Utah.  First is your classic light-painting shot, second is winning the meteor lottery!  On this particular night, there ended up being four of us shooting at Owachomo Bridge–photographer Chris Eaton, two girls whose names I didn’t get and who were having a lot of fun, and myself.  I didn’t realize it, but it turned out to be one of the nights of the peak of the Aquariid Meteor Shower.  As the night progressed, there were more and more meteors streaking across the sky–but invariably not in camera frame, or when no one was taking a shot, of big beautiful streaks… behind us!  Several hours of “did you get it?”  “nope!” yelled between the four of us in the dark.  Finally, a huge meteor streaked straight through the middle of the bridge and exploded in a visual and sound punch that all of us could feel.  Chris and I both started screaming–we’d had our shutters open!!!!  The effect of the meteor in person was much, much more than it appears in the shot.  We could feel the explosion.

The Milky Way behind Owachomo Bridge in Natural Bridges National Monument. Utah, USA.


An Aquariid meteor explodes below Mars after streaking across the Milky Way on a clear, dark night in Utah.


Launching Fireworks, Take 2

From 2004 to 2009, we lived in a small town in Wisconsin that had two big fireworks shows each year. The fireworks were launched from a field across the street from our house and we could lay on our backs in our front yard and look up to watch the show! If the wind was blowing the wrong way, though, you’d have to dodge the falling embers. Most times you’d see embers bouncing off the roofs of the houses across the street, and one show it was so bad that we had to send the kids inside and Kate and I spent the whole time dashing this way and that to avoid the embers (but still enjoying the show and the excitement of it all!).

It took until 2008 for me to realize that there was something photographically interesting going on in the middle of that field. The show wasn’t in the sky… it was on the ground! So that year I wandered over and asked if I could photograph them, the crew, launching the fireworks. They were kind enough to oblige and I got some interesting shots from a perimeter they set up for me (maybe 100–200 feet off).

Ever since then, I’ve been wanting to give photographing the launching of fireworks another try. 2009 was a very busy year and then we moved back to San Diego, where I didn’t have a connection with a fireworks operator. This summer I finally made a connection and was able to join a local crew putting on a show at Qualcomm Stadium. The show was only six minutes long, and I had a lot of problems with my camera buffer filling and not being able to take shots when I pressed the trigger, but it was a blast trying! This time I was right up there with the crew, as close as I wanted to be, so the only limitations were me getting the settings dialed in as fast as I could during a quick show, and the camera buffering. I may need to borrow/rent a faster-writing camera or one with two memory cards for next time!

I hope to be able to join them again!

Yosemite Rainbows and Moonbows

Another last-minute run up to Yosemite National Park—and this time I brought two of the kids! We went up the first weekend in May for the full moon, to show them Yosemite, to see & photograph rainbows and moonbows, and to join in a Google+ Photowalk led by Jeffrey Sullivan and Lori Hibbett.

We got up there Friday afternoon and got what must have been the very last campsite / open bear bin in Camp 4, then joined an early dinner gathering of the Photowalk crew. From there, maybe 15-20 of us decided to hike up an old, old access road across from Bridalveil Falls to try to frame up the rising nearly-full moon behind the falls. It was a fairly easy hike up and a great view. Hannah and Ava made another little friend, daughter of one of the other photographers, and those girls scrambled around on rocks while the rest of us photographed a beautiful evening rainbow on Bridalveil. Later just my girls and I hiked up a bit further right around sunset and found a great patch of lupine to frame up in the photo, thus fulfilling Ava’s sage advice to “get something unique, Daddy, something not everyone else is getting!”

The girls were troopers for the weekend, going to Lower Yosemite Falls one night for a quick moonbow shot (the full moon creates a rainbow in the mist of the waterfall), hiking the Mist Trail the next, and allowing a quick shot of the moonbow on Upper Yosemite Falls the following night. Quick was the operative word… when you have kids with you, you can’t stand in one place for hours waiting for the shot!

Monday they opened Tioga Pass Road for the season, so we crossed over, had a nice picnic lunch at half-frozen Tenaya Lake, quickly explored Panum Crater and Mono Lake on the backside, and then headed home down the long 395 stretch.

It was a fun trip and the girls did a great job of putting up with three nights in a tent and a bunch of hiking!

Full Lunar Eclipse

Early on the morning of December 10, 2011, I got to witness—and photograph—my first full lunar eclipse. Wow! If you ever get the chance to stay up and observe one, do it. For the most part, I like the photos that I got, but they are nothing compared to experiencing it firsthand. You can begin to understand why solar and lunar eclipses had such effects on earlier peoples.

This photography adventure started with a lot of planning—looking at maps and angles and trying to find a good place to photograph the full arc of the eclipse (from beginning to end) with something interesting added to the frame. I hiked Torrey Pines State Reserve a couple days before the eclipse with a compass and camera, looking to see if I could find a great silhouette a Torrey Pine to place next to the moon. It had to be at the right angle for where the moon would be at full eclipse, had to be at some distance from my camera (so the long lens could capture both moon and silhouette), and I had to have a clear shot of it. No luck. I went down to Silver Strand State Beach to see if framing up either lighthouse on Point Loma would work, but they were too far away (even if the angles were right). The view from the Mount Soledad cross wouldn’t put anything interesting in the shot and the angles were marginal. Finally, I gave up and settled on just shooting the moon itself—with nothing else in the frame— from the cliffs near the Torrey Pines Gliderport.

The day before the full lunar eclipse, I picked up a rental Nikkor 500mm lens and gigantic tripod with gimbal head. That night I played with shooting just the full moon, using my Nikkor 2.0 teleconverter and my two camera bodies. With my old Nikon D200 crop sensor, I had an effective 1,500mm lens… an with my newer Nikon D700m, I had a 1,000mm lens. The D200 doesn’t do low light very well, so I planned to shoot the time series from full moon to full eclipse with the D200 and then rapidly switch to the D700 to better capture the full eclipse.

Early, early on the morning of December 10, Garry McCarthy, Mick McMurray, and I met up on the cliffs just north of the Torrey Pines Gliderport. There were several dozen other people there! Turns out that even after all kinds of prep work, I was actually a bit too late and missed the first one or two shots in the time series—with the moon completely full. Arg. Next time! Watching the eclipse proceed was an amazing experience. At one point I thought, “weird, it seems like it’s getting darker out!”… then, “oh, yeah, it IS getting darker!” (the full moon was no longer lighting up the cliff around us)

Because the full eclipse occurred too close both to sunrise and to the horizon (and we had pollution haze near the horizon… a gift from Los Angeles!), we had literally a couple minutes to photograph the full eclipse before it disappeared into the haze and lightening sky. I never did manage to switch from the Nikon D200 to D700.

It was a great experience and one which I hope to repeat someday. Though next time I want to find something interesting to frame the eclipse against, so it’s not just the moon by itself. Next time!

A couple notes about the time series shown below:

  1. Sadly, I missed the first shot of the series–the actual full moon. I thought I understood when I needed to get up and to my shooting site, but apparently I slightly misunderstood!
  2. The lower row is exposed for the portion of the moon that is still lit by the sun; the upper row is exposed for the portion of the moon that is eclipsed… when there are two shots above each other, they are at the same time point, but with different exposures.
  3. The interval between shots is 10 minutes.
  4. The last two shots (upper row) have a blue background because this full lunar eclipse occurred just before dawn and the sky turns a beautiful blue in pre-dawn long-exposure photos.

Mother Nature Beats Disney!

This year, San Diego is having the most intense red tide that anyone can remember in some time. It’s remarkably thick, remarkably large in terms of geographic coverage, remarkably bioluminescent, and has persisted for a remarkably long time! A red tide is a massive algal bloom, sometimes harmful, but generally not in Southern California. Our red tides are usually made up of the dinoflagellate Lingulodinium polyedrum, which has the really awesome property of being bioluminescent. Movement causes them to flash neon blue.

Diving in a red tide sucks during the day (it’s like diving in thick red pea soup and you can’t see a thing), but at night it’s awesome. Often you can get beneath the red tide and have great visibility, and then once you’re back in shallow water towards the end of the dive the vis goes to crud… but it’s all good! Turn off your lights and just enjoy the show. Move your hand in front of your face and a wave a blue sparkles flows off your fingers. It’s like Disney, but way better and in real life. Swimming fish create blue streaks in front of you. The bigger the fish, the bigger the streak. You can’t see more than a couple feet, but man can you see the blue streaks. The really big blue streaks get your attention! Turn to your buddy and he’s completely outlined in neon blue sparkles. Sometimes it’s so thick that you can’t see anything but blue because the movement of your mask creates so much bioluminescence that you can’t see past your mask!

The surface swim out and back can be amazing also—once you get past the surf zone and a little further from the city lights, your motion creates a brilliant blue wake. I’ve tried to get photos on the surface and below water, but haven’t succeeded. I’m not sure that it’s possible, even with the best digital SLRs. But you can get great photos from the beach of surf glowing blue as the motion of the breaking wave causes the dinoflagellates to fire. Here are some photos that I’ve gotten of this red tide—the closeup photos were taken at Torrey Pines State Beach (a nice dark spot once you get away from the road) and the wider shots were taken at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Click the first thumbnail to view photos.

Launching Fireworks

When we lived in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin, twice each year there would be a fireworks show launched from the field across the street from us.  People from the small towns all around would flock to Grundahl Park, down the street, for the fireworks and pack our neighborhood with parked cars… but all we had to do was walk out our front door, throw a blanket on the lawn, lie down and look up.  In fact, if the wind was just right (or wrong!) the glowing embers would glide down amongst us.  One year was so bad (and yet exciting!) that we put the kids inside and had to constantly watch for and dodge embers!

It occurred to me, after several years of this, and as I got more into photography, that instead of photographing the fireworks, I could photograph the people launching the fireworks.  So I went over and talked with the crew in the afternoon while they were setting up and got permission to come back that evening and get reasonably close… and photograph them.  It was a great experience that I hope to repeat someday!