Night Nature Photography II

night-ii-1-2As you go beyond simply shooting night skies (though they can be fun and addicting), you will discover some new challenges. Here are some ideas on how I have dealt with them.

Night critters: Lots of animals come out at night, but most of them are difficult to photograph. You can't easily see them, you can't focus easily even if you do (more on that later), and you can only compose based on tests, not on the actual shot of a moving animal. If you add a bright light, the animals will often go away. Night wildlife is often shy.

You nearly always will need to add light. Flash is the simplest for night, and if you set your ISO high, you can get away with a smaller flash that does not have a lot of power.

The hard part can be finding the animals! If you can find a place where they feed, you can often set up before dark and wait for dark and the animals to come. Ask rangers and naturalists at parks to see if there are any places where they regularly see night wildlife. If you can get your flash away from the camera, you will have better results.

The bat photos I did recently were in front of a cave where the gray bats came to mate. They would swarm around and above the cave opening, so I had a solid idea of where they would be. The hard part was that they were constantly moving in three dimensions, movement I could not see or predict, so composition and focus were hard. At least with composition, you could do a test shot and see the overall composition even if you could not know exactly where the animals might be.

Noise: High ISOs, long exposures and underexposure all increase the appearance of noise. At night, though, you will typically be using high ISOs, long exposures, and dark areas will typically be underexposed, so if you brighten them, the noise will be revealed. So you will need to do something to reduce noise. Shooting with a newer camera or a camera with a larger sensor may help, but that might not be an option. The noise reduction sliders in Lightroom and Camera Raw are pretty good with moderate noise, but if it goes beyond that, they don't work as well.

There are many noise reduction software programs on the market and they all work. I find that Dfine from the old Nik Software plug ins still does a great job for me (and all of the old Nik Software plug-ins are free now from Google).

night-ii-3bYou may also find it helpful to apply noise reduction selectively in a photo because often the worst noise will be localized. The noise slider in Lightroom's adjustment brush can help. You can also process your image twice (or more) with noise reduction at different levels, then use layers and layer masks in Photoshop or Affinity or another program with layers to control where each amount of noise reduction is applied.

Focusing: This is something we take for granted when shooting during the day. Autofocus doesn't work too well at night! I have used my headlamp to help with autofocus on occasion and also used a flashlight for manual focus when I can.

But you can't always do that. Many times you can't use a light to help with focus (especially with wildlife), so a lot of times you have to set your focus point by guessing or estimating the distance and using that with your lens. Even little critters like spiders can be sensitive to bright light and will hide.

Then there becomes the problem of setting focus with your lens. Some lenses don't have focusing distances marked on them, and those that do can be hard to see at night unless you add a lot of light. If you shine a light on your camera, that will temporarily blind you and will alert any wildlife (or people) to your location. A red light can help, but often doesn't really do the job.

Live view can help on many cameras because there will be a focusing scale when you shoot on manual (it won't help with much else because it will likely be too dark to register anything). Live View also works for close ups – point your white light at something the same distance as your subject but away from the subject so it does not get blasted by the light. You can focus with that light, then reframe quickly (and make a quick focus adjustment if necessary).

You can't do that with moving subjects like the bats. With them, I knew the distance to background objects, then changed my focus using the focus scale to a closer distance. I would take a picture to confirm that this distance worked and readjust as necessary (this can be a bit of trial and error).

And there's a problem with that Live View scale, too. I don't know of any of these scales that give actual distances! I have ended up creating my own little scale on the back of the camera that marks key focus points from infinity to 5 feet. White or light tape with a thin magic marker works; I am having a small strip of metal engraved with these points for the back of my camera.

night-ii-5The key points will vary hugely depending on the focal length, which is also a problem. I am using markings for the key focal lengths I am using. I have found you really do need to do this work of creating a scale for focusing because distances on the "empty" scale that displays on Live View can be very misleading.

Moving in the dark: You have to be able to get around in the dark and also find things. You have to be able to do this at times without a lot of light. Even if you are using a light of some sort, that can be problematic because it can make your vision outside of that light (and even when it is turned off) impossible. If there is enough light (such as a full-ish moon), I will often try to work without any flashlights or head lamps.

I haven't always like head lamps and often preferred a flashlight. The reason for that is that it is easier to turn the flashlight on and off so as to use it only when needed. But with the bat work I have been doing, a headlamp is de rigueur, so I looked into other options. I found a Black Diamond Ion headlamp that I really like. It is small and lightweight, has both white and red light, but most of all, it is easy to turn on and off and adjust its brightness. It has a pressure sensitive front surface. If you swipe one way, the white light comes on, swipe again, it goes off. Swipe the other way and the red light comes on. With either light on, you can change its power by simply holding a finger against the surface. This allows you to dim down the light to make it less harsh when needed.

A red light allows you to see without affecting your night vision as much, plus it doesn't bother wildlife. Unfortunately, a red light that works best for night vision and wildlife is not very bright, so you can't always see everything you would like to see. But it helps.

So that brings me to marking gear for night work. Most photo gear is dark or black, just what you can't see at all at night! I have gotten reflective night safety adhesive strips from Home Depot and attached pieces to my tripods, camera bag, light stands and so forth. That helps a lot. It is easy to trip over a tripod or light stand leg you can't see! I have also put small pieces of this reflective night aid at strategic places on my camera.

Cameras just are not designed to be used in the dark, even with some reflective tape. So I have added some plastic raised dots on key buttons so that I can easily feel and know them in the dark. I got them from The Braille Superstore. That way I know exactly where things like my playback and display buttons are.


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Night Nature Photography I

night-i-1-4Star photography has gotten popular for good reason. Cameras today can handle star-filled skies quite nicely. It is sometimes surprising to me how well they do. And there is more! Once you realize that nature indeed exists beyond the day, you find all sorts of possibilities for night photography. I'll share a few ideas in this and the next blog.

When I did my first night photography, it was of a snow-covered Minnesota rural landscape. I used Kodachrome 64. You had to guess on exposure because most meters couldn't handle the conditions, plus you had the exposure problem of reciprocity failure. (I knew Kodachrome could give some strange results due to reciprocity failure, but that's what I had had on me when the opportunity came)

Any photographers who never shot film will not know what that is. Film changes its sensitivity with long exposures, i.e., a shorter exposure that mathematically is the same as a longer exposure with a wider aperture did not give the same results when that long exposure went longer than about 1 second. Some films were so sensitive to this effect that colors shifted because the sensitivity of different color layers varied differently.

Effectively this meant that if you found a 10-second exposure worked (after shooting, after processing, of course), you could not simply go to 20 seconds and double the exposure. You might have to go to 30 or 40 seconds to get the same results in terms of brightness of the scene on the film.  And colors could really get screwed up. That Kodachrome snow scene? Green!

Digital makes night photography oh so much easier. Not sure of the exposure? Take a photo then look at the results. Adjust accordingly. Don't worry about color shifts, and shoot at high ISOs that were impossible with color film in the past.

Ancient Bristlecone Forest, Patriarch Grove, Inyo National Forest, California

Ancient Bristlecone Forest, Patriarch Grove, Inyo National Forest, California

Night skies: You need a long enough exposure to capture the sky and stars without it being so long that the stars blur into streaks (the earth is rotating under the stars, and that rotation shows up in curved light streaks where the stars are). With a wide-angle focal length, you can typically shoot exposures up to 20 seconds long without people noticing the star "movement" (if you still don't like what you see, then give fewer seconds). With more telephoto focal lengths, the exposures have to get shorter and shorter (which is one reason you don't yet see a lot of telephoto shots of night skies).

You can shoot with your lens nearly wide-0pen for f-stop (your widest or max f-stop for a lens will often give some optical aberrations around the stars). You don't need a small f-stop because your scene is at infinite distance so depth of field has no impact. If you wanted to include something nearby in your shot, maybe a tree as a silhouette against the stars, you would need to stop your lens down slightly, but not if you are using a wide-angle focal length. Choices like f/5.6 or f/8 are fine.

You will need a high ISO. Try ISO 1600 and see what you get. If that is not enough, then go to ISO 3200. On many cameras, ISO 3200 can be used but you will need to deal with the noise. A little on that below.

Shoot with a daylight white balance. You never know what you'll get with auto white balance and you may inadvertently lose some color of the stars. I know, you can always "fix" that in a RAW file, but that is really a challenge if you then have no idea of what colors the stars should be. Our eyes are simply not capable of rendering color well at low light levels, but digital cameras are.

night-i-3bNight skies and moonlit landscapes:
You need light on the landscape in order to balance it with the starlit skies. A full moon can work and will often allow the same exposures as just described. Or you can try light painting, but if you want stars, that won't work because generally you need time to "paint" the scene with a powerful flashlight (even if you use a high ISO so the exposure can be shorter, this will usually give you too little time to paint the subject).

Here is where white balance can be tricky. The moon is bouncing sunlight to the earth, so a sun or day white balance will work. But because we don't see colors well at night, especially warm colors, scenes will look bluish to the naked eye. Try using Tungsten white balance for a very nightly look of blue landscape.

night-i-4bNight skies and flash: Flash can be used quite effectively at night, especially to highlight details (though it can be challenging because you can't see the results until the camera is finished working on the shot). With a long exposure, you don't even have to connect the flash to the camera. Just wait until you know the shutter is open, then set it off with the test button on the flash as you point it at different details of the scene. You may have to control the output of the flash to bring it down so as not to have the flash overpower the night skies.

In the next installment, I'll look at photographing night critters, dealing with noise, dealing with focusing challenges, and moving in the dark.


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Experiences and Photography

bat-in-woods-1I want to talk about my recent experience with bats. It truly was a heartfelt experience that affected me deeply. I had the chance both to be present at an amazing nature experience and photograph it. But this is about bats, especially about being close to bats, so the challenge is to talk about the experience in a way that can help people understand that these little animals do not have to be frightening, that they are a remarkable part of the night.

I’d gone to Kentucky for a bat acoustic monitoring workshop. I wanted to learn more about bats and to learn more about identifying bats by their calls. It’s not an easy thing to do. We can’t hear the bats. However, there are microphones that can hear their very high frequencies, and there are recorders and software that allow us to create sonograms or visual depictions of the bat calls. Each bat species has its own unique pattern in a sonogram, though some species have similar calls that can make them hard to tell apart at times. Still, it’s very cool to start seeing patterns in the bat calls that allow you to identify the species.

bat-callsI wanted to be able to do some photography at the workshop as well. My goal has been to be able to photograph bats at night in the wild showing some of their surroundings. That’s hard to do, which is why most bat photographs show a close shot of a bat against a black background. These are captured bats that are released in a controlled environment so that the photographer can be sure the bat goes where it can be photographed. These are wild bats and are then released back to the wild. (A terrific book about Merlin Tuttle’s work in photographing all bat species in the world is his book, The Secret Lives of Bats, though it really is about his adventures studying and photographing bats around the world. And wild adventures they are!)

But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be able to photograph bats more naturally and give a feeling for them in their environment. That’s always been something that I have tried to do with most of my photography. I don’t like isolating plants or animals from their environment because, for me, this also isolates me and the viewer of my photographs from the organism’s environment as well.

As I said, this is not easy to do. Bats are very small, they are dark, they mostly don’t make sounds that we can hear, and they can change their flight pattern in three dimensions.  I had had some success photographing bats coming to a small waterhole in the desert when I visited Joe McDonald in Arizona a couple of years ago. He had set up a light beam trigger with flash to allow us to do that.

I have tried working with a light beam trigger a few times since then without much success. I tried doing this in Kentucky as well but found it was really difficult to set up and control in this situation. You still have the big problem of bats in the wild basically flying wherever they want in three dimensions.

In Kentucky at this time of year, however, there’s something very special going on with some bats that changed everything for me. Cave bats will swarm in front of cave entrances as a part of their mating behavior. The swarming bats are mostly males and are looking for females to mate with.

Our workshop was near Mammoth Cave National Park, a big cave area of Kentucky that includes other caves as well. Two smaller caves, James and Coach Caves, near where we had our workshop had gray bats swarming in front of them at night.

bat-swarm-1Both of these cave entrances are somewhat recessed into the ground. They were used by people trying to attract tourists back in the early to mid part of the 20th century. They still have steps going down to them, but the caves have bars across them to prevent people from going inside and disturbing the bats. The bars allow the bats free movement in and out of the cave.

Even though it was hot and humid as we approached the first cave, as soon as you stepped down toward the cave, you immediately felt a big drop in temperature. At this time of year, the air is blowing out of the caves and the caves have a temperature at around 55°.

Having never seen a bat swarm, I was not sure what to expect. I had seen some video of swarms and knew that they included a lot of bats. But I had no idea how much this would affect me.

One of our workshop leaders, John Chenger, had done a lot of work with infrared video, and so I had brought my camcorder that could also record infrared. Most of the class were resource managers or environmental consultants, no other photographers, so I checked with John to be sure he was setting up some IR lights. Indeed he was, mostly so that he could show people what the swarm looked like as we were there. Remember, this was at night and in a woods. We were using headlamps away from the cave, but if you use headlamps down by the caves, the bats would disappear for a little while until they were sure it was okay.

When it was pitch black and the bats started coming out, John turned on his lights and his camera with an accessory 7-inch monitor, and I truly was awestruck. Many, many little bats (all bats in this country are little, especially the myotis group of which these gray bats are a part of) were circling around in front of and above the cave entrance.

I had my IR camcorder on a tripod and I wanted to get a little more dramatic light from the IR lights that John had set up, so I looked for an angle away from them. Because of the terrain, the best angle was actually down the steps in front of the cave entrance. So down I went, but it was very, very dark, and without some sort of infrared night vision, I could see very little. Not knowing the location very well, I had to turn on my headlamp, which caused the bats to mostly go away for a few minutes.

But shortly, they came back – lots of them came back! At first, I just heard their wing beats. I turned on my video camera and could now see them flying all around in the infrared light. Their wingbeats got louder. They got so close that I could actually feel the wind currents from their wing beats as they flew around me.

I can tell you that this was an exciting, amazing experience. I had no fear of these little animals. When you saw them through the infrared camera, they look more like big butterflies fluttering around.

Did I tell you this was amazing? Of course I did! It truly was. I could think of few other adjectives that could really describe the experience then, but now I can look in my thesaurus! Awesome, overwhelming, astonishing, incredible, stunning, all good words that certainly could apply. Yet, I have to tell you, that even those words don’t fully describe this absolutely amazing experience. It was like being next to a big flock of birds as they took off, but the little bats kept circling around and around, and they didn’t go away. You were immersed in a highly sensual experience that included visuals on the infrared camcorder LCD, sounds of many wing beats all around you, and the feeling of swirls of air against your face from the wing beats.

I had no fear of these little animals. They had no interest in me and totally knew that I was there. Bright lights made them wary, but it was obvious that I posed little threat to them.

In my next blog I will tell a little more about my experiences in photographing these animals, and even about night photography in a future blog that will be a little different than what you often see about night sky photography.

I felt privileged to to be there with these little animals sharing their space as they went about their business.

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Seeing Nature Fully


Cattails in marsh

One of the challenges we face with fully understanding the nature and our world is our tendency to focus on the easily seen and the things we are most comfortable with. This can then translate to our photography. I know how easy it is to see and photograph what I know and love.

But nature is far more than I can know. Nature and the world are much more than any one person can know. So I am not going to suggest tormenting yourself with not knowing everything about nature. Now maybe you never do that, but sometimes I do. I love and respect all of nature so much so that I want the impossible, knowing it all.

I have to believe there is a middle ground. How do we fully see (and photograph) nature, going beyond our preconceptions, yet not driving ourselves crazy (though my wife often says that is a short drive!).

In James Cameron's Avatar, the natives have a greeting, "I see you." He talked about this when he was interviewed by Oprah. This was a greeting of respect. I see you offers a connection that gives full attention to the person being greeted.

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I believe this can apply to nature and our photography of it. We need more of that attention today to better see the whole of nature. This also includes seeing the whole of humanity because we are as much a part of nature as any other life. We don't have to see and photograph all of nature, but I believe we can see and photograph more of nature beyond our comfort zones.

Seeing and then photographing a limited part of nature affects us in many ways:

  • We immediately gain more subjects and ideas for our photography.
  • This can make photography of any locator a richer experience.
  • Without trying to see more of the whole of nature, our view and our photographs of nature are incomplete.
  • Nature formed and developed as a complete whole – to ignore that is to ignore how the whole really functions.
  • Life developed around the world and adapted to the variation of conditions found throughout the world. This has given life a depth and richness in its plants, animals, ecosystems and more that is not fully expressed without the whole. And without nature photography going beyond the usual subjects.
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We are so familiar with the usual – daytime animals, furry animals, bold flowers, big trees, forests, big landscapes and so on.  But they're only part of the story, the whole of nature also includes the night, the “unfurry” from spiders to bugs to snakes, the plants without bold flowers, and many other important elements.

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Jumping spider

Nature, the world, is not one thing. To fully appreciate nature's importance to a fully functioning world (even if our understanding is incomplete), we need to at least have a feel for the remarkable diversity and richness of nature. As photographers, we can make an effort to interpret more of nature in order to help others see and appreciate something of the whole of nature. Photography gives the public a visceral connection to the expansiveness of nature and the world.

Crayfish chimney, wetlands near Henderson, Kentucky

Crayfish chimney, wetlands near Henderson, Kentucky

Aldo Leopold once wrote – "The last word in ignorance is the man who says of an animal or plant, 'What good is it?' If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good, whether we understand it or not. If the biota, in the course of eons, has built something we like but do not understand, then who but a fool would discard seemingly useless parts? To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering."

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Pelicans over condos

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Double Rabbit and Stacked Focus

Rabbits5I was photographing around a large rock pile in the desert east of Lake Isabella, California, when I found a cooperative desert cottontail rabbit. There had been a lot of rabbits around this rock pile, though many of them were very skittish and did not allow a close approach.

I find all wildlife fascinating, especially when we can see their adaptations to a specific set of conditions. The rabbit was perfectly colored to match the rock. In fact, when the rabbits here froze in position, they blended in quite nicely from their perspective. It was easy to miss them. They were easiest to see when they moved, then you could cautiously move close to them hoping they would stay put because they felt they disappeared against the rocks (which they kind of did).

So I did not want a photo of the rabbit alone as some sort of portrait.

Rabbits6I wanted the rabbit shown as a part of this setting, this environment. When moving toward an animal, it helps to remember that they are on the lookout for predators, so you need to avoid anything that might make you look more like a predator. A predator moves in a straight, efficient line toward its prey, so as a photographer, it helps to move more casually, like a cow grazing in the field. A predator will lock its eyes onto the prey, so it helps to avoid staring at the animal you are stalking, including avoiding pointing the lens right at it until you are close.

I took some photos of the rabbit against the rocks, trying some different compositions to see how each might communicate rabbit and rock. Then a second rabbit moved into the area. I thought that was fun and wanted it in the photo, too. As I changed my camera position to include both, that second rabbit froze, too.

I knew with my telephoto that I was not going to get both animals in focus. Telephotos shorten the depth of field, no matter what you do with f-stop. So I shot multiple images, changing the focus from rabbit to rabbit (they were pretty cooperative!). I tried pairs where one rabbit was in focus then the other. I tried some groups of three where one rabbit was in focus, the middle ground was in focus, then the other rabbit.

Rabbits1 Rabbits3I put the images together in Photoshop using each photo as a separate layer, the Auto-Align function and then the Auto-Blend function in the Edit menu. (I didn't really need the Auto-Align function, but I tend to do this just to be sure.)

Rabbits4The result shows both rabbits in focus, a more accurate and "truthful" image than any of the actual shots by the camera because of the limitations of the camera and lens.

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What We See vs. What the Camera Sees

Kern River Morning 3The image from the camera is often different than the scene we see. This is because  we have a different "sensor" than the camera does. Knowing this, how do we do our best to represent nature fairly and directly?

This really came home to me as I looked at images from a recent trip to the Kern River Valley northeast of Bakersfield, California. This is a really cool area, not well known, and the lower valley below Lake Isabella is really difficult to photograph because of high hills all around it that block sunrise and sunset, plus a lot of early and late light.

However, there is a time in the morning when the light is low enough to create texture and form as well as backlight vegetation. If you visit then, the contrast of the green trees by the river and the brown, dry hills of the high desert around it is beautiful and striking. I wanted to capture something that expressed the light and color contrasts.

In finding a good spot with some nice water, I found the scene hard to expose for because proper exposure of the trees would overexpose the white water. I ended up exposing so that the water remained white but had detail. The image on my LCD looked interesting, but not really what I was seeing in front of me. (I should have taken two exposures, one for the water and one for the green trees, then combined them in Photoshop, but I didn't! HDR would not work because of the movement of the water, plus it would dull down parts of the photo and give less of a feeling of light.)

Back in my office at my computer, I was confronted with a bunch of interesting images from this spot, but none of them gave any good color or light on the green trees. They showed little of the reality of the scene as experienced by being there. That was disappointing.

Kern River Morning 2So I went to work on the images. I tried a number of things in Lightroom, including multiple uses of adjustment brushes. I tried some work in Photoshop with a black-and-white layer and some other layer work. But none of it seemed to give me the look I wanted. One problem that many photographers don't know about is that underexposure causes problems for colors, so in this case, the underexposure of the trees (done to expose the water properly) gave me poorer color to work with. This has nothing to do with a RAW file. It is all about how a sensor deals with tonalities and how all sensors have trouble with colors as they get darker (this is a big difference between sensors and our eyes which is not often discussed).

But all of that work did give me some ideas of what worked and what didn't. So I started over and reprocessed the image to get to what you see here. This is all Lightroom using the overall controls plus adjustment brushes, a little radial filter and a little graduated filter controls.

Kern River Morning 5I am not completely satisfied with the results in that it still doesn't quite express the color of the trees in that light and contrasting with the dry hills. But it is much better than what the camera captured (what you see here is a normally processed RAW file with only general or "global" controls). I do think I would have been better off combining two exposures because I could have exposed properly for the water in one shot and properly for the trees in the other, which would have overcome the sensor's color challenges with underexposure.

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