Night Nature Photography

Night photos 1A lot of nature photographers never have much need to use flash. If you don't need it, why bother?! But when you need to photograph at night, as I did during my bat class recently, flash can become a necessity.

Recently I did a short piece in National Wildlife Magazine about photographing nature at night. There is a huge amount of natural things going on at night but we see very little photography then, other than the now faddish (though still interesting and fun) night skies. After just taking a bat ecology and conservation field course, I realize even more how much we are all missing as photographers, naturalists and as the eyes of the public. When the public does not "see" things, such as through our photography, things really don't exist for them.

But photographing at night is challenging, to say the least. The timing is off for most of us, our eyes don't function so well in the dark, cameras are not made for the dark, and light is an issue. Regardless of your camera's high ISO capabilities, there is only so much you can do in the dark night. Landscapes with stars and landscapes in moonlight can be readily accomplished with today's cameras, but beyond that, you need to add light. 

I have done a bit of night photography of spiders and and insects because many of these little animals are creatures of the night and will not be seen otherwise (either by you or anyone who sees your photos). I have used both flash and continuous light sources for this. The advantage of a continuous light source such as a quartz light or LED light is that it is always on as you shoot, making focus and composition easier (I don't use quartz lights so much anymore because of heat and power issues). This is a couple of labyrinth spiders, a male (small one upper left) and a female (larger, lower right in "trash" hiding spot), with the labyrinth of web showing in the background, shot with a strong backlight LED and a front fill LED. 

Labrynth spider webIn some situations, such as the bats, you can't simply set up lights, leave them on and expect all the action to be there (which was true for the spiders), so I used flash. Even with flash, you need a light for focus and composition, which can be a headlamp (which I used, but I am thinking about using a small, LED ring light for this purpose because this always puts a good light on the subject, especially close-ups, though I don't like it so much for the actual photo).

The quick and easy thing most people will do is to turn on their flash or maybe use a strong light from the camera position. While this will illuminate the subject, it won't always result in very attractive photos. Any light from the camera position will be flat and without dimension or form (which is one reason I don't like ring lights much).

The key to getting better light at night is to get the light off the camera. This creates dimension and modeling on the subject. With light coming from the side, above or even behind the subject, you give a three-dimensional quality to your subjects and you bring out texture. 

Night photos 4I know flash can be intimidating to many photographers, but an accessory flash is easy to get off camera simply by using a dedicated flash cord and then holding the flash away from the camera. All of the bat photos from my class seen here were done that way. In addition, I added a small soft box to the flash (my complete set up is shown below).

Night photos 6I find that the built-in wireless flash systems of today's cameras are terrific as long as you are inside. Unfortunately, they do not consistently work outdoors, so even if you use them, it helps to have a cord. Plus a cord is easier to use for many people because the flash works the same as it does when it is sitting in your camera's hot shoe and you don't have to fiddle with wireless settings. The reason camera-based wireless flash struggle outdoors is that the camera has to send a signal to the flash (infrared or pulsed), and outdoors, that signal can go off into infinity without being seen by the flash.

Night photos 3 Night photos 5So think about lighting up some night subjects. I am. You can get starts with a strong LED light from the hardware store and a high ISO, or just by getting a dedicated flash cord (i.e., a cord designed specifically for your camera and flash) to use with your accessory flash. I am going to be experimenting now and then with different night techniques to see what I can find.

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Midday Landscape Photography

IR 2 2While heading up to my bat ecology class (more on that later) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains north of Truckee, California, I came across some landscapes that were very attractive, but I wasn't convinced they would look that great as photos because of the time of day. It was midday and the shadows were not great, the haze was not attractive and I knew colors would not record at their best. This is one reason why much landscape work is done early or late in the day. At those times, shadows are great, haze can actually be attractive, and colors look good.

But I had taken my little converted infrared camera. Suddenly those so-so landscapes looked great! Infrared gives contrast to scenes where contrast is hard to find at midday. It can truly be the midday solution for the landscape photographer.

IR 2 1Even though infrared cuts through the haze and creates strong contrasts, I am not one to just accept the camera's "magic" without controlling it a bit. Control in this case came from careful selection of the angle to the landscape and the timing of the clouds and shadows from the clouds. This gave some most interesting patterns on the scenes that simply pointing and shooting at the scene would not give. You can see this in the dark peaks in shadow in the first image and the dark trees (shadowed) in the second shot. The dark and light patterns of the trees in the next shot also come from light and shade on the scene from the clouds.

IR 2 3I am not a great one for waiting for really long times (the great black-and-white photographer Paul Strand once spent a month waiting for the right light on an assignment for an advertiser – he was not hired by them again!), but light and shadow are so important to a scene that it can be worth waiting for a cloud to move in the sky or a shadow to fall over a better part of the scene.

I also tried out the new Dehaze adjustment in Lightroom. I had experimented with it a bit when I first downloaded the latest version, but this midday haze shooting gave me a bit more to work with. It does remove haze, but it has some real issues for me in making the image look harsh and affecting colors. The first image below is the original scene with some standard adjustments in Lightroom. The second is with the Dehaze control – you can see that while the haze is decreased, the scene gets darker, harsher and colors shift (I have found this to be consistently true in using this control).

IR 2 4IR 2 add1The third image below is the same Dehazed image with some additional adjustments to get it back to a more normal, natural look. It isn't bad for a midday scene, but still, regardless of how it is done, color photography often struggles with midday landscape photography.

IR 2 5

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Infrared Revisited

Authentic Part IV 2A few years ago, infrared was all the rage. I had experimented with it a bit, and there is no question it is dramatic and bold. I went away from it for two reasons: 1) the camera did not have the quality I wanted, and more important, 2) it seemed a little too "effecty", i.e., done for its own sake than to really show something new and unique about nature (or any other part of the world). (I have seen some really nice fine-art work with infrared where the look is controlled to create something visually interesting as fine art, such as that by Theresa Airey.)

Recently, I got interested in infrared again because I wanted to explore some aspects of night photography that could only be done with infrared. (I will do something on this after I have experimented a while with it – with everything about infrared photography available on the internet, almost nothing is about night work.) I got a used Panasonic GX-1 very cheaply from ebay and had it converted by LifePixel (the camera allows me to use my Micro Four Thirds lenses and LifePixel does a nice job with conversions).

As I started to explore the night, I also started shooting in the day again. I found that infrared now gave me a tool to show off certain aspects of scenes that I could not do otherwise. The first image creates an almost magical look for a small pond in a floodplain forest next to the Minnesota River near Carver Rapids.

I had remembered how well it cuts through haze (this has always been true and some photographers had used it for this during the days of infrared film, too). So it occurred to me that I could use infrared to capture certain aspects of nature, especially landscapes, that would now be fully revealed, such as the true structure of the clouds of a Minnesota day along the Minnesota River (next).

Authentic Part IV 1I am sure you have experienced an interesting landscape that just looks like crap when shot in color because of the haze, yet you know there are some great elements of the scene. Infrared black-and-white does not try to capture colors, it simply cuts through the scene to find its bare bones structure based on how the light is interacting with it. This creates a unique image that we cannot see, yet can be entirely authentic to the structure and form of the scene. It reveals things that neither we nor our cameras can normally see. I liked the look of the landscape of Jenson Lake in Eagan, Minnesota, just before a storm (next), but the overall scene had too much haze from the humidity (a common challenge in Minnesota).

Authentic Part IV 3This is no different than a fast shutter speed revealing detail in a bird wing that cannot otherwise be seen, or a slow shutter speed revealing flow patterns in a stream that we also cannot see with the naked eye. This really came home to me as I flew out of Denver recently. It was near sunset and the light was spectacular, but the haze made the scene below hard to see. The new haze filter in Lightroom helped a little, but still gave nothing of the landscape and sky that infrared revealed (I was using two different cameras). Authentic Part IV 5

Authentic Part IV 4For me, infrared gives me the chance to see nature anew and show it off so that viewers see its inherent structure. I am not so interested in it for its "look" but rather for how it engages me and my viewer with a scene.

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Authentic Images IV – Being Present

Cannon Falls, MNIt has been fun to do this series on authentic images and see the responses I am getting from all of you, both as comments and as e-mails. I think this has an impact on a lot of us who are serious about both nature and photography.

I also find it encouraging to discover so many more people of like mind. I want to be clear that I am not advocating all photographers should or will want to find more authentic images. Many are perfectly happy with the latest camera and using the last 10 top tips they discovered. Many are perfectly happy with photographs that do not represent the real nature of a location as long as they get likes on Facebook.

That is just not for me, and I think it is not for you, either. A curious observation – everybody is talking today about how much people want authenticity in communication, especially on the Internet, yet they don't seem to want it in photos.

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, MinnesotaOne thing that I have really begun to notice in me is how much more connected I feel to a place, to a subject, when I quiet my mind and really become present with what is in front of me. I will see possibilities from exposure, lens choice, and other tools, but really being open to what the subject/scene has to say to me is important.

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Bloomington, MinnesotaWe have so many things that can go in inside our minds. We start to think about what is "right" or "wrong" even though we know there are no arbitrary rights or wrongs in photography. We start thinking about why we didn't bring this camera or that lens, or even, why we can't afford this camera or that lens. We start hearing criticisms of our work from everyone from our parents to our spouses to the camera club to an editor and so on. We even start hearing that voice that wants to keep us from being the best WE can be by telling us to play it safe, follow the "rules", keep with the culture of the camera club or magazine or Facebook, and certainly, never do something so unique that others might question it.

Those are major distractions from doing important and valuable work. I believe it is vital to find ways to keep that chattering inside our heads quiet and to focus on truly being present with the nature in front of us. That means opening our minds to "hear" what that nature has to say to us.

Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Carver Rapids, MinnesotaAll of these images are also from Minnesota.

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Authentic Images III – Lightroom

Cannon Falls, MNI sometimes hear the idea that authentic images only come from the camera, and if you process an image, you are not being true to the subject. That would be true only if the camera captured the world the way we see it. Unfortunately, it does not.

The LIFE photographer, Andreas Feininger, once wrote many years ago well before Photoshop or anything like it, "The uncontrolled image is a lie." What he meant was that the camera often portrayed the world in a way unique to it, but false to how we see and experience it. Control for him was about the craft of photography, from how you chose your f-stop to darkroom work. He acknowledges that, of course, you can control an image to lie even more as well.

To get authentic images, we need to understand and know how to control the image through the craft of photography. Cameras today are so easy to use in automatic modes and will give excellent results, but that can be misleading. Craft is easier today with automatic modes, but it is still important and a key aspect of the skilled photographer.

That doesn't mean you have to always do a lot of work on an image. There is not a lot of difference between the next two photos (unprocessed RAW and processed of a waterfall in Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Minnesota). The first is an image directly from the RAW file, and the second is one adjusted to optimize that RAW file. RAW files are designed to be adjusted, which is why they typically look a little gray and flat as in the first image below. If you are not interested in adjusting images in the computer, don't shoot RAW! Shoot high-quality JPEG because then the RAW files are automatically (and usually quite well) adjusted and converted to the JPEG image.

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, Minnesota Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, MinnesotaHowever, sometimes the camera sees something entirely different than we do. This cottonwood tree trunk rising from the edge of the Cannon River in Minnesota cannot be captured showing good sky color and tree trunk texture in an exposure to hold color in the sky. That then gives a dramatic photo, but not one that is anywhere close to what we would see while there in person (more exposure for the tree trunk would make the sky a blank white).

Cannon Falls, MNA little work in Lightroom and the image is far more true to the tree and the scene. It is more accurate to what we see and more authentic to the actual location, subject and conditions.

Cannon Falls, MN

So sometimes you have to process an image to make it true to what we see and experience of nature. Otherwise, we give a false impression of a scene to the viewer. (That said, sometimes we do want to use our craft to create a dramatic impression of a scene that relates to how we experience it and this comes from how we shoot and process the photo.)

I am up in the Sierra Nevada mountains this week at a field course on bats! So I might not be able to check your great comments this week, but please still comment if you want because I will see them eventually.

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Authentic Images II

Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, Nerstand, MinnesotaI admit that over the years, I have been seduced by fanciful techniques that seemed so cool. But ultimately, they went nowhere in helping me make more authentic images, images true to me and my subject, unless they could become techniques that I controlled. When a technique is used just because it was part of a top ten tips list from anyone (including me), that will not connect you with the subject and it then controls you rather than you controlling it.

Today, I am trying to strip away those artificial and arbitrary techniques to find what is true and useful to me. I really want to be open to whatever location I visit and see it for what it is, not for what I expect it to be or for what someone else says it should be. I then want to be able to control my photographic craft so that I can create an image that reflects both the place and my engagement with that place. It is about respect for nature, for my work as a photographer, and for my viewers.

The first image is from Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. The Big Woods is a specific ecosystem that once covered much of the midwest and is made up of a variety of deciduous trees, especially maple and basswood. The woods is an important part of the nature of Minnesota and the experience of the state. I love the richness of the greens and the variety of textures and shapes that are found in this image, in this scene. I also love the soft light and deep depth of field that reveal so much of this location.

Authentic Part II - 3

This image is at dawn in the Louisville Swamp prairie area of the Minnesota River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. This is gentle dawn light. You will not see the dawn light of the mountains here, nor should we expect that. I wanted to respond to what I saw here, with the beauty of the soft colors and gentle light. I love the interesting forms of the sumac blooms (the triangular white shapes in the lower area) which create a visual relationship with the colorful shapes of the clouds at the left. I wanted to contrast the oak tree with the distant trees to give a feeling of space, but I also deliberately cut into the bottom branch of that tree to create a stronger relationship to the space at the left.

Cannon Falls, MNThis is a totally different sunrise along the Cannon River near Cannon Falls. You can only see a hint of the water. But this is so much of the experience of being in such a place at dawn in Minnesota. Often the density of the vegetation is too great to get a clear view beyond it. Yet, the sun gets through and creates a beautiful pattern of light and dark. Adding the sunburst pattern creates a strong connection to the sun and the scene. This is a far more interesting and emotionally authentic image than the traditional approach to a stream as seen in the next photo that shows an area nearby.

Cannon Falls, MNHere's a close-up.

Authentic Part II - 2This questionmark butterfly was using this perch in the late sun for a mating display launchpad. It would suddenly rise up and flutter all around in a mating display (and especially if a rival came near), then go back on a leaf in the sun. Since Minnesota is not filled with big, dramatic vistas, close-ups can be a very important way of connecting to it. The light works very well here to emphasize the butterfly, even though it is not large in the frame, by the drama of light and shadow. This also pulls out details from the plant (a nettle, which limited how close I wanted to get, anyway!). I love the contrast of black shadow and color of leaves and butterfly. By not simply shooting a close-up of butterfly alone, I was able to give a feeling for the place and the conditions.


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