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How to Take Better National Park Photography at Night

We know how important it is to capture your vacation memories. We also know how frustrating it can be to get a photo ‘just-right.’ That’s why we’re teaming up with National Park Patch Lady,Sandra Ramos, for some lessons on how to take better national park photos! Sandra has been featured on our list of Top National Park Instagram Accounts to Follow. Right now you can see her photos on display at an exhibit at the Biscayne National Park Dante Fascell Visitor Center Gallery. Check out our first introduction post and Sandra’s feature below, on how to improve your national park night photography.


Lighthouse at night in Biscayne National Park
Biscayne National Park – Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

There are at least 26 National Park sites that preserve the darkest skies in the United States; Recent additions include Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Joshua Tree National Parks. But photographing the night sky can be significantly more tricky than your average excursion in a national park. This is due to several factors, including your camera sensor, the amount of light it can take in, and, well, shooting at night.

Nocturnal habits of park dwellers aside, extra time and safety precautions should be taken, but definitely not deter you from witnessing one of the last remaining unspoiled views we have in common with the ancestors of this land thousands of years ago.

This post will get technical, I’m not going to lie.

For some of this, gear will matter.

How?

Night photography requires your shutter to be open longer or to take the photo at a higher ISO to allow more light into the sensor, and therefore can add noise and grain to photos. Not to mention you have to focus in the dark, and your auto focus isn’t going to cut it, so you need to have a lens you can manually focus. Lastly, you really want to control all the settings to get the shot right, therefore shooting manual mode will be necessary.

So, who’s got two thumbs and not the world’s greatest night photographer: this ‘Lady! But I have friends who are amazing at it, so I’m roping them in to give us all a hearty lesson in how to do this right.


While watching Night Photography Week several years ago, I was mesmerized by the creativity and extensive knowledge of Gabriel Biderman (IG: @ruinism) and Tim Cooper (IG: @timcooperphotography), workshop leaders with National Parks at Night and co-authors of the book Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots

National Park Night Photographers Game Biderman and Tim Cooper
National Parks at Night Workshop leaders Gabriel Biderman (left) and Tim Cooper (right).

When I heard they would be in Biscayne National Park around the same time I was early last year, I rearranged my schedule to crash their party (#sorrynotsorry) and meet the guys I knew I wanted to learn more from. Since then, they have become excellent mentors, amazing cheerleaders, and incredible friends.


Getting started with national park photography at night

Tim gets very specific about what he needs for night photos: “a wide angle lens, a high quality camera, a good tripod and a reliable flashlight. With this limited amount of equipment you can really capture some great night images. 

For lenses I use a 10mm-24mm on my crop sensor camera (Fuji XT2) and a 14mm-24mm on my full frame cameras (Nikon Z6 and Nikon D4S).  For flashlights I couldn’t live without my Coast HP7R and HP5R.” Check out what’s in Tim’s camera bag here:

Boom. Gear galore and options to boot.

Not to worry if you don’t have/can’t afford the drool-worthy goodies he mentions above (remember he’s a pro, and we aren’t there YET.) And the best camera (gear) is what you’ve got, so let’s walk this through:

Wide angle lens

This is usually considered to be a range between 10mm-35mm, and the angle of view typically runs from 64° to 84°of the scene. Why use this lens for night photography? Because the sky is vast and beautiful and you want to capture as much of it as you can in that shot. You can use a zoom or a prime lens, but I wouldn’t suggest going narrower than a 50mm lens for this.

Also something to consider is how fast the lens is (how big the aperture of the lens can get to allow the most light in at the lowest ISO.) Did I just speak in a foreign language you do not yet know? FStoppers.com has a guide here for help: The Exposure Triangle: Understanding How Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO Work Together

Photo Credit: Tim Cooper

High Quality Camera

Most night shots are taken at high ISOs (3200 and higher). Many cameras, including mirrorless cameras, get very noisy (both grain and color noise) at ISO over 800. There are ways to edit this in post processing, but you can lose image quality. Better quality cameras are able to take ISOs up to 12800 and higher without losing image quality. Understand and work with the ability of your camera as you explore night photography.

Photo Credit: Tim Cooper

Tripod

I’ll spare you my tripod soapbox again about if you’re not using a tripod, you’re not really trying to take a photograph. See my previous post: To Get The Best National Park Photos, You Need to Be Prepared



Flashlight

A flashlight’s important for general seeing in the dark and light painting, and don’t forget a headlamp with a red light (as to not ruin your night vision).

Move along, Sandra, we want to start shooting.

National Park Night Photo by Tim Cooper
Photo Credit: Tim Cooper

Picture the scene…

Night is falling and you are determined  to get a great night shot. What’s the secret sauce?

According to Gabe, it’s certainly not what I thought!  “Besides taking the high ISO test shots to aid with focusing/composition – my best advice for the night sauce – Look for movement.  In the end we are using longer exposures to play with time.  What elements in the scene are moving?  The stars? Water? Cars?  Choosing the right shutter speed can emphasize that movement and give it that night wow factor!”

Fire Island Lighthouse Black and White photo at night.
Fire Island Lighthouse – Photo Credit: Gabe Biderman

Longer exposures mean slow shutter speed. For star points, the general rule of thumb is somewhere less than 15 seconds (as to not show movement of the earth’s rotation.) To get nice round star trails, point your camera toward Polaris (the North Star) and let the camera run (I generally put in fresh batteries to start and let the camera run until they die, generally around 2 hours.)

Organ Pipe Cactus National Park Night Photography
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument -Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

Not sure where to look or how to set up your shot? There are plenty of apps for that. Most smartphones have a compass, but Photo Pills and Photo Sundial are two others to look into, although I will say they have a learning curve to them for sure.


Editing Your Night Photography

Be aware – your photos will more than likely need to be post-processed (in Lightroom, Photoshop, or other editing software.) Do not be disappointed when they don’t look like they came out of NatGeo straight out of camera.

Lightning Strike in White Sands National Monument
White Sands National Monument – Photo Credit: Sandra Ramos

I won’t go into editing here, but there are a variety of online resources you can check out. Here are a few to get you started:


Advice for Newbies

National park night photography can be intimidating! But good scouting, planning and prep work will go a long way to getting some great (dare I say epic?) shots. Knowing your camera, practicing low light shots, and getting out there is a great way to start.

Joshua Tree National Park – Photo Credit: Gabe Biderman

“Take your time,” Gabe explains. “Focusing and Exposure, two things the camera does very easily during the daylight (when there is contrast and light!) can be the most difficult thing to do at night.  But take your time, manually focus, take a series of test shots to figure our your composition and triple check that focus!  Often times I take 5-10 test high ISO test shots before settling down on my final exposure.  So you need to have patience…also don’t forget to enjoy those starry skies!”


Where to follow these national park night photographers:

National Parks at Night: www.nationalparksatnight.com

Gabriel Biderman

Instagram: @ruinism
www.ruinism.com


Timothy Cooper

Instagram: @timcooperphotography  or @timcooperbw
TimCooperPhotographyWorkshops.com

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A post shared by Tim Cooper (@timcooperphotography) on


About Sandra Ramos

Sandra Ramos, also known as the National Park Patch Lady on your local social media channels, is a seeker, avid roadtrippper, self-taught photographer, and Park Ranger groupie based in Fort Worth, Texas. Her day job as the education coordinator at Fort Worth Camera allows her to not only assist others in taking awesome photos but also to daydream about photo gear and future travels. You can follow her on Instagram at @nationalparkpatchlady.


Like what you’ve seen so far in our series on taking better national park photos?  Subscribe to get all of Sandra’s posts delivered right to your inbox! 

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