Like most people, I’ve stood beneath starry skies gazing in wonder at the heavens. There are objects and phenomena out there beyond our comprehension. Adirondack night skies host mesmerizing celestial light shows.
I’ve seen such beauty: the moon rising through and backlighting layers of clouds, casting blue light into eerie forests; meteors and comets streaking through fields of stars and reflected in quiet ponds below; planets shining brilliantly above ink-black cliffs; and the legendary Northern Lights, shimmering like colorful curtains.
And I’ve wondered how to capture that beauty in photographs—not just the sky, but details in the landscape. Technically, the challenge is to find a way to sufficiently expose a scene cloaked in darkness to unveil its hidden glories. To do so is to push the limits of photography and the imagination of the photographer.
The camera can record phenomena that we are incapable of seeing. Long exposures gather light cumulatively, resulting in rich, intense colors. Dark areas can be illuminated as if in midday. Unlike in daylight, when experienced photographers can easily predict how their images will turn out, long night exposures often reveal surprising hue and detail. That’s part of the charm and the allure. It’s as if the photographer provides a blank, black canvas that nature paints with light. Night images represent an accumulation of time: stars streaking over mountains and lakes become a metaphor for its passage.
At night, I shoot exposures lasting anywhere from a fraction of a second to eight hours. My digital camera produces “clean” images with exposures of up to about an hour; I use film for longer exposures. The latest high-resolution digital sensors can capture images never before possible, with minimal graininess. I can freeze stars in place, recording them much as we see them: a panorama of the Milky Way arching over a lake, stars as pinpricks of light above a silky river, or ducks and geese sleeping in the middle of a pond, the stars gleaming above.
Some of the most intriguing nighttime images are found at the edge of civilization, where natural objects are lit by streetlamps or other sources of artificial light. In the absence of sufficient light, I sometimes “paint” subjects with a flash, headlamp, or flashlights.
Shooting at night requires one to master a variety of photographic techniques. If you’re a good student, you’ll learn to create images that convey the mystique of this special place under the light of midnight.
Mark Bowie’s ninety-three-page instructional e-book, The Light of Midnight: Photographing the Landscape at Night, is available as a downloadable PDF file for $25 from his website, www.markbowie.com. Mark will lead a night-photography workshop through the Adirondack Photography Institute August 7-10 in Lake Placid. For details, visit www.adkpi.org.