The Special Nature of Night Photography


The blizzard of 2016 is upon us. I am hoping the wind isn’t severe during the latter hours of the storm so that I can take some night shots of the blizzard before everyone steps all over the snow. Yes, I know. It’s insanity, but that’s how much I love night photography.

Most photography is about capturing the beauty of a moment or a scene. Light plays an essential role in magnifying that beauty. Night photography is much more than that to me.

Night is defined by the absence of the greatest light of all, sunlight. When you photograph outdoor images after the sun goes down, you attempt to capture the precious beauty usually hidden by night.

How many times have you walked outside in the night and needed to let your eyes adjust so that you can see your surroundings? When light appears it is stark, almost like a splash of paint in an empty negative space.


Today’s digital cameras use sensors that are more sensitive and can better capture those details in the dim night. Many photographers use wide-open aperture settings to try and brighten the scene, often sacrificing detail in the foreground and background. But I think the real value of today’s full frame digital cameras are their ability to read deep amounts of light data across a nightscape at small apertures.

These long exposures can produce fantastic photos. If you have the patience to set up and sit by a tripod with a remote trigger for 1/2 second, eight seconds, 30 seconds or even longer, you can capture some amazing, stark, color-rich night shots.

You will see the subtle oranges of the not too distant day, the blues of an LED light, or the yellows of a tungsten bulb. Shadows dance across the scene hinting at deep colors of green or brown. Stars and planes twinkle in the night sky. Metal and glass reflect the scant light available creating mirror images. Streetlights and beacons in the distance proclaim the nearness of safe harbor if you can just traverse the nightscape before you.

It Takes More than a Smartphone


The beauty of well-executed night photography is exceptional and rare. These pics stand out in a world filled with everyday black and white street photos in photo forums, grumpy cats on Facebook, and selfie shots proliferating Instagram. It is extremely difficult to capture a fantastic night image on a smartphone, at least with the current models (and here come the pics in my comments section).

Instead, a photographer must know her or his camera well, how the light impacts a landscape or an object, and the best ways to capture the essence of a night scene. Heck, in some cases you may even paint the scene with your own artificial light (flood or flash light, for example). Even then, you must know how to edit the RAW file produced by the camera and bring out the color, tone down light flares, and highlight details that may still be hidden in the shadows.

Night photography is truly an interpretation, a visual art form that cannot be minimized by popular technology. You have to have a vision of what you want to see, and you have to know how to shoot.

Here are thee tips beyond the usual (e.g. get a tripod and a remote trigger) for those who want to take their night photography a little further. I will warn you that one of these is unorthodox.

Spend the Time

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Serious enthusiasts and pros tend to shoot manual. And as most of them will tell you this requires a balance of light sensitivity (ISO), how far open your lens will shoot (aperture), and shutter speed (length of time it takes to capture your photograph).

In the most well lit situations you are photographing at 1/60th of a second or faster and at a relatively low light sensitivity. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO vary depending on how much depth of field a photographer wants to expose. These are the benefits of artistic choice in normal photography.

With night photography, to get a workable capture you need to make some sacrifices. You have to shoot with a very shallow depth of field. Or your need a high ISO, which can make your photo extremely grainy. Or you need a low shutter speed, which in turn can require a tripod and trigger release to avoid shake. You may need a combination of these things.

I almost always choose to make my sacrifice with time. I prefer an extremely deep field with lots of detail for landscapes, so sacrificing on aperture is a no-no. And I hate photos that are too grainy, so I prefer a lower ISO setting.

I usually ignore the advice of experts who say to shoot between f8-and f16 to maximize lens sharpness. Frankly, my camera sensors are good enough to make up the difference, and I want as detailed a nightscape as possible.

Most of my night pics take between 5 and 30 seconds. In some cases, long exposures at night can take two minutes or more. This gives me the most detailed RAW file possible for editing. And that in turn allows me to bring out the best in my nightscape photos, at least that’s what I currently believe.

Don’t Spend the Time


There are always exceptions to the rule. In my case, as much as I love a well defined nightscape, if I am photographing the moon or an outdoor action scene, I don’t have the luxury to go for a long exposure. I will open the aperture to f9 or 11, and then try to make up the balance with the ISO setting.

The above photograph is a Super Moon shot from 2014. The photo was shot at f10 at 400 ISO over a half a second. I am certain the focus was on infinity as the shot was taken at 160 mm. I may have done myself a favor if had shot it for 1/4 a second or even faster, and upped the ISO accordingly. The detail in the moon would have been better.

Nevertheless, the focus was on capturing a moon shot that was detailed and yet not too bright. This is the primary issue with moon shots, overexposing the subject. It was a fine line, because I also had to capturing the much dimmer Washington Monument to give the photo context. This was an extremely hard shot, one that a long exposure would have simply ruined.


Another example is when you want a shallow depth of field. The above Little Snowman pic is an example. I wanted the focus of the shot to be on the snowman and not the Jefferson Memorial. With this one I went for an extremely shallow depth of field (f1.4) and let the lens render the Memorial as a bokeh blurred background. CNN, HLN and local TV picked up the photo for their iReport, social media and broadcast properties, respectively.

When to Break the Rules


Digital photographers rely on their histogram to tell them when a photograph is well exposed. Most schools and experienced photographers will tell you to shoot and correct to get a balanced histogram. Some would even tell you to overexpose in a dim situation and correct later. Be careful. Instead, I am going to tell you to make your own educated decision when it comes to night photos.

I have corrected and overexposed photos to meet the mantra and almost every time I am disappointed with the result. Usually, I get a night photo that looks like a day shot or a sunrise/sunset pic.

My point is that if you are taking a night shot, it should look like it was taken in the blue hour or at night. The above frozen river picture was a two minute and 12 second exposure. It was dark outside, really dark. The photo looks like it was dark, too, but you can clearly see that a sunrise was approaching on the horizon.

Below is the histogram.


This chart makes sense to me. There really wasn’t a lot of bright things to balance the histogram. When I went to correct it, the scene looked like it was moments before the sun peaked. In reality it was a half hour before sunrise. Sometimes you just need to break the rules.

I believe this to be true even when things are white such as buildings or snow, like the previously mentioned snowman shot. It is my view that night shots should look natural as if they were taken at night with delicate, yet illuminating light. The histogram should be secondary in the editing process.

What do you think about night photography?

Living through the Lens Challenge

Two and a half weeks ago I launched the Living through the Lens weekly challenge on Flickr. The Challenge was in response to Jeff Cutler‘s request, a weekly effort that lets people participate in whatever I may be photographing during the week. I reposted Jeff’s idea on Facebook, and many people liked the idea and wanted to participate, too.

So here we are. I have been super impressed with the incredible quality of photos that people have submitted. The first challenge was “foliage.” Here are some of the notable photos that people submitted.

Teresa Thomas submitted the cover image “Fields of Glory” for the Foliage Gallery collection.

The next challenge was bridges. And sure enough people who participated offered some fantastic photos. Here is the gallery of notable bridge pics.

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Jane Kaye submitted the cover image for the Bridges Gallery, a piece called “The Forth Bridge.”

It’s been great seeing what people have come up with, particularly those that see the challenge, take it, and go produce their own interpretation of the subject. The world is a beautiful place. So many people can use cameras today — smartphone to medium format — to offer their own perspectives. I appreciate people sharing their views of the world with me.

This Week’s Challenge

This Blue Hour shot was taken on the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

This week’s Living through the Lens Challenge is taking a photo during the blue hour(s), that precious period of about 45 minutes before the sunrise or after the sunset. There is a whole site with blue hour photography tips here, if you are curious. Join the fun and submit here:

The weekly challenge ends on Thursday afternoon. At the end of the business day, I breeze through the weekly suggestions and curate my favorites in a notables gallery.

This is a photo I took of the Charleston Market in South Carolina.

By the way, I never include my own pictures in the notables gallery. I figure as curator its not really fair to do that, plus I am biased. And on top of that, I already post my pics everywhere throughout the week. It’s time to highlight some other people’s work. Instead, I use one of my pictures to introduce the weekly challenge, for example the bridge picture that leads this post or the above pics for the blue hour.

If you are curious about the suggestions/rules. I will post the challenge in the group on Thursday evening or Friday morning, and then repost across networks. People are encouraged to post new pictures, not old ones published three years ago. It’s a photo challenge, not a recollection of past glory ;)

Folks are limited to two pics per week. So make them your best shots!

Also please comment and favorite the photos you see from your peers. Don’t be a grinch and just post and run. That’s weak!

So there is the challenge. What do you think?

My Best Washington, DC Photos

I am proud to publish a gallery of my best Washington, DC photos on You can see all 23 photos there, but I have included seven of them in this post (including the header image).

It is amazing how most of them were taken in the past 12 months. My evolution in photography became clear as I browsed old and new photos.

Other folks like Jeff Cutler have remarked on this evolution, and have asked to perhaps join in the journey or at least take their own photographic journey in parallel. In that vein, I have created new weekly challenge on Flickr called Living through the Lens.

Here is how it works: I tell you what I intend to photograph this week, and if you’d like to, you can do the same. Participants are encouraged to share one or two pictures, and of course comment or favorite others’ pics, too.

In addition, several folks have asked about purchasing prints and licensing photos over the past few months since the 365 Full Frame project ended. My portfolio site now lets you license, download or print on demand using the shopping cart icon on most photos. If there is a picture you want from my other works, just ask and I will upload it for you.

And with that, on to the DC pics…







Check out the rest of my Washington, DC photo gallery here.

4 Takeaways from Photoshop World

I attended Scott Kelby‘s Photoshop World in Las Vegas last week. Analyzing the body of work comprising the 365 Full Frame Project, I identified two core areas of improvement for my photography. The first was lighting, and I learned a whole bunch about that from Tony Corbell during his Santa Fe Photography Workshop.

The second was touch-ups and editing, and that brought me to Photoshop World. I learned quite a few things (lots of little tricks), but walked away needing to get down to basic blocking and tackling (lesson two below). Overall I had four big takeaways, which are below. All photos in this post were either edited at Photoshop World or were taken while attending the event.

1) Lightroom Is for Organic Edits, Photoshop Is for Cooking


Lightroom is my primary editing program (the above Potomac River photo is a Lightroom edit, no Photoshop). Most of the teachers at the conference do their basic corrections and touch-ups in Lightroom, which is a derivative of Adobe Camera Raw.

The Lightroom program uses image data taken from your capture, and allows you to strengthen and reduce elements of the light to correct your photo. You can significantly improve a photo in Lightroom, and also completely change its look and feel from literal realism (as determined by your camera) to surreal.

There comes a point where serious edits need to happen, and that’s when you move to Photoshop. It’s where the real cooking on a photo happens (this can be good or bad, depending on your tastes). Cooking is an industry slang term for serious image correction and manipulation. It’s what separates the true retoucher from those who are amateurs and photojournalists.

I would say more than 90% of serious photographers venture into the Photoshop realm. You have to do it, even if it’s just for corrections that can’t be performed in Lightroom.

2) Layers and Masks


If you want to become a Photoshop wiz, you need to learn how to use layers and masks. Smart application of these tools is what makes a surreal or incredible cover image fly in 90% of publications. I am a stumbling fool when it comes to layers and masks, particularly the latter. Unfortunately for me, building composites, smart object-based editing, and in-depth retouching all revolve around layers and masks.

Don’t get me wrong, I learned a few tricks besides the widespread use of layers and masks. For example, I now know how to better correct white balance and noise, use some nice blurring tool tricks, and have some additional liquify techniques. The above image (taken in Alexandria, VA the night before Photoshop World) uses a few of those tricks.

That being said, I find the Photoshop interface to be a nightmarish experience. One bad setting and it’s all off. Being self-taught, I can only blame my crappy teacher. Still, the UI is not my friend.

One resource I found was Adobe Photoshop Evangelist Julieanne Kost’s blog. She’s a fun person who creates some really unique images. She also happens to have a ton of Photoshop and Lightroom tutorials on her site. Check it out.

3) Everyone Is Using Filters and Plug-ins


Almost every photographer who spoke mentioned using filters, in limited roles or as a post-processing add on. Some use them as presets or layers and then alter their use. Others find the right post processing after effect. And others found them to be a great way to worsen a photo. For most, it is an approach, but not the approach.

This above photo of a homeless gentleman was taken outside of the New York, New York hotel. Most of the edits were done in Lightroom with a few small corrections in Photoshop. I didn’t like the B&W rendering in Lightroom so I moved it to DxO Elite Film Pack (which has lots of lovely “analog” overlays), and used one of the filters for the final B&W version.

4) You Can’t Cook Brilliance


One big takeaway, and perhaps the best one, is that it takes a great capture to make a strong photo. You can cook all you want in Photoshop, but it only disguises a bad capture to a certain extent. Even great retouched model portraits work off a good capture.

If you have a bad capture and want to make it better, you will spend excessive amounts of time in Photoshop. In addition, I have to say I walked away feeling some of the featured work was overcooked. A good photo stands on its own, even with flaws.

I don’t believe in straightening noses or creating abstract non-existent landscapes based off of wild composites of multiple places. That’s just me. I want to take a capture and present my interpretation of what I saw. Maybe this is the marketer’s version of photojournalism, un-pure and cooked and with steroids, but nevertheless a photo of what was seen, in studio or on the street.

Perhaps that’s why I appreciated Jay Maisel‘s session more than any other at Photoshop World. He cut through the graphic soup, and talked about capturing the spirit of the moment, of being present and photographing a scene through a lens. Maisel said focus on the remarkable and don’t worry about flaws, a good photo will overcome. He doesn’t edit his photos, by the way.

In reflection, I took a few pics in Las Vegas, but I thought the above red bridge photo was my best. It’s been edited mostly in Lightroom with a couple of corrections in Photoshop. There are nitpicks: I left the Eiffel Tower pillar on the left, and the awkward pillar shadow on the upper right ceiling. I also left the cheesy Vegas photo experience crew at the end of the bridge, though I did burn their images so they wouldn’t stand out. All of these things could have been edited out of the image in Photoshop with considerable time (and layers and masks).

But why? Perfection wasn’t what I saw. It’s inside a fricking casino. What I saw was a beautiful pedestrian bridge leading to the observation deck at the Paris Hotel Eiffel Tower. In fact, these red lights were the most remarkable thing I saw on this particular trip, at least to my eye. So my edits revolved around pulling out and enhancing the color and enhancing the vanishing effect.

Thanks to Scott Kelby and the KelbyOne crew for a thoughtful and well-run experience. I learned a ton.

I’d be interested in hearing how much editing is too much in your opinion?

5 Lighting Lessons Learned from Tony Corbell

Last week I travelled to New Mexico for a Santa Fe Photography Workshop on lighting taught by Tony Corbell. Everything I have achieved to date with photography has been done with ambient light. My studio work was hit or miss — really any good shots were lucky — and my portraits were average at best. Learning how to craft images with artificial light was the obvious next step for my photography.

Tony Corbell is actually a pretty well known photographer who has taken portraits of three U.S. Presidents, the UN Millennium Summit, and has appeared in more than 25 photographic books. He primarily teaches about photographic lighting and imaging workflow.

First, let me say the images you see here were taken for Tony Corbell’s class. I am 100% certain I could not have taken them before arriving Santa Fe. Perhaps that’s the best testimony I can offer.

Here are my five big takeaways from Santa Fe:

1) Meter the Light


In the old days before digital, photographers did not have the luxury of taking a bazillion pictures to get the lighting right. Film cost money to buy and develop. Instead, they metered light to get the right exposure before they shot.

Moving forward, digital cameras do allow for spot checks by frames, and frankly, I think many self taught photographers like myself over-rely on “click, bracket and pray” approaches to photography. When it comes to portraiture and some city shots, this over-reliance creates mistakes and the need to correct during the editing process.

Part of the problem begins with the camera itself, which takes photos for what it believes to be a middle ground exposure of grays, approximately 18% of the light. The camera’s interpretation of light creates many poor images. This in turn produces challenges which require compensation while shooting and many extra minutes in Photoshop correcting light.

However, when light sources are metered accurately the image is shot well. There are no surprises. The editing process is so much quicker — primarily for subject corrections and artistic interpretation.

I was shocked by how few actual photographs I took after using the meter, and how little editing my shots required. This shot of Julia required no light corrections and only about two minutes of touch-ups in Lightroom. And yeah, I bought a basic Sekonic meter over the weekend.

2) The Da Vinci Principles of Lighting Subjects


Tony Corbell spent some time studying Leonardo Da Vinci’s views on optics and lighting subjects. One big takeaway was using both highlights and shadows to provide a contextual view of the subject. Specifically, the eye needs both light and darkness to interpret an image. Shadow is critical for DaVinci.

Further, DaVinci used to place the focal point of his painting subjects at a 45-degree angle from the primary lighting source. This would create the necessary “unity of shadow, progressively veiling the boundaries of
different colour areas.” Given Da Vinci’s success as a painter, he might have a lesson or two worth a bit of experimentation for photographers, and experiment I did.

This rock star photograph of Gary, the guitar player features a light at a 45 degree angle from his left side, also angled down at 45 degrees. A second “God light” was placed above him at 45 degrees.

3) How to Set Secondary Lights


When you use ambient light as your sole source of illumination, there are limits to what your camera captures. When you create your own light, you have the opportunity to leverage your primary light or ambient light with secondary illumination.

Building off the Da Vinci principle of using shadow to interpret a subject, secondary lighting done well provides highlights that build on the primary light. Ambient light can serves as either the primary or secondary light or both (think diffusers and/or reflectors). The key is to meter and set the secondary light at 1 to 2 stops below the primary light.

The above portrait of Thomas taken at Eaves Movie Ranch used the ambient light to provide highlights while a Bowens 500 light served as the primary source. You can see the highlights adding context to Thomas’s left side.

Another key aspect in positioning light sources is harshness. The further away a light is from the subject, the harsher it is, creating tighter highlight points and deeper shadows. When shooting portraits, softer smoother skin is best achieved by placing the light as close to the subject as possible. Diffusing light sources also helps.

4) More than the Golden and Blue Hours


When you are a landscape or street photographer that uses ambient light as your primary source of illumination, you come to treasure the gold and blue hours. I almost always refuse to shoot outside these timeframes. But when you understand how to control light, you realize an image can be exposed for anytime of day, rain or shine.

Tony Corbell showed us how to meter during the day, and how to use secondary light sources to provide fills. I cannot tell you how freeing this is. Since the class, I have taken several pictures using flash to augment ambient sunlight, and some of them have been mid-morning and afternoon shots. The above shot of Gary, the skateboarder was taken a few hours before sunset.

5) Editing for Light


It was refreshing to see Tony Corbell’s editing process. Even though he relies on the actual photography and edits very little, he does edit, and he uses Lightroom, Photoshop, and the Nik series of filters and editing tools. However, a filter does not make a photo, and it was clear that these tools simply help bring out the best in a decent capture. Those improvements begin with balancing light in your photograph.

Perhaps the best lesson I learned on post-processing from Tony was helping people interpret your photograph as intended. The human eye is drawn to the most well lit part of a photograph. So dodging (lightening) and burning (darkening) to help lead the eye is important. If a photograph is lit across the image, then the converse is true. The eye will migrate to the darkest portion of the image.

The above photograph of Kaarina features some burning on her chest as the light there was dominant. In addition, I darkened the outside sections of the image to draw you into the photograph and focus on her. Without this darkening, you could easily focus on her chest or her arm and the sweeping dress instead of Kaarina’s face.

Speaking of arms, another aspect of editing is eliminating distractions. Kaarina’s arm was veiny after a day of shooting and movement, so I smoothed out her arm. The Thomas portrait had secondary light pouring through a hole in the wall, so I edited it out. These are minor details, but addressing them is the difference between good and better.

There were many other lessons learned at the workshop, but these were my big five takeaways. A special thank you to Tony Corbell for his hard work training us. And thanks to the Santa Fe Photography Workshops for organizing and hosting. It was a great week that I am sure will benefit my photography for years to come.

4 More Photo Tips Gleaned from the 365 Full Frame Project

We are in the final week of the 365 Full Frame Project, and it seems fitting to share four more photo tips I have picked up over the past year. You can read the first six tips here, which include framing, the rule of thirds, minimalism and sunrises/sunsets.

And with that, let’s begin.

1) If It’s Not Sharp, then Don’t Post It (Unless)


It’s tempting to post a good capture with a subject that you like even though it’s a little fuzzy. Don’t do it. You need the subject to be in focus. Yes, there are photos that have fuzzy continuation or depth of field and bokeh, which make for a great image. But those photos have a subject that is clearly in focus.

A fuzzy pic is not a good pic, no matter how strong the subject and composition is. The only reason to keep it is for sentimental value. If that’s the case, cool. Memories are precious.

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There is another exception, which is if you are intentionally blurring or distorting a photograph. In that case, go for it. Art is art.

2) Rich Vibrant Color Is a Technique


People remark on the color I get in my photos, particularly in the skies. They often assume the shots are HDR. Probably one in every 25 photos I post uses HDR processing. In reality, a good part of rich coloring is the way the photo is shot and edited.

One critical aspect of color is exposing for it. When you shoot manually, you can choose what you expose in your photo. So when I take a sunset or sunrise pic, I expose for the sun or the most colorful part of the sky.

Remember, a camera is just a computer that interprets light. Most cameras offer several interpretations (e.g. Standard, Flat, Portrait, Vivid, Landscape) for the same shot. When you manually expose a shot, you are helping the computer by directing its function rather than letting it make a best guess.


On the editing, HDR lets you expose for the sky and then take a second or third photo and expose other aspects in the scene and then blend. This produces rich color and detail throughout the photo. But not everyone likes HDR, nor does every photographer have the patience to blend the images.

When I expose a single shot for the sky, I open the highlights to reduce glare and pull out the rich color. I adjust whites and blacks accordingly. From there, normal edits on vibrance and contrast finish the job.

I also open the shadows in Lightroom to expose the foreground or the dark parts. But that’s not a universal approach for me. Sometimes I leave the image silhouetted like I did in this pic.

3) Use Filters Mindfully

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Whether you create presets of your workflow, buy presets or use a tool like Intensify, you are using filters. I have heard the no filter argument, and I know what classic photographers used to do. They altered their photos in the darkroom.

When you edit photos using presets others filters, it’s an attempt to make it better. Generally, people like the photos more.

The above photo of the Ngorongoro Crater was very difficult to produce. The crater had some intense light elements with diverse shadows and light. There were cloud walls on the rim and to the left, somewhat filtering the sunset. The final production involved merging three different photos (one to the left, one in the middle and one to the right, but not an HDR overlay) in Photoshop to get the right exposure across the crater, significant Lightroom time, and about three different brushed Intensify filters in parts of the photo.

The real issue that happens with filters is when people mindlessly filter images without thinking about what they are communicating. While the haphazard filtered movement produces a few diamonds, the real product is rarely photography. However, it’s what makes people happy when they Instagram or Facebook or whatever. This also gives a real photographer an opportunity to distinguish themselves with strong unique images.

I believe a photo is a person’s interpretation of something they witnessed, realistic or abstract. Each photo is a unique experience. I never use the exact same edit or a universal filter for touch-ups.

4) Black and White Works

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A good color photograph almost always makes for a good black and white photo. But so does a photo with blown out highlights, bad light (for example, your atypical middle of the day shot) or muted tones. I try not to produce photos that are shot in mid-day, but sometimes you don’t have a choice.

Often I produce these shots as black and white works. The above shot is the el train in Chicago, and it was shot in the morning blue hour before dawn. However, it came out looking dusty and blue. So I went black and white.

The editing was done as an HDR edit in Photomatix using three exposures merged on top of each other. I significantly boosted the contrast further and gave the photo a vignette to make it even more brooding. As Serge Ramelli notes, going over the top in black and white seems to work.

What tips would you add?