How to Take Dreamy Night Photos

Several folks asked how I capture these crazy dreamy night shots. They feature exquisite, subtle and rich light throughout the photo. Tungsten lights are portrayed as stars. In fact, several people have asked if I am using a star filter.

First, I don’t use a filter to create that star effect.

In fact, I don’t use any filters outside of anti-haze or ultraviolet dimming. Anyone who owns a DSLR knows these are pretty standard issue for screw-on lens filters.

Instead, I use long exposures. Meaning, I fire the camera manually or at a minimum, an extremely low shutter speeds of 25 or 30 seconds.


In order to capture a dreamy image with a long exposure, I do a couple of unconventional things for night photogprahy:

I lower the light sensitivity to the bare minimum of ISO 100. That allows me to do two things: Record light very slowly throughout the whole field of the shot. That’s why almost the entirety of the shot is seen, and is not blacked out. Even the clouds are seen, reflecting the light from the city below them.

Low aperture (ISO) sensitivity also allows the camera to “turn a deaf ear” to the actual lights in the photo. In essence, the camera doesn’t see them as super bright orbs of light polluting the whole picture. Instead, the camera records how lights emit onto the larger field, in turn producing a star effect. The star appears differs based on each lens’ aperture mechanism (the way it opens and closes to recrod light), but it always appears.

Another critical aspect is a high f-stop, or field of view. F-stop is usually lost on most amateur photographers, but in this case it’s important to max it out for a night shot. Low f-stop means the picture will record the details of what it focuses on, and as the lens records light away from the focal point a blurring effect takes place. High f-stop records more detail images away from the focal point.

You want the camera to be able to focus as much as possible on every aspect of the photograph, to help reduce blurring. Further, it helps record the details of the image, allowing all of the light in the night scene to appear clearly.

A tripod is necessary to capture time lapse images. There’s no way you can shoot one of these with your hand. Absolute stillness is required.

The overall effect is as seen. Usually, people will walk in and out of the image, and are not recorded because of the long lapse. They have to pause for a significant amount of time to be recorded (see below MLK image). Also, cars are usually recorded as red and white streaks (see above Easter Island statue pic), a light representation of their tailights coming and going.

What About the Edits?


In the case of the MLK photograph, I used a Sigma 10-20 mm wide angle lens. Sometimes a wide angle creates a bowing effect, but because the subject was centered and close, I got lucky. The f-stop was at 22.0, the focal width was 10.0 mm, and the shutter speed was manual, a total of 102 seconds to capture the photograph.

The edits don’t take long for a capture like this MLK photograph. Usually, you open the RAW image and the photograph is 3/4 of the way there. In this case, I didn’t need traditional Photoshop outside of cleaning up two random light spots, dust specks, and an almost white cloud element. I performed no dodging or burning (lightening or darkening of any particular elements in the photgraph) on this image.


The Lightroom edits (see above panel) were meant to make the photo pop, and add that dreamy element. These are techniques I learned from Serge Ramelli.

First, I reduced the highlights all the way, which further minimizes the glare from brighter lights in a slow night capture. Then I opened up the shadows all the way. This shows off all of the rich light captured over a slow period of time. The shadows still look like shadows, but all light that is there to be seen pops.

I then upped the white light elements and lowered the black elements to the point that they started to create small “burn” patches in the photograph or render zero color. I only allow a miniscule amount of burning because it basically ruins a photograph. Maxing out white and black adds more drama and contrast. Finally on the main editing panel, I upped contrast, clarity and vibrance to further make the photo pop.

You’ll notice in the individual color panels, I reduced the saturation of the orange and red light by 1/4. After the above edits, the clouds came out almost Martian, and while the effect would have made for a nice sci-fi picture, the depiction of the sky was not an accurate showing of the clouds. So I ratcheted these two shades back slightly to restore balance.


My final edits occur with sharpening. Almost every photo needs sharpening. You’ll see from the panels, I mask my sharpening all the way (or close to it) with almost every shot. When I do this, I am sharpening only the edges of subjects in the image, and not the overall picture. This allows me to avoid too much grain when I sharpen.

Further I use a healthy does of luminosity to reduce grain, and add a glossy/watery effect to the image. If you go beyond 50+ on luminosity you tend to have a dreamy effect in your image which can be cartoonish. Be careful.

For a reference point, below is a raw unedited sister image of the MLK memorial. You can see that all of my edits were cosmetic in nature. For the most part, the image was accurately rendered by the slow capture technique. I think each photgrapher has their preferences on editing, so you’ll have your own look!


So that’s how I create these crazy night images. What do you think?

How to Write an Addictive First Chapter

One of the best compliments people have given to Exodus is that the first chapter grabs them, and launching them right into the text. So I decided to share how this chapter was crafted.

First of all, before I begin let me say not everyone likes the book. I’m not painting Exodus out to be the second coming of the Lord of the Rings or anything. There has been some constructive feedback that I will apply to future books. In other cases, I have been absolutely shredded by those outraged by the book’s position on religion (no surprise there).

But most of those that say anything seem to like it. Some call it a compulsive read right out of the gate, with nods to the first chapter. And that’s funny to me because I actually deleted the original first chapter ten years ago.


I deleted the whole damn thing.

The original first chapter was overburdened with backfill, the story of how we got to this moment kind of thing. “And through the centuries after the the Great Sickness.” It sucked, and was totally boring.

I read somewhere that every author should lop the first chapter off their text. It’s always important to the author, but rarely to the reader.

The current first chapter was rewritten at least a dozen times. My head tells me more than 20, but I don’t want to exaggerate.

I wanted to create that moment in time when everything gets turned on its head! Novels are usually about something or someone remarkable. Stories always start somewhere, the day in the life kind of thing. Begin when the remarkable events change characters’ lives, and let the book provide the context.

The wounded man crawling down the path toward the the village was rewritten to be that moment. It had to be active. Creating tight sentence structure was critical. I recall repositioning this numerous times. Even this past winter I paired down the chapter to tighten it. And then Jennifer Goode Stevens edited it even further.

The framing was intentionally unusual and menacing, in large part because I wanted to set the tone for the grave danger that forms the premise of the novel (trying not to spoil the plot here). Setting the tone for a book has to occur in first chapter. It needs to convey the general direction of the novel. In the case of Exodus, alarm had to drip off the page, and hopefully it does.

Finally it needs to end with the hook. In Exodus, the danger is revealed and you are left hanging right there. If I couldn’t get you to chapter two and beyond on that opening salvo then I suck as a writer. Straight up.

To me the first paragraph of a novel is the most important one, as is the first chapter. If the novel fails to captivate readers from the get go, it’s highly likely that it will be put down like a bad tasting sandwich. I know I put down books within the first 20 pages if they don’t grab me, and I do that no matter how good the reviews are.

Resonate or collect dust (or ether dust bunnies). What do you think?

Fixes for Three Lousy PR Pitches

Image by Melvin Schlubman

We all know how bad the state of media/blogger relations is: Bad pitches abound! But there are some pitches that are worse than others, and as a blogger for the past six years, my in box has become littered with them.

Here are three that all too common, and some suggestions to improve them another:

1) The XXX Blogger Already Wrote About It Pitch

This one is really annoying. It usually comes from someone you know in a passing manner, or is a cold pitch from a PR person. It goes something like this:

“Hey Geoff. I was hoping you would write about xxxx. Joe Schmo (or Mary Doe) already wrote about it here: (INSERT URL). So you should, too.”

OK, let’s make that Super Annoying. If another blogger already wrote about it, why would I? Seriously, and beyond that, it’s insulting to infer that because x A Lister covered a story I should kowtow and follow suit (with a schmoozy link, too).


Suggestion: Provide some sort of unique angle or information that will make my story somewhat unique.

2) The Pre-Written Pitch with Added Fields

This one is the best, a result of publishing an eponymous blog. Invariably, it reads something like this: “Hey Geoff, we were hoping you would feature our new Facebook application in Geoff Livingston.”

I wasn’t aware I could feature an application inside of me.


Suggestion: Stop using email programs to send your pitches. If you don’t have time to do this and reach your full list, cultivate a smaller list so it is must have contacts instead of a list of bloggers.

3) The “We’re So Awesome!” Pitch

This pitch features exaggerated facts, hyperbole and a wonderful amount of pomposity and clichéd buzz words:

“As the leading provider of wireless widgets (which were awarded the greatest on earth by J.D. Power & Associates), Acme helped save 799,291 lives through $1 donations as part of its service.”

Of course this means I should absolutely write about said company. Um, no.


Suggestion: Stick to straight up facts. Instead of talking about how great your company is, talk about the relevant issue that I write about, and how your company fits into the puzzle.

What are some of your favorite bad PR pitches?

Some Truths About Crowdsourcing

Geoff Livingston (@geoffliving) at the Nationals

In today’s online world, the term crowdsourcing gets bandied about quite a bit. It’s the most difficult and visible form of community-based social engagement. For companies and nonprofits alike it has become a nirvana-like state to attain.

Yet, much of today’s conversations deal with fleeting uses of “crowdsourcing,” such as asking questions of Twitter communities. There are also plenty of interesting articles about benefits and the possible impact of sustainable crowdsourcing (as well as the tools to do it) but I find that the pragmatic how-to experience is missing.

The issue with the resulting lack of information is that most folks have no idea how difficult sustained crowdsourcing can be. I’ve had a couple of turns at it myself with major projects, one I would call very successful, the other average. Both required a ton of work and management that afterwards made me feel contemporary thinking can use some more depth.


Just based on my own experiences, here are some lessons (some obvious) that you don’t see in contemporary discussions about crowdsourcing ideas, innovation and change:

1) The crowd has to care, and they have to be made into heroes. The latter part is well documented (rewarding active community members), but the prior isn’t. In my mind, crowdsourcing is the last stage of a well-thought out social media strategy (UNLESS you are having a contest with a notable purse as a reward).

The managing party must understand its subject matter AND the community’s inherent interest in that topic. The crowdsourced effort serves both parties. Otherwise you will crowdsource little to nothing. Or worse, you’ll be evangelizing to get people to participate.

2) While the crowd craves freedom, it desperately needs structure. People need to be told how to participate and the rules of engagement. These rules have to be clear, empowering of the crowd, and directive in their end result.

Believe me, I’ve tried it the other way, but your crowdsourcing effort needs to be well structured (See Beth Kanter’s discussion of Chase’s Community giving contest design). A recent crowdsourcing effort made me realize how much more simplified our process needed to get for the future.

3) Rules need to be enforced or adapted. Issues come all the time because people invariably do what they want, the rules be damned. The organization needs to either enforce them, or publicly change them and show why they are amending them. Then you have to be ready to deal with the haters.

For citizengulf, I threw out a day-time yoga event because it wondered too far away from the mission/purpose as well as the event style, and it competed with another event in the same city. No was the obvious answer. And as a result, I got plenty of email telling me I was an a-hole. So be it.

4) You’ll need to invest a lot of management resources. If you think social media is time consuming, try crowdsourcing. It involves grassroots customer service and handholding like you cannot imagine (I was amazed). You may publish a lot of information, but you need to be present for your community if you expect them to be present for you. Crowdsourcing innovation does not mean outsourcing human resources, just the innovation. And even then you may end up refining it like Cisco had to with its I-Prize innovation contest.

There are other issues, such as managing the idea market so that popularity doesn’t trump quality. Another is ensuring that while the crowd may want a result, that the business or nonprofit mission maintains its integrity.

I am not the biggest fan of Pepsi Refresh (I still struggle with understanding how this is impacting society and the incredible amount of Vote for Me #pepsirefresh spam it creates). That being said, I admire the hell out of Pepsi Refresh from a communicator’s perspective. It’s incredible that they can maintain interest, and handle the amount of issues that continually come up with their contest. From first hand conversations with their team, it is clear how hard they have worked, and continue to work to keep this contest going and to support their winners. The sustained energy is simply impressive.

The well discussed benefits of crowdsourcing are amazing, but going in with eyes wide open about the task at hand is critical. First hand experience and research about crowdsourcing are also helpful. It’s my intent to continue this conversation with best practices for causes from a tactical management standpoint via a by-lined article on Mashable. Stay tuned.