Night photography is something I have been doing at times for many years. It has also been something that has evolved for me over the last ten years as technology has changed and new tools have opened up new opportunities in what is possible at night. Photographing stars, star-trails, old buildings, tents, the landscape, and now the Milky Way. The limits of what is possible have shifted with advances in technology. I have tried to adapt and take advantage of those changes to make better night images.
I was looking through some images from Big Bend and noticed several images I had taken at night over the years from Big Bend and when comparing them you see an evolution in technique with the rise of digital technology.
I have been visiting Big Bend for over twenty years. In that time I have explored and photographed many areas of the park. One place that I have always enjoyed in the old adobe and rock Dorgan ruin. It sits on a hill overlooking the Rio Grande with a view of Santa Elena Canyon to the west and the Chisos Mountains to the east.
I have photographed from there many times. Especially at night. The ruin is a great place to work with light painting and has a great view of the dark skies of the Big Bend country. This series of images from the same location show both what has become possible and with that an evolution in my shooting style.
Back in the days of film I was shooting a medium format Mamiya 645. Everything was manual and it only needed battery power for the light meter. I would set that camera up with my 45mm lens (about a 28 in 35mm size terms) on a night with a full moon with Velvia 100F film. Shooting at f/5.6 for 15 minutes would give me a somewhat decent exposure. Of course when your exposures were 15 minutes you might only get 3-4 images in a outing. You also had to wait until after the trip to get the film developed and see the results.
Here was one my my most successful night images from 2004. The 15 minute exposure gives nice star trails to show some motion and the moon has lit the exterior of the old adobe ruin. I used an flash for a couple of pops to light the interior of the ruin.
In 2004 this was about as good as you could do with a night image. When I went on a trip to Big Bend, I might go spend some time one one night at the ruin trying to get a shot or two like this.
Over the next few years I started seeing more and more photographer getting DSLR's. I had moved up to shooting 4x5 film at the time. I was on a trip to Big Bend in 2007 where a buddy brought his Canon Rebel XTI and we shot this ruin. I was still using film and would have to wait for weeks for the results. He was taking images and tweaking the settings. He had the courage to go up and shoot some images at ISO 1600! Which was still unheard of for landscape photography in film where I had two choices in film-Velvia 50 or Velvia 100F. That was it. Although if I was really going for it, I could push the Velvia 100F to all of 200........ That seems laughable slow today but was all we had then. I was shooting long images and it was still more miss than hit.
I then decided to try digital and by 2009 I was shooting the 15mp Canon 50D. This was a decent DSLR except (as I found out) for high ISO night images. I found mine had quite a bit of banding after about two images at night. I could use ISO 3200 in the daylight with no-problem. However my copy had bad banding at night.
So I did not push the high ISO that others were doing and I also tended to shoot on nights with the moon. My lens of choice was the Sigma 10-20. A fine lens although it was an f/4 and I would come to find out f/4 is just too slow of a lens for night images. I often did 5-10 minutes images at ISO 800. On occasion I would push for higher ISO shots but it was still more miss than hit.
As you can see in my 50D image there is both noise and banding in it. At the time I was still quite impressed in what capability that offered me and I quit using film at night. I was liking the shorter exposures and the ability to adjust images on location to much to go back.
I was now visiting this or other adobe ruins 2-3 times on a week in Big Bend and getting some images with short star trails and trying different light painting techniques.
In 2012 I finally made the jump to full frame with a Canon 5D Mark II. Now this camera had much better night capabilities than anything I had seen in the past. I was shooting at ISO 3200 and getting great results. I was using the Canon 17-40 f/4 lens. A great lens for landscape that was just too slow at night. My image were now in the 45-60 second range which are just a tad too long for sharp stars. You really need an f/2.8 or faster lens to really get those shorter exposures.
I was beginning to look for darker skies and even the Milky Way. I moved away from star trails and began to try to get sharp stars. Looking at my image of the ruin the stars are just starting to trail. I was close, really close, to being able to really capture sharp stars and the Milky Way, I just needed a little more lens speed. I was in the field usually two hours prior to sunrise working with stars while waiting for the sunrise.
I added the Samyang 14mm f2/8 lens to my kit and now had something that I could shoot wide open for 30 seconds. I also started pushing to ISO 6400 and using the enhanced noise control on Lightroom and NIK software to make it work better.
I was getting great shots of the Milky Way and I made the full evolution to seeking out the dark sky to photography our galaxy at night.
No longer interested in star trails, I was actively planning my trips for the new moon and building my plans around where the Milky Way would be in the night sky. In Big Bend this gives one a huge chance at additional photography options. What I normally find is on a week in Big Bend you are lucky to see clouds for more than three days. Meaning usually half the trip I am looking at clear skies. Now I know I might not get a great sunrise on a clear sky day but I can go nocturnal on those clear nights and photography the Milky Way in the dark Texas sky.
This last spring I returned to Big Bend with my 5D2 kit plus a rented Canon 6D. I was now out there at even higher ISO settings shooting the 6D up to ISO 12,800. I had also added the Samyang 24mm f/1.4 lens to my kit specifically for night images. I set up and was working the ruin with both my 5D2 and the 6D and switching them back and forth with the 14 and 24mm lenses.
I now had great night capability. I could shoot each camera with set parameters of 15 or 30 second images and I would get well exposed results. In an hour at the ruin I was now able to 70-100 images between the two cameras. I had moved a long way from attempting 4 images on film.
The dark sky of the new moon has become an active part of my west Texas trips. If we get good clouds and interesting light I can photograph landscapes at the edge of the day. When severe clear sets in I transition to chasing the Milky Way and working it into a night landscape. I have just as much fun and get many of my best images at night now.
Technology has evolved and it has opened up some incredible opportunities for photography at night and in ways just not possible ten years ago. My Mamiya has long since been sold, my 50D gathers dust, and I chase my night images with my newer cameras and wide fast Samyang lenses.
As you can see in these four images of the same adobe ruin, the technology shift has opened up new ways to photograph and has caused a big shift in how I even approach my trips.
I know that the technology continues to evolve (I have rented the Sony A7S and found it stunning at ISO 25,600) and so I wonder what will be possible in ten more years.