Learning night photography is a journey

by Jun 11, 2020Photography

Learning Night Photography - Grasses Bathed In Full Moonlight

Travel photography is an acquired skill that takes a little focused diligence – but one that will come in handy for taking better photos while traveling. Learning night photography takes you and your photography skills to another plane – one that teaches you a bit about yourself and your camera too.

When I boldly signed up for a night photography course nearly two years ago, my goal was not to capture the Milky Way over the Alps, to always be counting the days till the next full moon, or to become some astro-geek. Learning night photography, as I found out — and continue to discover — goes way beyond simply taking photos of stuff in the dark.

Initially, there was this huge transformation that erupted from my utter frustration in my first workshop, which I wrote about in my essay, “Transformative Travel – learning while traveling.” In the ensuing months, I have discovered that night photography demands a certain personality – maybe not really one I thought I had to be honest. There is a lot of patience involved. A lot of waiting involved. A lot of trial and error, and a lot of repeating what you just did. Oh, and a lot of failures too. And if you fail at a full moon or a certain night shot, you may have to wait another month, or even years, to try it again! The universe waits for nobody.

Grass Valley Downtown Moon

Full moon rising over the cupola of a historic building in downtown Grass Valley in the Gold Country of California. One of my first experiences to try to nab a decent moon when its rise intersected with the sun’s set.

Learning night photography is a journey

Night photography is definitely not about hunting something down, bagging it, and leaving, so to speak. Learning night photography is a journey, it’s about the experience. There is a certain amount of yoga-like Zen involved, too. And, honestly, most people don’t think of me as very Zen. In fact, one friend years ago gave me the nickname “Perpetual Motion Machine.” Yup, you get it.

For night photography, you plan, you go, you anticipate, you wait, you wait some more. While you are waiting, you listen to the birds, the leaves fluttering in the wind, or the splash of waves. You may also sit and enjoy utter silence under the dark skies. If you are with others, you enjoy the pure experience of planning and shooting photos together, like co-conspirators, surrounded by a cocoon of darkness that separates you from the rest of the world.

Oh, and you do shoot some photos. Sometimes maybe not very many with all the planning and setting up and waiting. Night photography is often not about quantity but quality.

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I have tried going on a night shoot with people who are not so inspired by the experience. To me, planning the experience is part of the fun, just as planning for travel and anticipating the journey has been shown to make up so much of the pleasure of traveling. Waiting and just breathing is part of the enjoyment of night photography, whether you are at home or traveling. Being with someone who is tapping his or her toes, who wants to “bag the photo” and leave, erases much of the pleasure involved in the enjoyment of just being and breathing.

Crescent City Harbor Reflection

The marina in Crescent City, Calif., on an amazingly windless night.

Trying to photograph a meteor shower

The first time I tried to photograph a meteor shower (without much success, mind you), I went out onto a hill behind our house (I am lucky to live in a country area that has pretty dark skies). I set up this gadget called an intervalometer for the first time. An intervalometer is like a remote control for your camera except you can program it for how many exposures you want and how long you want them to be. Once you have the camera pointed the right way, the focus set, the intervalometer programmed, and all your settings triple-checked, you press the trigger, then sit back and wait, while the camera takes photos – as if a ghost now has its finger on the trigger. That might mean 30 minutes, it might mean a few hours. And this is when the meditation occurs.

You get to kick back and look up at the stars and let your mind wander. Or you just look up at the stars and appreciate life. This is a forced serenity that becomes addictive. If you are with one or more others, you get to sit back and talk about life and times, good and bad, travels and photography, or whatever else you fancy. Or you sit in silence, sharing the peace of the moment. Sometimes these moments of waiting are in spots you have traveled to. You may suddenly see an entirely new side of a travel destination out in the dark.

Ait Ben Haddou Night Stars

Dark skies in Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco. Be sure you are in a dark place to see all the amazing stars in this photo.

Travel learning through night photography

When I signed up for that workshop in mid-2018, I just wanted to figure out a few minor things about shooting in low-light places, to be frank. Yeah, yeah, things went a little nuts after that. I found my eyes opened to the possibilities of creating something of beauty that many people never even considered. I also discovered how much satisfaction I found being out in the still of the night looking up at the stars. Or being with myself in silence waiting for just the right lights to move in just the right way on a city street.

I still hark back in my mind to the Einstein quote that seems to re-surface in my life over and over: “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness.” Yes, Albert, once again I find that the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Frustratingly little, like sometimes I still turn into that woman on the beach in the workshop in 2018 wanting to just throw up my hands and cry.

I will never be “A Night Photographer” — written in caps. I will be a photographer who takes night photographs. To be a truly impressive night photographer – like the chaps behind the National Parks at Night group that I joined for my first workshop – you really have to be all-in, and it tends to be a lifetime of learning. Me, I am lucky to nip at their heels. I’m happy to be able to follow along, picking up a few crumbs here and there.

Brandenburg Gate Blur

I find I adore capturing the energy and activity of a place with a longer exposure at night. Here, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

That doesn’t mean, however, that I regret this journey called learning night photography. I’m thrilled to utilize some of the lessons on our travels to bring home even better photographs. I’m also thrilled with the friends I’ve made in the process.

And I love the times I can sit in the dark, in silence, and just wait. And breathe. And observe. And just take pleasure in the experience of being.

Guess what? I am dreaming now of my chance to take a photo of the Milky Way hovering over an Alpine setting. Guess that might make me an astro-geek after all.

To see more of Therese Iknoian’s award-winning photography, go to her website, Photos by Therese

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  1. Ken C Lee

    Great article and insight into the journey.

    • Therese Iknoian

      Thanks, Ken. It’s been — and will continue to be — a great journey.

  2. Hasibur Joy

    A sturdy tripod is a must, use manual focus, and also use low ISO if possible. By The way, Great Blog. You are doing great. Appreciate from Fast Clipping Path team. Thanks.

    • Therese Iknoian

      Hey there. sturdy tripod, absolutely! Lowest ISO that is possible. thank you for the feedback and glad you enjoy the blog!

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About The Author

Therese Iknoian

Passionate traveler, wordsmith, photographer, and observer of people and place, Therese lives a life full of all the above. Trained as a newspaper journalist and a member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning news team, she now applies those skills to feed her globe-trotting curiosity – and hopes her storytelling in photos and words encourages others to do the same. Winner of multiple awards for photos and stories, Therese loves to get outdoors, be personally immersed in adventurous experiences, and have a front-row spot with her camera and notebook to document stories that offer authentic insights about a place or its people. And she’s never met a cheesecake she doesn’t have to taste, a ghost town that doesn't demand exploration, or a trail that doesn't beckon.