Finding purpose as a landscape and night photographer is definitely fulfilling. But it has its drawbacks. The risks and hardship that come with venturing beyond your usual routine and what you know could be considered a drawback or a reward in itself from the experience.
On one episode of America’s National Parks on the National Geographic Channel, they filmed Saguaro National Park in Arizona, with spectacular footage of a thunderstorm in the desert in HD.
You can experience a bit of beauty and terror at home as lightning strikes and huge clusters of rain drop like bombs to the thirsty dry below. The sky turns orange and gray, and windows of sun move through the swirling dark clouds.
I’m also thinking, what type of crazy cameramen would dare venture in there to film this? Hardcore National Geo cameramen, that’s who.
Thunderstorms in the PNW are more like scattered showers and cloud burps, so though I haven’t filmed real thunderstorms, I do venture out at times to bits of the elements.
The rock hill in front of Mitchell Point was one site I’d staked out for nightshooting. It’s away from the city, and yet it’s near I-84 for carlight shots along with a great view of the Columbia River and the Gorge.
So after hiking Mitchell point for some golden hour shots, I came back and hung out in the car awaiting the stars with a traveling dinner of Greek yogurt, crackers, cheese and energy bars. Darkness soon fell and it was time.
Many hikers are afraid of heights and sometimes go partly for that reason. I’m not really afraid of heights, but when I was a kid I was afraid of the dark. Not so much at home these days, but when I venture out at night, sometimes the old fears hang out in the back of my mind.
There are no ghosts, but what if you trip over a stick and fall off a ledge? What if a black bear suddenly rushes out from the trees and eats you alive? But I know those are normal weird thoughts a lot of people deal with. There are times for caution, but sometimes you just have to logic things out and put the weird thoughts aside.
Couple darkness with wind and what you get can both scare you and exhilarate you. And so I stepped forth from the parking lot. It’s not really a hike, just a short climbing walk over a rocky hill to a viewpoint overlooking the freeway. Short enough to carry my heavy-duty Tiltall tripod in one hand and my cellphone flashlight in the other, along with my camera and gear.
So when I got to the top… wow, what a view, and a bit vulnerable on a cliffside, though not that high. Little did I know how windy it would get.
It’s really an interesting spot as the Michelle Point cliff towers above you on one side and winds from the Gorge pummel you on the other.
There are foxholes made in the shale, I’m assuming from Native Americans on their quests long ago. I only know this from hiking and researching Wind Mountain, a Native heritage site around the area, with similar structures on top.
Night Photography Techniques
Here’s some technical photography, so scroll down if you don’t want a photography lesson, but just want to read the story.
People are asking me my settings and how I do nightshots, so here’s a simple lowdown. You will need a DSLR, tripod, and editing software to do this:
Beforehand it helps to scout out a location in the daytime. I’m often traveling and hiking in the daytime, and during my adventures I’m always on the lookout for good spots for night photography. Generally open areas away from the city will do. A plain open field or parking lot will work, but even better if you can get a landscape view, interesting subjects, architecture, etc.
Often I surf the web for viewpoints for stargazing. Many parks close the gates at night, so make sure the spot you choose is accessible. Hot clear days in the summertime are the best times to practice your starshots.
When out in the field, first, set the focus to manual and adjust it to “infinity”. That’s the line just before the little figure-eight symbol on the focus ring on your lens. A headlamp definitely helps with adjusting settings in the dark, but you want a low-light only when you need it, so your eyes can adjust to the dark.
I often bump up the ISO extremely high for fast test shots, then bring it back down and slow down the shutter for the real shots. Some will tell you different, but my strategy for stars and very dark nights is 30 seconds, 4-5 f-stops, and around 3200 ISO. They get noise from the high iso, but shooting in RAW helps in cleaning up the mess later on.
A few tips I’ve learned over time for post-editing:
- Reduce noise in Raw
- To bring out the stars, up the contrast and clarity.
- When you have ground and other lights involved, such as this one of the Gorge, it makes it harder, so keep that in balance. Some use several shots and layer them together, but start with simple and go on.
Best thing is practice. If you’re not familiar with manual settings or nightshooting, you can practice in your backyard. If there are lights around you’ll have to tone the shutter speed and ISO. Practice with a tripod and photos around 8 seconds. If you’re near a road, carlights are a fun subject which do the light painting for you. Just stay far enough to be safe from the oncoming cars.
Lesson’s over, and now back to the story..
I stuffed the tripod into the ground and started testing. Many times you’re shooting blind, since distant objects are too dark to appear in the viewfinder. So I kept readjusting till I was getting what I wanted. I alternated between taking shots and then crouching down, hanging on for dear life as the wind assaulted, then subsided. For fun here’s a video selfie of me getting pulverized in the wind.
In certain places in the Gorge you feel the whole force of the bottleneck as winds pass through. While I can’t say I’ve experienced God quite like Moses did when he had to hide in the cleft of the rock, I have been around strong winds and clouds. When I was on Dog Mountain I’d huddle in a tree shelter as the elements pounded away like a storm.
After getting the shots needed and feeling the worst of the windy onslaughts, I’d had enough. The worst is on top in the open air, but you can still feel it while climbing down the shale path. After carefully making my way down, I finally made it back to the parking lot.
I could hear the sounds of freeway, river, winds, and the occasional train as I silently walked alone in the dark parking lot. The Milky Way and Big Dipper silently shined overhead. I felt alive, glad to have completed one more bucketlist item, and relieved at being away from the wind and darkness on top. For parting ways I took one last shot of the Dipper, the North Star as a plane painted dotted light through the sky.
I’d had one more adventure. As vivid as that desert storm on TV was, I’d never feel this alive while on the couch. While I’m still not an athlete and don’t care for sports, I now can’t imagine how I spent so much time in my younger years just sitting around for hours with television or a game. There comes a time where you need to experience life not just pretend.
This might not have been Everest or the Amazon Rainforest, but this was my experience. As long as you keep challenging yourself a little bit you’ll do great. It’s time to live life.
How are you living your story? Tell me yours. Let’s exchange adventure tales on Instagram, follow @OutbackTales.