Catch Blue's Nighttime Photography Tips on Fox TV!


a guide for viewers of the Fox TV Interview

This is a comparison of extremes in photography: shooting at night around your neighborhood, and traveling to Iceland to shoot the Aurora Borealis. Both experiences can produce amazing pictures. The Iceland trip requires a lot more money, but it can be pulled off relatively cheaply, except for one crucial problem: timing. More on this below. But shooting at night can be done where you live, and it can be done with spectacular results if you have a camera where you can shoot in a manual mode. Smartphones are getting better, but are still weak at night. Doesn't mean you have to spend three grand with Nikon or Canon; you can get something for less than $500 which can take pictures reasonably similar to my pictures here.

Abandoned herring oil transport ship. Djupavik, Iceland.

Looking north over the Hotel Djupavik.

Other variations of the aurora's activity at night can be seen below. Just click on the picture to see them in larger sizes. These are all taken in and around Djupavik, in the north of Iceland. Disclaimer: I run an aurora photography program in this tiny town three times each winter, and you are more than welcome to pop in and hunt for the aurora with me!

But what if you don't see it?

You go all the way to Iceland, and it's cloudy or rainy, and it's bloody cold! Then what? You still end up shooting in the dark, and there is a lot to shoot, amazing stuff.

Ice forming overnight.

Water on the beach, two flashlights.

Lit with a $4 flashlight.

Moonrise over waterfall.

. . . and an unexplainable photo. Ice as jewelry, lit with three flashlights. Shot for 8 seconds.

What is the Aurora Borealis?

Here is a paragraph from Wikipedia: Auroras are associated with the solar wind, a flow of ions continuously flowing outward from the Sun. The Earth's magnetic field traps these particles, many of which travel toward the poles where they are accelerated toward Earth. Collisions between these ions and atmospheric atoms and molecules cause energy releases in the form of auroras appearing in large circles around the poles. Auroras are more frequent and brighter during the intense phase of the solar cycle when coronal mass ejections increase the intensity of the solar wind. Auroras result from emissions of photons in the Earth's upper atmosphere, above 80 km (50 mi), from ionized nitrogen atoms regaining an electron, and oxygen atoms and nitrogen based molecules returning from an excited state to ground state. They are ionized or excited by the collision of solar wind and magnetospheric particles being funneled down and accelerated along the Earth's magnetic field lines; excitation energy is lost by the emission of a photon, or by collision with another atom or molecule.

Whew. Let's go with my explanation instead: The Sun burps ions into something called the solar wind, and this can take a few days to hit the Earth. A tsunami of ions (negatively charged) smack into the magnetosphere that sits like a donut above the polar regions, and these essentially create visible energy by colliding with pure oxygen (up to 200 kilometers above the Earth's surface), or with nitrogen (above 80km high). There' I've reduced this to a very simple and inadequate explanation; you can be happy to know that scientists are still arguing about how and why the aurora glow. But they do. If the Sun has some overheated indigestion, and we are in the direction of its gassy belch, we will get a stirred-up magnetosphere and the aurora will glow green (if nitrogen is involved) and even red (if it's oxygen, high up, that is being disturbed).

But don't sweat the definitions! Auroras happen.

And if you stay home, and want to shoot at night, how?

You don't go to Iceland. That's next year. But you want to get your night chops down. You're shooting great things in daylight, but night is one defeat after another. Don't worry: tons of shooters cannot handle dim or no light. You will need three things:

  1. Tripod
  2. Flashlights (2)
  3. M

Okay, what's the M? This stands for manual on your camera. You will have to be unautomatic. Can't get around that. Even on a Smartphone, if you insist, you'll have to install apps that "freeze" your exposure and focus settings so you can shoot longer than normal. You can google "night shots on andorid" or "night shots on a smartphone," and you won't find much of eye-popping quality. So for this part of the discussion, we'll stick with DSLRs which you can switch to M mode and shoot manually. You'll have to find the timer on your camera so you're not touching it when you fire the the shutter. You'll have to shoot slow, generally. You might need to boost the sensitivity of your camera's sensor, the ISO. You might have to open up the aperture of your lens to let in more light. You will have to experiment, and that's what scares everybody. Without significant failure, you're not going to learn much. But you already knew that. And if you already knew all that, you should know about bracketing. 

The National Cathedral, with stars twinkling.

And let Night's drama take you into B&W.

Click on any picture to see it larger.

Kenwood, in Bethesda, on a winter's night. Notice the presence of both blue (cool) and yellow (warm) temperatures in the same picture.

Black and white: Doors to the Cathedral/

Over-faked HDR treatment of a mansion, glitzed up for real estate selling.

B&W: Cathedral distorted. But drama!

Very difficult building to shoot: Peace Institute.

Something incongruous in a snowstorm.

These sorts of shadows are everywhere, on your commute, on your errands, in plain sight, but require somebody to be looking for them. Somebody with a camera in hand.

You're committed to shooting your own neighborhood at night. Great.

How do you see it?


It's one thing to get monuments at night and catch them properly into pictures you can put into an online gallery. It's another thing entirely to see something worth capturing in ordinary scenes. A small fair in Chillum, Maryland, taught me that just stopping for 15 minutes and shooting the carousel and ferris wheel at night could say something grand about more modest entertainments. Sometimes the scale of a building or of a place seems more intimate at night, maybe because the crowds are gone and it's just you with the object of your eye. How will you see this ordinary scene and make it grand? How can you make a monument more intimate, smaller, delicate?

There is something a bit melancholy about being alone, at night, wandering the streets. Even with a camera in your hand, and some purpose to your steps, the solitude gives your thinking a sort of cinematic mood: this formula attachs itself to the scenery, and you find yourself shooting in a way that best suits that mood. A hint of fatigue or loneliness plays across an image much differently than irony or humor, doesn't it?

Carousel in Chillum.

Fireworks, the Mall.

Note the moving clouds appearing so smooth: a longer exposure time.

Shot with a faster shutter speed, while twisting the camera smoothly around.

Shot with a slower shutter speed, while twisting.


The marvelous sculpture above sits right on the Mall, next to the Air and Space Museum. Few people notice it, but photographers do, especially at Sunset when the western lights sparkle over its metal wings. But shooting slowly while rotating your camera at the same time lends a completely different treatment to the scene. And then below, two treatments of the same thing, a tree adorned with holiday lighting. But one picture is realistic and precise, shot on a tripod, while the other is handheld, shot with a slow shutter speed while simultaneously zooming into the picture. Big difference!

Tripod, patience, no wind.

Handheld, zooming in, movement. Still a tree with lights!

The secret of shooting.

It doesn't matter how good you are at anything. The important thing is to keep practicing even as you know you will never be perfect. This is an exhortation I make to all my students. Shoot, shoot, shoot, and in all the volume you will see that experiment creeps in, and then craft follows as your mistakes dictate necessary corrections. The filmmaker Stanley Kubrick loved photography because he saw it as an endless resolution of problems. The light is insufficient or improperly directed, so what can you do? Playing in the marginal conditions of adequate lighting forces you to reconsider how you see and why you bother to capture something. Even the things we think we know intimately, a face, a building, a place, can be made to seem novel or alien if we let light play games with our memory. And it's the dark which lends the most learning to the shooter, I think, because you start with the mystery of seeing. Is there anything to be seen? How? And then, critically, why? 

The ferris wheel is the action, blurred by a slower exposure, but the people in the foreground give the picture its life.

Finally, a monument, but shot imprecisely, intimately, without sense of the surrounding memorial.

Infamity: Watergate under Orion, shot with a fisheye lens, making the place even more absurd than it already seems.

Fox TV • Channel 5 • 10:30 a.m.

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