Gearing Up for Night Photography
This is my third year of teaching night photography workshops in the Mojave Desert with light-painting expert Troy Paiva. The workshops are held at a world-class junkyard called Pearsonville that has hundreds of rare '50s to '70s cars, trucks and buses. We spend three nights under the full moon making long-exposure photographs of classic cars.
I've helped many aspiring night photographers get their gear ready for night shooting. The good news is that you probably already have most of the necessary gear for night photography. Any modern digital SLR with a CMOS sensor will work well for long exposures by moonlight. Popular cameras used by past workshop participants include the Canon 5D Mark II and Nikon D700. Both of these cameras are able to make six- to eight-minute long exposures without the need for running in-camera noise reduction, which saves time and battery life.
A wide-angle lens is a great choice for creating dramatic perspectives, capturing star trails and shooting car interiors. Zoom lenses offer the most flexibility and help minimize lens changes in the dusty junkyard. The Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II or Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G are excellent choices for cameras with full-frame sensors. The Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens is a great option for night photographers with APS-C or DX sensor cameras.
A stable tripod is a crucial and sometimes overlooked piece of equipment for night photography. Lightweight carbon-fiber tripods are easy to carry and offer excellent vibration control, but make sure not to go too light. I recommend a tripod that weighs at least 3.5–4 pounds, without the head, for stability in windy conditions. My primary tripod is a Gitzo 3541LS. Pairing the tripod with an Arca Swiss compatible ballhead such as the Z1 creates a stable, adjustable platform for your camera.
Another important accessory for night photography is a remote release. Some night photographers use a standard remote along with a watch or phone as a timer. Once you've tried a remote with a built-in timer like the Canon TC-80N3 or Nikon MC-36, you'll wonder how you ever lived without one. Timer remotes are very useful for trying the star trail stacking techniques taught in the workshops.
Having a variety of flashlights is helpful for adding light to your images. During the long exposures you can walk through your photo and literally paint with light. A simple AA Maglite has a focusable beam, warm color temperature and works really well for lighting small areas. A more powerful flashlight in the 80-100 lumens range is useful for lighting up larger subjects like cars and buses. LED flashlights like the Surefire G2 are a good choice. LED flashlights have a cool color balance for light painting. Colored gels can be held in front of the flashlight for surreal lighting effects. We provide workshop attendees with a variety of colored gels for light painting, and demonstrate the techniques hands-on in the junkyard.
A camera, tripod and remote are all it takes to make long exposure images. More technical information about long exposures can be found on my blog, www.joereifer.com, but the most important tool for night photography isn't your gear—it's your imagination. Visit my gallery of images from Pearsonville, and maybe we'll see you in the junkyard this fall!