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A couple of recent incidents involving careless shutterbugs light painting with burning steel wool have gained a lot of notoriety in the press, giving legitimate night photographers a bad reputation. With these unfortunate matters in mind, we interviewed a variety of night-photography specialists to compile the following eight tips on safety and etiquette when photographing in the darkness.
Lead Image © Troy Paiva
Taking a cue from the Hippocratic Oath, Stu Jenks invokes “Do No Harm” as his first rule of night-photography etiquette. “Go in, get the shot you want, and then leave the land or the cityscape as you found it,” he says.
Rule 1a: “Don't Be a Jerk. Some people just have to get ‘The Shot’ at any cost,” he says. “Your photos are not as important as you think—nor are you.” Instead, Jenks advises, “Be respectful. Be quiet. Be kind. Be generous. Be nice. Not only will you feel better, but your photographs will look better.”
Scott Martin agrees, saying, “Photographers can be pretty forward, in your face and can feel entitled to the right to make images.” Instead, he counsels, “Get over yourself and do the opposite. Speak softly and show your honest enthusiasm for your work. Ask permission, knowing and accepting that the property owner may very well reject you. Never get pissy and never challenge the authorities. These are real people doing their jobs. Show them that you're a real person doing your job, too.”
Troy Paiva has developed somewhat of an expertise in gaining access to private sites for night-photography shoots. “When scouting a secure location, it can be a matter of simply asking the owner, caretaker or property manager for permission, he explains. “Saying that you’re ‘taking pictures at night’ will usually just confuse them, but showing them some work stored on your phone is a great ice breaker. Thumb through your sample images while explaining about time-exposures, star trails, cloud movement, and light painting. More often than not, after seeing the work, they will give you the run of the place.”
Gabriel Biderman adds, “You'd be surprised by the doors you can open with a little respect and appreciation of someone else's property.” After spying Pollepel Island and the ruins of Bannerman Castle during a train ride up the Hudson River, Biderman did an online search to discover the Bannerman Trust. He notes, “I reached out about offering overnight photography workshops on the island with all proceeds going back to the trust for restoration of the structures.” This has become one of the Trust’s top fundraisers. “During our workshop years, the castle has been stabilized and the mansion has gotten a 2nd floor and a roof,” he says. “It’s been an amazing experience to photograph a historic place, and to give back, as well as to introduce many people to a very unique New York experience.”
Night photography is a very process-oriented endeavor, involving all manner of materials to achieve a desired effect—from trinkets to munitions. With items such as laser pointers, sparklers, and flaming steel wool, it’s essential to realize that the actions you take can have unexpected consequences, and possibly even lasting impact to other parties, or to your setting. “I've made my mistakes in the past,” says Jenks. “I’ve learned and grown from those mistakes. I’ve also changed lighting instruments over the years to be less dangerous. And of late, I've gone lighter, making it easier to hike into the wilds or around cities.”
When working with flammable materials, Jason D. Page stresses common sense as his most essential advice. “Take a good look around where you plan to shoot,” he explains. “If you’re surrounded by concrete, sand, or water, you are probably good to go; however, if you’re near a wooden building or a dry forest, you might want to think again.”
If you do decide to combine light painting and burning materials in your image making, Page recommends precautions to protect both yourself and your surroundings. “I like to prepare for the worst case scenario,” he notes. “Eye protection and gloves are a must. Additionally, a fire extinguisher is always good to have on hand, and a wet towel can put out a small flame even quicker.”
Biderman particularly enjoys working in inclement weather. “Rain offers so many wonderful reflections, and snow can be either flash-frozen or turned into confetti—both of which are enhanced by the longer exposures of night,” he says. But in these conditions, it’s essential to keep your gear safe and dry. A basic umbrella is one form of protection; however, “if the weather is going sideways you’ll definitely want to add a rain cover and a lens hood,” he says.
In his South Florida home base, Page often encounters heavy downpours and intense lightning storms. “It’s always a good idea to check the weather before heading out,” he says. “I carry a few large garbage bags to use for a quick shelter to keep me and my gear dry; but there’s no hiding from lighting.”
Says Biderman, “Lightning and storm chasing is another game entirely, and you really need to consider your safety, understanding, and training before venturing off on this type of adventure."
The experimental nature of night photography makes it tempting to cart along everything but the kitchen sink. But for the well-being and safety of both your body and your gear, resist that temptation and pack your kit to be lightweight and efficient.
“One of the best ways to keep your gear safe when photographing at night, especially in less than desirable areas, is to keep it to a minimum,” says Tim Cooper. “One camera, one lens, a cable release and a tripod—if you need more than that, keep it in your backpack or camera bag and wear it at all times. Never put your gear on the ground and walk away.”
While it’s important to be selective in what you carry, one area one shouldn’t skimp is with memory cards and batteries—the essentials to keeping your gear running smoothly. Todd Vorenkamp recommends bringing extra batteries for both cameras and flashlights. “If your camera runs out of batteries, your photographic adventure is cut short and you head home bummed out,” he says. “If your flashlight runs out in the middle of a moonless or overcast night, you could be in a very tight spot, with no way of illuminating your path, or the hazards between you and your home.”
Vorenkamp also advises charging your cell phone battery fully before you leave home, noting, “Modern phones can double as flashlights in a pinch. They’re also your best way of getting help from others.” For maximum security, pack a portable battery bank for your phone, as well.
Jenks always carries at least three camera batteries and two flashlights when shooting at night. Another essential aspect of his wardrobe is hiking boots, ideally with ankle support.
Page generally works in remote areas, where animals pose one of the biggest safety threats. To protect himself from sudden close encounters, he carries bear spray and wears snake boots or guards. Topping his list of most dangerous (and certainly most annoying) animals are mosquitos. “When shooting in South Florida, bug spray is a must,” Page explains. “To be extra safe in the summer, I wear a full bug suit, covering me from head to toe. Without it, shooting in swampy areas would not be tolerable.”
Once darkness sets in, the world takes on a much different appearance, and one can feel swallowed up by the night. Figuratively speaking, this can be a thrilling experience, but it’s something to avoid at all costs. For your own safety, and the peace of mind of your loved ones, Todd Vorenkamp recommends following the United States Coast Guard guidelines to “file a float plan” before venturing out on a night shoot.
“Tell a friend or family member (someone NOT accompanying you) where you are going, how long you plan to be there, and when you think you’ll get back,” he says. “Those three items are the bare minimum. Additional details to consider sharing include what you are wearing, your routes to and from the location, alternative forms of contact (cell phone, email, radio, etc.), or anything else you feel is pertinent. If you do not return at the appointed time, your designated contact should start taking steps to report you missing.
“… if your plans change, make sure to update your contact with your location and estimated time of return, then check in once you get home, to let them know you are safe.”
As Tim Cooper says, “Photographing at night is inherently dangerous, even in the safest of conditions. It’s easy to trip, fall, bump into things, tear your clothing, and even knock over your camera. I know—I’ve done all of these things.” His best advice is to be ultra-aware. “It’s easy to get excited about the shot and just jump right in. Instead, take a moment. Take stock of your surroundings. Map out the area you’ll be walking in and make yourself aware of any possible dangers before you begin shooting.”
Along with being attentive to his surroundings, Jenks finds it essential to quiet his mind while unloading his truck for a night shoot. “I say a little prayer. I take a deep breath. I close my eyes and meditate for a couple of seconds,” he explains. “I think. I plan. I throw away that plan and do something else. I take a better photo than the one I first had in mind. By quieting my mind, I open my eyes.”
As a bookend for the encounter, Jenks offers one last piece of etiquette for the end of the night. “As you load up and prepare to leave, turn back to where you’ve worked and thank the land. Say, ‘Thank You’ out loud,” he suggests. “Show a bit of gratitude to the land that provided your images and this experience. For me, it puts food on my table, but it also puts joy in my heart.”
Thank you for joining our journey into night photography! For more Visualizing the Night content, please click here: Visualizing The Night and share your enthusiasm for the art below in the comments section or reach out to us on social media using #visualizethenight. Thanks for reading!