Although the natural world appears dark at night, it’s because our eyes aren’t designed to capture the innumerable photons that are always bouncing around. Fortunately, we used our brains to invent cameras that can freeze photons in place, permitting us to view the world—and universe—in magical ways. Like a cat’s eye, a camera’s aperture opens wide to let in any available light. A camera’s sensor collects that light, producing an image when the shutter eventually closes. With enough time, a camera can capture an image that makes a dark scene appear as bright as midday.
Photography—and art in general—has always been a way for me to fold stories into ideas that others can individually interpret. Night photography is a unique and creative way to enrich that process, adding several layers of complexity and problem solving to the puzzle. Seeing in the dark, getting out in familiar or unfamiliar places when the light disappears, and problem solving are crucial components of the night photography process. But just getting your arse out the door is often one of the hardest steps.
What sets night photography apart from its daytime counterpart is that it expands the moment of observation from a fraction of a second to multiple seconds, sometimes extending into minutes or even hours. The light from neighboring stars has to travel astronomical distances to reach us, and it takes time for the camera to gather those scattered photons.
The other aspect that makes it unique is that night photography starts where the epic begins, like that time I forgot my tripod and built a snowman to hold my camera for long exposure shots. Expectation is premeditated disappointment, especially in situations where the objective is to capture an intended image. It’s best to approach a scene with an open mind toward what you’re trying to achieve. Everything seems to fall into place as the images on your camera start to expose the true nature of things around you.
When I think about shooting an object, whether it’s the Milky Way or something in the foreground, one of the first things I ask is: Where’s the light coming from? The primary light source often dictates everything that follows. When shooting at night, sometimes the dominant light sources aren’t obvious until the first several photographs are exposed. Strange lighting will appear on objects I had no idea were even there. I move my camera, adjust the focal length to incorporate or exclude light sources and objects, and change settings to expose for those sources.
The process is largely manual and very iterative. Shoot, then adjust. Shoot again, adjust again. The shutter, aperture, and ISO—known as the exposure triangle—can be a lot to take in all at once, even during the day. This takes a lot of practice, and I rarely get a shot right on the first try. I find it best to fix one or two of these three main settings and then adjust the other(s) to find the right exposure.
F2.8, 25 sec, ISO 2500, 24mm
I wanted to capture Canaan Valley in winter glory from a high vantage point. I found a mountain road with ridgeline access, locked in my hubs, and plowed my way up. As I approached the first switchback, my warm tires lost their grip, immediately followed by a dangerous backward slide from whence I came. Once things came to a rest, I realized my vehicle wasn’t prepared for the task at hand and retreated. Sulking in defeat but thankful I hadn’t done any damage, I headed home for the night. On the way, I noticed a pull-off near one of many wetlands in the middle of the valley. Canaan is a beautiful and surreal place during the day, but what’s it like at night? Summoning some willpower to save the trip, I trudged out through the deep snow and discovered a magical, glowing landscape punctuated by an intensely clear sky and reflecting starlight in the wetlands.
F2.8, 6 sec, ISO 1250, 14mm
It was a cold Friday night at Coopers Rock State Forest, zero degrees and still dropping on the rugged spine of Chestnut Ridge. With just enough snow to coat the three-mile road to the iconic overlook, the three of us geared up, clicked into our cross-country skis, and silently slid off. I reached the overlook first, stunned by strange pillars of light hovering in the sky toward the bright lights of Morgantown over one thousand feet below. I soon learned these alien-like beams are called light pillars, an atmospheric phenomenon created when light reflects off ice particles suspended in extremely cold air. Elated, I yelled back to my friends, “It’s the Northern Lights!” Still too far away on the trail, my companions interpreted my shouts of joy as me falling off the overlook. They were just as elated as I was when they found me moments later, still safely within the bounds of the railing. After I set my camera up, we sat in awe, taking in the fantastical Friday night lights, staying warm with well-earned sips of moonshine. Pro tip: a reasonable ration of spirits is a great companion for night photography.
F2.8, 30s, ISO 1600, 14mm
The inspiration for this shot of the Jenkinsburg Bridge came while searching for a unique way to photograph the Cheat River. Using Google Earth, I scanned the Cheat Canyon for access points that others may not have tried. I found some wonderful vantages, but nothing struck a chord. Then, in a moment of wonder as I was leaving Marvin’s Mountaintop, I went back to one of the most iconic areas on the Canyon—the river takeout at the Jenkinsburg Bridge. I had a sleeping bag in my truck and enough food and water to make it through the night. With that, I set out to find a new angle of perception. This image is a composite of over 400 images, each a 30-second exposure. As one photo ends, the next shot immediately begins. Through the night, the moon provided enough added light to illuminate the opposing side of the canyon. The glint of light on the rocks in the foreground came from a moment when I opened the door to my truck.
F3.2, 6s, ISO 1250, 14mm
No, contrary to your brain’s confirmation bias, that’s not the sun. This image was captured around midnight during a full moon at the Coopers Rock overlook. Many night photo shoots have been planned around the moon, such that it’s either out in full force or well-hidden to keep the sky as dark as possible. There’s not a lot to do outside when it’s dark during the winter, and it gets dark way too early! Except for cross-country skiing, of course. It takes me to places that most people can’t reach in winter and allows time to commune with nature in solitude. Coopers is my go-to XC spot when enough snow falls and doubles as an amazing location for late-night shoots.
F2.8, 30s, ISO 1600, 14mm
The Olson Observation Tower near Thomas was originally constructed to look out for wildfires. But this night, we used the tower to get a little closer to the stars. The moon just appeared, making a proper exposure of the Milky Way much more difficult—too much ambient light overpowers the very faint light from distant stars light-years away. Seeing an opportunity to add some additional depth to the image, I challenged my friend Joel Wolpert to run up the tower steps in 30 seconds or less with a head lamp. Joel’s one of those rare folks who enjoys extreme fitness challenges, especially for photography projects such as this. Light from our closest star is reflected by the moon, which is reflected by the steel truss of the tower. Fresh photons from the headlamp make their way through the space-time continuum, allowing us to see Joel’s path up the steps. The image also captures old light—billions of years old—from the farthest edges or our galaxy. All of these instant and ancient elements combine in one brief yet expanded moment.
Gabe DeWitt is a Morgantown-based engineer, photographer, artist, and mountaineer.
Check out more of his work: wv-art.com.