The night has fallen… I am alone, on top of a mountain, at 3.000 meters (9,800 feet) altitude. Fog is floating along through the valleys below, illuminated by the pale light of the moon. For a moment I feel like I’ve landed on a distant planet, lost in space. It is a privilege to be here, a refreshment of the soul. Now, in total silence, far from everything, I can start thinking about taking some photos.
The above is the average scenario of a night time photo session of mine. I practice night photography for years now (from when it was a cutting-edge activity) and I can say it’s the most instinctive and natural way I know to connect one of my deepest passions ever - the science of the cosmos - with my ordinary life. Because, during those priceless moments on the Alps, the act of taking a good photo is like accomplishing a ”bridge”, a ”gateway”, between the ancestral question marks that will never find answer through our limited senses, with the tangible reality of this world. And, hey, I can do this with the means I have at my disposal: technology, passion and health! This is just wonderful, especially if you think that many of the photographs I’ve taken, 15 years ago would have been impossible... but, thanks to the advancement of cameras, and their performance at high ISO, now the night sky documentation is within the reach of any dedicated photographer :-)
Like music, photography is all about rules, skill, style and personal perspective. There is, however, an objective aspect (which turns out evident in the extreme night applications) that I will now analyze: human beings and cameras adopt totally different modes of observation, both showing just a possible reading of reality. There is no "right" or "wrong" (who really knows how true reality is?), only different approaches leading to different results. In fact, during daylight our eyes are offering infinitely superior performance of any camera available on the market, but when darkness falls the situation is somehow reversed, electronic equipments can go much beyond our powers of observation, this, in short, due to the ability to record light for long periods of time (through long exposures). Although our eyes are erroneously communicating to our brain that there is no more light, actually there is always light, even when we just see only darkness. So the point is: we must learn to think like a camera, or, better, adapt our purposes to its specific way of seeing. To be precise, the question is not: "My eyes what suggest me to photograph?" but: "What would work better through the eye of my camera?". As a matter of fact my best shots are derived from being able to give an immediate, on-the-spot, answer to that question. So, in order to avoid mistakes or disappointments, before starting night photography it’s really paramount to keep in mind that the instrument we have in our hands simply does not work like our eyes. A practical example: a night shot rich in colors, with strong contrasts between bright and dark areas, briefly: “somewhat absurd” :-) will most likely be a straight out of camera shot, while a night image reflecting our way of seeing at night, somehow obscure, with few details and colors, might heave been attentively post-processed. It sounds like a paradox, isn't it? But it is not, if you consider what I've just written above. Of course, now that night photography has become a "fashion", it's also easy to find images edited beyond any limit (overcooked) exalting the way of seeing, already spectacular in itself, of the camera. This generally doesn't meet my taste. Personally, I prefer to look for a balanced middle way, between what I remember to have seen with my eyes and the peculiar vision of the camera fixed in the RAW file. Let's not forget that it is needed talent and good taste in post-production, as well as while shooting. Both camera and computer are merely technological tools in our hands.
Exactly in this regard - technological tools - let's see what's better to use and how to work on the spot. For night photography it is necessary to use a full-frame camera. Mainly because a full-frame sensor has very good performance at high ISO, and during long exposures overheat less compared to the APS-C (although the freezing mountain temperatures can be helpful). The lens used has to be as bright as possible. Of course It will be needed a quality tripod, solid and lightweight. I recommend in carbon fiber.
Although it is very important to adapt (with the experience finding out also at the last minute how to get the most out of the night and changing weather conditions) it goes without saying that it is also wise to have a proper dose of planning. Choosing the right location is as crucial as knowing how to photograph. Actually, finding out the right location is an integral part of the photographer's talent. Always begin to study the location during daylight hours, so when the darkness will fall you shall at least have clear ideas on what and where to start your photo session. For knowing in advance detailed information on the starry sky and the moon, I am using a free-software planetarium named: "Stellarium". About the weather, it is as well important to note that a reasonable presence of clouds can be of great scenographic value, considering that photos taken at night are always long exposures and the clouds, in this kind of shots, become very artistic, like "silky rivers".
- Photographing the starry nightsky & the Milky Way: it’s absolutely necessary to work in a moonless night, choosing a location as far as possible from inhabited centers. The darkest dark is needed, that kind of pitch black that, if you switch off the headlamp, doesn’t allow you to have a clue of where you are going. So, find indeed a truly remote place. This is the most important element. Too many people expect "miracles" coming from photographic equipments, neglecting this point which is imperative. Besides, a successful shot is usually the reflection of all the adventure behind. Exposure time should not exceed 30 seconds for a 17mm lens (if the lens is even wider it is possible to expose a bit more, but the medal reverse is that too wide-angle lenses flatten the mountain profiles, in fact 17mm is already too much). This rule to expose for about 30 seconds depends on the fact that Earth rotates, so, in order to capture stars as dots and not lines, this is the time we have. Not much, isn’t it? Aspect that explains the need of a bright lens to be used at full aperture (identified by the lower f-number), and also very high ISO (3.200 or higher). All this to take full advantage of the sensor's ability to capture as much light as possible during our 30 second exposure.
- Star Trails: these photographs are possible because of the rotation of Earth on its axis. The apparent motion of the stars is recorded as streaks on the camera sensor. Same conditions of total obscurity of the previous point, with the difference that this time the purpose is to capture the paths of the stars in the night sky (very long ones!), not dots, so there is no more concern about Earth's rotation! The exposure must be very long, let’s say at least 45 minutes or one hour, but even longer exposures are welcome. No other photographic genre need such long exposures! It goes without saying that in the case of wind, even moderate, this kind of photography can’t be done. Since during this long exposure the camera will have time to capture much light, we can keep ISO and aperture at moderate values (i.e. f/7.1, ISO 250). As a matter of fact, It's amazing to find out just at the end the amount of light & color a camera manages to capture at night, in the dark, constantly and relentlessly continuing to observe for an hour the spot we have carefully chosen! This is indeed something that our eyes could never do, our eyes can see frame by frame, but we are technically unable to make the sum of light in time. Just ask any sincere photographer, the end result of a star trail is always an enigma. A most pleasant one! :-) So, what to say, except "thanks to the cameras for this!"... for the chance to discover new things and also for helping us to think in a not too anthropocentric way, reflecting on the fact that there is not only our human way of seeing. Let's discover the many invisible wonders around us!
- Photographing in the moonlight: even here there is no particular limit about the exposure time, since the main subject won't be the stars anymore, rather the gentle play of light & shadow so typical of the lunar lighting. The moon reflects a considerable amount of light. Though it's about 1,000,000 times fainter than the Sun, only a few stars will be visible. If you decide to expose for a few minutes, these stars will of course appear as short lines rather of dots. Well, in my opinion this is not a problem, moonlight photography has to be essentially romantic, that's what really matters. Even light pollution, in the right doses, can be used as a valuable ally during a moonlight session. Some far bright reverbs, coming from civilization, can counteract with the delicate lunar light and this dialogue can give excellent results, knowing how to handle it properly.
The white balance is very important. It will be possible to make post-production corrections, but choosing the perfect white balance while shooting will make a difference. Therefore, quickly take a test shot using the highest ISO (to speed up the process) and the automatic white balance, if the result does not convince you, go to manual setting and apply slight modifications, continuing your tests until you reach the desired result. Then lower the ISO and take the real photo. Set mirror lock-up from your camera’s menu in order to avoid vibration-induced motion blur. The shutter button should never be touched, use a remote shutter release. Wireless is better, because respect to the cable models it is completely detached from the camera's body. Since digital photography allows to immediately check the newly taken photo, when surrounded by darkness it’s better to keep in mind that only the histogram is really reliable, the LCD screen could make look the picture much brighter than what it really is. Last but not least, it is good to remember that also every photograph taken at night needs a careful composition of the image, it has to convey a story exactly like any other photographic genre. Too often it sounds like “we just have to shoot the stars” and then the game is done, well, that's not how it works… A good night image should still be a good photograph also without the star.
I think it's now evident that taking photos at night on the Alps means dealing with so many infinitesimal variants, most of the time not even clear to our eyes... and I have not even touched the argument of achieving the location plus survival on the spot! But there is a reason why I didn’t: the high mountain can NOT be explained in a tutorial. Only the progressive experience, gained by degrees, serves. The weather can change suddenly and from a terrestrial paradise you can find yourself in the midst of a hell on earth. Definitely sometimes the mountain can be no poetic at all, but the so called "assassin mountain" does not exist, there are only inexperienced people and/or climbers who believe themselves to be immortal (just because they are well-trained!…). So tread carefully in this field, step by step. At stake is not only your life but the lives of those who might come to your rescue if anything happens.
All these combined aspects make night photography on the Alps as something extremely complex to accomplish and only a sincere dedication allows to bring every adventure to the end, possibly with one good shot (a photo that can also affect others not just the author). The Alps at night are among the last outposts still offering the same dark sky as admired by our ancestors, documenting this allows those who have never lived such priceless moments to contemplate one of the most secretive face of “our” planet.