To arrive at a location in the indigo blue of the night sky and be set up to photograph all the surprises that are to follow, perhaps every 20 seconds, is a “high.”
The quiet, the stillness, the unexpected ways the first light appears, the unknowable pattern of the clouds in the sky moving overhead, the vegetation in the foreground perhaps in water, all begin to appear with the faintest light. Then we can hear the silence turn to birds waking up here and there and singing back and forth to each other.
This is the joy of being out at first light. I use the excuse of photographing first light, to experience this remarkable transition from night to the beginning of a new day. It is like observing the creation of the world again. In the midst of all those consecutive photographs, there will be some gems that will be unforgettable—filled with hints of the new day, mystery, and the memory of the sounds and magic.
Scoping out the day before
If possible, scope out several possible locations in the morning, 7-10 am the day before.
Keep in mind three layers, foreground, middle, and far away.
Foreground—find an interesting one with a variety of textures, pattern, shapes, but which do not stick into the next layer.
In the middle or back, find some slopping ridges or hills, a lake, a pond with vegetation like a marsh or wetlands.
Imagine the viewer and how they could enter the photograph as if they were beginning of tour or journey in your image. Where would their eye naturally enter. Maybe there are several places. Does one element lead the eye to another across-wise or down to connect with another element and that leads the eye up so you might have a circular path for the eye?
In your planning, avoid the bull’s eye effect—putting the most important element in the center. Then the eye has nowhere else to explore. Place the most important element off center; give it room to breathe. If floating ducks, give them space in front where they are headed, and less space from where they have come from.
On the day of the shoot
Bracket exposures, but not arbitrarily.
Find out what the exposure is for the sky and then the space around the moon but not the moon itself. The moon is many times brighter than the night sky.
Then take an exposure for the foreground. See if your bracketing can include the foreground in one shot, the moon in another.
A word about the histogram. When either extreme climbs the wall, notice it and think about it for what you want to create. Also remember that the sensor is more sensitive than the histogram and so will pick up more details that either extreme up the wall, reveals.
In the earliest hours, let the histogram climb the wall, because normally we do not see everything. It would be natural not to have details in the dark side.
Lack of detail is not the enemy but a friend. You can invite this friend into your creation, to the degree you want. So bracket in order to give you lots of choices later when you are at your computer. Sometimes I have bracketed 7 times around the center.
What lens or lenses will you want to try? Having scoped out where you will photograph, you will have a sense of which lens to use. But experiment and play around, anyway.
Do you have a remote shutter cable or wireless shutter release? This for me is most important, because I can stand to the side of the camera and see the whole scene as it develops and do not look through the viewer finder, but have your finger on the shutter, and shoot at will, watching the scene develop.
Once you have decided on your settings, you can stand beside your camera and click the shutter and only occasionally double check your settings.
You might take a 20 second break and quickly scroll back through what you have taken to see the movement of clouds and light that has happened which you have probably not noticed because it’s all so subtle.
This can also be a clue if you want to vary your exposure, or slow or speed up the time between shutter clicks.
It will be best to pick one spot and stick with it to create images every 20 seconds or so, no matter if the scene does not seem to change very much. You will never be in that spot again, under those weather conditions, at this time of the year, and tomorrow you will be an entirely different person. So you are creating a moment in time. Besides, you can delete later, although I never delete anything, because you never know…
Arrive with your camera already on the tripod, shutter release in a pocket, a large memory card, 32mb or 64. A fresh battery and a backup battery in your pocket.
A flash light that is small and dim. That way you won’t blind yourself when you turn it on.
Set the exposure to “manual” and the distance at infinity and turn off your automatic focusing, because it will go crazy in the darkness. You know already you are dealing with infinity.
An f stop of 8-11; a shutter speed no slower than 20 seconds—otherwise the stars and moon will have moved enough to be out of focus. Depending on your camera,
use an ISO of 400 up to 1600; my camera will handle 1600 with minimum noise, which can be easily removed with Imageonnic’s Noiseware software.
Use an ISO that does not create a lot of noise.
Compose your scene and camera, and then wait; wait to see what unfolds.
Do not chase shadows—about as effective as chasing butterflies to see where they land.
Rest where you are; have your thermos of coffee and sip. Listen to the world waking up. Maybe you’ll make a slide show maybe not. Maybe you’ll discover one or two wonderful photographs you have created out of 1000. Congratulations.
Print it and show it to supportive, honest, kind friends. Ask them what draws them in. What is most important to them. Ask what feeling is evoked as they gaze on your creation. Give them plenty of time to respond.
Principles of Photography,
Which have become
the foundation of my own creating manner of life
- Follow the leadings that come many times every day.
- Bad weather makes good photographs--opportunities.
- When a leading brings you to a certain place, get everything ready, stay put, then wait, wait, wait to see what unfolds.
- Get up early before anyone else in the house, make coffee, sink into the uninterrupted stillness/silence, and write whatever comes out of you in a journal.
- Photograph low with the sun on the left or right; look from angles that are not the usual and customary; for example, go 360 degrees around a flower; use every lens in the bag to practice looking from every possible angle.
- Cause no harm. Put everything back.
- Ask permission of a person. Do not sneak a photograph. Do not steal.
- Stay connected to the kind, thoughtful, gentle ones who laugh at themselves with ease; human and other than human.
- Create a simple, focused photograph; create a simple, focused manner of living.
- Portraits: ask gentle questions, answer any question. You have nothing you have to defend about yourself. Nurse a glass of water for an hour or more—Dorothea Lange. You will catch glimpses of the best in the other person, and yourself as well. Expect to see those glimpses of the best. That’s your portrait you are after; and that your portrait too.
- Practice photography every day; practice your best gratitude and generosity of spirit every day.
- You have been given everything you need already for creating the patterns and rhythms of photography, and of your life. You are your own best teacher; you are the expert about you.
- This moment is as perfect as it needs to be for you to love; this moment is as imperfect as it needs to be for you to serve.
- the above is copyrighted John Holliger, 2016 and permission to use is obtained by contacting the creator and writer, John Holliger