This is the second of a two-part interview with Texas-based night photographer Mike Cooper. We cover the more technical aspects of his night photography. Click here to read part one.
Setting the exposure
Mike described his process of determining the best exposure at night during a full moon, including when he first began.
“I started using the timer on my phone to make sure that I had the shutter open for at least a couple minutes. I soon began to notice that I was more pleased with how the photographs looked when the exposures were about three minutes because I liked the look of the star trails.”
Those funny spots in night images
Mike initially experienced challenges with camera noise in the hot summer months in Kansas with smaller CMOS sensors with exposures beyond three minutes. “After upgrading to a full-frame camera, I stopped having this problem and could really create some of the longer exposures to get the noticeable star trails I wanted.”
Adjusting the exposure time
“If I am in a location without nearby light sources and I have time to spare, I will even extend the exposure up closer to four minutes. If I am photographing a location that has any type of significant nearby light pollution, I will shorten my exposure time so I can still have at least some star trails without having the subject blown out.”
“I just recently switched to using a Pentax K-1 (B&H | Amazon) camera after several years with a Nikon D800. The Pentax seems to have a few features that are geared toward night photography and since the megapixels were the same between the two cameras, switching was an easy decision for me.” Some of the features include backlit buttons, AstroTracing, a red LED display so you don’t blow out your night vision, robust weather sealing, focus peaking and high quality rendering of low light and high dynamic light situations.
Tripod and ball head
Tripod and ball heads are often overlooked, but are a crucial part of any night photographer’s equipment. “It took me a while to find the tripod because I specifically [use the] Gitzo Explorer, mostly due to its ability to rotate the column fully from vertical to horizontal while still being able to lock solid at any of those angles.”
Mike also noted that his tripod is the older, heavier design, but that he never has to worry that it blows over in a strong wind.
For his ball head, Mike uses an Arca-Swiss monoball.
Illuminating the night
Light painting is illuminating subjects while the camera shutter is open. Night photographers often have more than one light device for this. However, Mike is the only photographer I know who owns every light painting device that ProtoMachines has ever released. This includes the larger, more industrial looking LED1, which is no longer manufactured.
“For light painting purposes, I have been using a ProtoMachines LED1 since 2012. This item replaced a series of flashlights and lighting gels. It’s a great tool because of its ability to change to any color in the color wheel within seconds while also changing the strength of the light being produced.
Mike also discussed a 240-lumen light wand that he picked up from the same company, which outputs a broader swathe of light, intended for covering large surfaces evenly while light painting.
“Several years ago I also picked up a ProtoMachines Radium light which has many of the same features with a slightly lower power output and a completely different directional beam than the LED1.”
Very low tech gear
“Why didn’t I think of that?” Every night photographer has one of those really great tips that make you say that out loud.
“Possibly one of the most unusual and versatile tools I keep around is a piece of cardboard. I always keep a piece about the size of a suitcase in my car trunk. I use it to shield my light source so the beam itself doesn’t appear in the finished photo.”
Mike also uses dim electric tea lights to find his way in the dark while photographing interiors. These lights are dim enough to not affect the photograph, but bright enough that he can see where he is going.
If you meet ten night photographers, you will hear ten different methods of processing photos. Mike keeps his process simple and inexpensive.
“My post-processing workflow is probably more basic than other photographers because I’ve not had any formal night photography training. I open the file in Photoshop Elements and make any necessary minor adjustments to highlights and shadows. I will frequently follow that up with using the clone stamp to get rid of any random signs or fire hydrants that are cluttering up the background.”
Targeting specific areas in post-processing
“More recently, I have learned to use the Magic Lasso tool and have been experimenting with making some fine-tuning adjustments to specific areas of the image. Learning how to do this has really opened up a whole new world that I never knew existed.”
Advice for someone getting into night photography
“I encourage anyone who is interested in night photography to give it a try — it is easier than you might think.”
Mike emphasizes that this doesn’t require exorbitant amounts of money. “You can attach virtually any DSLR camera that has a bulb setting to an inexpensive $25 tripod and plug in a $10 shutter release cable, venture out at night around full moon time and come away with some pretty cool photos. You can pick up an inexpensive pack of theatrical gels from eBay and a tactical flashlight and you’re ready to go!”
Night photographers we should know about
“Mark O’Neill is a UK-based and focuses his work on relatively unknown locations, such as World War II bunkers or underground rail tunnels. He has also traveled behind the former Iron Curtain for some incredible shots of old, rarely-seen Soviet-era monuments.”
Mike mentioned another photographer who lights very differently from how he works. “John Shellington is based in Texas and uses some interesting techniques to capture an image. While other photographers use minutes-long exposures, he uses very short exposures with high ISO to get very unique views of abandoned places at night. Additionally, he uses only a flame-burning lantern or candles to light his images.”
“I have two upcoming books. The first is called ‘Abandoned Louisiana: Under a Bayou Moon’ and it includes more than 150 photographs taken all across Louisiana, including sites ranging from houses and churches to a never-opened water park and an old, crumbling movie set. The second will be called ‘Abandoned Texas’ and I am still working on collecting photographs for it.”