During the last 5 years, I’ve been obsessed with capturing the night sky. I’m so fortunate to have a job where I can immerse myself around stunning landscapes ranging from the badlands of New Mexico, to some of the tallest peaks in the Sierra Nevada Range. Countless hours have been documented hiking during the middle of the night, with nothing but the stars, a headlamp and flashlight illuminating an obscure path in front of me. So after all this time and experience, would you believe me if I told you I’m still afraid of the dark?
In general, I believe many people are afraid to go shooting at night, which is actually another reason why our students like to attend our night photography workshops. Learning to navigate in the dark within a group setting and with an experienced guide helps to alleviate fears. Go back to a childhood memory and try to remember when you were young and alone in the dark. Did you ever hear an unrecognizable sound and think the boogeyman was waiting to grab you from underneath your bed? Well okay, hopefully you’ve gotten past that however, you’re probably not itching to run out the door during a windy, moonless night, into a forest far from civilization to where bears are active. Funny enough though, this type of scenario is actually common when chasing the stars, so traipsing through the dark isn’t for everyone. For example, one could have all the required equipment under a clear dark sky, but it may not matter when you get to the location, hear the howls from an animal pack off in the distance, and race home believing you have just survived a near death experience.
I’m often asked this question by my students during our workshop coffee breaks, “Has anything bad ever happened to you when you’ve been out all night?” Until this year, my response was always, “No, but I’ve had some close calls.” For example, during my long distance hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2010, I set up my tent near the top of Mount Laguna in Southern California. After a long day of backpacking, I slipped into my tarptent, tumbled into my sleeping bag, and quickly fell asleep. Two hours later, I awoke to the sounds of a dozen or so coyotes howling, yipping, barking, and growling 15 feet away from my tent, and had no idea what to do. During my preparation for the hike, the books I read said that when faced with an encounter with coyotes or mountains lions its best not to run, but stand your ground, yell, scream, and even throw rocks to scare them away. Well, there I was, trapped in my tent, wrapped in a sleeping bag, and without a way to get up and ‘stand my ground.’ So what did I do? I helplessly laid there. That was all I could do. After several minutes, the coyotes stopped, and I honestly felt lucky to be alive. (I can hear some of you laughing right now) Growing up a city boy, and having no experience in the ‘backcountry’ a day during my childhood, this was all foreign to me. Throughout the night, the coyotes repeated this howling cycle eight times. Each round I feared I was going to die, but each time I became less afraid. So what did I learn from this experience? Not everything is out to get you. More likely, I set up my tent next to their den and they were doing what they normally do by howling at the full moon. Since that first encounter, I’ve experienced bears, mountain lions, more coyotes, rodents, rabbits, and birds that seem to jump out at me during the middle of the night. The more experiences you can challenge yourself with, the more comfortable you become within nature’s elements.
1. Embrace the nightTo be honest, this is likely the most difficult fear to master. It’s hard to embrace the strange, mysterious and dark unknown. I’ve consistently shot night photography during the last 5 years and I still have moments when I get spooked by a strange noise or worse, absolute silence. Begin by taking small walks at night to re-train your thought process into realizing ‘not everything wants to get you.’ Interestingly enough, there’s an evolutionary reason why we’re afraid of the dark. Once you’re ready to head out for your first outing, start by taking pictures near your car, or bring a friend or spouse with you for support!
2. STOP watching horror movies!One of my students and I were having a discussion one night and he brought up the fact he was scared of the dark. I asked, “What part about the dark scares you?” He replied, ‘Every time I go out on my own, I feel like Jason is going to come around the corner and kill me.’ “Do you watch a lot of horror movies,” I asked? ‘Oh yes! My partner and I watch horror movies every weekend.’
Well, I’m not a psychologist, nor do I have scientific analysis or data to back this up, but if you’re scared of fictional characters coming to get you in the middle of the night, don’t you think it’s time to stop watching those fictional characters?
3. Scout your location during the dayScouting your location is imperative during daylight hours. This process allows you to familiarize yourself with the location and terrain, determine your exit points, establish the safest route to your subject, practice composition, and much more. One important aspect of night photography many people forget is the ability to see clearly through your viewfinder when it becomes dark. Scouting and composing during the day helps to remove this obstacle.
4. Maps & Satellite ImageryDuring the ‘planning phase’ of a shoot, I’m constantly studying typography maps and satellite imagery on Google Earth. Google Earth allows me to visually study the terrain before I arrive and observe other landscape features within the area. I can create a KMZ file of my route in Google Earth and upload it to my GPS device. I also love the ability to measure my hiking route inside Google Earth using the ‘Ruler & Measuring’ tool.
5. GPS DeviceWhen you are in an area without cell service, unable to load map data on your phone, and don’t have a physical map/compass on you, a GPS is a must. For example, you won’t find a sliver of cell service in the Badlands of New Mexico. When this area gets dark, navigating in the pitch black is nearly impossible, even with powerful flashlights. My Garmin 650T GPS device is perfect for the types of remote areas that are perfect for shooting without interruptions. This device allows me to save locations/waypoints, specific routes, and comes with pre-programmed topographic maps of the US. If you purchase a GPS device, make sure the maps come preloaded. This will save you the headache of an unexpected surprise of spending additional money on map data.
6. SPOT GPS TrackerWhen you’re out in the middle of nowhere, without a single bar of cell service, (surprisingly, it is still possible), it’s nice having the ability to let loved ones know you’re alive and well. SPOT allows you to send pre-programmed messages with GPS coordinates of your current location. Another great feature is SPOT can alert and send emergency responders to your GPS location. I NEVER leave home without this little device and it’s comforting to know I can call for help if I get in a bind.
7. Always plan for the unexpectedWhether I’m planning for a short 3-mile hike, or an overnighter, I always pack extra gear and food in case of emergencies. Additional items may include a first aid kit, extra clothes for layering, sleeping bag, water purification, rain jacket/pants, and an extra days’ worth of food. When my wife and I hiked the PCT, we ALWAYS brought an extra day of food in case we were delayed or we came across another hiker in need.
8. Reliable Light Sources (yes, more than one) + additional batteriesI’m a huge fan of headlamps with a red light option and currently use the Petzl Tikka XP. It has 3 brightness settings and includes a red light that’s easy on the eyes at night. My second light source for hiking around at night is the Proton Pro Personal LED Flashlight. This little light is a beast, takes 1x AA battery, puts out 1,000+ Candle Power, includes 4 safety strobe modes, has the ability to signal Morse Code, and can also produce a red light. Lastly, I typically use lithium batteries in all of my light sources for brighter outputs and increase in battery life.
What other tips would YOU contribute to the list? We’d love to hear them! Let us know in the comments below and we’ll add some of the good ones with a link to your site.
Here’s what our readers said:
Allen Utzig – “I prefer the Delorme inReach to the Spot because it has two-way communication capability. When I am in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, my wife likes to know that I am still alive and she can remind me that it is time to head for home.”
Susan Stephens – “Great blog with some fantastic photos, Brad! Those are all great ideas. One thing I might add is wearing a RoadID. This is an identification tag that helps someone identify you in case something bad does happen. You can use the interactive selection which allows you to change information as life changes or a static information tag that gives information to responders of your medical issues, so treatment can begin quickly.”
Kathleen Kingma – “It will always be colder than you think it’s going to be!”
Michelle Wilson – “Let someone know when you are expected back and where you are going in case something does happen and you can’t activate the SPOT.”