by Roger N. Clark
Night photography is becoming more and more popular and that is leading to problems between photographers. This article discusses some of those problems and recommends solutions to minimize conflicts.
The Night Photography Series:
Problems in the Field
Destroying the Landscape
Anything Goes, But Disclose
Cloning, Removing or Adding Elements, Composites of Different Scenes
Color, Contrast and Intent
Most images of the Milky Way online are FAKED COLOR
References and Further Reading
There are many forms of night photography, and not all are compatible. Nightscapes refers to landscape photography at night, usually including stars or other interesting subjects only visible at night and integrating the land and sky into the recorded scene. Light from stars in the night sky is very faint and to record those stars relatively quickly before the Earth's rotation blurs the stars into a trail places important constraints on the imaging system. The landscape is usually darker, requiring 2 to 6 times more exposure to get a decent exposure. Because of this dichotomy, some people use lights to light the landscape. That causes problems for photographers who want to use only natural light. Some photographers use white or red lights to examine their gear, often too bright and they sometimes shine their lights onto other photographers.
The difficulty in obtaining images of the night sky and the landscape at night is difficult enough, but processing the images is often even more difficult. This has led some photographers to construct images that are impossible, e.g. by cloning things in or out of an image, or combining scenes made in different directions or places. Failure to disclose such actions can lead to charges of faking it and loss of reputation.
Some people are teaching night sky image processing methods that produce fake colors. While photographers have artistic license to produce any composite and colors they wish, and call it art, shouldn't one disclose such methods, especially if teaching? Those teaching should ethically disclose to their students when their processing methods are producing fake scenes, including fake colors. Unfortunately, such disclosures are rare, leading other photographers to believe those fake colors are real. Fake blue Milky Way images are so common these days that few realize the color they have been taught is fake and far from natural. Even documentary films are now using night sky scenes with fake colors. This trend started circa 2008 by some professional photographers that did not understand the unique situation of night sky imaging and used the wrong math to reduce light pollution in images.
Would you as a photographer purposely set up in front of another photographer taking a picture of a sunset landscape? Would you purposely run around in a daytime scene where a photographer was taking a picture with the intent of ruining their image? Would you shake bushes and tree limbs to ruin someone's picture? Would you shine lights into someones camera at night to ruin their exposure? I think, and hope, the answer by most reasonable people would be no. And that has been mostly my experience with daytime photographers with only a couple of exceptions in the last several decades.
But night photography is different. One can not always tell if a photographer is nearby imaging all or part of your scene. Suppose that what you were doing impacted the other photographer? If you knew that would you stop? Would you share the time and negotiate with the other photographer? Again, I would hope most photographers would be courteous. That does not seem to be the case with night photographers, especially with their lights. I have had night photographers walk in front of me and set up their tripods in front of me. And I have constant problems with photographers and their lighting the landscape at night.
My encounters with night photographers and their lights have not been good. In not one case when I have asked a photographer to stop using lights have they stopped. This article is about the ethics of night photography and impacts on other photographers. I'll start with lights and add other issues as they come to my attention.
Would you teach a class and purposely mislead people by telling them things that are not true? I would hope not, but such teaching is not only common in the world of night landscape photography post processing, but to find truth is the exception.
The image in Figure 1 was not the image I had hoped to get on the night of May2/3, 2019. A group of night photographers were at the base of Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah, shining lights on the rock and ignoring what other photographers might want to image. The lights might have been fine if it was for a short time, but they did this for hours (Figures 2a, 2b). It forced other photographers to adapt and image what they were imaging without consideration that someone else might want to do something different. It was not possible to see the landscape in its natural environment, nor photograph the natural light at night.
I was 1/4 mile away (0.42 km) from Balanced Rock and not in a position to speak to the photographers at the base of the Rock. I only went into the park after speaking with rangers earlier in the day and they assured my no light painting was allowed. Later, I heard the photographers at the base of Balanced Rock had a permit, though I never saw it. I checked again the next day with park rangers and they assured me again that no light painting was allowed and they did not know of any permits. Whether or not they had actual valid permits I never found out, but even so, do they have an ethical right to dominate the entire critical part of the night when the Milky Way rose behind Balanced Rock?
If one is light painting at night, exposure times on the landscape should be reduced. If one is imaging with only natural light, exposure times are longer. Light on the land is lower than the sky, typically requiring exposure 2 to 6 times longer for the same amount of light collection. If one is using lights, needed exposure times are shorter. So ethically it should be simple to turn off lights for periods of time so other photographers have a chance at getting their own images of the natural environment.
Besides impacting visitors and other photographers at night, lights also impact
wildlife. For example, see:
Animals Need the Dark (National Park Service) nps.gov, and
Artificial Night Lighting and Protected LandsEcological Effects and Management Approaches(Revised August 2017), pdf, nps.gov.
The images in Figure 2a and 2b illustrate uneven artificial light on the landscape from photographer's lights. At the time of the images, the brightest part of the Milky Way and very bright Jupiter (the bright object near the to right in the frame) would have put more light on the right side of Balanced Rock. Thus, the artificial light looks particularly unnatural, i.e. fake, being on the left side. I didn't want fake light in my image.
Another time in Arches National Park, I was about 2 miles (3.2 km) west of the North and South Windows, Turret Arch and Balanced Rock, hoping to do an image of the Milky Way rising over these structures (Figure 3). But the constant light painting from Balanced Rock to Turret Arch by numerous photographers meant I had no chance. I waited a while, but the light painting continued until the Milky Way was too high for the composition I wanted. Of course these photographers did not know I was 2 miles away trying to make an image. But do they need to dominate the night with lights for several hours, preventing anyone else from making images?
I went to the Maroon Bells, Colorado for a fall nightscape. The timing of the New Moon, peak fall colors, and alignment of the Milky Way only happens every few years. I arrived in twilight and planned an evening image before the Milky Way got too low. Unfortunately there was a guy there bragging about his two 2-million candle power lights he was illuminating the landscape with. Figure 4b shows an image of the same trees in my scene and lit by his lights. I had to wait until he was done--there was no compromise. The Milky Way had sunk somewhat lower than my intended image after he was done so I could start my imaging. Why should I have to wait? Was that fair? I would leave no trace and not impact the scene like this guy did with his lights. I can only imaging what the impact on animals was in the valley with bright lights shining all over the valley for a long time. You might ask, that because I was making a mosaic, why couldn't I do the sky first while he did the landscape with his lights? I could not because his lights were so powerful, they scattered off the atmosphere adding light pollution to this remote valley were there was no light pollution.
Photographers nearby using flashlights that are too bright can be a significant problem. Figure 5 illustrates the impact on an image of the sky by someone using a bright red flashlight out of the frame. Impacts to the foreground landscape are even greater.
Solutions with light painting are simple.
Solutions for using lights around your camera:
Low power white light LED flashlight (add absorbing paper/tape to make dimmer):
Low power white light LED flashlight (add absorbing paper/tape to make dimmer):
Red light LED flashlights:
Bright white light LED flashlights:
Glow in the dark tape:
It should be obvious that one should not destroy the landscape in an effort to make a photo, or to prevent future photographers from getting similar images from that site. Photographers have been known to saw off limbs of trees after they have taken a picture so no one else can get that image (though it was probably photographed tens of thousands of times by previous photographers), or trample flowers so no one else can "get the shot." You can google and find many examples.
It is also important for photographers to not inadvertently impact the landscape to get an image. For example, trampling vegetation to get to a spot to take a picture. In arid regions, walking off trail can destroy cryptobiotic soil. This is particularly important in the Moab, Utah region and the Colorado Plateau. Cryptobiotic soils are found all over the world and the tiny filaments of biota making up such soils help keep the fragile ecosystem from eroding from wind or water. Do not trample on cryptobiotic soils or other vegetation just to get to a spot for a photo. This is particularly important at night when these things are difficult to see. One footstep into cryptobiotic soil can take decades for the soil to recover.
Photography is art, and most amateur astrophotographers just want to make pretty pictures. In that regard anything goes, even total fakery, as long as the photographer is honest as to what was done.
Some people believe only a single image made in camera is real, and even a mosaic or contrast stretch is faking it. Then another thought is no photo is real--it is always fake, even out of camera. There is no clean answer or line to cross.
While technically no photo is perfectly accurate, viewers have an expectation that a photo has some resemblance to reality. Modern cameras do pretty well in this regard. For example, a snapshot of a person in reasonable light by almost any digital camera, even a smartphone camera, will produce skin tones that are reasonable representations of the person. It doesn't take exotic color science to be able to produce reasonably accurate color images: green vegetation looks green, flesh tones look similar to the live view, blue sky is blue (though perhaps not a perfect sky blue, still somewhat close), and all this out of camera with no processing.
While modern cameras can make quite impressive images representing reality, photographers do all kinds of post processing that changes things, perhaps far from reality. This is done under "artistic license" but sometimes is done to deceive. Reputations are lost when one tries to do something that deceives others, so it is best to describe what you did to make a photo, including post processing steps, in order to avoid loss of reputation.
Faking an image by cloning parts in or out of a scene is generally looked on as the worst form of faking an image. To be clear, removing a dust spot, fixing a hot or dead pixel in an image is not removing something from the scene--it is fixing a defect in the camera. There are also small things that some people might not object to. For example, few would cry foul if you cloned out a small piece of trash in the scene that you hadn't noticed, especially in the dark. But if you cloned out power lines for a great photo, and someone visited the scene to find such power lines, they would not be happy, and could start an online campaign saying you are not honest. So best to declare any cloning of major components into or out of the scene.
An example of cloning occurred around the time I wrote the first part of this article. National Geographic published in April 2019 an article titled See the world's oldest trees by starlight, then after multiple people pointed out the images were faked, National Geographic had to pull the article. See This Milky Way Photo on Nat Geo is Raising Eyebrows, petapixel.com for some info on what was cloned. Then people diagnosed fakery in other images: Scientific Errors in Those Nat Geo Milky Way Photos, petapixel.com. Then people looked at other images from the photographer and found more fakery: I can't stop finding repeats in the work from this one photographer, twitter.com.
The lesson from the above posts is that if you fake something, people will likely figure it out and your reputation will be trash. However, if you disclose what you did, people can take it for what it is, constructed art.
Composites of different scenes are another issue. For example, one of the above tree at night faked images was a baobab tree in Namibia in the southern hemisphere but the stars were from the northern hemisphere. It was an impossible scene. I have seen other night photographers use an image from one direction, say a nice northern landscape composited with an image of the night sky facing south. Again, people will see this as a fake unless you disclose.
Any scene that is a composite or cloned components that another photographer can not make from the same location and time of year should be disclosed as to what you did. Certainly you can say this is just my opinion, and that is true. But not disclosing and being honest puts your reputation at risk from others.
Many night photographers are making mosaics and panoramas (stitching). Night sky photography is one of the most difficult forms of photography and the light levels are extremely low. With the available technology people have to work with, the limitations mean some challenges to record enough light. While it would be nice to be able to go out and make a snapshot and get the sky and landscape recorded with enough exposure to produce a nice image, that is not the case with today's technology. And it will never be possible because of the physics of light, even with a 100% efficiency sensor and perfect optics. Long exposures are required to collect enough light to make an image. For example, some of my images received less than one photon per pixel per minute on faint nebulae, requiring many minutes of exposure to collect even a few dozen photons. For landscape astrophotos while the Earth rotates, one can not collect enough light from land and sky in a short enough time to make great images before the sky rotates. Thus, people make separate exposures, tracking the sky and fixed position for the land, then combine these into a photo. Some people like to take only one image of the land and sky and just take whatever light they can get. Both are fine, but again it is best to disclose. And you can see such disclosures in my Nightscapes Gallery.
Panoramas are another form of mosaicking (stitching), often to get a wider field of view, like more than 180 degrees of the horizon to show the Milky Way arching in the sky. This too is accepted photography and again is best if you disclose what was done.
First some definitions about color.
True Color. Color and contrast as close as possible to the human visual system. The wavelengths recorded match that of the human eye.
Natural Color. What most film and digital camera daytime images are--color spectral response that is close to the human eye response, but may be different in contrast and saturation. The 3 colors can also be converted to black and white in various proportions to change contrast. The wavelengths recorded reasonably match that of the human eye.
Enhanced Color. "Extreme" or strong pushing of contrast and/or saturation. There is a continuum between natural color and enhanced color. A daytime landscape image is typically natural color that has been enhanced some. A portrait of a person is typically less enhanced. Fujichrome Velvia film might be considered enhanced color.
False Color. Includes color outside of the visual passband. For example False-color IR photography includes near infrared. Mid-infrared or ultraviolet imaging are also false color. It can also be black and white (e.g. image one wavelength outside the visual range). Most Hubble Telescope images and most images from professional observatories are False Color or Narrow Band Color. Most of my professional scientific work is false color and narrow band (most commonly narrow bands in the infrared).
Narrow Band Color. Use of narrow passbands to isolate particular properties, typically for imaging a specific composition. Narrow band can be entirely inside the visual range, outside the range, or both. Narrow band can also be black and white (e.g. an image at one wavelength).
All the above are legitimate imaging options. True color is the hardest to achieve, and is not actually possible with current technology with some unusual spectral content. It probably comes closest in portrait photography as people generally want accurate skin tones.
All forms of the above can make beautiful and stunning images.
There is one additional color scheme I'll define:
Variable Color Balance/Mangled Color. This is color balance that changes with scene intensity or a color balance so shifted that visible colors are radically shifted, like red to blue. And often we see extreme color balance combined with variable color balance with scene intensity. This is different than enhanced color, which may just boost saturation and contrast (e.g.bluer blues, redder reds). Variable color balance is common in Milky Way photography on the internet today.
Contrast. Depending on conditions, we can perceive different contrast in a scene. For example, on a sunny day, the contrast is generally high. On a foggy day, contrast at the same location, contrast is generally low. At night, contrast in the night sky is variable depending on the level of light pollution, haze, and airglow (molecules emitting light high in the atmosphere having been excited by cosmic rays and from solar UV in the daytime). This haziness is collectively called skyglow. Sometimes the photographer's intent may be to remove some or all of this haziness, increasing contrast. Figure 2a, above, shows the skyglow from an out of camera jpeg (contrast is also lower due to the smearing of details from the long exposure). Compare that image to the finished image in Figure 1. Most of the skyglow has been subtracted and fainter nebulae and stars in the night sky boosted in brightness showing more detail and contrast. Such a view might be possible on a night with no light pollution, no haze, and extremely low airglow. The view would be even higher in contrast if the Earth had no atmosphere.
Most daytime landscapes have had some adjustments of contrast and it is generally accepted in photography that contrast is changed from the original scene for artistic reasons. In film days, the choice of film meant different contrast, and printing on different papers with different filters meant different contrasts. Photographers rarely disclose changes in contrast. You will see on this web site descriptions of processing methods which include changing contrast.
Intent. In night sky photography, one must choose intent. From the Earth's surface, we are looking through a murky, absorbing and glowing atmosphere, with added light pollution. Is the intent to include atmospheric effects or not? Generally, for deep sky, the usual feeling is to remove at least some atmospheric effects (e.g. subtract light pollution and airglow) so the view is like that beyond Earth (for any of the above color schemes). If a nightscape, often the intent is to show the airglow but subtract some/most light pollution. It could also be close to a straight out of camera image with no modifications (subtraction of light pollution or airglow). Or one could produce an image like what we see with our eyes (desaturate fainter things, but keep color in brighter things). This is all accepted fair game and need not be disclosed in detail. Again the processing tutorials on this site will give some indication of the range of possibilities.
My preference for stock DSLR photography is:
Nightscapes: natural color (some enhancement) with airglow, but subtract at least some or most light pollution.
Deep Sky astro: Natural color, usually corrected for atmospheric absorption, sometimes with enhancements. Solar type stars come out white/yellow-white, similar to our Sun.
But enhancements are relative and confusing. As the amateur astronomy community evolved into the digital age, practices in processing often left images pretty desaturated (e.g. see the default output of deep sky stacker). Then people stretched images, losing more saturation. then they applied saturation trying to get color back. A perception emerged that things in the night sky are relatively colorless. Further, those using Bayer color digital cameras and applying astro processing tools, didn't include color matrix corrections, making their images desaturated, furthering the misperception that colors in the night sky are pastel.
Now that we have color preserving stretches and wider understanding of color matrix corrections, we see colors in the night sky are really quite impressive (not like the grey default output of deep sky stacker). Now the challenge is to educate the amateur astronomy world that colors in the night sky are impressive.
For more on colors in the night sky, see the series starting here: 2a) The Color of the Night Sky.
The Milky Way IS NOT BLUE in natural color. If you do a google search for how to make night sky images, you will likely come across many sites teaching how to make images like those in Figure 6 middle and right panels. Photographers teaching these bad methods have done so for so long and produced so many blue images they do not want to acknowledge that their images are producing blue artifacts and unnatural color and even become hostile in discussions about color. Further, such teachings have become so common that many people think the natural color of the dark, moonless night sky, including the Milky Way is naturally blue. Indeed, the problem has become so pervasive since circa 2008 when this fake blue processing method became popular, and even documentaries are now using fake blue Milky Way images. For example, see the BBC Planet Earth II, or Netflix Our Planet.
Photographers are certainly allowed to color their images any way they want for effect, even when it is not natural. But those teaching this fake blue form of the night sky have an ethical obligation to inform their students that the colors produced by their methodology is not natural. I have no problem if those teaching sites would simply acknowledge they are producing such colors for a particular effect (e.g. mood) and acknowledge what natural colors exist in the night sky. But too many are insisting their images are natural. Further, some even insist the colors in images like I produce, which are verified by color photometry and spectral intensities, are the ones that are not natural. If you come across such sites, I recommend you steer clear. Again, it is fine for photographers to color their images any way they wish for mood. But if the site does not discuss that the colors they produce are simply for a mood and not natural color, the authors may not know what they are doing and actually believe they are producing natural color. Indeed, I encounter many sites like this. If you see such sites, please email the author and tell them. Be aware you might get a hostile response.
For more on natural colors in the night sky, see the series starting here: 2a) The Color of the Night Sky.
For more on good versus bad post processing that produces fake colors, see
2d) Verifying Natural Color in Night Sky Images and Understanding Good Versus Bad Post Processing
The use of lights by photographers at night is currently a growing problem. Use of lights to illuminate the landscape (e.g. light painting) prevents other photographers trying to make images different from the light painter. The impact can be for miles around, even when using so-called low level lighting. Show consideration for other photographers and use lights only for limited time. Even if you see no other photographers, assume someone might be somewhere imaging the scene. Use a common schedule, 5 minutes with light, 25 minutes with no lights, with the time on at the top of the hour and 30 minutes past the hour. For example, 10:00 to 10:05 pm lights on, 10:05 to 10:30 pm lights off, 10:30 to 10:35 lights on, 10:35 to 11:00 pm. lights off.
Use multiple flashlights in the field, using the dimmest possible light for the task at hand. Bright red flashlights are very detrimental to both other photographers and the red light they shine on the landscape and into the sky. Such flashlights are only surpassed by bright white light flashlights. Strongly colored lights, like red, warp color perception.
If another photographer asks you to turn off lights, do so.
1) Use dim yellow to orange/brown light and minimize the impact of artificial light on your night vision and color perception. That will also minimize light impact on nearby photographers. When you do this, you will see the wonder of the night sky. Certainly use a brighter light as needed for safety, but warn other photographers when you want to turn on bright lights.
2) Use minimal light for light painting and limit the time you light paint. With the added light, your exposure times should be shorter than those recording only natural light, so your time using the lights should be significantly less than the time lights are off. I recommend no longer than 5 minutes on and 25 minutes lights off.
3) Turn down the brightness of your camera LCD screens. That will help preserve your night vision and reduce impact to other photographers.
4) Try only natural light. The image impact can be large (e.g. Figure 1). Too often light painting looks artificial and unnatural. I have actually yet to see light painting that looked natural.
Note that in my Nightscapes Gallery you will see images with lighting. For example, see Bandon Oregon Nightscape where the light was from the town of Bandon. I did not add any light. Another example is The Milky Way Galaxy Over the Serengeti where the light on the landscape was from the lodge I was staying at. I did not add any light. So certainly take advantage of existing light, even if artificial, but minimize any impact you may have on other photographers.
In post processing, DISCLOSE any serious modifications to an image, such as cloning significant parts of an image, or producing unnatural color. By disclosing what you did and why in post processing you promote your art without being charged as a fraud who fakes images.
References and Further Reading
Also see my: Clarkvision.com Nightscapes Gallery.
The Night Photography Series:
First Published May 10, 2019
Last updated May 16, 2019