B&H Creator of the Week: National Parks at Night

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Once considered a mysterious and challenging creative endeavor, night photography is now more accessible than ever, thanks in part to the awe-inspiring workshops led by the five partners behind National Parks at Night (NPAN). With more than 400 successful workshops completed between them, Gabriel Biderman, Tim Cooper, Matt Hill, Lance Keimig, and Chris Nicholson are well versed in sharing their expansive photographic knowledge with an enthusiastic and growing audience in spectacular outdoor settings. B&H has an abiding relationship with NPAN as a program sponsor, leading us to invite them to collaborate as a B&H Creator of the Week.

Above photograph: © Kenna Klosterman

By means of introduction, we recently asked NPAN’s fab five to respond to a few questions about their own photography and the workshop programs. In the days to come, keep your eyes on B&H’s social media channels for even more great content. And consider this—with shorter daylight hours on the horizon in the northern hemisphere, there’s never been a better time to Seize the Night!

Jill Waterman: Who are the founders of NPAN, where are you each based, and please give us a brief synopsis of your work.

Gabriel Biderman, New York City. Has been doing night photography for more than 25 years; still working in film as well as digital. Loves playing with all sorts of cameras and photography toys. Also loves urban night photography, especially in New York City. Author of the book Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots.

The Milky Way looms over Cinder Cone, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California.
The Milky Way looms over Cinder Cone, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California.Gabriel Biderman

Tim Cooper, Montana. A commercial and assignment photographer and a photography instructor for more than 25 years. Author of multiple photography and post-production training videos, as well as several books, including The Realistic HDR Image and The Magic of Light Painting.

Matt Hill, Catskill, New York. A night photographer since high school, and a night photography instructor for more than a decade. Has been working on a continuous project for years, titled “Night Paper,” wherein he photographs surreal night portraits of volunteer models wearing unique costumes he designs and hand-cuts from paper. National Parks at Night was his idea, while shooting in Arches alone in the dark.

Lance Keimig, Vermont. A night photographer for 35 years and night photography instructor for 25. Not many have been doing either for longer. Author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark, which has been published in two editions and seven languages.

Moonrise behind a silhouetted peak, Glacier National Park, Montana.
Moonrise behind a silhouetted peak, Glacier National Park, MontanaLance Keimig

Chris Nicholson, Charlotte, North Carolina. A landscape and assignment photographer for 25 years, and a former magazine editor and writer. Author of the book Photographing National Parks: A Guide for Scouting and Shooting America’s Most Cherished Lands.

NPAN’s most important social feeds/networks: Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook

How long have you been working together under the National Parks at Night moniker?

TC: We teamed up over the first half of 2015, and immediately started the groundwork for NPAN. At the time it was a lot of emails and phone meetings, because there were five of us living in three states—which is now four states—all building a business together. Then we started running workshops in 2016. We began with five that year, all in national parks, and all of them sold out. So for 2017, we expanded to 10 workshops and started doing non-park locations, and kept growing the program from there.

Did each of you have a role model or someone who inspired your vision at the start of your career? Who were they and, briefly, what is the most important thing you learned from them?

Polaris in the Queens Garden, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.
Polaris in the Queens Garden, Bryce Canyon National Park, UtahMatt Hill

MH: My heroes are film editor and sound designer Walter Murch, and musicians Wayne Coyne, Nick Cave, and Tom Waits. They are all multi-dimensional storytellers with heart and passion, and with no regard for convention.

LK: Among contemporary photographers, Michael Kenna for his consistently brilliant work over a nearly 50-year career, and for his dedication to the craft of printing; Chris Jordan for his ability to combine environmental activism with art in such a compelling way; and Chris Burkhard for his adventurous spirit. Of course we’re also standing on the shoulders of giants, such as Brassai and O. Winston Link.

TC: Ansel Adams, John Sexton, George DeWolfe, Bruce Barnbaum and, of course, Galen Rowell. I’m a photographer, but I’m also a fan of photography, and I just love looking at their images and admiring how they conceived of and created them.

Light painting adds a new dimension to a house in Grafton ghost town just outside Zion National Park, Utah.
Light painting adds a new dimension to a house in Grafton ghost town just outside Zion National Park, Utah.Tim Cooper

CN: When first getting into photography in my early 20s, I liked Art Wolfe’s work and John Shaw’s books. But my real photographer role models were my dad, a serious amateur; my uncle, a photojournalist for a few Connecticut newspapers; and a good family friend who was a career wedding and event photographer. Also, Jean Paul Vellotti, a photographer I became close friends with in college. I may have learned more about technique from studying the masters, but it was those four people who influenced me the most, because they’re the ones who were instrumental in developing my passion for photography.

The moon rises over Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California.
The moon rises over Mesquite Flat Dunes, Death Valley National Park, California.Chris Nicholson

GB: There have been so many influences! A highlight for us all was to meet Michael Kenna at B&H OPTIC 2019, as well as to see him in the crowd during our talk. And early on, Scott Kelby, Seth Resnick, and John Paul Caponigro laid a strong foundation for digital education, when Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom changed the way we process our images.

However, when it comes to being both inspiration and mentor, I can think of no other people than the four other members of National Parks at Night. Each one of us brings a complementary strength and skill set to the table that makes us whole. Chris’s editorial expertise keeps our content on track, and he brings a strong passion for and knowledge of the parks. Lance’s deep-rooted knowledge of night photography gives us a healthy respect for the pioneers of the past, but also motivates our inner muse. Matt’s constant questioning of the rules and “what if” inspires us all to level up our skills. And Tim’s long history in the education field has helped us lay a strong course curriculum, and he is a wizard with all things Lightroom and Photoshop. We all have a unique vision regarding interpreting the night, but are united with a strong spirit to educate others on the beauty of night photography. We love working with each other, and take careful consideration when choosing our workshops—that we all get to collaborate on throughout the year. We continue to learn, and look forward to many more nights together under the stars.

The NPAN team on location after dark in Rhyolite ghost town, just outside Death Valley National Park, California.
The NPAN team on location after dark in Rhyolite ghost town, just outside Death Valley National Park, CaliforniaNational Parks at Night

Is there an established division of labor for handling NPAN’s social media?

CN: There’s a division of labor in project-managing our content and social media, but not in creating it. It’s all very much a team effort, with everyone leading different areas that might best play to their strengths. I manage the blog and Facebook, because they go hand-in-hand to an extent, and I’ve spent my career in publishing and photography, so it makes sense that I’d take that on. Tim and Gabe manage our Instagram account, which is perfect for them because they’re both very keyed into the photography world, yet in very different ways—Gabe as a marketing expert, and Tim as a former commercial and assignment photographer. And Matt runs the YouTube channel, which plays perfectly into his marketing and video acumen. But that’s all behind-the-scenes stuff. The important part is the content we create, and everyone does that. Everyone has their own ideas and gets to run with them, but no one is above collaborating and sharing. It’s a very invigorating and nurturing creative environment to be a part of. Everyone’s attitude is that the end goal is about the sum, not the parts—we win or lose as a team.

Generally speaking, how much time do you each spend cultivating your social media feeds?

TC: Individually, a moderate amount of time. We do a lot of social media, but it’s a collective effort. There are five of us, and we each have a hand in writing Instagram posts, feeding ideas for Facebook shares, and things like that. We all work together and rely on each other to make it happen, so that makes it a lot easier.

Framing up a shot for a hashtag, Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts.
Framing up a shot for a hashtag, Cape Cod National Seashore, MassachusettsLance Keimig

All five of you shoot with different models of Nikon cameras. What is it about this brand that makes Nikon your go-to camera gear?

GB: It’s funny in a way, when we first formed NPAN and talked about the gear we used, Tim and Chris relied on the additional power and professional feature set of Nikon D3 and D4 cameras, and Lance, Matt, and I loved the portability and great night look of our Nikon D750 cameras. We’ve all tried out many of the other makes and models during the exciting digital days, but we always came back to the comfort of the Nikon feature set, as well as the great color and quality of their long exposure files. The Nikon Z 6 just solidified the deal—finally an excellent full-frame mirrorless camera that goes well beyond what you would expect in high ISO image quality, not to mention incredible video capability for creating content in the field.

How about lighting in your images? Do you each have different favorites for lighting and/or lighting painting gear?

LK: For the most part, we use a fairly basic set of lighting tools. Coast flashlights like the HP5R and HP7R are the tool of choice when a strong directional light is called for. The Luxli Viola is everyone’s favorite for low-level landscape lighting, and a couple of us are old school and still use incandescent flashlights from SureFire. The warm light works really well for emphasizing a foreground object in the landscape.

Keimig using his Coast flashlight to assist with focusing on the salt flats of Death Valley National Park, California.
Keimig uses his Coast flashlight to assist with focusing on the salt flats of Death Valley National Park, California.Chris Nicholson

NPAN workshops initially promoted the fact that you only do a single workshop in each park. Has this mission changed at all over time, and if so, why?

CN: We actually changed course on that idea last year. When we started, we wanted to commit to doing every national park (NP). It was a way to always be looking forward to new experiences and new challenges, not just for us, but for the photographers who choose to come along on this journey. However, for four years we kept hearing from our attendees that they wanted us to go back. What we hadn't thought about was that not everyone who's traveling with us has been doing so from the beginning, so new folks would have missed an opportunity to go with us to, say, Rocky Mountain NP. So we listened, and we adjusted our mission. We are still committed to running a night photography workshop at every National Park possible, creating new experiences, exploring new places. But we decided that once per year we would host a workshop in one of the parks we’ve visited before. And we pick that park based on an annual vote by our alums. Last year they picked Death Valley NP, and this year they picked Zion NP. We also revisit some of the parks for special experiences, like this year we're teaching a PhotoPills course in Joshua Tree NP and Acadia NP, and last year we did a backpacking workshop to a remote area of Olympic NP. Everyone seems glad we're doing this, and honestly we are, too. These places are too amazing not to revisit.

One aspect of NPAN workshops are intensive post-processing sessions using Adobe Lightroom. Does post-processing for night photography differ much from images made during the daytime?

LK: In a lot of ways, there isn’t much difference. Good post-processing is universal. Of course, there are different situations at night, just as there are during the day. Milky Way or astro-landscape photographs are done in extreme low-light conditions, and the images are usually shot at very high ISOs. This requires careful management of noise, or multiple exposures and image layering in Photoshop. Urban night photography usually means very dynamic scenes, with very bright highlights and deep shadows. Just like any type of photography, it starts with the exposure, or exposures, and then the post-processing comes into it. Understanding what settings will make for the best exposure, and then developing accordingly, is key. The “fix it in Photoshop” method doesn’t usually work very well, day or night.

Workshop attendees pose beneath the lighthouse beams, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina.
Workshop attendees pose beneath the lighthouse beams, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina.National Parks at Night

The NPAN website features an Alumni Spotlight Gallery. How often is this updated, and what do you look for in submissions from past workshop participants?

CN: We love the Alumni Spotlight. It started as an idea from Lance a few years ago, because we saw so many of our workshop attendees have different kinds of success and wanted to share our excitement for them. They’d get into exhibits, or their images would be published—one alum was even featured in an Amateur Photographer magazine profile about a project on light painting her cars. We loved seeing all this, and we wanted to let our whole audience know. We also know that galleries, magazines, and such look forward to the publicity of featuring a photographer, so we figured it helps our hard-working participants a little bit if we share their stories. And, to be honest, we don’t get a lot of submissions—I think our alums don’t want to brag. We usually get tipped off about the work by their fellow attendees.

A circle of workshop attendees illuminated beneath the night sky, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico.
A circle of workshop attendees illuminated beneath the night sky, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New MexicoNational Parks at Night

At present the NPAN blog features 25 different subject categories, from Astronomical Events to Night Photography History to Workshops, with a lot of other topics in-between. Is there one particular topic that’s most popular among your regular audience, and why?

CN: The most popular is probably our “How I Got the Shot” series, where we delve into how one of us created a particular image. That type of post isn’t unique to us, but I think because we’re focused on a niche photo topic, the concept has gelled into a nicely focused, open-ended stream of posts. There might even be a little mystery at play. I think when people read a regular “how-to” post, they know from the headline which narrow topic the article will focus on as it teaches how to carry out a particular photography technique and create a certain kind of image. But a “How I Got the Shot” story kind of works backward—it starts with a finished image, and then the reader gets to unpack how the photographer put it together. Either way, we hear from our audience that they learn a lot from those.

This light-painted scene from the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns in Death Valley National Park, California, is featured in the series How I Got the Shot.
This light-painted scene from the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns in Death Valley National Park, California, is featured in the series How I Got the Shot.Lance Keimig

Is there any one post on the blog that you feel is an undiscovered gem?

TC: I don’t think so, but that’s just because we don’t think of our content like that. Some posts are more popular than others, and that’s fine, that’s the way it will always be. We don’t keep track of which posts are more popular. For us, it’s just about sharing information and connecting with other photographers who like to do the same things we do. Even if only 100 people liked a particular post, that’s OK, because then 100 people got something out of it.

In the past several months, all workshop programs have been challenged by the health concerns and travel restrictions related to COVID-19. How has this situation affected NPAN workshops?

MH: Undoubtedly. We take great care to ensure the safety of our attendees first and always. We have rescheduled workshops to next year, and held some in places where local health authorities thought it was safe to do so. Observing and obeying all local laws is vital, and keeping up with those is nearly an entire day job. What we know for sure is that our past attendees, and our prospective ones, are so very eager to have an experience out-of-doors in places we visit during our workshops. The important factor is that they truly love the growing network of night photography peers that is the NPAN community. And that warms our hearts to no end, driving us to continue planning the workshops for 2021 in this air of uncertainty.

The Moai in dramatic light beneath star trails on Easter Island, Rapa Nui, Chile.
The Moai in dramatic light beneath star trails on Easter Island, Rapa Nui, ChileTim Cooper

In a recent blog post you each described a location in which you’re anxious to photograph when travel is possible again. Please list these locations and briefly describe the attraction they have for each of you.

GB: It’s funny, because Matt and Chris both mentioned National Parks—Theodore Roosevelt and North Cascades, respectively—but Lance, Tim, and I mentioned other countries. Lance said Scotland, and Tim said New Zealand, two opposite sides of the world that are both amazing places! But, for me, it’s Easter Island. It’s one of the purest bucket-list destinations. As a history, mystery, and mythology buff, it has long been on my “wish list.” I always dreamed about photographing the Moai under the stars—it’s the perfect setting for discovering a little of the enigma that shrouds these iconic statues. Most of Rapa Nui, as it’s known by locals, is a national park. We have worked very closely with the park and local guides to get rare access to the Moai at night. Most trips to Easter Island are a brief two to three days, but I’m looking forward to fully immersing ourselves on our eight-day adventure next winter. I’ll be loading up infrared film for our day hikes and for photographing the Moai under the Milky Way!

NPAN hosts regular BlogChat sessions on YouTube and NPAN Conversations on Instagram Live. How long have these two sessions been running, and what sets them apart from your other offerings?

MH: We started our Livestream programs in March 2020, but had been discussing it for almost six months prior. BlogChat came from a belief that some people prefer to watch videos versus reading blog posts. Turns out it’s true! Our workshop attendees and YouTube subscribers seem to enjoy the expanded discussion about our fully researched and thoughtfully crafted blog posts. What we didn’t know is that during COVID-19, those hungry for interaction with their peers would delight in the live chat to speak with one another in addition to asking questions that expand the topics even further.

On Instagram Live, NPAN Conversations is an opportunity for us to have discussions with people we love working with, such as national park rangers, astronomers, industry experts, and other amazing craftspeople, plus we’ve used them for Livestreams from locations such as national parks and urban settings, for on-scene reports and live night-photo shoots.

Glimpses of Comet NEOWISE were plentiful on the NPAN Instagram feed this summer, including this view from Monhegan Island, Maine.
Glimpses of Comet NEOWISE were plentiful on the NPAN Instagram feed this summer, including this view from Monhegan Island, Maine.Chris Nicholson

Do the different platforms tend to draw different types of audiences?

MH: Certainly, the platforms and the content attract different people. For instance, YouTube is a long-term catalog of reliable educational content. Comparatively, Instagram is attractive to people who want the freshest, latest visual information—i.e., photos and videos. And the viewing display of that information is radically smaller, so thinking about what to show and its resolution are vital to providing a useful experience.

In early April, you held the first in a weekly series called the NPAN Night Crew image reviews on YouTube. What kind of response have these reviews received? Will these sessions be continued on YouTube once conditions open up and everyone is out shooting again?

TC: We received a great response to our image reviews. At the time, people had been stuck inside for a while. No one was out shooting, but people still wanted to work on their photography. Also, people were very anxious for some social contact, especially us, because we're used to being on the road all the time, and we missed connecting with our community. So, the Night Crew Image Review was an idea that seemed to address all those points. It was a way for us to connect with our alums, for them to connect with each other, and for everyone to keep growing creatively during a tough time. It also enabled us to make new friends, because we invited anyone who wanted to join in. And people seemed to really resonate with all of that. We had so many submissions that we couldn't get to them all each week, and had to hold some over. Unfortunately, when we started ramping up our workshops again, we had to pull back a little on online commitments, and the image review was something we put in the background for now. We'll definitely do it again, but probably on special occasions.

What kinds of future plans are on the horizon that you’d like to tell us about?

TC: We are really passionate about getting people outside doing photography at night, so we’re always trying to think of new ways and new media that can help us do that. We want to run more international trips, and we have several new and exciting overseas destinations we’re planning for after next year, including getting onto our fourth and fifth continents. But we’re also looking to create new experiences here in the States. For example, we had an idea to run a workshop that doesn’t teach night photography as much as it would be a week focused on answering one of the most common questions we get: How do you use PhotoPills? So, next year we’re spending five days and nights in both Joshua Tree and Acadia National Parks dedicated to that—of course along with a ton of fun night and daytime photography in these beautiful, and very different, parks. We jumped online this year, too, with a two-week course on using Lightroom, and we plan to offer more online courses over the winter. We’ve also started publishing e-books—so far this year we’ve done a gift guide, a primer on choosing and using tripods, and a guide to shooting meteor showers, and now we’re working on e-books on light painting and Lightroom. We also might have one or two ideas for videos in the works. So, yeah, I guess you could say we have just a few plans. Anyone who’s interested in being the first to know when we’re doing these things should sign up for our email list—we’ll definitely be shouting out about it.

Lightning storm adds drama to Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming.
Lightning storm adds drama to Devils Tower National Monument, WyomingMatt Hill

Do you have any questions for our B&H Creators of the Week? Please ask them in the Comments section, below.

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