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The Night

This assignment ran from Aug 30 to Sep 23, 2013.

As daylight dims, other lights brighten. Show us what happens after dark: inky shadows, secret smiles, glittering stars … Dark hours mean rest for some and, for others, a chance to find much-needed nourishment. Share your pictures of the harsh glare of neon, the warm glow of loved ones, or the luminous mist of a moonlit waterfall. What does night mean to you? (Let's keep it fresh: submit up to three of your photos from 2013.) More...

Curated by:

Chris Combs
Photo Editor, National Geographic News
Assignment Status
  • Open

    Everyone’s welcome to contribute their best shot to open assignments. Learn more.
  • Closed

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  • Published

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Published Sep 30, 2013.
Thank you for your contributions!

Night Reveals a Universe: Tips for Opening the Sky

Posted sep 19, 2013

Editor's note: I asked expert night sky photographer Babak A. Tafreshi to share some useful tips with us. His "nightscapes" are regularly chosen for the "Week in Space" gallery on NG News. Happy shooting! -Chris

In many ways, exploring the night is similar to an adventure trip to an unseen cave, or reaching the top of a mountain where only a few have experienced the amazing vista. It's a challenge with the same taste of adventure.

During the past 20 years, nightscape photography has developed from being my teenage hobby to a professional skill—and then to an international program to show the world at night (TWAN). Nightscape photography is about more than just recording a part of outer space or our environment; it becomes a lifestyle. You start working when “normal” people enjoy parties, watch TV, and sleep.

But, like the explorers of new worlds, you will be gifted by unique experiences to share with others. Some scenes are engraved forever in my memory: the boundless darkness of the Sahara with the summer Milky Way arching above giant sandstones, the shimmering beauty of the Grand Canyon under moonlight, heavenly curtains of dancing auroras in all colors over Lapland, the crystal-clear skies of the Himalayas...

Rather than simply photographing the night sky, I like to frame familiar landmarks on Earth together with astronomic features in my "landscape astrophotographs." Landmarks provide a context viewers relate to, even city dwellers who have never had the opportunity to gaze in wonder at the natural starry sky. These images resonate with viewers on an instinctive level, and they spark the imagination.

Thanks to fast-developing camera technology, starting nightscape photography is now very easy. But some knowledge about the night sky and practical astronomy is essential, as is knowing the ideal weather and moonlight for your perfect shot.

Many things can go wrong at night with both your equipment and the environment. Here are a few tips for night-sky photo shoots:

  • Tell someone where you are going.

  • Avoid doing night photo shoots alone in remote locations. Being in a small team of two or three is most fun; larger groups can have problems such as too many tripods, similar image results, or moving flashlights in your photos.

  • Arrive at locations before sunset. Get familiar with the environment and obstacles around you before it gets dark. Always consider unpredictable issues with accessibility, wildlife, government restrictions, and public unawareness of a friendly sky photographer who might be mistaken as a wandering vampire or a lost alien with a "red laser" coming out of its head! Such risks are much reduced when you arrive at the site earlier in the day. I have encountered security and police many times in my night shooting around the world, but it usually ends up being a fun stargazing class for the officers.

After you've taken the shot, another challenge is how to create a natural-looking image. While the color of daytime nature is evident, it's harder to become familiar with the natural colors of night sky. Photographers often inadvertently shift white balance or apply saturation in extreme ways that change the rules of nature!

For example, some photographers attempt to remove the red cast of light pollution or natural airglow. This results in a saturated, bright blue Milky Way—but it should range from yellow (especially toward the galactic bulge) to a pale blue (in areas with rich young star clouds). To those who are familiar with natural night-sky colors, these photos look as odd as seeing a blue lion or purple giraffe!

I also recommend avoiding the habit of "overcooked" processing with overly strong HDR-like effects or composite images. Nightscape imaging is nature photography, and a natural story is valuable. Composite images made with different lenses and exposures or a montage of daytime and nighttime frames have their own value in digital art, but they do not have the same true storytelling value as an actual photograph.

In nature, we are not a nocturnal species. Since ancient times, the outside at night has been seen as an unsafe environment, or as a mysterious or dead world. A nightscape photographer reveals the real hidden beauties of night by seeking original ideas that add life and moving stories to a frame. It is perhaps best described by this Persian proverb: "Night hides a world but reveals a universe."

Babak A. Tafreshi is a photographer and science communicator. He is the creator of The World At Night, which showcases the work of a group of nightscape photographers, and contributes to the National Geographic Image Collection, Sky & Telescope magazine, and the European Southern Observatory.

Look for the Light! Night Photo Ideas and Tips

Posted sep 17, 2013

Editor's note: Annie Agnone, photographer of "America By Night," kindly offered to help us out with some shooting ideas and tips for the final days of this assignment.—Chris

"Night, when words fade and things come alive.  When the destructive analysis of day is done, and all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again." 

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

In May, with the help of a National Geographic Young Explorers grant, I set out on a three-month journey across the United States to explore and document nocturnal culture. I wanted to understand the range of uses and feelings Americans have for nighttime, what happens in our country while most people sleep, and what—if anything—unites those who make up the culture of night.

During the day, I slept in my car; at night, I drove, talked to strangers, conducted interviews, and made pictures. I'd shot in low light before, for school and work, but never exclusively at night for such an extended period of time. For me, learning to make compelling images at night mirrored my reasons for setting out on this trip in the first place. It was all about trying to see what is hidden, working and waiting and adjusting my expectations until I could see what was out there in the dark.

Here are a few things I've learned—and am still learning—about making pictures at night:

Look for light. Good light can make a picture: stars, candle light, the glow of a computer screen, the almost invisible pink of city lights or sunrise on the horizon, the moon behind a soft box of clouds. Use it to form interesting lines, make silhouettes, illuminate your subject, or create a mood. One of the challenges I gave myself this summer was to notice and capture how light—how much and what kind—could speak volumes about a subject's relationship with night.

Embrace darkness. Once you're sure of your exposure settings, disable or cover up your LCD screen to allow your night vision to develop. If a screen turns on to show you your picture after every shot and you're working in low light, the next time you bring your eye to the viewfinder you won't be able to see what you're shooting.

Instead of the image preview, use histograms to determine if your picture is exposed correctly. An underexposed picture can look bright enough to night-sensitive eyes.

Keep an emergency light source handy. That's in case you drop something, hurt yourself, or need to change a lens in the dark. I switched on my headlamp while changing a lens in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and barely avoided trapping a mosquito inside my camera, which would have been a real mess! Red lights (available on many headlamps) provide plenty of brightness but won't affect your night vision as much as white light.

Focus. Your camera should have no trouble focusing on a well-lit subject or one that emits its own light. But a truly dark scene will make its auto focus struggle. If you can, shine a light on your subject to get the focus. Otherwise, consider focusing manually and use your lens' distance scale.

See movement. Use long exposures to capture in dramatic ways the movement we take for granted: the winding taillights of a car on a mountain road, Earth's rotation made visible with star trails, moon-bright clouds streaming across the sky.

Be still. If you're holding the camera, stabilize yourself as you take the picture. Hold your breath. Lean against a wall or tree. Use your camera's mirror lock-up feature. For longer exposures, set your camera on a tripod or other stable surface so the still things in your frame are rendered sharp. Be sure to set up on a surface that won't shift, even a little bit, over the course of a long exposure. Beware the minute but visually devastating movements of suspension bridges, skyscrapers, loose gravel, and sand.

Using a cable release to trip the shutter while your camera is on a tripod helps you avoid camera shake. For very long exposures, set your camera to bulb and use a cable release to keep the shutter open for minutes or hours.

Make tough choices. Decide whether you want a tiny aperture (less light, greater depth of field) so everything in your landscape is in focus, or a wide one (more light, shallower depth of field) to more efficiently use available light and focus on less in your frame.

Paint with light. Photograph yourself, or a friend, using a sparkler or pen light to write words or draw pictures (remember to write backwards!). During a long exposure, you can also use a flashlight to zap a little light on a subject you want to pop.

Take control, then let go. Go manual. Read the scene you want to photograph the best you can, envision the picture you want, then experiment. If you're prepared, and ready to stay a while and make a lot of mistakes, you'll make better images and have more fun doing it.

Your Questions: Dates, Story, Editors' Favorites

Posted sep 11, 2013

Hi, everyone! I'm really happy to see the many photographs you've shared so far showing surprising scenes and cultures from around the globe.

We realized that the short description of this assignment didn't mention the 2013-only restriction, so we've updated it to include this.

Also, many of you have asked questions about this assignment in the discussion area. Here are some answers:

Q: Is this assignment open to all pictures or just pictures from 2013?
A: I'd love to see your pictures from 2013 and will be choosing images from this year for the final story. (More on this in a moment …)

Q: Oops, I submitted an older image. Now what?
A: Apologies! We don't have a way for you to remove images once they've been submitted. However, because it was initially unclear that we were seeking 2013-only images, we'll consider older images submitted during the first few days of the assignment for the final story. I recognize that this may not be popular with everyone, but we had to decide one way or the other and I feel this is the kindest option. The story will still centrally feature fresh pictures.

Q: Why does the system allow us to submit older images?
A: It's easy to mis-set your camera's date and time. Because of this, the system lets you submit any photo, even if it seems to be from 2012 or older.

Q: Okay, but why are older shots in the "Editors' Favorites" section?
A: Think of that section as a slice of the whole site: It includes images liked by any NG editor, at any time (even months ago), that were also submitted to this assignment. So if you submit an editor-liked photo from 2012, it might automatically appear in this assignment's "Editors' Favorites."

Q: So what does "Editors' Favorites" have to do with the story?
A: It means one of our wide team of editors liked your image! This isn't necessarily an indication that your picture will be in the final "Night" story, but don't fret—your photograph still struck a chord with a National Geographic editor and will be shown in the sitewide "Editors' Favorites" section.

Q: How are images in the story chosen? Is it by number of comments or likes?
A: Rest easy—it isn't about the numbers! After reviewing all submissions, I will be selecting the photographs that go into the story. A few other picture editors are on standby for "second opinions."

Q: May we submit photo illustrations?
A: Let's stick with straight photographs for this assignment. Minimal color correction or other toning is fine. Thanks!

Before Dawn

Posted aug 30, 2013

I've always had a taste for the night—haven't you? We're supposed to be inside, docile, letting one day tick toward another as our minds dimly drift off. But curiosity (or caffeine) can get the better of us, and we find ourselves wide-eyed under the streetlights, peeking at the world as it rests.

Did the warmth of laughing friends keep you up past your bedtime? Maybe your imagination brings you a visitor in the wee hours, or Mother Nature does. Or are you out there searching for something else?

Show us your night.

For this Your Shot assignment, let's see the stillness of a sweltering summer eve, the chilling pause after unseen feet crunch through the snow; share the darkness seeping in around the seams, or the blinding spotlight of a secret smile.

Inside, outside, posed, candid, wide, close, flash, no flash—anything goes, as long as it's from the night and of the night.

"But what about sunsets," you might be wondering? Or daybreaks, or suburban shopping malls, or indeterminately timed studio setups? Use your judgment, and I promise I will too.

We should keep this fresh; share up to three of your photographs taken in 2013.

(It's thrilling to look for the best possible instant—but what about the moments between moments?)

Chris Combs

Chris Combs

Photo Editor, National Geographic News
Chris Combs works with scientists, photographers, writers, and editors to share the world's surprises with audiences at National Geographic's news site. Combs has been with National Geographic since January 2009 and is an alum of the Washington Post Express and the Corcoran College.