The light painting dilemma

The other evening, I drove to the Corinth Reservoir and took some test photos of the Milky Way galaxy.  These were test images for when I make my return trip this year to the Boreas Ponds.  And you know I shall return, just like General MacArthur at the Philippines.

During my shoot, I made a conscious decision to illuminate the trees and signage to add some foreground subjects to my final image – a technique called “light painting.”  Here’s a “before” and “after” example of what that entailed.

Corinth Reservoir silhouette with Milky Way. Nikon Df camera, Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens, ISO 3200 for 20 seconds. Photo (c) Chuck Miller, all rights reserved.
Corinth Reservoir with Milky Way. Nikon Df camera, Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens, ISO 3200 for 20 seconds. Photo (c) Chuck Miller, all rights reserved.

Photographers employ this technique to create something distinct in their nocturnal photographs.  This was one of my first true attempts to employ this technique; without it, all you would see is a shadowy silhouette of trees.

And if the National Parks Service has their way, this kind of late night photography technique won’t be permitted on their parklands.

According to the photo blog PetaPixel, various parks commissioners and parks organizations are enacting strict guidelines for night photography, including the banning of strobes or artificial light sources to illuminate parkland for photographic purposes.

In Wyoming, for example, it is now illegal to photograph nighttime wildlife in Grand Tetons National Park by using any sort of artificial illumination.  The law seeks to preserve the habitat of these creatures.

Meanwhile, in Utah, the National Parks Service is clamping down on light-painting on night photography in Arches National Park, as they claim the light-painting is causing disturbances for visitors at the park.

Obviously, photographers are divided on this issue.  Some see the rules as onerous and overly restrictive; others embrace the rules in that they don’t need a stray flashlight interfering with their evening time-lapse photos.

As for me … I haven’t decided how I feel on the subject.  I don’t have huge strobes or artificial light beams in my camera arsenal, so the only light painting I could really encompass would either involve a hand-held flashlight or the headlights of my car.  In fact, the shots I took above were illuminated with the flashlight of my cell phone.

But I can also understand where the National Parks Service stands on this issue.  They need to create a balance for tourism and preservation, and although the majority of photographers are responsible citizens who take their pictures and leave nothing behind but their footprints, there are times when accidents happen – accidents that can damage or destroy monuments or geographic formations that can never be replaced.

Plus … cameras are getting more and more sophisticated.  My first digital SLR, the Nikon D70, had a top ISO of 1600.  The higher the number, the more sensitive to light.  My current Nikon Df has a top listed ISO speed of 12,800 – with settings to crank it even higher if necessary.  That’s cool if I want to photograph the inside of a cave with the illumination of a safety match…

What I’m saying is, cameras are so sensitive now, I could theoretically capture the foreground scene with only the illumination of starlight … maybe.

As for my trip to the Boreas Ponds this year, the photo of my dreams will not involve light painting.  That’s not because of any rules in photographing at night in the Adirondacks … it’s just because, for the photo of my dreams, light painting won’t be necessary.

Not when there’s a ton of stars in the sky for me to capture.

I hope.

No, seriously, I hope I can pull this off.