Shots in the Dark: Royce Bair on Lighting Nighttime Landscapes

August 22, 2012

By David Walker

© Royce L. Bair MMXI/

One of Royce Bair's nighttime landscapes. To see more images, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

About five nights per month, conditions are just right for shooting dramatic images of the starry skies over the geological formations of the West and Southwest, says Salt Lake City-based photographer Royce Bair. His pictures show colorful, light-painted sandstone arches, mesas and cliffs under dark skies popping with hundreds of stars, all of them sharp points of light.

“I got back into it less than a year ago,” he says of his nighttime landscape photography. “Thirty years ago I was doing complicated light painting [at] twilight.” But that was using film, at low ISOs, with ten-minute exposures that resulted in star trails because of the earth’s rotation. When digital cameras came along, shooting those landscapes at night ceased to be a challenge. “You could check the LCD until you got it right,” Bair says. So, he stopped.

About a year ago, he saw some nighttime images of cities shot from the space shuttle with a Nikon D3. “There was a beautiful hand-held shot of Cairo at ISO 52000,” Bair says. “It was grainy, but I thought: What a heck of a shot. With this kind of technology, we can do some fantastic things now.”

The change, he explains, was the ability of the newest sensors in high-end Nikon and Canon cameras to capture points of light in dark skies at relatively high shutter speeds. For Bair, that meant he could photograph the skies at exposures of 30 seconds or less, thereby capturing stars as points of light, without trails.

“I used to shoot [with film] at ISO 400. Now I rarely go below 3200, and the average ISO that I use is 6400,” he says, explaining how he is able to reduce exposure time. Digital noise increases as ISO increases, but Bair says the newest cameras—including the Nikon D3 and D4, and the Canon 5D Mark III (which is the camera Bair now uses) and Canon 1D X—“have two or three stops less noise than most cameras out there.” (In other words, at 6400, those cameras have as much digital noise as other digital cameras set at ISO 800 or 1600.)

A fast lens also enables Bair to keep the exposure time low. His primary lens is a 24mm f/1.4. The wide angle enables him to capture both sky and landscape features. The wide aperture maximizes the light, but the problem with any wide-open lens, he explains, is that points of light (such as stars) take on a lenticular shape at the edges of the frame.

“If you stop the lens down two stops, 80 percent of that aberration will go away,” he says. So he stops the f/1.4 down to f/2.8. With an f/2.8 lens, by comparison, “You have to stop it to f/5.6 to avoid the aberration, and you’ve lost a lot of light.” (Bair also uses a 15mm f/2.8 fisheye lens for sweeping panoramas, but because he has to stop it down to at least f/4 to get rid of aberration, it requires shooting at an ISO of 8000 or more.)

The 30-second exposures means Bair has to do any light painting a lot faster than he used to. He uses both continuous lights and strobes, outfitted with telephoto parabolic reflectors so he can direct the light on specific areas from a distance. He also uses snoots to target light so it “doesn’t bounce all over the area,” he explains.

The continuous lights are both tungsten (mainly halogen) lights and circular fluorescent lights; his strobes are AlienBees. “They’re lightweight and [inexpensive],” he says. He powers them with a battery-powered converter (DC to AC) capable of recycling in just a few seconds. “I can get four to six pops out of those strobes” during each exposure, he says.

To get the right exposure for the light painting, Bair tests the lights near his home with a light meter “so I know what I’m going to get when I get [on location].” Most of the light painting work is done in camera, but Bair tweaks the stars and sky in post production. “In order to make the sky pop, I have to increase contrast quite a bit” by adjusting the contrast curves, he says.

To make it all work, Bair has to shoot in almost complete darkness. He tries to shoot at least 75 miles from major cities to avoid light pollution. (His favorite locations include Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches and Grand Teton National Parks.) He starts shooting two hours after sunset and ends two hours before sunrise. In summer, that’s a five-hour window between 11 pm and 4 am.

“The biggest technical problem I have is keeping those hours,” says Bair, who is 61 years old.

Though he sometimes uses a partial moon to light far away landscape features, he mostly shoots on nights with little or no moonlight. That’s primarily what limits his shooting to about five nights per month.

On those nights, he says, “I’m shooting like crazy,” moving all of his gear (with the help of his wife and sometimes one other assistant) to as many as three different locations. “I’ll get back to the motel room at 5:30 or 6 am, go to bed, get up at 4 in the afternoon, and start all over again. This is what I call night lag. It takes two weeks to re-adjust the clock. I used to be disappointed there were only five days a month that had the right conditions. Now I’m glad.”

The drama and wonder of Bair’s images has attracted quite a bit of press coverage, and generated a lot of print sales for Bair in the past year.

“I’m having the time of my life,” he says. “I’m a very religious person. These images are inspiring to a lot of people: the creator’s hand, and showing off his creation, that’s very meaningful to me.”

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Royce Bair Photo Gallery