Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lunar Stroll in a Cemetery

On a beautifully clear and mild night in mid-August, I volunteered to help lead a group of photographers through Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. Several times each year, the cemetery organizes a “Lunar Stroll,” geared toward photographers who want to do night work by the light of the moon. So I joined three other guides and we split forty people between us for a few hours of night photography, conversation, and instruction.

Ambient light image (Canon Rebel XT)
First off, the moon doesn’t throw much light (as seen at left), so if you plan to use just ambient light, your exposures will be long (half a minute or more, depending on aperture size); tripods are therefore necessary. Also, as I pointed out to one person, contrary to expectations, you cannot actually get a bright moon in the same shot as dimly-lit foreground objects (e.g. headstones) and have everything properly exposed. This requires digital manipulation with a photo-editing program. The differences in brightness of these objects is too great. To expose for the headstones properly, the moon will just be a bright dot. To expose for the moon, your dark foreground objects will be too dark. HDR can provide you with usable results, but they tend to look too cartoony for my tastes. All that said, most people brought flashlights to “paint” the stone monuments with light during the exposure. Here is an example of one of my light painting experiments:

Crypt cover "painted" with light

Blurry Angel
More so than lighting your subject (though this has to do with lighting, indirectly) is the issue of focusing in the dark. Your camera's ability to autofocus depends on its ability to "see" the subject in question. As most digital cameras depend on a well-lit subject on which to focus, focusing in the dark can make night photography quite challenging. It seems that many digitals that people brought with them did not "throw" a quick burst flash out to aid their autofocus systems. Many cameras, like my Canon Rebel XT DSLR, will just "hunt" for a bright spot in the scene on which to lock focus. Mine seldom finds one, so I end up with images like the one at right. The key? Shine a flashlight on the subject and either manually focus or let the camera autofocus, then turn the autofocus off. With the focus locked, the camera will not try to refocus when you make the exposure!

Also, image quality varies with different digital cameras. My Rebel XT  takes very poor night images (even if I use a low ISO like 400). My Olympus Pen micro four-thirds camera, on the other hand, records much better images (an example of which you see below).

Statue "painted" with flashlight
People assume (as did one photographer this evening) that for night photography, you must use the highest ISO (light sensitivity) setting of which your camera is capable. Wrong! An ISO greater than 400 only guarantees that your image will be noisy. Here's another tip: One fellow told me that his photography instructor in school always told his students that you should only shoot in full manual mode so you understand what you're doing. I gently suggested that this is fine for making photographs outdoors on a clear sunny day, but not when you're just learning to shoot at night. Start in "auto" mode just to get an idea of how your camera responds to shooting in the dark.

"Silent Sentry" statue
Folks came from all over the geographic region to attend the Lunar Stroll, to my surprise. Many were from Philadelphia, but others drove from Baltimore, Jersey, and York, PA. Many had been to Laurel Hill before, so it helped that they knew their way around. Some were not even there to make photographs – two people were there ghost-hunting! While most of the crowd was made up of either beginner or experienced photographers, everyone was there to have fun. Plus there is that thrill of being in a graveyard at night – who HASN’T fantasized about this at one time or another? For fifteen dollars, you can do it at Laurel Hill cemetery in the relative safety of a crowd of people (zombies only prey on loners).

So let’s dwell on cemetery safety for a moment. During the pre-tour orientation, our host Emma Stern (Volunteer and Administrative Coordinator for the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery) asked everyone to be careful, stay with their group, and don’t wander off. There are sunken graves to fall into, there are unstable monuments to avoid. Though everyone signed a waiver against holding Laurel Hill responsible for any injury, I felt obligated to announce this to the crowd: “I’ve seen a thousand-pound grave stone fall on a woman. Believe me, you don’t want this to happen to you. Don’t lean on them, don’t climb on them.

Over the two hours we spent guiding people around the cemetery, I helped a few beginners get basic results with their gear (again, start in “auto” mode to see what your camera will produce, then go from there). As an aside, a woman emailed me prior to the Lunar Stroll evening to ask what ISO film she should bring. I said that unless you are an experienced night photographer, film would not be a good choice. With digital, you can immediately see your mistakes and correct for them. With film, not so much.

Self-portrait by author
I managed to make a few photographs myself between tutorials. The image you see above was lit with a standard flashlight during a sixty-second exposure (at f16). I released the shutter, walked in front of the camera, sat on the crypt cover and illuminated my face with the flashlight. I got up, walked behind the camera (which was on a tripod), and bathed the monuments in light, moving the flashlight  all over the objects during the long exposure. The light is relatively dim, so it does not illuminate the distant, dark background to any great extent.The sky looks orange due to ambient light from the city lights and the moon.

L.E.D. light panel (ref.)

I had actually purchased a 4x6 inch L.E.D. light panel for use in night photography (like the one you see at right), but I could not find it in my house when I needed it! My friend Veronika brought one, and I stumbled upon her setup in front of the mausoleum shown above. She had placed her L.E.D. light panel on a step, facing up toward the entrance. The effect was perfect, and I stopped to simply snap a picture! These L.E.D. light panels are great, by the way – relatively inexpensive, with bright, even lighting and incredibly low battery drain.

Image by Connie Snyder
One woman on the tour was looking for experience with night photography in preparation for a planned trip to Norway to photograph the Northern Lights! Having never actually witnessed them myself, I gave her as many pointers as I could. I also brought some props, an idea that I got from seeing people with these on a previous Lunar Stroll (Laurel Hill has been doing these officially since 2012): glow-in-the-dark pendants on a string. Folks were twirling these in a circular motion in front of their cameras during long exposures. However, the ones I purchased at the local Dollar Store all leaked their fluid out before I even opened the packages! I managed to get one necklace that stayed intact so I wore it around my neck so people could find me easily (you can see it around my neck in the photo above with me sitting on the crypt cover). One woman brought another type of prop, a three-foot long plastic skeleton! I like this “selfie” she did with the bony being!

All in all, it was a fun experience, and one that I would highly recommend for all the reasons I’ve pointed out. Check Laurel Hill cemetery's website for upcoming events and other workshops.