Why I Shoot At Night

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Moon rise at Acadia National Park – May 5, 2013


Atmosphere – Sights and Sounds

There are few things as awe-inspiring as observing the night sky and so few people ever get to see it. I’ve always been a “night owl” – I can remember sneaking out of the back door of my home as a teenager on warm summer nights to go sit somewhere in my neighborhood to enjoy the sights and sounds of the night. In the past year or so I’ve become increasingly interested in taking my love of the night to another level: capturing it on camera. This short essay covers a few of the reasons why I shoot at night, not how: for advice on camera settings and methods for how to shoot in the dark I recommend folks check out Michael Blanchette’s great 3-part blog posts from last March, June and September. And while you’re at it read Jim Salge’s excellent write-up on viewing the Northern Lights from last August.

The atmosphere of the night, the sights and sounds, are so very contrary from normal daytime hours that it is literally a different world – I know it seems trite to try to explain it but it is a radical world of diffused light, excessive shadows and noises that you will simply never see or hear when the sun is up.

The Milky Way at Pemaquid Point Light – March 17, 2013

Sights – Keep Your Eyes Open

I live in central Maine and I have been fortunate enough to have seen the Aurora Borealis twice in the past few months. I will never forget when I saw the Northern Lights for the first time: at Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in Bristol, Maine. I went out that night specifically to shoot the Milky Way with the lighthouse in the foreground but I had also heard on the news that the chance for seeing the aurora that night was decent. It was a perfectly clear albeit cold night in March – St. Patrick’s Day morning. I was aiming my camera towards the ocean and clicking away, listening to the sounds of the waves crashing on the rugged coastline when something made me turn around (always look behind you when shooting!) and there, behind me was an incredible scene of shimmering light green and magenta colors dancing in the sky. I had never seen the aurora before. I quickly turned my camera around and began shooting the Northern Lights for the first time. I became giddy and a bit nervous that I was actually capturing such a fantastic light show in the middle of the night – but I quickly calmed down and the pragmatic part of my brain took over: check my camera settings, trust my instincts, and keep shooting.

The Northern Lights as my camera saw them at Pemaquid Point Light – March 17, 2013

I simply could not believe the colors revealed on the LCD screen on my camera: pinks, reds and magentas that I had never seen in the natural world at night. I ran around for a half an hour capturing different vantage points as the sunrise twilight hour began taking over the sky; within minutes the colors were disappearing along with the stars, the Milky Way, and the fantastic gift that Mother Nature had allowed me to witness. As the sun was piercing the horizon just after 6 AM, six or eight other photographers arrived, setting up their tripods and grabbing gear out of their backpacks. They were all standing in a straight line, shooting towards the sunrise over the ocean, when I started walking towards them. They all looked genuinely surprised that they weren’t the first folks to be there shooting the morning’s activities. A few of them asked me how long I had been there and I simply showed them the LCD screen on my camera. I told them I had been shooting the night sky for the past 4 hours and they all began shouting about how they had missed a (perhaps) once-in-a-lifetime scene because they showed up late to the party. The possibility of seeing the aurora had been well publicized in the local news but none of these folks had heeded the advice.

The Northern Lights & Milky Way at Pemaquid Point Light – March 17, 2013

Sounds – Keep Your Ears Open

The second time I witnessed the aurora was last week, during the morning of May 18. Again the possibility of seeing the aurora was publicized, albeit this time in smaller, specific astronomy circles – and a good friend of mine called me and said, “Go out tonight and capture it man!” So I drove out to a local body of water hoping that the reflections would be impressive and after taking some frantic test shots and realizing that yes, indeed, there was a geomagnetic storm happening, I picked a vantage point I liked: on the train tracks that run along the Western edge of Unity Pond, Maine. Keeping my foreground elements in mind (train tracks, a single tree, the pond itself) and aiming my camera directly North, I set my in-camera intervalometer to shoot 30 second exposures for the next 40 minutes or so. Again, Mother Nature did not disappoint. The wind was calm and although the cloud cover was thick it was also sporadic so I was able to capture some awe-inspiring images of the atmospheric dancing of lights. They were more green and purple this time, the way I’ve always seen them depicted in photos – it was a gorgeous and awesome sight that literally thrust me into the throe of wonder yet again.

Aurora At Unity Pond – May 18, 2013

But the thing that sticks in my mind the most about that night is surprisingly not the visual light show going on in front of me – it is the sounds I heard; to my right was the quiet, glass-like water’s edge of the pond. But to my left was a bog that was roaring with the creatures of the night – frogs. I smiled at the sounds of the high-pitched, constant chirp of peepers and the occasional load burp of a bullfrog or two. And then I heard something I’ve never heard before – the sound of an amphibian playing the jug. I know it was just a huge frog singing out into the night, perhaps trying to impress the local ladies, but it sounded like he was on someone’s front-porch playing the jug in an impromptu band. He would do his thing for 10 seconds or so and then be quiet for 3 or 4 minutes, long enough for me to forget he was there … and then he’d catch his breath and blow it out for another 10 seconds. And it was almost as awe-inspiring as the aurora – something I had never sensed before, whether it be with my eyes or my ears. 

Sanborn Star Trails 76 Frames

76 Frames of Star Trails at Sanborn Pond – May 6, 2013

These are just a few experiences I’ve had while out shooting at night that have opened up my world to something new: these existential awakenings and empirical awareness that have sparked my inner child to marvel at the world again. There is so much to see, so much to hear, so much to enjoy during the dark hours of each day – the moon, the stars, the Milky Way, the occasional meteor, the quiet calm and the sounds of the night. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a rarely seen natural light show as well! I urge everyone reading this to spend more time looking up into the night sky, it is a beautiful and magical sight that too few people ever enjoy. And while you’re out there, make sure you take a camera because you never know what you might see – and always take a second to look behind you! There may be something there that you’ve never seen before.

The Milky Way at Sand Beach, Acadia National Park – April 22, 2013

Text & images by Mike Taylor  – Taylor Photography

This entry was posted in Acadia National Park, Beach Photography, Landscape, Maine, Nature, Night Photography, Scenic New England, Scenic Travel, Stars, Travel and tagged , , , , .


  1. Mike Blanchette May 23, 2013 at 08:27 #

    Insightful article and fabulous photos, Mike. You seem to have embraced night photography as your personal style and it’s evident in the quality of your work.

    • Mike Taylor May 24, 2013 at 11:18 #

      Thank you Mike, much appreciated good sir!

  2. Jason May 23, 2013 at 13:26 #

    Amazing! The essay that accompanies your fine work is priceless! I have been reading a lot about night photography as of late and this just gets me excited about it more. As a fellow Mainer I hope to capture the beauty of night as you have.

    • Mike Taylor May 24, 2013 at 12:09 #

      Thanks Jason! Best of luck to you capturing the night sky and don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions, concerns, comments, etc!

  3. John Vose May 23, 2013 at 16:17 #

    Fantastic article Mike, your photos are an inspiration. I truly appreciate all your help in learning to shoot the night sky !

    • Mike Taylor May 24, 2013 at 11:19 #

      Thanks John, that’s nice of you to say. I hope we can get together to shoot again soon!

  4. Fernanda May 23, 2013 at 18:42 #

    I also saw the aurora for the first time of my life at the same day, March 17, my first day in Iceland… I`ll never forget that night!

    • Mike Taylor May 24, 2013 at 12:10 #

      Fernanda – it is truly awe-inspiring & magical and I wish more people could see it. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Kristal Leonard June 25, 2013 at 16:58 #

    Brilliant essay and totally sums up why I love night photography so much! Wish I could just copy your words because they echo how I feel exactly! Thanks for the inspiration!