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Can Night Photographs Be "Authentic"?

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

Throughout my 25-year career as a landscape photographer, I have tried to make images I considered "authentic." I have always told my customers, "What you see in my prints is what I saw through the lens." Then I bought a camera with an extraordinarily sensitive sensor, the Canon 5D Mark III, and started shooting landscapes on moonless nights, when the only light sources were starlight and sky glow. The images revealed an amazing abundance of stars as well as the detailed structure of the Milky Way. Suddenly I faced a conundrum: how can I claim that my prints reveal what I saw through the lens when it's so dark I can't see anything through the lens?

In a way, the problem was ironic. For years I have battled the limitations of the capture medium. My philosophy was never, "What you see in my prints is what the film recorded." That was always unsatisfying because my eyes could always see much better detail in the highlights and shadows than film could. A good DSLR has much better dynamic range than transparency film, but it's still not as good as my eyes. High-dynamic-range techniques make it possible to capture an even wider range of brightness levels than my eyes can see, but also introduce their own problems, since our visual system doesn't see high-contrast scenes in a simple, linear way. Turning an HDR image into something our visual system finds believable is fraught with challenges.

Now for the first time I had a camera that was better than my visual system, at least in terms of its ability to record extremely faint light with a long exposure at a very high ISO. My eyes, no matter how well dark-adapted, could barely glimpse the colors and details my camera so easily recorded. Should I suppress those colors and create a near-monochrome image that resembled what I actually saw? Or should I celebrate the camera’s ability to reveal an unseen world and show night scenes in color as the camera recorded it? I experimented with desaturating my night images or converting them to black and white, and concluded quickly that while they might be closer to a literal representation of what I saw, they came nowhere close to evoking the emotions I felt when I was standing there.

Milky Way over Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Milky Way over Bear Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I returned to the idea of rendering night scenes in color but quickly ran into another conundrum. The colors my camera recorded sometimes seemed jarringly out of sync with what I imagined those colors ought to be. We all have a lifelong association of the sky with the color blue. Sky is a memory color, one of those colors where we tend to substitute what we want to see (e.g., an idealized, pure blue) for what we actually saw. It’s also a color where we tend to have strong opinions about what looks “right.”

Look straight up on a clear day at noon and the sky is always some shade of blue. Look straight up as the light fades from a clear sky after sunset and the last color we see is blue. When light returns with the onset of dawn, the first color we see in the sky straight above us is once again blue. Naturally, we imagine that the night sky must be blue even if we can’t actually see the color. And indeed, on a night with a full moon, the sky really is blue, and your camera will record it as such. On a moonless night, however, the sky is not blue. Its exact color varies, depending on atmospheric conditions and the distance to major cities, but it is often some shade of green. You may be shocked at the color of the sky that your camera records on a moonless night since it is so wildly at odds with what a lifetime on this planet would lead you to expect. So do you continue to celebrate your camera’s ability to record the unseen, or do you change the color of the sky to the blue you were expecting and that feels somehow “right”?

Ultimately, I reached this conclusion: photographing in color at night is like shooting in black-and-white during the day. It is an inherently subjective process. At high noon, what shade of gray should the sky be? Any shade of gray that looks good! At midnight, what shade of blue should the sky be? You can’t see the color of the midnight sky, so you once again have broad artistic latitude. My goal at night is to create an image that captures the feeling I had as I stood there under a magnificent starry sky. To that end, I shift the color of the sky toward blue while preserving the color of the brightest stars, which I can actually see with dark-adapted eyes. I shift the color of the land slightly towards blue to help preserve a nighttime feel. If the image shows the Milky Way, a lunar eclipse, a meteor shower, the aurora, or star trails over a particular mountain or desert spire, it's because I actually saw those celestial phenomena soaring over that landscape. Are these images "authentic"? Certainly not in the sense that they show precisely what I saw, since my eyes couldn't see the colors these images depict. I do hope, however, that they evoke for you the same emotions that I experienced as I captured these images, and that they are authentic in that sense.

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