The Night Project

Like a lot of photographers I have ideas for different shots floating around in my head. The original idea for the “Night Project” was to shoot a long exposure of the sky and capture some cool looking stars while having a mountain bike rider in the shot. Well light pollution where we live put an end to that idea pretty quick and a trip to the mountains wasn’t in the plans. A friend of mine suggested a spot looking over the entire valley and the city lights could take place of the stars. The night project would take place after all with a slight tweak to my original idea. While the final photo may look like a simple capture to some, if you continue reading I’m sure you’ll agree it was a challenge.

If you’ve seen any of the BMX photography that I’ve done at night you’ll notice I use a technique called 2nd curtain sync. Second curtain is when the flash is triggered at the very end of an exposure giving the photo some amazing light trails and a sense of motion while still using the flash to stop the action. The way I carry out this technique is by using my Canon 580ex flash on camera, setting the flash to 2nd curtain and using some longer exposure times. Fine technique when using on camera flash, but for the night project I was going to use my Boling strobes and trigger them via my Pocket Wizard IIs. No 2nd curtain option with this set up! After spending some time going over my options I decided that we would try to manually duplicate 2nd curtain by firing the flash at the end of the long exposure manually.

Step one on the project was to get my mini team of friends together as I knew it’d take more than myself to pull this one off. First I needed a rider…..I’ve used Troy in the past and knew he’d be up for the challenge of doing the same manuver multiple times in order to get the shot. I also needed a couple of “voice activated tripods” aka friends holding my strobes while I politely asked them to reposition the lights over and over. In this case having people hold the light in liue of light stands saved me tons of time and the agrivation of working with more equipment in the dark.

With location picked out, we all hiked into the spot while it was still daylight. This allowed for some conversation over line choices with Troy and opportunities for me to line my shot up before dark. The sun began to set and we did a couple trial runs. The trial runs were more for Troy and making sure he knew where he was going since he’d be moving in dark conditions after having two 300 watt strobes flashed into his eyes. Once the sun set I had to figure out the best exposure time for getting the city lights to show up in the shot. After a few test shots, it was going to be a 3.5 second exposure. I’m hoping you might be reading into why this was a tricky shot. Not a lot of action photos are taken with 3.5 second exposures.

Step one was getting lights positioned where I wanted them, step two was setting my exposure for the city. So I set the exposure for 3.5 seconds and knew I was going to need to use a cable release so that we didn’t get camera shake. So I set up cable release and began to go over the timing with Troy our rider. I would have to give Troy a count down to when I thought he should begin to ride, push the cable release to begin the exposure while holding my Pocket Wizard in my other hand. The intent was for me to fire the strobes at the VERY end of the 3.5 seconds, essentially creating 2nd curtain.

After a couple test shots we had the whole process down. I’d tell Troy to go, push the cable release with my right hand to begin the exposure, count out loud to three(ish) and fire the strobes with my left hand. There maybe more ways to pull this shot off….I was happy with our results and thrilled to take something from concept to completion. So if you are out there with those ideas floating around, grab some friends if you need to and get your project completed. I know you’ll be glad you at least tried.

Oh and we only lost Troy one time. A slight miss to the right of the rock he was riding on and he ended up staring at the stars in a pile of bushes. He was fine and back up in no time for the next shot. Thanks to Troy, Chris and Charles for all of their help. I know their favorite part was hiking in the dark back to our cars. Why does every little noise sound like Big Foot at night?

Camera: Canon 7D
Lens: Tokina 12-24 f4
Settings: 3.5 seconds @ F9.0
Strobist Info: 2 x 300 watt Boling strobes fired via Pocket Wizards

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