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Photographing Cape Cod After Dark

CapeNightPhotography1Photographer Timothy Little sees things differently. While most people might wonder why he takes photos at night, he wonders why more people don’t. His images reveal a side of Cape Cod that’s beautiful but that few ever really notice.

Little’s book, Cape Cod Nights: A Photographic Exploration of Cape Cod and the Islands After Dark,  was released in June 2013. It’s the only book currently in print that showcases Cape Cod after nightfall.

The Massachusetts native offers night photography workshops twice each year on Cape Cod as well as in the Berkshires.

We asked Timothy some questions about his passion for night photography and what Cape Cod vacationers need to know to be successful at it.

You took the road less traveled when you decided to focus on night photography as opposed to daytime photo shoots. What influenced your decision?

Several years ago I stumbled upon Troy Paiva’s night photography of the abandoned southwest. I had always been a night owl and had a passing interest in photography. Seeing his work made me realize that I could combine the two into something really special. After attending one of his workshops I was immediately hooked on the night-shoot experience. Moonlit landscapes, shooting stars, and the occasional call of a distant coyote all come together to create an alternate reality to the sunlit one we’re used to. Taking pictures gives me reason to be out there to enjoy those moments.

Long exposure night photography allows me to affect the final product while it’s being created. It often seems like it’s just me and the moon. I can CapeNightPhotography4spend several minutes lighting a subject while the camera records it, or maybe do nothing at all as I let the moon do the work for me.

Tell me about a shot that was difficult to do.

One of the most difficult shots I’ve done to date involved running in and out of 16 doors at a bathhouse with a colored flashlight. It was an enjoyable challenge and it really connected me to my work. You don’t have that option during the day. During the day, it’s a quick click and it’s over.

What do you consider when choosing your subjects?

I’m lucky to live in such a picturesque area. Between light houses, harbors and the canal, I’ve got a lot of options. I tend to be attracted to areas near the water and often choose my subjects with this in mind. Shooting near beaches gives me a lot of wide-open horizon, which helps me take advantage of the Cape’s starry skies.

I always include something in my shots that reminds the viewer that the image was taken at night. This could include a street light, a radio tower beacon, headlights, etc. A bright moon can easily make a night shot look like it was taken during the day, so it’s important to shoot in places where I can leave “night clues.”

Recently, I’ve tried to seek out some of the lesser-recognized areas on the Outer Cape. I’ve shot and re-shot many of the light houses as well as the bridges, so these days I’m digging deeper.

What are the ideal weather conditions for shooting night photos?

Partly cloudy around the nights of a full moon are ideal conditions to me. Fluffy clouds back-lit by the moon can create some really wonderful “sky texture” over the course of a just a few minutes. You really get a sense of motion. Clear skies allow for star trails, which work well when looking for backdrops for light houses. Thick cloud cover or a thin, continuous blanket are not ideal as they dim the moon and stars. I’ll usually stay in on those nights.

What advice would you give to Eastham Vacation Guide readers about how to choose good subjects for night photography on Cape Cod?

For a beginner, I always suggest shooting areas that have a lot of ambient light. Town centers or light houses are great starter choices because you CapeNightPhotography5can keep the exposure times shorter, which means you can experiment more while you’re out. Keeping the shots down to 30 seconds to two minutes means you haven’t lost a lot of time if you need to try again. When you’re more comfortable, you’ll seek out the lower-lit areas that require longer exposure times and you’ll be more confident that you’ll get “keepers” on the first try.

Do you recommend using a smartphone to take night shots? Why or why not?

Smartphone technology has advanced substantially but they are not ideal for night photography. Although many phones have a “night mode,” this really is just for dimly-lit rooms or brightly-lit outdoor events. You need a tripod and a device that can expose for, at a minimum, 15 seconds. Smartphones just aren’t built for that and, unfortunately, neither are most point-and-shoots. The good news is that digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras are plentiful and affordable.

What equipment do you recommend for amateurs who want to start dabbling in night photography? What’s the cost? Best place to buy?

You really just need three basic things to get your feet wet in night photography:
1) A camera with a “bulb” mode that allows long exposures. Companies such as Canon make entry-level DSLR cameras that have this feature and can be purchased for as little as $300. My first camera for night photography was a Canon Rebel XT. I bought it on Craigslist for $325.
2) A shutter release cable. This allows you to lock the shutter open to collect all that fantastic moonlight or ambient light that’s bouncing off your subjects. A basic shutter release cable can be purchased for as little as $6.
3) A tripod. Without a sturdy tripod, you’ll have a blurry image. It’s very important that your camera not be moved or jarred during the exposure, or anything producing or reflecting light in your shot will streak. The Outer Cape can get pretty breezy. The heavier the tripod, the better. Chain store tripods are not ideal for this type of photography. Even some of the more expensive tripods won’t work because they try to be lighter and more portable. I recommend seeking out a heavier, mid-range tripod. Expect to spend at least $100. I shoot with a Silk Pro-700DX. It’s rock solid and cost me exactly $100. It stays firmly planted in those Outer Cape winds.

CapeNightPhotography3Regarding where to buy your equipment, I suggest going to your local camera shop first. Get some hands-on time with the camera that interests you, talk to the folks at the shop and tell them what you’re looking to do. What’s really great about night photography is that it’s a high-impact, low-tech style. You don’t need fancy lighting equipment or fast, high-end lenses or any special filters. As you progress, you may want to experiment with different lenses. I personally prefer to shoot wide angles. There are places such as Borrowlenses.com that allow you to rent a lens for a few days or a couple of weeks for very reasonable prices. It lets you dabble without the commitment and is a great alternative to purchasing.

Most casual photographers just point and shoot without really being aware of what they’re seeing or how they could take a photo from good to great. How can Eastham Vacation Guide readers train themselves to “see” as professional photographers do?

First and foremost, focusing in the dark sounds difficult, but it’s not. Switch your lens to manual focus and turn on the live view screen on the camera (rather than use the eye piece.) Find a light source somewhere in the distance–a street light, the moon or a distant radio tower beacon–and manually focus your lens on that. If you’ve got a flashlight, shine it on something nearby and try the same thing.

Compositionally speaking, one technique that will assist you in taking a pleasing photograph is to remember the “Rule of Thirds.” Think of your image broken into three parts. For example, rather than stand at the water and take a picture of the ocean and sky, stand back and get the beach in there too. Or rather than centering your subject, frame it in such a way that it takes up the right or left third of your image while the remaining two thirds are filled with backdrop. Think about that three-dimensionally as well by having a foreground subject, a mid-range subject and a distant subject all in the same shot.

It’s important to remember that you will always be your own worst critic. Unless you’re shooting for someone else’s enjoyment, shoot what is pleasing to your eye. A photography judge would give you a long list of rules and guidelines on how you should take an image, but in following such things you give up some creativity. If you take a picture that makes you feel a certain way, it’s a good photograph. If other people feel the same way when looking at it, it’s a great one!

(Photographs: Timothy Little)

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  1. Interesting perspective! Thanks for the tips. I’ll have to try this my next time on the Cape.

  2. Betty, be sure to check out Tim Little’s book, “Cape Cod Nights: An Exploration of Cape Cod and the Islands After Dark.” It’s full of beautiful, haunting images. Coming soon: A review of the book for this web site. Watch for it!

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