If you want to catch the good stuff… like a meteor shower, or the Milky Way rising in Spring you have to be up in the wee hours. After midnight up to perhaps sunrise. There are some tricks to pulling this off without collapsing – or worse, falling asleep at the wheel. One problem with doing night photography is that motels and hotels aren’t particularly suited to the night photographer who would prefer to get to bed after breakfast and sleep until dinner – you often end up paying for two days worth of room that you only use for 8 hours!
So here are some ways you can “Store up Sleep” to support your night habit.
The No Stay Method
- Get plenty of sleep in the afternoon.
- Drive from home to the event.
- Do the shooting
- Get Breakfast
- Nap on a cot, pad or bench
- Drive back home, stopping to rest or nap as needed.
Obviously you can try to get to the shooting location sooner, but for most people it’s not safe to not get proper rest especially if you’re driving. For example, if I know I want to shoot a milky way rise – I work backward from my arrival time. Let’s say I need to be on site at 3:00 am and it is a 5 hour drive. That means I will want to hit the road at 10:00 pm. It might sound scary to drive from 10 pm to 3 am, but if you’re properly rested you may find the lack of traffic refreshing and the travel time that much quicker – I do this all the time! To pull this off, see my “Body Clock Reprogramming” method.
Stay and Play method
- Arrive in the early afternoon.
- Check in to an area hotel, motel or campsite.
- Get lunch.
- Retire EARLY for sleep.
- Get up EARLY (depends how far away you are from the location) Perhaps a 2:30 AM or earlier.
- Do the shooting.
- Get Breakfast
- Get back to the hotel in time for at least an hour or two (or ask for late checkout)
- Check out and go home… or stay another night.
Body Clock Reprogramming
A lot of people claim that they can’t sleep during the day. Hogwash, I say. If I know I’m going to do a long weekend of night shooting, I can push my body clock around a little – in spite of my day job. For example, if I know I’ll be shooting mostly in the pre-dawn hours, starting on Wednesday, I’ll go to bed an hour earlier and get up one or two hours earlier. If you don’t get out of bed until 9:00 am… you’ll have to start reprogramming on MONDAY. Do this each day before the trip – go to bed an hour or two earlier and get up an hour or two earlier the following morning. If you normally arise at 6:30 (like I do), after two days you will find you’re easily awake at 2:30 AM – perfect! And a day later you won’t have much trouble getting up at midnight and plowing through perfectly perky until well after breakfast. Just remember to avoid caffeine and stimulants! By the way, altering your body clock like this is a great way to get ready for an upcoming trip to another time zone.
If you can’t push your body clock that far, then plan to sleep or nap at your shooting location. I usually bring a fully reclining chair, a comfortable pillow and TWO sleeping bags – one very warm one, one that is only meant to take the chill off. I can then either sleep out-of-doors, or if necessary in my car. This works well if I’m running a timelapse or star trail – the intervalometer does all the work. In fact, while I was taking the shots for this timelapse/startrail:
I was a dozen feet from my camera in my car out of the wind checking the progress every once in a while on my CamRanger. I didn’t have to leave the car except to change batteries or memory cards! I didn’t have to use the CamRanger, of course, an intervalometer is just fine. There is an advantage to using a Canon for unattended operation, however. That red “exposing light” on the back of the camera can be seen from a long way off. I can easily and quickly take a look and know that the camera is doing its thing. With the Nikon, you have to watch carefully for the “green flash” as it writes to the memory card – if you have 6 minute exposures, you may have to wait a LONG time. The CamRanger makes it a bit easier because I can also check the images, and the camera battery status, and memory card status remotely.
Leave The Gear
Oh, and there is one more way: set your camera up, leave, and come back for it. I usually aim to return BEFORE dawn because few humans bother to be out before the sun is up. My gear has been left alone in the wild quite often. Of course I’ve already triple checked and prepared for the weather conditions and I place my camera where it’s not easily located – except by me. It’s a good idea to triple check all your settings. More than once I’ve left and upon return found I forgot a setting. For a belt and suspenders approach, I also keep track of the camera’s exact location with a GPS or by “dropping a pin” on my iPhone. Of course the downside here is you may need a huge memory card, a super strong battery, and you can’t have too much separation anxiety about leaving your gear. It won’t do you any good if you leave and DON’T get any sleep because you fear for the safety of your gear. Trust me, your gear is braver than you are!
Sometimes when we run workshops, we take turns guarding the gear for one another, so you can also agree to leave a guard soldier behind if you shoot with buddies. Just be sure to be kind to your guard – they will likely be grumpy.