Nightscapes Photography

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Night Photography, Nightscapes, and Light Painting Photography

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I’ve been doing night photography since I was in college. So to give away my age, this was between 1990 and 1994. This gallery contains many different styles and techniques of achieving different looks when photographing at night. Over the next few days, I will be adding what I know for you to go out and experiment for yourself. I intend to included everything from using ambient light, moon light as well as painting with light.

I will share tips and techniques and go over camera settings and how things have now changed from the film age to digital. Let’s start off with some basics film vs digital. During the film days you could do multiple exposures on a single frame of film. You only had to worry about the reciprocity effect. Read up on that here. It’s a dead issue today since most are shooting digital. To achieve the same effect as multiple exposures, you do all the work in Photoshop. We will talk more about this later.

When doing long exposures and star trails during the film days, you used high speed film. Now you bump up your iso settings in the camera and have to worry about noise. So with film, you had grain, with digital, you have noise. Noise can be controlled by several different ways.

I shoot with the Canon 6D and the 5DMKII. I also have my noise reduction set at the strongest settings. The problem with this is, the longer the exposure, it takes an equal amount of time to write the image. So a one hour star trail exposure will take and extra hour to write if you use the built in noise reduction. I personally hate noise so this is something I have to deal with. But you still are not finished getting rid of the unwanted noise. Some still shows up. Lightroom 3 through 5 has the best noise reduction filter in my opinion. And I have tried several different programs to deal with this.

The main problem with long exposures is that your sensor is heating up. Another way to beat this issue is to shoot in the winter. I have shot during the winter when it was -15 degrees for hour long star trail shots and had virtually no noise at all. Another way to achieve star trails with very little noise is to stack them. There are several star stacking programs out there. A great free start stacking program that a lot of photographers are using is called StarStaX, developed by Markus Enzweiler. You can download it here.

Left  is an example of what the StarStax software will produce.

lake pauline power plant

Tips on getting good clean crisp stars is to be pointing towards the north because of the earth’s rotation. Typical ISO settings will be at 1600 to 3200 and f/2.8. Each lens is different so make sure you test your lens to know where your true infinity settings are and mark it or remember it. It is not always at the infinity mark. And you will come back home disappointed wondering why your stars are not nice and sharp or blurry. At f/2.8, they are out of focus, that’s why.

In my opinion based on what I have seen with images I have shot and what I have seen from other photographers, the star stacking technique seems to come out with better results. But I still do both. So this is where you get to go out and try it yourself and experiment a little on your own.

I am always looking at the phases of the moon depending on I want from a night shot. I use this site with a moon phase calendar which gives the phases of the moon month to month. Shooting during a full moon does not produce great results for stars. But can be great when clouds are present. I have several images posted above with a full moon with over cast skies which looks like a daytime shot. Overall the best time to shoot at night will be when the moon is at 1/4 phase. You can still get some of the milky way in the shot, and there is enough light to help illuminate the scene. For best results of just the milk way in your scene is of course when there is no moon out. But you will need to have alternative light sources to help light up the scene. I will get into the numerous light sources to help later.

My Grandpa

One technique I started out doing in the beginning was actually painting with light. I used a medium format cameras and would tape the colored gels to the front of the lens. This works great for film cameras where you can do multiple exposures on one frame of film. Te image to the left is an example of this technique. When using people, it goes without saying, they must hold completely still for periods of time. My grandpa was always a willing subject, so I honor his memory of using this photo as an example.

Another benefit when using film is you can focus on multiple focal points. So the fact that he was so close to the camera did not make much difference on the back ground coming into focus. When you are using dark colored gels, you are using shallow f/stops and time to achieve proper exposure. I actually carried around a note pad which I kept track of what each colors f/stop required using 100 speed film.

Old Steam Engine

I will use this image of the interior of an old steam engine as my first example. This was done doing a series of shots and then blending the different images in photoshop. This particular image only took 4 images to create. I used the LED glow sticks to give me the colors I wanted behind the boiler.

I then took several shots using a flashlight with colored gels over it to paint in the gauges. I then used another exposure with the flashlight with another color to paint the front of the boiler. Later I brought in and opened up my best exposure as my base image in photoshop. The front of the boiler was not exposed and was mostly dark on this image. I then opened up the individual images for the gauges and duplicated the first image as an extra layer on top as the first layer. Then I simply erased the area around the gauges so their colors would show through. Then I merged them together. I then brought in the image of the boiler that was painted with the yellow colored gel. Duplicating the main merged layer in case I messed up, I started using the eraser tool and bringing out the properly exposed bottom layer I painted in until I was satisfied with the result. I then merged the layers as one.

You will noticed the gauges on the right have a blue tone. They were painted with a flashlight with a blue gel. So repeating the same process of duplicating layers and erasing the area around the gauges from the merged layers until I was happy with it. You basically repeat this process until you are finished. There are other techniques of blending in lightened areas such as setting the layer properties in photoshop from normal to lighten, overlay, soft light or multiply. It will all depend on the look you are going for as to how you blend your stacked layers in photoshop. But this is what I did for this particular image. Not all night shots require this treatment. But this one was extreme so it’s what I started off talking about.

white mesa arch arizona

So enough about film. While some still shoot with film, most are shooting digital. So from this point going forward, I will be giving up all the tricks I use to achieve the images I have taken. Below is an image of some of the items I have with me when I go out to do night shots.


Metate Arch Escalante Utah

Most images you will have the shutter open for 20 to 30 seconds or longer and you can paint or flash the subject during this time. You can also take the same photo and fill flash with different colors then blend them as well giving you even more colors. Sometimes I will pull out the colors I am going to use and will be able to pull it off with one shot. Sometimes not.

The image to the left was a shot from Escalante in Utah. It is called Metate Arch. I had 30 seconds to work, so in this image I was able to place the colored gels over the flash and literally run from spot to spot flashing in the different sections with each color. That’s what’s great about digital. You can see right away if you were successful. This one took me a few attempts. I have shot this arch several times before as well in the same spot using film during one of my first trips to Utah.

Shiprock New Mexico

I’ve painted the arch and rocks and have it shot with star trails and since I was up all night doing this, my favorite shot is this one with the glow of the morning sun showing up with the long exposure. At the time, you could just barely notice the glow. But with a 30 second exposure, it showed up well here. I must have shot this arch 20 times during the night. But it is one of my favorite night time shots from all the night shots I have done in Utah.