We live in a world that is fast moving in both our daily lives and advances in photographic techniques. When I first started night photography I had 2 choices.
- Shoot slow film and end up with star trails with no grain
- Shoot fast film and get points of light stars with lots of grain
Now, with digital cameras, we can shoot both on one media card. Digital cameras have come a long way in recent years and you can get great night images in a single shot compared to even 5-7 yrs ago. Even with advances in camera sensors and processing, a single image still will produce noise which shows up when you try to print.
We have come up with some great ways to reduce noise in single images as well as using multiple images in a stacking process, but neither of these techniques yield the results that compositing can achieve. I am not talking about creating fake scenes or fantasy worlds. I am, for now, simply talking about lining up a great scene using one of the many apps out there like TPE, Stellarium, or PhotoPills to create real images of real scenes that you can see with your own eyes…
Why do this? Why go to all the trouble of planning, shooting, processing and compositing? It takes time. I don’t want to sit on a computer all day. I wanna go shoot. So why do this….. The answer is simple… Print Quality is amazing, the light is better and the wow factor will blow your friends mind… In all honesty, we all love when people ohh and ahh over our images…but for me, the real answer is the print quality. Being able to produce a great night image of the Milky Way in one my favorite places and print it up to 60″ wide or tall with hardly any visible noise is amazing! Below I will show you the differences and the final results of single images, stacked images and a composite image.
Let’s begin. When I arrived in Badlands National Park I began using my apps to help line up great compositions where the Milky Way would be over some of the rock formations. This is the Cedar Pass area. This image shows you exactly how the Milky Way looked just after the moon went down and the skies got dark. This is a SINGLE exposure of the night sky.
Nikon D810, Sigma 20mm 1.4 F2.0, 20 seconds at 3200 ISO
The image below is a 100% crop from the image above. No editing. You can see that this is showing some noise..Not too bad but enough I wouldn’t want to print over 18″ long
This next image shows you the same image using 9 images to stack for noise reduction. I would show you the full image as well but because these are sized down images for the blog it wouldn’t really do any good.. So these 100% crops should tell you what you need to know. Now you can see the noise is reduced. When using image sequences to reduce noise an easy to factor in how much it will affect the image is by using square roots.. For example if you use 9 images you will get a factor of 3x noise reduction. If you use 16 images you will get a factor of 4x noise reduction. You don’t have to use exact numbers but I find it easier to figure the final outcome… If you are shooting at 3200 ISO and use 9 images for a NR factor of 3 you are now essentially creating an image with the noise of 800 ISO. If you were to use 16 images you would then be creating an image with the noise of a 400 ISO single image.. There are some limits but these are great factors to work with and the reduction in noise is quite nice. This kind of quality would allow me to print up to 30″ wide or tall with little noise.
I want the BEST print quality possible…I don’t want to see noise in my night images… I want highly detailed, fantastic light, true color (yes the stars have their own colors) big printable images and this is where compositing comes in.
You arrive at your location, you line up your shot, check your tripod legs (I used to have a faulty one that would collapse on its own free will during my long exposures) and wait till that foreground light is just right. Yes, I am talking about shooting your foreground image at sunrise or sunset for the best possible light, lowest ISO for the absolute best print quality. Now, depending on how long after you shoot does the Milky Way rise you can either leave your camera set up in the exact same spot..or, as I would do, pack it up, take a nap, then set it up once the Milky Way rises into the correct position.
Once the Milky Way is up you will now want to shoot a sequence of images, I like 16 images, 20 seconds, back to back. I just set my camera to continuous mode, press the shutter release and lock it.. I don’t use a timer or mirror lock up because I want the time between each image to be as short as possible. This helps the stacking software align the stars more precisely. Let’s take a closer look at what just 9 images does when stacking for noise reduction in the night sky. On the left you see a cleaner image while on the right you see a pretty noisy image. The image on the left is made of 9 separate images. If you look right in the middle you can see the difference the most
So now we have our beautiful foreground that was shot at ISO 64 and our stacked sky image that was shot at 3200 ISO with a noise level of ISO800 and now it’s time to make the magic happen. What I do is select the sky in the foreground image and delete it. I then bring my stacked sky into my foreground image and place it exactly where it should be. Remember, we are creating really scenes…not something that people will search their entire lives for a never find. Once I have my stacked sky in my foreground image I then edit them separately using layers and layer masks to make sure they work well together. This is a very important part of combining 2 images into 1. I have seen so many images where people simply remove a sky and replace it but they don’t do anything with the foreground and it just looks like they pasted one on the other..I take much more pride in my work and make sure that it looks like one seamless image. Let’s take a look at what our starting point is for each of our images. The image on the left is the stacked image for the sky and the image on the left is the foreground image I will use… Now you will see the position of the Milky Way…
Once again thank you PhotoPills for the amazing software and letting us be able to line up our perfect shots.. After combining the 2 images, doing basic edits on both layers to seamlessly blend them together I ended up with what I like to call my Pre Edit. I have cropped, adjusted color, contrast and added a little depth to the image. While this may look drastic to some, it’s really very minor in terms of post processing abilities.
I then take my image into Nik Software Color Efex Pro for final adjustments using
- Classic Soft Focus
- Lighten/darken center
- Contrast Only
Once these adjustments are made I go back into Photoshop to create my master file, web file and print file. Before we take a look at the final image lets take a look at all 3 steps again side by side.
Again we are doing all this work for the ultimate print quality. Printing big is something I take to heart and I want to make sure that you, as a client or customer, get the best quality possible. and Now let’s take a look at the final image. This is an image I would be happy to print without any hesitation whatsoever. It’s a real scene, anyone can see it on the right day of the year, you can get your own shot of this by only walking 10 feet from your car..I am not sending you on a wild goose chase.. One of the reasons I do photography is to inspire others to get outside and see the beautiful world we live in.
If you really take pride in your work, take the time to make sure your images are the best they can be. Cameras are only so good and while they produce amazing daytime images they can be lacking for nighttime images. We (most night photographers) make use of the software that is out there that allows us to go above and beyond the limitations of our cameras.
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Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog, you can find out more about my work and our night photography workshops when you visit