Depending on your skill level or desired outcome, there can be more or less that goes into creating a great night image. When I say great I am talking about the level of quality needed for printing large. If you can print an image at least 3 ft wide or tall with little to minimal noise then I would say you have done a great job. I’m not talking about using that single exposure and shrinking it down to fit on your IG feed or in your FB post. Anyone can do that. I am talking about using the tools (your camera and photoshop) to help you create a masterpiece you can be proud to hang in your home or office.
I’ve been doing night photography for over 20 years and while it has changed quite a bit some aspects have remained the same. I am here to tell you that the amazing image you see on social media of night photography are images of creation, not snapshots. Today I want to step you though a very basic image creation process. Each of you will have your own opinions on what you feel this is or how you would categorize it and that’s fine. Technically, in my opinion, it’s a “Blend”. I used my camera to shoot multiple images of a scene that was in front of me and then use those images to create the final image. Here we go!
When possible, I always try and arrive at my location before sunset or before sunrise. This allows me to use a low ISO with a longer shutter speed but still using the natural light from the sun or moon. If your timing is so that you arrive at dark and can’t stay long enough, then I highly suggest you still shoot a long exposure with a low ISO at night and this will give you the best possible quality for your foreground. This example was shot right after sunset at 31 ISO for 2 seconds to get the absolute cleanest foreground possible.
There is no getting around it, you have to shoot the stars at night! It’s true so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise! This is where a little technique comes into play. Focusing in the dark can be challenging sometimes and while it may be easy to focus on the barn with a light, the stars may be out of focus a little depending on what lens you’re using. The sharper you can get your stars the better image quality you will have to start with. In the above image I focused on the stars to insure they were sharp. I used 44 images that I shot back to back to stack and reduce the noise in the sky. I generally shoot for 36 images but depending on what ISO I am shooting I may use more or less. These 44 images were ISO 8000 for 15 seconds each. By doing this it gave me roughly a 6x noise reduction factor which then brings the final image ISO equivalent down to about 125.
This is where things get fun. I now have my clean low ISO sunset shot of the barn and my stacked 44 image sky that I need to bring together. I use the select and mask option in Photoshop to remove the sky from the barn image and I replace it with the stacked sky image. Using the free transform tool on sky I can place it exactly where I want it. This is where most beginners stop. They have a good sky with a good foreground and to the untrained eye it doesn’t look too bad. To my eye and any of my photography friends’ eyes it should look like a cut and past job. Not something I would be happy with at all. If you look closely you will see that the exposure values differ too much between the sky and the foreground. If you look on the left side you will see how bright the field is in the back towards the sky. Looks like a cut and paste job huh?
Because we don’t want our image to look like a cut and paste job, there is one more little trick that we must do. Giving the image some depth or separation between the foreground and the sky. It’s not much and it’s very subtle. The depth layer gives the perception of distance and that the barn is not sitting right in front of the Milky Way.
If you look closely at the side by side above you can see the difference the depth layer makes. Had I not told you it was even there you probably wouldn’t have ever noticed without seeing a side by side comparison. This is a crucial part in helping to create a natural looking image.
Now we’re are getting into the meat and potatoes of how this image comes to life. Once you have your 3 layers (foreground, depth, sky) you can now adjust them independently of each other and make them blend together. I make one adjustment for the foreground and then one for the sky. By having them each as their own layer in PS I can visually see how the adjustments work together. You may ask, “why not just make one global adjustment for both?” The answer is simple, we need the sky and foreground to blend seamlessly in exposure values and the adjustment for the sky wont be the same for the foreground. By doing them independently of each other we can fine tune so they go together.
Once you have your foreground and your sky exposure values working well together you can now make some global adjustments. I, personally, like to do this in DxO Nik Color Efex. These adjustments can really be anything you like. I have my own standards that I use to make images look the way I do. What I really like about using DxO Color Efex is that once you are done making the adjustments and you click OK, it will open it back up into photoshop as a new layer. This is really helpful because it allows you to toggle the eyeball next to the image and see the difference before and after. If you feel like something is too strong you can always use the opacity slider to tone it down or you can simply add a layer mask and brush out the parts you don’t want. Having this finite control is crucial in creating a final image.
Now that the image is opened back up into Photoshop we can make some tiny, fine tuned adjustments to finalize our image. Now we have a super clean, printable image that looks very natural as if the moonlight is gently hitting the barn and grass in the foreground as it sets. The Sun, Moon, Milky Way and planets all follow the same ecliptical path in the sky. It’s very important to make sure when blending images or making composites that the direction of light is the same for all the images you are using. Because I shot my foreground right after sunset I knew the light was coming from the west (right) as if there moon were setting. You never want to shoot your foreground in the middle of the day when the sun is directly overhead unless it’s an overcast day.
The above side by side will help you see the difference from start to finish and by adding that layer of depth, it now feels as though the brighter left side is being softly lit by the light behind the barn and is much more natural to our eyes.
I hope this helps you understand the basic process and one of the ways super clean night photography images are created. If you want more detailed help I am happy to do so both via Zoom meetings or out in the field actually shooting (it helps to have the images to work with first) If you already have some images, I’d be happy to help. See links below.
I know so many people who put their cameras away around the end of September when the Milky Way Core dips back below the horizon. Around mid Feb to early March they bring them back out again when the Milky Way core rises up over the horizon in the early hours of the morning right before sunrise. This year on Feb 2nd the core was up and able to be photographed only a few min before the light of dawn came and washed all the stars away.. Was I out there to see and photograph it, yes. For me, personally, it’s very exciting to see that Milky Way core for the first time in a new year. It signals 8 months of great shooting ahead. Do I put my camera away in September when the core dips below the horizon? No! I photograph the night sky all year-long. I love the night sky. Often the cold, Winter nights are some of the clearest and darkest. Here in Colorado where we have very dry air it makes visibility that much better.
I have put together a series of images that span all of 2018 of the night sky. I do night photography all year-long and while this blog post wont include a shot I just recently took, you will see it next year when I do my review of 2019. It was a shot I had wanted for a long time and I was finally able to make happen.
Let’s take a look at some night images in order month by month. I will include the times taken and the dates so you can note the changes you see in the sky as we progress through the year.
Orion over Loveland Ski area in Colorado. Orion is a winter constellation and one of the most easily recognizable in the southern sky. Light fall off from cars and the resort area helped to light up the side of the mountain. January 14, 2018. 7:45pm
Eleven Mile Reservoir is becoming a more popular spot for night photographers. It offers nice dark skies for how close it is to Colorado Springs and it also has a very flat horizon. This means that because there are not mountains or tall trees in the way, it’s easy to see the Milky Way Core very early when it rises in February. The Milky Way is very low on the horizon and makes it very easy to do panoramas between Feb and June. Feb 16th, 2018. 5:51am
Late Feb and March are my favorite times to do panoramas of the Milky Way while the galactic core is rising up in the south. This image was shot in Kansas just before sunrise and covers a full 180 degrees from North to South looking due East. March 16th, 2018. 5:52am
The Big Dipper is a constellation we can photograph all year-long here in the Northern Hemisphere. I liked how it was looking over this old, abandoned home in Kansas. I used a Sigma 20mm to try to frame the house and Big Dipper as a tight crop when I probably would have been better off using the Sigma 14mm 1.8 and given myself a little more breathing room up top. March 17th 2018. 4:31am
By April we now have quite a bit of time to photograph the Milky Way Core before sunrise. 2-3 hours at least which makes it nice so that you don’t feel rushed. In Feb we have just a few minutes which can make it frustrating if anything goes wrong. April is the beginning of warmer weather for most of us and makes for some enjoyable nights under the skies compared to the sub freezing temps of Jan and Feb. We use Low Level Lighting to illuminate the arch during our Night Photography Workshops April 18th, 2018. 3:15am
Rocky Mountain National Park is a photographer’s dream. There is so much to shoot both day and night. Critical timing, moon phases and weather all play a factor in getting a shot like this. If you want to photograph the Milky Way over Longs Peak as seen here, planning is key. After watching the weather, checking the moon phases and my own personal schedule I knew I had one night to shoot this. I called a couple of friends and they were in. We began our hike at midnight to arrive at this viewpoint in time to get set up and do some test shots before the Milky Way was in position. It was cold out, but still a fun night I will remember for the rest of my life. April 22nd, 2018. 3:35am
One of the things we like to do during our workshops is to give a tour of the night sky. Mike uses his laser pointer to point out all the celestial objects in the sky. Here I have labeled a lot of them. It’s interesting to me that the Lagoon Nebula is 600 trillion miles across. Let that sink in for a while! We here on Earth are a very rare moment in time. The fact that humans even exist is a miracle in and of itself. It’s also amazing that we can capture such beauty of the sky with our tiny little cameras and sensors or film. Enjoy the moment cause as they say, “we’re here for a good time, not a long time” May 14th, 2018. 12:42am
From Dead Horse Point State Park in Moab, Utah we were able to see, from the right side of the Milky Way, Antares, Jupiter and Spica. May 19th, 2018. 3:28am
Wanting to see a bit more of the lower portion of the Milky Way, I decided to drive from Denver down to New Mexico for a night. My efforts paid off with beautiful clear skies with warm weather. Photographing the Milky Way in the summer is a treat because it’s shorts and tee-shirt weather most all night long. The issue with the warmer weather is that your sensor will heat up faster and produce more noise. Winter is actually better for night photography because the cooler temps keep the sensor cooler and produce less noise. When I arrived at this old church (still in use 2 times a year) I knew I wanted the best image possible. I used PhotoPills to map exactly where the Milky Way was going to come up. I then positioned my camera and shot for the church during sunset at ISO 64. I then waited until 11pm when the Milky Way was in position and shot 21 back to back shots at ISO 8000 of the sky so I could stack them for noise reduction and blend them with the low ISO church image. June 4th, 2018. 11:10pm
Another trip to Kansas to shoot the Milky Way with my friend Jim and his daughter Annie. Jim knew this where this old combine was just sitting in a field. He obtained permission from the property owner so that we could have an evening to shoot he Milky Way. I actually didn’t mind the clouds on both ends of the Milky Way. June 15th, 2018. 11:15pm
During a 6 week road trip through the Northwest my travels took me to Crater Lake National Park. Actually it was all part of the plan. I wasn’t sure what day I would get here so I really lucked out on this part. The faint clouds you see here on the horizon are actually front of the smoke from the California and southern Oregon wildfires that were burning. I only shot 1 night at Crater lake and I am thankful that was all I planned. The next few days you couldn’t even see the lake for all the smoke in the sky. I managed to keep at least 1 day ahead of the smoke during my travels in the Northwest. July 19th, 2018. 2:26am
One of those rare summer nights when you’re sitting on the couch at 5pm watching the weather and the weatherman tells you to expect clear skies along the coast all night long. Needless to say I wasn’t on the couch for much longer.. I looked outside and sure enough it was crystal clear (normally the marine layer comes in and clouds everything over). I grabbed my gear and made a plan. There were 3 spots I wanted to shoot this night.. Cannon Beach, Happy Camp and Pacific City. Pacific City would be the last stop of the night and I knew I would just meet up with my dad for coffee after this location. I shot the other 2 locations with some clouds and as I got further south the clouds were totally gone. I arrived here about 3am and was totally blown away with how clear it was. I took several shots of slightly different compositions and ended up liking this one the best. Some of them had reflections in the wet sand of the stars. I must have been here for 3 hours just watching and the Milky Way leaned into Haystack Rock and faded away as the daylight came. July 11th, 2018. 5:16am
Finishing up our road trip with an amazing shoot with another friend, Jann, up at Mount Rainier. We had planned this shot several months in advance and being on the very end of our trip I was tired. This was my only chance in August to shoot. I had to make it count. As always I arrived early, scouted, found a good spot and patiently waited. We shot birds, flowers and the mountain before the sun went down. Knowing I had to make this the best it could be I shot a 30 min exposure for the mountain just as it got dark. This allowed me to get the best possible quality. I then waited for the Milky way to get into position and shot 20 images back to back for noise reduction. August 7th, 2018 12:15am
September takes us to the beginning of when we start to see Andromeda high in the night sky. It’s also the time when photographing the North end of the Milky Way is much better. Here I am standing in front of Double Arch in Arches National Park while the Milky Way leans over the arch. In this image is Cygnus the Swan, Denab, Andromeda and Cassiopeia as well as the Elephant trunk nebula. By stacking the images of the sky for noise reduction I was able to bring out some of the pink nebula colors that are natural but not seen with the naked eye. You wont see me in many pictures. I am standing here using my Nitecore MH 25 Night Blade light to illuminate the arch. September 12th, 2018. 3:52am
Sometimes I go out, just to go out and shoot. I’d rather spend my nights under the stars than in a bar. I knew the moon would be coming up and that it would be almost full but that didn’t stop me. I got into night photography by photographing at night when the moon was full. I was amazed at how bright the images were and that they looked like daylight. For those who are just starting out with night photography I highly recommend doing a few shoots at night with a full moon to help get comfortable with not only setting up your camera but also getting the correct exposure. Here you can just barely see the faint stars of the Milky Way over the top of the Mountains. I am standing out in the field again with my Nitecore light on its lowest setting (didn’t do me any good this time) my mistake. I loved the calm pond water which made for a gorgeous reflection. October 19th, 2018. 9:01pm
While the Milky Way is visible all year-long, this is probably the section that is most left out or forgotten altogether. This is looking East right after sunset in early November. It has Taurus, Starfish cluster, Perseus, Polaris, Double Cluster and Denab. One thing I love about Balanced Rock in Arches National Park is that it offers 360 degree views all year long. November 1, 2018. 9:09pm
Here in Colorado the winter temps get pretty cold in December. That wont stop me from getting out and grabbing a few shots on a clear night. Especially when there is a comet in the sky. That was the case this night when Comet 46p was to make a great appearance. We arrived at this location first before moving into position for the comet which would appear a few hours later. Looking to the west here, Vega steals the spotlight with its bright blue color directly over the old stagecoach. We used Low Level Lighting (think about what your cell phone puts off from its screen) to light the side of the building and a Nitecore LA30 light for the inside of the porch. I really like this location because of the way the Milky Way leans over the mountain and the old building. December 7th, 2018, 6:51pm
It was sure exciting to see Comet 46p on my last night shoot of 2018 but I have to admit I would have really loved to see a big tail on this one! I guess there isn’t anything I could do about that. We used some Low Level Lighting and small tea lights to light the outside and inside of this old building. I used a Sigma 14mm for the foreground and the Sigma 85mm 1.4 lens for the comet and stars. I blended the 2 together just to make the comet a bit bigger than it would have been with the 14mm. I am now looking forward to more night sky events in 2019. December 7th, 2018. 9:29pm
Shooting the night sky all year is sure fun and could be seen as a project for some of you to help you get out and shoot more if you need the motivation. While many of you also live in cities or light polluted areas there are often places only a couple of hours away that will give you good viewing of the sky. I like to use Dark Site Finder to help me figure out where I can go and get the best viewing of the night sky. I also like using apps like PhotoPills during the day to plan my shoots at night.
Shooting in the winter months can be challenging for sure. If you are going after the Milky Way core then you are either getting up really early or staying up all night long and that can sure wear a person down after a few days.. Here in Colorado the weather has been super cold at night which can make it hard to be away from your car for an extended period of time. I recommend lots of warm clothes, especially for your hands and feet. Over the last several weeks I have been out shooting and never had less than 5 layers on my top, and 3 layers on my legs. When your fingers get so cold that you can’t press the shutter button on your camera, you know it’s time to get warmed up. It sure is fun though when you get home and see the images you captured.
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I know we are only into the new year by just over a month but I thought it would be fun to share some of my work so far this year. I have been trying to make the most of my free time by getting out and shooting. As a full-time photographer it can be pretty easy to just sit in the house and edit and catch up on social media. While those are parts of the process, the process I really enjoy is being outside and capturing the images. I wont share all my new images, just the parts that will put it all together.
In early January I hosted my annual “Oregon Coast Winter Workshop” in Yachats, Oregon. Our group all had Oceanfront rooms at the amazing Overleaf Lodge and Spa
We were truly blessed with good weather. The few days before the workshop was rainy and right after the workshop the rain came back. We just happened to time it so that the 4 days during the workshop were in between storms. Needless to say this made the workshop students happy as well as myself. My friend, Chuck Rasco of Chuck Rasco Photography always comes along on these trips with me. After the workshop was over we spent the next 5 days on the southern Oregon Coast between Bandon and Brookings. We had a good and bad weather in both places. Having lived in Oregon most my life, I felt right at home walking along the beaches in the rain. We did some crazy hikes too.
On Saturday night of the workshop I took the group down to the Seal Rock area near Newport, Oregon. Once we parked the cars I could see the clouds in the sky and I had a feeling that the sunset was going to be epic. I decided to grab just my camera and one lens, my workhorse, Sigma 24-105mm Art to use for some snapshots while helping the students. Right on cue, the sky just began to explode with color. Everyone was going crazy trying to find the best comps. Moving around and making sure they were not in each other’s way, the group really worked well together. Gary Kochel planned a big northwest trip around the workshop and I think it’s easy to say that he was extremely impressed with Oregon. Here is Gary getting an epic shot from his own vantage point.
Moving down the coast after the workshop, we headed directly to Brookings and had plans to stay in Bandon on the way back up. My friend Chuck and his wife Cathy had never really explored the Samuel Boardman State Park area of Oregon. I felt as a good host, I should show them around properly. That means with a few steep hikes that lead to incredible views.
The first hike was at Natural Bridges. It’s a pretty common spot for good reason, the views are amazing. Not everyone can get down to see the views from here just because it’s pretty steep. This view isn’t too bad to get to but once you go further, down to the red arrow, it gets much steeper. So steep that there is a 50ft section where you need to repel down the hill with a rope…Once we were set up at the red arrow the views were just as good.
It was right here when I realized that Chuck wasn’t too keen on heights. The Sigma 14mm 1.8 Art makes this little path look wider than it actually is. Chuck was standing almost right next to me on my right and my left tripod leg is actually off the path, down a little ways being held up by a rock. The top of the arch that we are on is maybe 4ft across. That doesn’t leave much room for error when packing up your gear and turning around to head back up the trail.
It’s fun to shoot the same scene with various lenses. You simply get different results. This was shot from the same place, tripod in the same spot, as the last image but with a Sigma 24-105mm Art at 52mm for 67 seconds with a Haida 10 stop ND Filter
After powering though a few days of pouring rain in Brookings and filling up on the best breakfasts ever (we ate here 3 days in a row) Mattie’s Pancake House we made our way up the coast to Bandon. Bandon is not an open book by any means. I have been visiting Bandon now for over 10 years, maybe longer and the weather is always interesting. After getting checked into our hotel and picking up some provisions for the evening the rain started. It was windy, blowing sideways and I was thinking that our chance for a sunset was out the window…literally. As it got closer to sunset the rain let up, the sky started to break up with a few holes in the clouds. We made our way across the street to the beach in amazement that our timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The wind was still kicking pretty good so I decided to put the tripod away and shoot handheld with the Sigma 24-105. The OS on this lens is incredible. We were down on the beach for about 2 hours until sunset was finally over. There were no chance of shooting stars that night so we called it a night and began walking back to our hotel… I kid you not, just as we got back to the hotel it started pouring again.
Months ago, I planned a shoot with a friend who was interested in shooting the Blood, Super Wolf Moon on the night of the 20th of January. We used PhotoPills to plan the shoot and know where exactly the moon was going to be at what time when it was eclipsed. Since I was just getting home from 10 days in Oregon, I didn’t want to travel too far from home. South Valley Park is right behind my house and because we are looking away from Denver the sky is a little darker. Using these rocks as a foreground subject, we set up, shot the foreground and then waited for the moon to turn red. Because it’s impossible to capture the moon and the foreground all in one shot with the proper exposure, I used 2 shots for this image. The Moon is in the exact location it was when I shot the foreground. I used the Sigma 20mm for the foreground and the 85mm for the moon. A quick blend in Photoshop to bring the two together was all it took to create this image as I saw it with my own eyes.
Since being home from Oregon, I have been jumping all over Colorado searching for fun and interesting photos. If you have been following me for any amount of time, you will know that I am really intrigued by the smaller towns on the Eastern Plains of the state. On a trip out near Matheson, Colorado with my friend, Tony Lazzari we found this beautiful old seed mill.
The light was just coming up over the horizon hitting the metal siding. There were just enough clouds in the sky to make good use of my Haida 10 stop ND Filter and create this really long exposure of 2 minutes. I was able to get the camera low enough so that I was looking up, by doing this I was able to include much more of the sky.
This old one room schoolhouse sits out in the middle of nowhere. In fact I have only seen a couple pictures of it online. It’s 150 miles from my house. While Bob Coorsen and I were setting up, a truck pulled up and asked where we were from. We told him and then he proceeded to tell us how his grandfather and father both attended school here back in the day. I have searched high and low and I can’t find any information on this school. The mad did say that a few years back he was going to buy it and put a new roof on it but something fell through and he never was able to make the purchase. The school is maybe 15 ft wide by 40 ft long. It’s really small. I used a Nitecore LA30 to illuminate the inside of the school. The image is a blend of 2 shots. keeping the camera in the exact same position I did one long exposure for the star trails and then a short exposure for the points of light stars. I simply used a blending mode in Photoshop and changed the opacity to blend the long exposure with the short exposure so that you can see both in the sky. I masked out the foreground so that only the long exposure for the school shows. This allows me to keep image quality at it’s best.
I don’t venture down into the city too often. After some good snow and a warming up it’s easy to find puddles to shoot unique perspectives. It has been a while since I visited Union Station and I remember that the concrete wasn’t level. This means that pools of water form. With no wind it makes it easy to get some fun shots. Here I had the camera sitting on the ground behind held up by my L-Bracket. Using a Sigma 14mm lens really let me get quite a bit in the shot even though I was so close. The lens is really only an inch or 2 off the ground from the water.
Weather, in my opinion, is the most important factor in photography. It can be a make it or break it kind of thing. It can also give you images you never imagined you would get. Thus being the case here. My plan was to shoot this old church (1913) with the Milky Way rising up in front of it. The way it faces, I would need to shoot it from the backside. I arrived here early afternoon, met with the guy who owns the farm next to it. He was leaving for the day and I told him I would probably be out there shooting all night and that if he saw some lights, not to be alarmed, it would just be me. About 10pm I started shooting. I was doing star trails, shooting Orion, the Big dipper and getting pretty excited for the Milky Way that was going to be coming up around 5am. At 2am I hopped back in my Jeep to warm up and grab a quick nap. When I woke up at 4am I could not see any stars….I was puzzled..I turned my lights on and it was solid fog. I thought to myself, “well, hopefully it will go away in time”. That was not the case. The fog began to freeze on everything (hoar frost). I soon realized that not only was I not going to shoot the Milky Way, I also wasn’t going to get a sunrise. About 6am it was light enough to get back out and shoot what I could. I actually really enjoyed the fog and the beautiful atmosphere it created. Living in Oregon I saw fog all the time. Since moving to Colorado almost 6 years ago, I rarely see it here…
I could have shot scenes like this all day long. If you follow me on either Facebook or Instagram you can see more of these foggy moody images in the near future. They are a nice change of pace from my normal stuff. I hope you enjoy them as much as I enjoyed shooting them.
Last but not least…Boulder Canyon Falls recently opened back up to the public after being closed off. I am not sure what the reason was or for how long it was closed. I do know that in the 6 years I have lived in Colorado, I had not been to it. Odd because it’s only 31 miles from my house. Tony Lazzari and I decided to go check it out…The falls were half-frozen when we were there and I was able to find some intimate scenes like this that showed both the flowing water and the frozen water. Because the falls are in a canyon, the sun rarely hits on them directly this time of year. Getting a good exposure was very easy due to the flat lighting. The mist from the falls had frozen on the ground but being the cautious person I am, I decided to not get too close and chance falling in. I used my Sigma 24-105mm Art lens at 95mm to get closer to the falls and compose the shot. A shutter speed of only 1/4 second shows both movement and detail in the water while keeping the ice razor-sharp.
This brings all of you up to date on what’s been going on over the last 45 days… I am really trying to get out more, shoot more and just enjoy nature in all aspects that I can. Tonight a friend and I are headed out to find clear dark skies and possibly old abandoned buildings to shoot the stars over. Give me a follow on social media, leave a comment about this blog as I would love to hear from you.
What’s next? I don’t have any set plans for the rest of this month. I’ll just keep and eye out on the weather and go where it takes me. Next month I will be spending 2 nights/3 days at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. I am very excited about this and thankful for the opportunity to see the night sky from a different vantage point. I am getting ideas on how and what I want to shoot while I am there and if the weather is good then I will be sharing those images with you as well as doing a separate blog post.
Send me blog post ideas if you have something specific you’d like to hear my thoughts on or a photographic process you’d like to see.
In April we will start our Night Photography Workshops for the 2019 season. We’d love to have you join us. This year we are adding Yellowstone to our list of events and we only have 1 spot left on that workshop.
This will be a 3 part series on Night Sky Panoramas, Stacking and then ending with Stacked Panoramas for ultimate image quality. In this post I want to talk mostly about the fundamentals of shooting a night sky panorama. Over the last 5 years I have worked with many people to help them bring their night photography to the next level and beyond. Once people learn the basics of night photography (focus and exposure in the dark) they often want to take it one step further and try a panorama. This is pretty exciting because it allows you to do a couple significant things. 1. Create larger file sizes – having a larger file size will reduce the appearance of visible noise in your image. Think of it like this, If you have a 35mm negative and try to enlarge it to a 40×60 inch print chances are it’s not gonna look the best. If you have an 8×10 sheet of film and enlarge it to a 40×60, it’s gonna look pretty dang good simply because you don’t have to enlarge it too much. Does that make sense? Same goes for digital. If you have a 12mp camera (4000×3000 pixels) and you want to make a print that’s 40×30 you essentially have to cut your 300 dpi resolution down to 100dpi to get a print that size. If you have a 46mp camera(8256×5504 pixels) and want to make the same size print you can do so with 2x the resolution at 206dpi. A native print size from 46 mp is 18×27 at 300 dpi, from 12 mp is 10×13 inches. Creating a panorama with a file size of 18000×6000 with let you print a a 20×60 inch print with no loss of resolution. That’s crazy and fun! I currently have a 39×117 print hanging up over my couch in our living room. It’s the larges print I have ever done. It’s made up of 7 vertical images stitched in Photoshop creating a 24089×7379 file that prints 25×80 inches at 300dpi. That being said, it would easily print 50×160 without any loss of detail. “Colorado Winter Wonderland”
What does it take to create a good night sky panorama and what are important processes I need to keep in mind?
Camera Settings – When shooting panoramas it’s good to choose a specific color temp for your white balance. I really like something close to 3800K. This not only keeps the color in my images consistent but it also gives the sky a nice dark blue tone like it should have. Color Space should be set to Adobe RGB. Always shoot on RAW, turn off noise reduction for both the High ISO and Long Exposure.
Once you’re in the field and set up in front of your scene, turn off all lights and let your eyes adjust to the darkness. In about 15 min you will be blown away at how much you can see. Unless you’re in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah, then you still wont see anything because it’s so dark!
Look around, get familiar with the scene. Know where you want your panorama to begin and end. This is very important because you want to make sure you overshoot your corners and sides to allow for cropping when stitched together.
Now that your eyes are adjusted you can turn your camera off, lens cap off and look through your viewfinder. Loosen your camera on your ball head and do a quick pan through to make sure the lens you have decided to use will include all the sky and the land that you want in your final image. This is crucial. For example, if you have a 20mm lens on and you notice that the top of the Milky Way is right at the top of the frame then chances are that you will want a wider lens or you may need to shoot 2 rows of images to make sure you include everything and a little extra.
Take your test shot. Make sure you have your focus and exposure dialed in and your camera is level. Your tripod does not have to be level to have your camera level. This is something I see people struggle with all the time. You don’t want to spend all your time trying to perfectly level your tripod on uneven ground when all you need is your camera to be level. Most cameras have an internal level now which makes it very easy to create level images every single time! Almost no excuse for a tilted image anymore. The camera only needs to be level horizontally, not vertically. If the camera is level in each position of the panorama with the horizon you will not have any issues stitching your images together.
Take a black frame. This will indicate the beginning of the sequence. You can do this with either your hand in front of the lens, lens cap on or just run your shutter speed down to about 1/10th second and snap one and then take it back up to your desired shutter speed for the pano.
Remember you are aiming for 40% overlap. Take your first shot, turn the camera off, look though the viewfinder and move the camera accordingly. Turn the camera back on and shoot. I always start my panos on the left side…not sure why but that’s how I do it. So I take the right edge of the frame and move the camera until it’s just to the left of center. Level camera, tighten tripod and repeat. Do this until you have shot past what you want on the end of your pano.
Take another black frame to indicate the end of the sequence. I have found this to be extremely helpful in eliminating trouble when processing. It’s a fool proof way to make sure you don’t include all your test shots into your stitching and have it come out not right.
If you are working with a pano head on your tripod and don’t want to have to rely on looking through the viewfinder after each shot then I suggest you take note of how wide your field of view is for any particular lens. This chart below will help you so that all you need to do is shoot, move camera and shoot again. If you are using a 18mm lens on a full frame camera and your field of view is 100 degrees then you would simply need to move your camera 60 degrees to get a 40% overlap.
Below you will see an image I shot a couple years ago. I used my Sigma 85mm 1.4 lens to try and do a multiple row pano. As you can see I failed epically. There is no way I could make a straight image from this and keep all the content on the sides and top or bottom. This is a prime example of what NOT to do.
This image on the other hand is a prime example of what your pano should look like when you stitch it together. These collages are to give you a better visual understanding of not only overlap but also how level the images should be. As you can see, I have left enough room on the top, bottom and sides to allow for cropping. I used my Sigma 20mm to make sure I captured everything I needed.
Final Cropped and Edited
If you have any questions please let them in the comments below and I will answer them for you as soon as possible.
One of the most commonly asked question I get is, “What are your Night Photography Workshops all about?” The simple answer is, learning night photography. That being said, our workshops are much more than that. They are fun, entertaining, educational and some have called them, “life changing.”
Myself, with Mike Berenson help to take your night photography to a much higher level. We welcome all skill levels into our workshops. One of the benefits of having 2 instructors is that you get more attention, you are able to ask more questions and get more helpful answers and you will leave the workshop without any unanswered questions. This is our goal. We want you to feel as though you have asked and been answered all the questions you had. We don’t hold anything back. We tell you all we know at the time. I say, “at the time” because in the 4 years we have been doing the workshops so much has changed in the world of Night Photography. We do our best to keep up to date with the latest equipment, software and processing techniques so that we can give you the most current info to help you create the best possible images.
Mike and I currently teach our Night Photography Workshops in Moab, Utah – Arches and Canyonlands National Park, Jackson, Wyoming – Grand Teton National Park and Idaho Springs, Colorado – Mount Evans – the highest paved road in the America at over 14K feet. We have good working relationships with Ranch Inn in Jackson and Moab Valley Inn in Moab to provide you with a comfortable working space during your classroom time. Classroom time? Yes, we spend about 3 hours each day in “class” going over all kinds of aspects of Night Photography so that you have more time in the field each night to actually shoot and get great shots.. Trust me when I say we have more content for the classroom than we can use.. We have been making small modifications so that you get only the best and most important info available.
We meet on day 1 and go over an introduction about who we are, what the workshop will cover and some images that we hope will inspire you to get creative and make you want to learn. After all, that is why you are there.
WHAT DOES THE CLASSROOM TRAINING CONTENT LOOK LIKE?
Students receive all training content in electronic format (in addition to the live training) giving them easy access all the clickable links and resources.
Topics We Like To Cover In Classroom Training
Key Concepts & Tools
Planning Resources On The Web
Getout There And Scout
Safe Night Photography
Procedures & Settings
Noise & Noise Reduction
RAW Processing in Lightroom
Color Balance & Selective Color
Blending in Photoshop
Focus Stacking Blending
Star Spikes & Comet Like Star Trail Processing
Multiple Exposures for Noise Reduction
More On Noise Reduction
Sharpening For The Web
Software Applications We Use In The Post-Processing Portion
Nik Color Efex Pro & Dfine
Star Spikes Pro
Depending on the time of year (April, May June) we tend to take advantage of Milky Way shooting and sunrise. August and September we generally take advantage of sunset and Milky Way. We have found this makes it a bit easier on our students and allows them to get more out of the workshop and see the area we are working in before it gets dark. With 2 instructors and taking advantage of sunrise or sunset we feel this really adds quite a bit of value to the workshops.
We have finished up day 1 of classroom training. Out into the field we go. What do we do now? We will discuss some group shooting guidelines so that everyone can have an enjoyable experience. Once we have talked about that we will discuss the most important aspect of night photography. No matter how epic the skies are, no matter how relaxed you feel to be under a billion stars, no matter how far you hiked or drove there is one thing that will ruin your night of photography quicker than anything else… Any guesses is to what that is? Not knowing how to focus in the dark. I could write 20 pages on this alone but the simple fact is, you don’t want soft blurry images… You don’t sacrifice sleep, time and effort (hiking) to get home with properly exposed images only to find they are blurry. This is the first thing we will teach you on night 1 of the workshop. No matter if you are working on points of light or long exposure star trails, you want your images to be sharp so that when you print them (yes, you should be printing your work) they will look as good as they can. Why is it the first thing we will teach you? We don’t want you to waste an entire night of shooting great nights scenes only to be disappointed when you come to class on day 2 to find that all your images were blurry… Having your images in focus and sharp is, in my opinion, the most important part of night photography in relation to image quality.
We work with you, both in the classroom and in the field, to make sure you get any questions answered you want. If you don’t know how to find something in the menu of your camera then either Mike or I will know how to find it. Combined we have almost 60 years of photography experience with all kinds of cameras and lenses. Mike and I have slightly different processing styles which seem to work very well during the post processing portion of the classroom training. Because we have different shooting and processing styles, our combined knowledge really compliments each other to give the most benefit to our students.
We love answering your questions and making sure you are learning. We will not only tell you “how” but we will also tell you “why” we do things the way we do. This gives you a better understanding and a better knowledge base for your photography. There is a lot of science behind getting great images from Night Photography and we want to make sure you know as much as possible.
With 3 hours of classroom training each day and 6+ hours of shooting each night the workshops can feel a bit intense. We ask that you go at your own pace. By this we mean that if you don’t feel like you can stay out as late with the group then don’t feel bad if you need to get some rest..either by sleeping in a car if you rode with someone or going back to the hotel. We want you to feel comfortable and your safety is our #1 priority.
Another fun thing we like to do is help you identify what it is you are looking at in the night sky. Mike will give you a “tour of the night sky” with his green laser pointer which usually draws some “Wow”, “Holy Cow” and “Where did you get that thing” because it does an amazing job of pointing right where he wants you to look. Most people know the Milky Way but not the surrounding celestial objects… We are here to help. This is also fun so that when you do get home and are showing your images to your friends or sharing them online you accurately describe what the objects are in your image.
During our 5 night events in Moab, Utah we have permission to take our group into Moab Giants Dinosaur park and use their model dinosaurs as props/foregrounds in front of the night sky. It’s a fun experience for everyone.
We love teaching in various locations because each area uses a different type of lighting. Workshops in Grand Teton National Park us natural lighting either from the stars or the moon to help illuminate the scenes. Generally speaking, the mountains are too far away to light paint. We time our workshops with the proper moon phases so that we can get the best possible light on our scenes. All 3 of the above images uses only natural light from either the moon or stars to light the scene. The top and middle image are all moonlight. In the middle image you will see an Iridium Flare that we set up to capture with our group. The bottom image is a multi shot pano which captures the Milky Way over Mount Moran from Jackson Lake as well as the northern lights glowing on the horizon. We have a very high percentage of return students who will take a workshop in the Tetons or Arches one year and then take the other one the next year. Different locations, different learning experiences.
Some people really love the long exposures. We teach various techniques with different focal lengths as well and where to position the camera for the desired result. In the top image a 50mm lens was used to create the longer trails of light looking West. The image on the bottom was created using a 14mm lens and doing multiple shorter exposures to the North that we later combined in PS to create the comet like stars. The bottom image was also planned so that we could capture the ISS as it flew by, low on the horizon.
Our workshops in Arches National Park really take advantage of light painting and using LLL – Low Level Lighting – to illuminate the arches and rocks. Workshop groups are no longer allowed to use any handheld illumination devices to light paint. We have found that our LLL works better anyway as it keeps the light very even across the scene..
Delicate Arch – The highlight of our Arches workshop. This scene uses just 1 LED light panel that is placed to properly illuminate the arch. This allows for constant even lighting for everyone to use.
September 2016 – our last Arches workshop of the year. The above image was created with years of planning. It’s not an image 1 person could realistically set up and capture. This image took 3 LED lights, 2 instructors with walkie talkies, clear skies, right time of year and some patience to properly align everything. Mike had one group over at Turret Arch and I had another group shooting this scene. Mike and I communicated back forth while the students took test shots to make sure the lighting was in the right spot. Once the light was in the right place my group of students took their shots and then switched over to Mike’s group and his group came over to shoot this scene. It really was a magical night for everyone. We had 2 students who traveled all the way from Austria who also had this vision in mind so it worked out perfectly.
Mike Wetzel – 2 time workshop student – uses LLL and comet like star trail processing to create the magical image of Double Arch in Arches National Park.
Also a 2 time workshop student, Jann Ledbetter shoots Delicate Arch from the viewpoint as you end the hike. Jann writes – “Another Milky Way shot…this one over Delicate Arch (while the Aurora was dancing behind us!!). Definitely worth the somewhat scary climb to get up there! This night was magical in a way that will NEVER be forgotten!! Thanks Darren and Mike for making it all happen!”
Being part of a group going out at night always feels safer to me. Even if it’s just me and one other person, there is a level of safety that helps to ease the tension of possible dangers and let’s my mind work on photography. We have had this told to us many times by our students as well. We spend 3-5 days together and friendships are created which makes it a much more enjoyable experience, specially in today’s world of sharing via social media… We like group pictures, we like people having fun and learning.. So what happens after the workshop is over? We will send you a post workshop evaluation that we hope you will answer with complete honesty. This helps us make the workshops better and a lot of great ideas have come from the feedback our students have given us.
What else? You probably have at least 1 full media card if not 2 with roughly 1000 images just sitting there waiting to be processed. One thing that will ease your mind is knowing that Mike and I are always willing to help you after the workshop is over. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to send either one of us an email and we will do our best to get you moving in the right direction.
For me the final product is the print.. Seeing that image at least 18″ wide on beautiful photo paper, metal or acrylic is really the end of the photographic process. Some of our students have taken it much further..
We teach you how to focus, scout locations, properly expose and compose, how to find a great foreground to go with your sky, how to minimize noise in your images and when you put that all together…..
Hal Mitzenmacher writes – Darren White, Mike Berenson – THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!! Without the techniques you have taught me, I could never have dreamed of printing night images at 24″ x 83″ without a trace of noise and sharp as a tack (forgive my cell phone pic, I was so excited at the results I was seeing, my hand was shaking). I thought it would be appropriate to print this out on some of Legion Paper’s Moab Slickrock Pearl Metallic. It makes the image pop
Thank you Hal and all of the students who have taken our workshops… We truly have a genuine interest in taking your learning to the next level.
What are people saying about our workshops –
Mike and Darren make a fantastic team. They bring a very wide range of skills and techniques to the workshop. They both willingly share their skills with all and strive to better each student’s knowledge of the craft. – Rob from Colorado
Excellent workshop, well organized, professional. I will definitely do another workshop with you guys. I’ve done a lot of workshops, this is one of the ‘best’ for quality & value. – Greg from California
The workshop was Muy Bueno! This was not the first workshop that I take and let me tell you it has been the one I enjoy the most. You both make me feel like we were friends for a long time. – Guillermo from Mexico
I thought the workshop was excellent, a lot of great information especially about how to go about planning when and where to go out to shoot the milky way. The in-field instruction was great and I was able to get my questions asked and answered.
– Angie from Missouri
I had a total blast on this workshop and learned a lot! I’m so excited to try what I learned out on my own. I’m also excited to do another workshop in the future! – Elizabeth from Colorado
Mike and Darren – Thank you for being so patient with me as I adjusted to new equipment and not talking down to me. It was a little intimidating but I loved the workshop. You made me feel very comfortable with questions etc. I love how down to earth you both are. I definitely walked away wanting more and hope to join you in Arches in the future after my 17 year old graduates this upcoming year. I do wish we could have covered more in class but definitely felt that outside the class I learned quite a bit from both of you. Next time will ensure that I am more comfortable with my newer equipment. Thanks again for the inspiration. I have already recommended you on Facebook. – Raemi from Colorado