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.
You can find me on Instagram at – @darren_white_photography
Facebook – www.facebook.com/darrenwhitephotography
Website – www.darrenwhitephotography.com
Night Photography Workshops – www.nightphotographyworkshop.com
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