A barrage of questions is hurling my way in the frozen, ink-black night. I’m teaching a photo workshop, and we couldn’t resist going out for a light-painting session. The stars overhead are so bright, I feel like I’m in a planetarium, not standing at 9,000 feet by a deserted mine on Red Mountain Pass near Ouray, Colorado.
"I think my battery just died." "My shutter won’t fire; I think my camera is broken."
The gauntlet of questions continues in an almost comical scene: 14 photographers stumbling around in the night blinding each other with their headlamps while I run through the scene flashing a red light on a deserted shack. Oh, yeah, the joy of nighttime photography!
Star photography and light painting have become popular, and with good reason. Today’s DSLRs have excellent high-ISO noise performance and in-camera settings to help reduce long-exposure noise. In many cases, it’s not the camera that performs badly in the middle of a frozen, dark night, but the photographer who struggles to get the right composition and focus.
After living in Alaska for years watching the winter sun set at 4 p.m., I naturally shot a lot at night. I’ve learned a few tricks for night shooting and found some useful tools to help. Let’s answer all the questions mentioned above. Don’t put your camera away when the sun sets—grab a headlamp and your tripod and head out for some night shooting!
Before you venture out into the night, figure out your camera settings in a nice, bright room. Shooting at night requires a sturdy tripod, cable release and fresh batteries. Since exposures are long, the tripod and cable release (or another means of remotely triggering the shutter) are both critical to ensure sharp images. Also, batteries drain fast with long exposures in cold weather; make sure to bring spares.
I shoot all my night images in manual mode, which allows me to easily adjust exposure. Automatic modes like aperture and shutter priority often miscalculate the exposure, attempting to lighten a scene that should be dark.
I normally shoot wide open around ƒ/2.8 or ƒ/4. Why? Because you need the added light from a large aperture opening, and chances are, depth of field isn’t as critical. For my white balance, I prefer Incandescent. This white balance will turn the night sky into a purple pincushion of stars and looks great for the Milky Way.
Next, I’ll turn on my camera’s long-exposure noise reduction. My shutter speeds are going to be slow, so turning on long-exposure noise reduction in-camera greatly reduces noise over a long exposure. Note that enabling this feature will double your exposure time, so if you take a one-hour star-trail shot, your camera will process the shot for one hour after the shutter closes.
This is the crux of night photography, especially star trails without foreground. I always bring an inexpensive rechargeable flashlight with me on night shoots. Sometimes I use this for light painting, but other times I use this to shine on foreground subject matter to help me focus in the dark.
The first step with focusing at night is turning off your autofocus. Your camera autofocus won’t work, and if your shutter is linked to focus priority, your camera won’t shoot. I start by setting my focus to the infinity mark (the "figure 8" symbol located in the distance scale on your lens barrel). Line it up with the focus mark on your lens, and you’ve focused at infinity. But this may not be perfect focus. Infinity focus is a reference, but will slightly vary on the lens. I often focus to infinity, then back off just a tiny amount and take a shot. I’ll review my image after capture on my LCD screen to check critical focus. If I’m off just a little, I’ll slightly adjust the focus and try again.
If this sounds tedious, just think of it this way: Once you know where the accurate infinity focus is on your lens, memorize it. The next time you shoot at night, set your focus to that mark. I’ll even attach a piece of gaffer’s tape on my lens to hold the focus in place.
A new tool that many photographers like for focusing at night is the CamRanger. This device allows you to set your focus using an iPad (or iPhone). Viewing the larger screen is nice and dramatically helps with focus. You can tap anywhere on your iPad screen, and the camera will focus on this point. The CamRanger goes a lot further than just being a focus aid. It also allows you to adjust settings and remotely trigger your camera. Just imagine shooting that star-trail shot from the warm interior of your car!
The quickest method for immediate star images is using the high-ISO method. With this technique, your end goal is to freeze the stars in place and capture the Milky Way. Start with these settings: ISO 3200, ƒ/4 at 25 seconds. This should let in enough light that you’ll get some spectacular results very fast. Remember to check your focus.
If you’re using a wide-angle lens like a 20mm or wider, the stars shouldn’t show movement during this exposure. Use the "500 rule" to make sure the stars are frozen—500 divided by the focal length of your lens equals the longest exposure you can have before the stars will show movement. For example, if I’m using a 20mm lens, 500 divided by 20 is 25; I can set an exposure of 25 seconds and not have star movement. The Milky Way is one of my favorite subjects for this technique. On a dark night with clear skies, the Milky Way will appear as a hazy white line running across the sky. If you can’t find the Milky Way, try using a smartphone app like Star Chart or Google Sky Map.
After you’ve photographed the Milky Way and stars without movement in the night sky, how about trying star trails? Star-trail photography involves leaving your exposure open for an hour or longer to capture star movement through the night sky. The camera settings are similar except your exposure needs to be set at "Bulb" and your ISO will be lower. Also, use a cable release with a locking mechanism so you can lock the shutter open for as long as you need.
To really capture star rotation, try these settings: ISO 100, ƒ/2.8 for 1 hour using a wide-angle lens like a 20mm. Remember, the wider the lens, the more night sky and star trails you can capture. Don’t worry if a plane flies through your shot or meteors fall from the sky; these items will add interesting streaks in the final shot. It’s very important to have your long-exposure noise reduction on for this shot. Your results will look a lot less noisy using in-camera noise reduction.
Another star-trail technique is stacking a series of short exposures to create one star-trail shot. The advantage here is, you’re using shorter exposures with less noise to create the final image, but this will require more postprocessing to get the final shot. StarStaX software can help you stack images together. A sample exposure here might be ISO 3200, ƒ/4 at 25 seconds for numerous frames. One important point: Make sure your noise reduction is off or the processing time might exceed the interval time you want to use between shots.
Once you’ve mastered star-trail shooting, you might decide to add some interesting foreground elements. Adding foreground elements will make your composition more dynamic and add perspective to the image. I’ll often look for an interesting tree or rock formation to use as a foreground element. I’ll use my flashlight to illuminate the foreground and help me focus. Sometimes I’ll put a colored gel like red or blue over my flashlight to add creative colors to the foreground subject. I also use Litepanels LED lights for foreground illumination. These lights are small and run on AA batteries. I can place them in various parts of my scene to illuminate rocks and trees while I take the shot. This is a great technique when you’re by yourself and don’t want to run around trying to light-paint a variety of elements.
There are a few things to consider when processing your star images to help them reach full potential. First, adjust the white balance to your liking. I generally prefer to use Incandescent for my skies since I like the deep blue color it produces. But what happens to the foreground tree when you use Incandescent? It turns a pasty blue—not good. To remedy this problem, I choose the Adjustment brush (in Photoshop or Lightroom) and brush over the tree. Then I pull the Temperature slider toward the right and warm up what I’ve brushed over. This will restore the color close to neutral.
Next up is noise reduction. The new noise-reduction tools in Lightroom and Photoshop are fantastic. Pull the Luminance and Color sliders to the right to reduce noise. For best results, enlarge your image to 100% so you can see the effects. I also use Noiseware to reduce noise in my images. This plug-in has preset actions that reduce noise. Try the Night Scene action for star-trail images.
After reducing noise, your image will need some sharpening. I use two tools for sharpening. First, I apply some Clarity, which makes the stars pop out of the sky. Next, I’ll use Unsharp Mask to sharpen the image. I start with these settings: Amount of 100, Radius of 1 and Threshold of 3. Experiment with your settings until you like the results. Sharpening makes star trails much more defined in the night sky.
The last thing I may try with a star image is applying an effect from Topaz Adjust 5. I like to use actions like Heavy Pop Grunge and Dynamic Pop at around 50% strength. These actions bring vibrance and acuity to an image, and look great on night shots.
Ready to go out into the night with camera in hand? One last bit of advice: Check the moon phase in your area. Stars look the best on a dark, moonless night. Have fun!
To see more of Tom Bol’s photography, visit his website at www.tombolphoto.com.