Night photography in the junkyard: Mixing moonlight and city lights

My night photos straddle a weird line between documentary and art. I'm exposing and post-processing for an open, descriptive look. I want enough contrast to show form, but try not to be overly dramatic. The rich, saturated color palette has been tuned to represent how I saw the scene. Yes, it's an artistic interpretation, but hopefully more reality based than lurid.

To achieve this look, my exposure times for full moon photos away from city lights are typically 5 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. This creates a balanced histogram that can sometimes look like daylight straight out of the camera. That's fine, because darkening the image in post-production tends to hide noise.

Clever title referring to the drought - by Joe Reifer

The Valley Junkyard is an urban location that's still large enough to let the moon light the subject. The city lights do have an influence, especially on the tone and color of the sky. The image above is 3 stacked exposures of 3 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. That's 1.5 stops darker than a typical full moon shot.

The extra brightness in the sky can make post-processing a little bit tougher. I often use Lightroom to develop for the foreground, and bring the image into Photoshop to darken the sky using a Curve with a Layer Mask. This process is faster, easier, and more flexible than making selective sky adjustments in Lightroom.


The truck image above is a stack of 8 exposures - each one is 2.5 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. This achieves 20 minute star trails without needing to run in-camera noise reduction. The truck image also benefitted from a Curves layer to darken the sky. I really enjoy the complementary colors of blue and orange. I usually do some minor Saturation and Luminance adjustments in the HSL panel in Lightroom. The real magic of refining the color palette happens in Photoshop using Selective Color, or Curves with a LAB color space conversion. You can see these techniques in action at my night photography workshops.

I'm still experimenting with the post-processing on the image above. I shot a 5 image bracket of 23 seconds, 45 seconds, 1.5 minutes, 3 minutes, and 6 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. I used the 6 minute exposure for the sky/stars, and a blend of the 3 minute exposure and HDR file for the foreground. I also used the HDR file to recover some highlight detail along the horizon. The feel of the lighting is soft and quiet.

The gas pumps image is still undergoing some fine tuning. I shot 9 exposures - each one was 3 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. Seven of those images were used for the 21 minute star trails above. I omitted 2 images because the clouds were too dense, creating gaps in the star trails. Stacking star trails with fast moving clouds can create the ribbed effect that's prominent in the upper right. This image will benefit from some more fiddling with the sky colors, and some selective tone adjustments on the pumps.

I hope these meditations on shooting and post-processing under mixed lighting conditions are helpful. Stay tuned for some brand new 360 panoramas from the Valley Junkyard.