Category Archives: Night Photography Core Course

Night photography: The bug-eyed robot overlord of Paul’s Junkyard

The bug-eyed robot overlord of Paul's Junkyard -- by Joe Reifer

The bug-eyed robot overlord of Paul's Junkyard -- by Joe Reifer

Exposure and noise reduction settings for star trail stacking

Five exposures of 6 minutes at f/8, ISO 200 were stacked for star trails. When you make multiple exposures for star trails, the interval between each shot must be 1 second or less, so there are no breaks in the trails. You can light paint during the exposures, but you won’t be able to review the results on the back of the camera until the stacking is done.

The 6 minute exposure time was selected because f/8 is the optimum aperture for both sharpness and depth of field. The 5D Mark II can make clean 6 minute exposures with in-camera noise reduction (LENR) turned off as long as the temperature is under about 60┬░. Shooting with LENR turned off is much more efficient because you don’t need to wait for noise reduction to run after every shot. This also helps conserve your battery.

Start with the light painting, and leave one dark

When you’re doing a series of light painted exposures with stacked star trails, it’s a good idea to not light paint on one of the images. This moonlight only image will give you a base for adjusting the lighting in post-processing if necessary. The recommended shooting strategy for a shot like the one above is to do a series of shorter exposures for light painting first. The process of light painting and then reviewing the image on the LCD allows you time to really assess your lighting and composition. Once you’ve nailed the light painting, you can decide if you want to commit the time necessary to fill the sky with star trails, or move on to another shot.

Shorter exposures for light painting

In this case, I actually started the series of star trail stacking images, and went to help someone with another shot. I was confident that I liked the composition, and knew I could come back to add the light painting. Half an hour later, I reviewed the moonlit images on the LCD. I made three additional exposures of 3 minutes at f/8, ISO 200 for light painting. I didn’t worry about the interval between exposures, because these additional shots were only for the foreground subject, not the sky. The shorter exposure time of 3 minutes allowed me to work faster, and made the light painting more contrasty because there is 1 stop less moonlight on the foreground.

The star trail images were stacked in Photoshop using the Lighten blending mode, and the best of the 3 light painting exposures was added to the foreground using a layer mask. Bringing the light painting in on a mask allowed me to make subtle adjustments to the lighting.

Explain the light painting and win a print

Can you tell where I stood to do the light painting? The first person to correctly answer the question in the comments wins a small print of the image.

Hint: Almost all of the lighting was done from one position, and a little bit of fill was done from a second position. Look at the shadows, and explain what was lit from where.

The print will be a 6″ x 9″ image on 8″ x 10″ paper. Lower 48 only.

Update: The image was primarily lit from camera right at a 45┬░ angle from the right of the machine using a Streamlight Stinger flashlight and a piece of Cinefoil to control spill. The tires would have been completely black without light painting, and required quite a bit of light. The shadow on the circular piece between the tires, and the shadow on the left front tires are the key to lighting direction. The interior was lit from the same position, and I pivoted slightly to add a little bit of fill to the tires on the right. A small amount of fill was added from camera left to the muffler area and the 2 metal pieces that stick out above the windshield.

Night photography: Dodge Charger light painting step-by-step

During the Paul’s Junkyard Night Photography workshop, I worked with photographer Michael Bertrand on light painting a cool old Dodge Charger. Having someone stand at the camera position while you test your light painting is a big time saver. Instead of waiting 2-3 minutes to see the results of each lighting experiment, I was able to give Mike feedback right away on the angle and intensity of the light. He did all of the hard work, I just stood behind the camera and watched. Let’s take a step-by-step look at Mike’s shot.

Headlights and interior - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Headlights and interior - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 1 – Headlights and interior

Mike wanted to light the interior of the car with a red-gelled flash. If the camera position is low or high, sometimes a flash can be placed directly on the back window of the car. This only works if you can hide the light source from the camera. Stick your face where the flash is going to go and check to see if your camera can see the light. In this shot, the camera position dictated another technique — Mike simply opened the passenger side door, did a few flash pops inside the car to bounce the light around evenly, and then closed the door. The car may move slightly during this process, but it’s such a short amount of time in the overall exposure that it doesn’t compromise sharpness.

Mike walked to the front grill and lit the headlights using a flashlight and cardboard snoot. The key to this technique is to figure out how far away to stand in order for the circular beam of the snoot to fall in the right place. This ended up being about 4 feet away for a few seconds on each headlight.

Grill experiment - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Grill experiment - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 2 – Grill experiment

The shot looked good on the back of the camera, but the face of the car was still mostly a big black hole. The grill on this Charger is really deep, and I suggested that Mike try lighting just the front of the grill, but leave the inside dark so the headlights will pop. This take was lit from camera left at a shallow angle along the front of the grill with a snooted and gelled flashlight. The amount of light is right, but looking at the results on the back of the camera, we realized that the grill needs light from both sides.

Almost there - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Almost there - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 3 – Almost there

To get even light on the front of the grill, Mike counted his paces from the front of the car to make sure he was the same distance away. Paying attention to the height of the flashlight, and counting the amount of time the light is on are also helpful. The backlight was added by going around the rear of the car and sweeping a flashlight a few inches above the ground to pull out texture. The shot was really coming together now, but there’s too much light on the inside of the left front wheel.

Final shot - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Final shot - Dodge Charger light painting - by Michael Bertrand

Step 4 – The final shot

Mike really nailed the light painting on this final shot. Instead of sweeping the flashlight on the ground, he held the beam steady for a few seconds to add texture to the ground but maintain the integrity of the curvy shadows. This also solved the problem of not overlighting the inside front wheel. The red interior light has a nice glow, and the natural bleed of the pink/magenta headlights on the areas of the yellow grill looks great. Mike worked quickly and methodically, and was able to nail all of the light painting in the camera. Those of you who’ve tried these techniques know that this isn’t easy!

Technical details and a note about exposure

This image is a 90 second exposure at f/8, ISO 200 using a Nikon D300 and 12-24mm lens at 12mm (18mm equivalent). A technically correct expose-to-the-right shot for the light of the full moon would have been 6 minutes at f/8, ISO 200. An exposure time of 90 seconds underexposes the background by 2 stops, which keeps the sky and the background dark. Using the exposure time to control the tonality of the background really helps the light painting stand out.

I’d like to thank Mike for letting me share his light painting setup. To see more of his work, visit: http://www.michaelbertrandphotography.com/

Night photography: Stacking star trails and clouds in the same image

Out in the weeds behind the bus yard -- by Joe Reifer

Out in the weeds behind the bus yard -- by Joe Reifer

This 15 minute full moon photo was taken at a yard that restores and repairs vintage buses. The image was lit by a combination of moonlight, and light from the nearby highway. The green glow on the underside of the power lines is from a light outside of the building. Three 5-minute long exposures were stacked together for the final image. The image stacking technique allows you to shoot without using in-camera noise reduction, which helps with shooting productivity and battery life. The star trails look the same as one 15 minute exposure, but sometimes this can create a strange effect when there are clouds in the sky.

When you’re shooting long exposures, the amount of cloud definition depends on two factors: how fast the clouds are moving, and the length of the exposure. For full moon night photography, fast-moving clouds usually show a good blend of movement and definition when exposing for 2-4 minutes. When the clouds are moving more slowly, longer exposures are possible. If you expose too long, the sky can simply turn white without definition.

In the photo above, each 5 minute exposure captured a distinct amount of cloud movement. When the image was stacked for star trails, the additive cloud definition created a slightly ribbed pattern in the sky. If I hadn’t pointed out this effect would you have noticed? Because the sky is about a 50/50 split between stars and clouds, I think it works in this image. The clouds can start to look unnatural if you try to stack more images, or use shorter exposures.

Each image could stand on its own if I decide that I don’t like the effect. Stacking also allowed me to have different options for the amount of light from cars on the highway and road on the right. The highway shows the cumulative 15-minute exposure, and the road ended up looking better with just the red tail lights of one exposure.

If you’ve tried stacking images for star trails that also have a lot of cloud movement, how did they turn out?

Night photography: Revisiting the flying Imperial

Flying Imperial -- by David J. Lewis

Flying Imperial -- by David J. Lewis

Montana photographer David J. Lewis attended the Paul’s Junkyard Night Photography Workshop in April and produced a superb series of Mojave night photos on his trip. I was hanging out with David when he made the Flying Imperial photo, and this image turned out to be one of my favorites from the spring workshop. David’s image shows careful attention to blending moonlight with light painting, balancing highlights and shadows, and has texture and line to spare.

Last month during the fall workshop I was working in this corner of the yard with another photographer. We were looking at different ways to shoot the 1959 Imperial, and due to all the piled up debris, a 3/4 shot is really the clear choice. The moon was in a nice spot and the clouds were wild. I set up and made the image below.

Imperial etherial -- by Joe Reifer

Imperial etherial -- by Joe Reifer

As more photographers shoot at Paul’s Junkyard, we’ll see more photos of the popular subjects. There is a certain satisfaction in being the first person to make a successful photo of one of the many iconic cars at Paul’s. Kudos to David for killing it on the Imperial. Some photographers are more sensitive than others about setting up in other people’s tripod holes. Learning night photography is the same as learning to play jazz in this respect. If you hear a great song, try playing it. Puzzle it out. Deconstruct the reasons it works so well. There’s no trouble here, unless you’re playing a cover song and calling it an original. The crucial part of this process is to take what you learn and make something of your own.

Speaking of original work, don’t miss David’s Night Scenes gallery. The night photographs of snow covered cars in a Montana junkyard are superb.

Bad Moon Rising -- by David J. Lewis

Bad Moon Rising -- by David J. Lewis

Night panoramas: Abandoned cement plant

Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer

Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer


This night panorama shows the back of the abandoned cement plant in a 300 degree view. I shot 14 images but only ended up using 12 for the pano because the brightness of the full moon was too distracting. The distortion produced by the cylindrical projection option in Photoshop CS5 Photomerge works well with the long cluster of buildings on the right leading up into the nearby hills. The cylindrical setting also bends the clouds into interesting arc shapes, providing a rhythmic connection between the different groups of structures. These were 2 minute exposures at f/8, ISO 400 with a vertically mounted Canon 5D Mark II and a 24-70/2.8L lens at the 24mm setting. The graffiti on the small stone in the left foreground says “Musk,” which cracked me me because I encountered a rather aggressive skunk while shooting this image. I must have set my tripod up close to the skunk’s den. No skunks were harmed in the making of this picture.

Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer

Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer


For this alternate view of the plant I chose to center the big tree and buildings, and have the dirt path enter the frame from both sides. The impact of the cylindrical projection is minimal on this image. The increased space between the camera and subject matter gives the image less impact at web size, but would help achieve a more documentary spirit of place in a large sized print. Exposure and camera setup details were the same as the previous image.

Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer

Abandoned cement plant night panorama -- by Joe Reifer

The view from the SE corner of the plant also shows an  irrigation channel on the left. The cylindrical projection creates a very natural looking flow on the left side of the image with the pond, telephone pole, and domed building. The right side of the image has more intense distortion than the other night panos, because I was closer to the stone walls. I am still experimenting with the post-processing on this image in Photoshop, and may also try some of the tools in Autopano Pro.

I hope you enjoyed this series of full moon night panoramas!