Category Archives: Night Photography Core Course

Night photography: Circular star trails at an abandoned desert gas station

Abandoned gas station, Mojave Desert -- by Joe Reifer

Abandoned gas station, Mojave Desert — by Joe Reifer

When the camera position faces to the north, the stars will spin around Polaris (the North Star) in a long exposure. A commonly asked question at my night photography workshops is: how long of an exposure is necessary to achieve this effect? Budding night photographers are often surprised at how short the star trails are with a northward facing composition, even with what seems like a long digital exposure time in the 10 minute range.

One of the 10-minute exposures used to create the 30-minute final image

One of the 10-minute exposures used to create the 30-minute final image

This example image is a 10 minute exposure at f/9.5, ISO 160 with the Canon 5D Mark II at a focal length of 25mm. The exposure is approximately the same as my typical full moon exposure time of 5 minutes at f/8 ISO 200. Because the weather was quite cold, I was able to expose for 10 minutes without using in-camera noise reduction. The star trails near Polaris do not show much movement.The final version of this image is three 10-minute shots stacked together for 30-minute star trails. While it’s certainly possible to fill the sky with stars by exposing for hours on end, be careful that you don’t overwhelm the subject with a special effect. An exposure in the 30-40 minute range is enough to show the circular star movement, but still leaves enough negative space in the sky to allow some breathing room in the photo. Subject first, stars as the icing on the cake.

Here are a few basic ideas to remember regarding star movement:

  • If you’re facing north, an exposure of 30 minutes or longer will achieve a nice circular star trail effect when shooting wide angle.
  • The farther away from Polaris you get, the longer the star trails are for a given exposure time (i.e., point east, west, or south for longer trails in short exposures).
  • If you’re facing west, the stars will travel diagonally downward.
  • If you’re facing east, the stars will go up.
  • Pointing the camera to the south yields almost horizontal star trails.

Armed with this knowledge, your digital test exposures will become even more useful. Checking the position of the brightest stars in your test exposures will allow you pre-visualize how the stars will travel across the sky in your photos, and how the star trails will interact with your subject. I hope these tips are helpful on your next night photography adventure. Happy trails!

Night photography: Long exposure noise reduction on a warm desert night

Green 1971 Dodge Demon -- by Joe Reifer

Green 1971 Dodge Demon — by Joe Reifer

Technical details
The image was lit by moonlight, with a small amount of distant sodium vapor streetlight visible on the car windows. Two exposures of 7.5 minutes at f/9.5 ISO 200 were layered together for a 15 minute cumulative exposure. This exposure is the same as 5 minutes at f/8 ISO 200, or 10 minutes at f/8 ISO 100 — a very typical full moon exposure when you’re away from the lights of the city. I stopped down to f/9.5 for depth of field, and because 15 minute star trails often hit a sweet spot for me.

Why take 2 shots?
One had light painting, the other one did not. This keeps the options open for either a moonlight only shot, or a light painted shot. By keeping the interval between shots to 1 second or less, the 2 images can quickly be combined for longer star trails. The image above includes the sky portion from both 7.5 minute exposures with no light painting (i.e., moonlight only).

Test exposures, and taking control of your star trails
Before making the Green 1971 Dodge Demon image, I made a test exposure of 10 seconds at f/8 ISO 6400. The test exposure allowed me to evaluate the histogram, composition, and focusing before committing to the shot. Test exposures also allow you to creatively position the star trails in your images. When you’re facing West, the stars will go down. To the East, they’ll go up. To the South they’re almost horizontal. Point North, and they spiral around Polaris (the North Star). In this case, the camera position was facing to the southwest. By zooming in on my test exposure on the LCD, I was able to pre-visualize the interaction of the star trails with the trunk of the car.

When it’s hot, turn on in-camera noise reduction
Shooting at night in the desert when it’s 75 degrees with no wind is a real treat. Oftentimes sky noise and hot pixels are not readily apparent on your camera’s LCD screen. Testing different exposure lengths in warm weather is necessary to find out when to use in-camera noise reduction with your digital SLR.

When it’s cold out, current cameras such as the Canon 5D Mark II do not require noise reduction on night exposures in the 6-8 minute range. Typically I do not run in-camera noise reduction when the ambient temperature is 60 degrees or colder. In this case, the ambient temperature was 70-75 degrees — warm temperatures can drastically increases noise in long exposures. I set the Canon TC80-N3 Timer Remote to capture 2 exposures of 7.5 minutes with a 1 second interval between shots. The 5d Mark II was set to run in-camera noise reduction. When shooting multiple consecutive images with a timer remote, the 5D Mark II, 5D, and 7D will wait until the entire sequence of shots is complete to run noise reduction.

As an experiment, I shot a few 7.5 minute exposures without noise reduction under the same conditions. These images had a large amount of green hot pixels in the sky. When it’s warm out at night, either run noise reduction, or shoot shorter exposures. Interestingly, the workshop participants using the Nikon D700 seemed to have consistently cleaner skies under the same exposure and temperature conditions without using in-camera noise reduction. I didn’t do any formal testing at the workshop, but the D700 seemed less susceptible to temperature induced long exposure noise for night photography. Perhaps there’s a D700 owner and desert-hound out there that can confirm long exposure noise performance under warm temperatures?

Book review: Night photography: Finding your way in the dark

I am a dedicated night photographer and photography workshop instructor who has written extensively on the topic of night photography. I own or have read most books published on night shooting, and at long last there is a book I can recommend wholeheartedly — Night Photography: Finding your way in the dark by Lance Keimig.

This book covers the technical aspects of night photography with great clarity and understanding, and includes many beautiful example images. Lance also touches on the more elusive why of night photography and mentions two key points: night photography is an experience that can lead to a heightened sense of awareness, and is a pursuit that often contends with a great deal of mystery.

Chapter one contains a very informative and well written history of night photography that includes some superb images. Even those of you who know your photo history quite well will likely learn something new and find photographers you’d like to further investigate.

The second chapter proceeds to a discussion of gear, including a list of key digital camera features for night photography. There is an excellent discussion on using manual focus lenses for easier focusing and perspective control. The night photography equipment checklist is a great resource for packing your gear. The tripod section is short, and I recommend Thom Hogan’s guide to tripods as a supplement. The chapter concludes with a well-written essay on the important topic of location access issues by my friend and legendary night photographer Troy Paiva.

Chapter three is an overview of the basics of night photography technique, including the most in-depth discussion anywhere on how to focus at night. Focusing is one of the most frequently asked questions at my night photography workshops, and the information in this chapter is superb. Other important topics include controlling dynamic range, lighting types, color temperature, and how to minimize flare.

The next chapter covers film-based night photography, and will be of particular interest to those who shoot black and white. Lance’s many years of experience with film are apparent in his excellent advice on film choice, reciprocity failure, and contrast control techniques. The chapter concludes with an essay by Tom Paiva on the merits of shooting color film in a large format camera at night.

The zone system technique of exposing for the shadows and developing for the highlights has strong parallels with digital night photography, which is the topic of chapter five. The explanation of histograms and optimizing night exposures to achieve the maximum tonal range is particularly lucid. This discussion also includes important information on white balance and camera settings for minimizing noise. The chapter finishes with an essay by Christian Waeber on shooting night scenes with people at high ISO settings.

Chapter six covers post-processing, and is primarily focused on Adobe Lightroom. If you use a Photoshop/Bridge workflow instead, most of the Lightroom information can be easily adapted to working in Adobe Camera Raw. The Lightroom workflow contains a nice balance of information that’s geared towards adjusting night images.

Chapter seven includes three High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging techniques: manual Photoshop layer blending by Christian Waeber, a overview of Photomatix with HDR expert Dan Burkholder, and a brief look at the Enfuse plugin for Lightroom. Enfuse allows you to create natural looking HDR images right inside Lightroom.

The following chapter covers moonlight and star trails, and is an extremely valuable resource for photographers interested in creating long exposures away from the lights of the city. The discussion of exposure determination through high ISO testing is particularly useful. There is also excellent advice on capturing star trails and strategies to keep noise at bay by stacking multiple star trail images. The final chapter covers light painting and includes some wonderful example images, along with information on light sources, color temperature, and gels.

The night photography book that I always wished I could suggest to my workshop students is finally a reality. Night photography: Finding your way in the dark is highly recommended. Congratulations to Lance Keimig, Scott Martin, and the other expert contributors for a job well done.

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher. I also purchased an additional copy for students to refer to at my night photography workshops. I hope you enjoy the book!

Night photography: Exposure and lighting techniques

Qualifier -- by Joe Reifer

Qualifier — by Joe Reifer

The image above was used as a light painting demo at the last Pearsonville Night Photography Workshop. Here are the exposure considerations and light painting guidelines used to create this image:

  1. A base exposure with no light painting for lighting assessment and post-production.
  2. A second exposure to stack with the base exposure for longer star trails.
  3. A shorter, darker exposure to control the relationship between moonlight and light painting.
  4. Choosing a light painting position to create depth.

1. Base exposure: With reasonably cool weather, the Canon 5D Mark II can make 10 minute exposures without the need for in-camera noise reduction.
Exposure: 10 minutes at f/11 ISO 200. Here’s how the engine compartment looked with no light painting:

Light painting demo #1 -- by Joe Reifer

Light painting demo #1 — by Joe Reifer

2. Second exposure for star trail stacking: the shutter was opened immediately after the first shot finished, in order to be able to combine the sky portion of images 1 & 2 for longer star trails. For demonstration purposes, the light painting on this take was from a high angle near the camera position with a flashlight.
Exposure: 10 minutes at f/11 ISO 200.

Lighting the subject from the camera position often looks too flat because everything is lit.
This lighting example doesn’t work because the primary rule of light painting is broken: Don’t light everything.

Light painting demo #2 -- by Joe Reifer

Light painting demo #2 — by Joe Reifer

3. A shorter exposure for more contrasty light painting:
After reviewing the light painting on image #2,  I did a couple more takes to get the light painting just right. Since my first two exposures for star trails were complete, I changed the exposure to 3 minutes at f/8 ISO 200. By opening up a stop from f/11 to f/8, the equivalent change in exposure duration would have been 1/2 the time — from 10 minutes to 5 minutes.

I further reduced the exposure from 5 minutes to 3 minutes to darken the background by almost another stop. This exposure adjustment makes the light painting more contrasty — less moonlight on the foreground means darker shadows to really make the light painted areas stand out! The 3rd image was light painted from camera right, and was used for the final image. Notice how the engine area has more depth — the shadows provide shape and contrast:

Light painting demo #3 -- by Joe Reifer

Light painting demo #3 — by Joe Reifer

4. Using the same 3 minute exposure as image #3, the engine area was light painted from camera left. Lighting from the left was not as successful because this flattened out the interesting pipes & wires on the right. If you’re not sure where to stand to light paint, try both sides before you open the shutter.

Light painting demo #4 -- by Joe Reifer

Light painting demo #4 — by Joe Reifer

The best way to learn these light painting and exposure techniques is hands-on! Troy Paiva & I will be teaching 2 more night photography workshops this September and October at the amazing Pearsonville junkyard. Registration opens on June 1st — get on the email list for priority notification.


Night photography: Step-by-step through a complex light painting setup

Don't let things rattle your chain -- by Joe Reifer

Don’t let things rattle your chain — by Joe Reifer

Technical details: 4 minutes at f/9.5, ISO 200. Canon 5D Mark II with a Zeiss Distagon 21mm f/2.8 ZE lens

The composition above was used as a light painting demonstration during last month’s night photography workshop. All the light you see on the foreground subjects was added with a flashlight while the shutter was open. Due to the number of different surfaces being lit, this setup took multiple attempts to get right. Let’s take a brief walk through the steps involved:

Light painting demo #1 -- by Joe Reifer
1. Daytime Scouting — blocking out your shots in the daytime will help you be more productive at night. Photographer Hunter Luisi surveys the scene before the sun goes down.

Light painting demo #2 -- by Joe Reifer
2. Test Exposure — checking focus, composition, and exposure before committing to a complicated shot will help you get more keepers. The test exposure was 8 seconds at f/8, ISO 6400. This equates to 8 minutes at f/8 ISO 100 — or 4 minutes at f/8 ISO 200. In the final exposure, I stopped the lens down to f/9.5 for depth of field, and also to underexpose the background by 1/2 stop in order to give the light painting more snap.

Light painting demo #3 -- by Joe Reifer
3. Base Exposure — I was shooting into the moon, which is just out of the frame at top left. Make sure to use a lens hood for night photography. The base exposure was not light painted at all, and underexposed by 1 full stop in order to have a version with a darker sky. A base exposure is useful for seeing the effect of your light painting, and for removing any unwanted lighting in post production. 2 minute exposure at f/8, ISO 200.

Light painting demo #4 -- by Joe Reifer
4. Light painting — I lit the red trailer from camera left, walked around and lit the white truck, and then lit the red trailer from camera right. The lighting on the trailer is a bit too bright. By reviewing the feedback on the camera’s LCD, I decided to also light the truck on the left, the yellow ramp on the right, and to skim a little bit of light across the box in the foreground.

Light painting demo #5 -- by Joe Reifer
5. Light painting — the trailer is just about right, and the side of the yellow ramp is getting there. I missed the back of the truck at left, and decided to light the top of the box in front more than the side directly facing the camera.

Light painting demo #6 -- by Joe Reifer
6. Light painting — Finally got a take I liked!

  • The truck on the left was lit at an oblique angle from camera left to bring out the shapes along the green part in the back.
  • The red trailer was lit on both sides from a 45 degree angle to bring out texture and prevent hot spots
  • The yellow ramp  was lit from camera left using a snoot to control the lighting, and also on the top from camera right.
  • The light skimming across the box in the foreground was also done with a snooted flashlight from camera left.
  • The white truck in the background was lit while hiding behind the red trailer

Technical note: a Streamlight Stinger flashlight was used, utilizing a 1.5 foot long cardboard tube as a snoot for lighting control. The Stinger is a high powered flashlight that is great for light painting dark surfaces from middle distances.

Post-Processing notes: While the light painting on the version above worked really well, there was a slight bit of lens flare. The darker, more simple sky from the base exposure looked better — so I replaced the sky from the earlier exposure using a layer mask in Photoshop. I will cover sky replacement in a future article.

A small amount of dodging and burning were also done on the foreground and right side of the red trailer to create the final image at the top of this post. I hope this extended look at the making of a complex light painted image is useful. Let me know if you’d like to get on the list for future night photography workshops — all that’s necessary is a camera, tripod, flashlight, and your imagination!