Category Archives: Night Photography Core Course

Digital Night Photography: Test Exposures, Noise Reduction, and Image Stacking

A tree, trailer, fencing, and various geometric forms studied for 15 minutes -- by Joe Reifer

A tree, trailer, fencing, and various geometric forms studied for 15 minutes — by Joe Reifer

Technical Details
Canon 5D Mark II with an Olympus Zuiko 21mm f/3.5 lens — the lens is very small, light, sharp, and has a manual focus scale.
Long exposure noise reduction was turned off in the camera, greatly increasing productivity and battery life.

The test exposure to check the composition and histogram was 15 seconds at f/5.6, ISO 1600.
Let’s do the math: moving to f/8 is 1 stop, to f/11 is 2 stops, to ISO 800 is 3 stops, to ISO 400 is 4 stops, to ISO 200 is 5 stops.
We compensate for closing down the aperture and reducing the ISO by changing the exposure length 5 stops: 30 seconds is 1 stop, 1 minute is 2 stops, 2 minutes is 3 stops, 4 minutes is 4 stops, 8 minutes is 5 stops.
The result: 8 minutes at f/11, ISO 200.
Because the main subject is white and metallic, I protected the highlights by slightly reducing the exposure to: 7.5 minutes at f/11, ISO 160.

To achieve the 15 minute star trails in the image above, I set the Canon TC-80N3 Timer Remote to make 2 exposures in a row of 7.5 minutes at f/11, ISO 160.
I adjusted the RAW files for tone and color in Lightroom.
With both files selected in Lightroom, go to the top menu and select: Photo — Edit In — Open As Layers In Photoshop.
Next just set the top Layer to Lighten Blending Mode as pictured below to add the star trails together. Lighten Blending Mode adds anything on the top layer that’s brighter to the bottom layer – when you flip to Lighten Mode, voilà – you’ve added the star trails together.

Lighten Blending Mode in Photoshop to Stack Star Trails -- by Joe Reifer

Lighten Blending Mode in Photoshop to Stack Star Trails — by Joe Reifer

Remember: The secret to making this technique work is keeping the interval between exposures to 1 second or less. Otherwise you’ll have unsightly gaps in your star trails. I hope this useful technique saves you time and battery drain. Give it a try the next time you’re shooting at night.

Night Photography: Film Reads As Night, Use the Results for Digital Post-Processing

Various trucks, cans, detritus -- by Joe Reifer

Various trucks, cans, detritus — by Joe Reifer

45 minute exposure at f/11 with Kodak E100VS slide film.
Mamiya 7II with 43mm lens (21mm equivalent for 35mm cameras).

The technique necessary to make a 45 minute exposure with a digital SLR would be either to:

  1. Shoot for 45 minutes with noise reduction on, and then wait an additional 45 minutes for in-camera noise reduction to run
  2. Shoot multiple shorter exposures and stack them in Photoshop (e.g., 9 exposures of 5 minutes each)

My shooting strategy for the last few years has been to use a medium format film camera for long exposures of 45-60 minutes, while shooting with a digital SLR for the more typical 5-10 minute exposures. Not only does shooting with 2 setups help with productivity, but the medium format film work provides an excellent guide to post-processing the RAW files from the digital SLR. During the 80′s, 90′s, and into the aughts, medium format film defined the look of color night photography. Slide film reads as night. Emulating the look of slide film when post-processing in Lightroom and Photoshop helps the digital images read as night, too.

Calculating film exposures for images lit by the full moon is pretty easy. Start by taking a few test shots with your digital SLR — I typically use 10 seconds at f/4, ISO 1600 as a digital test exposure. If the histogram looks good, this exposure equates to 5 minutes at f/8, ISO 200 — or 10 minutes at f/8, ISO 100. When using Kodak E100VS, you’ll need to almost double the digital exposure time to help cope with reciprocity failure — about 18 minutes at f/8 during the full moon. When shooting at f/11, add another stop and a half — 45 minutes at f/11. Depending on the amount of shadow detail you’re trying to capture and the position of the moon in the sky, 60 minutes at f/11 may be more appropriate. With exposures this long, you have quite a bit of flexibility — the difference between a 60 minute and 45 minute exposure is only a 1/2 stop.

Remember these simple rules when dialing in the exposures with your favorite film:

  1. When using slide film (E-6), overexposure risks blown highlights (just like digital) — when in doubt, underexpose for night photography
  2. When using negative film (C-41), underexposure risks a thin negative with blocked up shadows — when in doubt, overexpose slightly for night photography

And remember — you don’t need a fancy camera to shoot long exposure night photographs. Even a $25 Holga does the job quite nicely. Give it a try next full moon!

How High The Moon: Night Photography at New Idria Ghost Town

During the July full moon I returned to the abandoned / ghost town of New Idria. [Last year's visit]. For an excellent background and vintage photos of this historic quicksilver mining town, have a look at the Three Rocks Research site.

Seasoned night photographers are familiar with how to calculate sunset and moonrise times. An additional factor that can make a big difference in planning a night photography adventure is the moon altitude. The moon altitude is simply how high the moon is above the horizon, expressed in degrees. The horizon is zero degrees, and straight overhead is 90 degrees. The azimuth is the angle of the moon along the horizon — zero degrees is North, 180 degrees is South, 90 degrees is East, and 180 degrees is West. The U.S. Naval Observatory (USNO) has an excellent sun/moon data calculator, and also a sun/moon altitude and azimuth calculator.

Let’s take a look at the sun/moon data for July 4th with some commentary on how to utilize the numbers:

  • Sunset: 8:39 p.m. — we arrived at the location a few hours before sunset to scout our shots in the daytime.
  • End civil twilight: 9:00 p.m. — time to get your first shot ready to go, shooting can typically begin within 20 minutes of this time.
  • Moonrise: 6:48 p.m. — shooting 3 nights before the full moon means the moon will already be up when the sun goes down.
  • Moon transit: 11:29 p.m. — the moon is approximately half way through its arc across the sky.
  • Moonset: 4:10 a.m. on the following day — important for planning, especially if the moon will drop behind any mountains before this moonset time.
  • Moon phase: waxing gibbous with 94% of the moon illuminated — plenty of light for night photography, but exposures will be slightly longer than when full.

Last September’s visit to New Idria was 2 nights before the full moon. The moon was high overhead during optimum shooting hours, with an altitude between 31-45 degrees. (In the Northern Hemisphere, the full moon typically reaches its highest altitude around the time of the Winter Solstice).

The July 2009 full moon had a relatively low altitude. The lower altitude of the moon creates a more directional, harder quality of light than when the moon is high in the sky. Below is a chart that shows the moon altitude during last week’s shoot on July 4th:

By a little after 1:15 a.m. the moon was gone behind the ridge. This schedule still allowed a solid 4 hours of night photography. Driving out of the valley into more open territory, the moon appeared again for another hour or so, and then disappeared for the night. Photographing the same location with the moon at a very different place in the sky really helped me better understand just how much the moon altitude effects the quality of light. I hope this article will be helpful in planning your next full moon photography adventure. Enjoy the photos below, and let me know which ones are your favorites. Many thanks to Steve and Riki for making the trip!

Night Photography: An Interview with Joe Reifer

A Newport Custom with No Key reaches out -- by Joe Reifer

A Newport Custom with No Key reaches out — by Joe Reifer

[On a note related to the interview, the image above contains light painting in 2 places. Can you tell where?]

A short while ago I was contacted via email by Mark Welker, who interviewed me for a college photography class. The interview  included my ramblings about night photography, light painting, and location access. Here it is:

To start off could you give me a brief bio with some of your history with photography. When did you first start taking pictures, educational background, major influences, when did you start making money/doing shows, etc.

I got interested in street photography in college, and learned traditional black and white printing from a friend. I started as a music major in school, and ended up with an English degree. I worked in a custom black and white lab for awhile, and enjoyed shooting with crappy thrift store cameras. After college I didn’t do much shooting beyond regular snapshots, because I was focusing on playing music. In the late 90’s I started a project documenting peeling billboards in my neighborhood, inspired by my love of collage artists like Rauschenberg. Around this time I became friends with professional photographer Jay Watson, who was instrumental in reawakening my interest in photography.

Continue reading

Night photography post-processing: A Warm Car on a Cool Night

RAW Conversion Comparison -- Photo by David Dasinger

RAW Conversion Comparison — Photo by David Dasinger

During the second afternoon of last week’s Pearsonville Night Photography and Light Painting Workshop, Troy Paiva and I critiqued 4 images from each participant — our goal was to help everyone make better photos the second night. Seeing all of the amazing work from the first night before shooting again was really inspiring. A lot of the photographers have uploaded images to the Pearsonville Workshop Flickr Group, and Troy and I have provided some further comments online.

During last Fall’s workshop, I offered to make a 16×20″ print of the image that Troy and I decided was our favorite from the first night. The winning shot was by Aaron Siladi, and the print is now hanging on his wall. Last week we upped the ante by providing a 16×20″ print and a Hostess Chocodile. I thought the Chocodile was extinct, but the Fastrip in Ridgecrest still has ‘em (although they no longer feature the Chauncey the Chocodile mascot I remember from my youth).

Anyhow, the image above by photographer David Dasinger was the Chocodile (and print) winner this time. David’s well placed addition of light to the underside of the hood was an extremely creative move that really brings out shape and texture of this mashed up beauty. Here’s a few words from David about how he lit the image:

Kept it super simple. 2 minute exposure, f/5.6, Stinger flashlight, just held it facing up under the hood crease and gave it about a 30 degree arc. The Stinger is so bright it was very quick. This one was about all that moonlight and the crinkly hood.

While working on the print over the last few days, I asked David if I could use his image as a split-conversion post-processing example and he agreed. Above are two different interpretations of the RAW file using the Virtual Copy feature in Lightroom. The warm version on the left is has a color balance of 4450K, and the cool version on the right is 3250K. I really like the orange against blue motif on the car in the warm version, but prefer the deep cyan sky of the cool version. Why not have the best of both worlds? Below is a step-by-step of how I combined the two versions of the file to make a print:

Quick Selection Tool Sky Masking -- Photo by David Dasinger

Quick Selection Tool Sky Masking — Photo by David Dasinger

  1. Bring both versions of the file into a Photoshop CS3 file, with the cool version as the top Layer.
  2. Use the Quick Selection Tool to select the sky (screenshot above), and use the Refine Edge tool to slightly feather the selection.
  3. Select the Channels palette, and click the “front loading washer” to make an Alpha Channel out of the selection.
  4. Go back to the Layers palette, select the top layer (cool version), and click the “front loading washer” to load the Alpha Channel as a Layer Mask.
  5. The opacity of the top layer to was reduced to 50% to have the sky look saturated but realistic (see version 1 below) . The reduced opacity and feathered mask selection are both useful ensuring a smooth transition from sky to ground.
Crumpled Blue -- by David Dasinger

Crumpled Blue — by David Dasinger

After dialing in the sky and foreground balance, I flattened the file, converted to the ICC profile of my printing service, and sharpened for output. The sky and the hood looked great in the first print, but the sand in the foreground was a little too orange, and the tonal value of the car’s front grill needed to be slightly brighter. I made a few quick adjustments to the master file as follows:

  1. Add a Curves Layer, increase the Green in the 3/4 tones — on the Layer Mask, paint in the effect in on the ground using a soft brush at a low opacity.
  2. Add a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer, slightly reduce the Saturation of Red and Yellow — on the Layer Mask, paint in the effect in on the ground using a soft brush at a low opacity.
  3. Play with the opacity of both Adjustment Layers until the foreground looks right.
  4. Add a Curves Layer to increase the brightness of the grill and engine area — on the Layer Mask, paint in the effect using a soft brush at a low opacity.

If you are intimidated by Layer Masks, I highly recommend Katrin Eismann’s book Photoshop Masking & Compositing.

By neutralizing the ground just slightly, and bringing out the 3/4 tones on the front grill and engine compartment, more attention is focused on our main subject, the car. This effect is subtle on the web, but makes a big difference in a 16×20″ print. Going back and doing a second or third round of adjustments on a print until it looks right is a great learning experience, and an important part of finishing the work. Below is the final image.

Crumpled Blue (final version) -- by David Dasinger

Crumpled Blue (final version) — by David Dasinger

Many thanks to David Dasinger for allowing me to use his beautiful image for this post-processing demo. And thanks to all of the workshop participants for their spirit of adventure and creativity — Chocodiles for everyone, I am still dreaming of cars!