Night Scene: Lighting up the stars across the sky

Scenery photography is a passion of mine. I like to get up early for the dawn colors and wait for the sun to finally go below the horizon. Lots of light, lots of color, familiar shapes and the play of tones and shadows. But what happens when it gets dark? What stories can we tell at night, when you can see things only with a flashlight?? That’s why I love nighttime, because it’s at night we can tell not life stories, but the most real fairy tales.

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AF-S NIKKOR 14-24 mm f/2.8G ED f/2.8, 30 sec, ISO 5000

Taking any nighttime photo is a long and painstaking process that begins before you even set up your tripod and set the angle. This one is no exception. It started with an idea, and continued with many hours of shooting, during which several dozen takes were taken. This photo is made up of several taken with the same parameters. One got a good shot of a human figure, one got rocks, one got stars, and the fourth one was the perfect base for collecting the rest

Let’s face it – we’re shooting at night for the stars. Overcast skies are not good for a beautiful tale, no matter what it’s about. So first of all let’s wait for a good starry night. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a cloudless sky, but clouds floating by can really add a certain flavor to a shot.

And then it’s worth orienting yourself with the position of the Milky Way. In order to see exactly where its plume will be, you can use special programs which display the position of the galaxy right on the picture from the phone camera. There are quite a few of these programs, but I use PhotoPills for iOS.

You switch the program on, set the augmented reality mode and see where the Milky Way will go today and how it will blend in with the landscape. But don’t let the galaxy control your creative impulses. If you think you need the Milky Way in the picture, and it will complement the picture and work for the overall plot, then frame the picture with it. If it turns out that your subject lines up in a completely different direction, you don’t want to revisit it. A star-spangled sky is not bad either.

Now let’s see how we can get stars in the frame. Starlight is incredibly faint, so any strong backlighting will easily overwhelm it. You don’t get far enough away from the cities? Get the sky glowing with the lights of the metropolis. We hit the full moon? Congratulations, night photography is on hold until the night light has dried up a bit. But the rising or setting moon is bright enough to replace the sunrise or sunset if you want to shoot a classic landscape at night.

But here you are away from all sources of light pollution and ready to shoot. As has been said, the stars are not the brightest source of light, so we will have to go all out to catch that light. First let’s open the iris as much as possible. For stargazing I strongly recommend a fast lens.

My favorite lens for this kind of photography is the AF-S Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8. At maximum open aperture this lens gives a very high quality image. The shutter speed you use to take the picture depends on what kind of result you want, namely whether you want to see static stars in the picture, or stars blurred into tracks. The second option requires long exposures – from a dozen minutes to several hours. Shooting and processing star tracks is a special story that could have its own story to tell. And as part of our photography school, we’re going to talk about how to get point stars.

Our planet doesn’t stand still, and the stars in the night sky are in constant motion. To get close to blur-free images, you just need to remember the simple 600 rule: stars come out clearly at shutter speeds equal to 600 divided by the focal length of the lens. When shooting with a 14mm camera, you can get shutter speeds of 42 seconds without risking blurring the stars. I prefer to shoot with a shutter speed of 30 seconds, because it gives good results and is available without using the shutter release and switching to Bulb mode slow shutter speed with the camera open while you’re pressing the shutter release .

The last important shooting parameter is ISO sensitivity. All other things being equal, the more light sensitivity you have, the more stars you will see in your picture and the brighter they will be. As sensitivity goes up, so does noise, so don’t make the setting too high. Optimal ISO speed ranges from 3200 to 6400.

And so we got the parameters figured out and ready to shoot. What else do we need from other equipment?? Because of the long shutter speeds, you can only shoot the starry sky with a tripod, and the more stable the tripod, the better. To get the camera’s vibration down to zero in this type of shoot, I recommend setting the delayed shutter release and delayed shutter release mode a two second delay is enough to minimize the vibration from pressing the button and lifting the mirror. You can also use the cable release instead of the delayed shutter release.

Planning and shooting

Remember, we didn’t want to express reality, but to tell a tale? A good story needs a good story. That means that before taking a picture it is very important to frame the shot in your head, to understand what and in what places will be located, how you will work with the foreground, will you put a person in the frame.

For my photo I chose the lava fields of the Katutau foothills in Altyn-Emel National Park in eastern Kazakhstan. Their whimsical shape would make it even more unreal.

I really wanted to have a hero in the shot who would not just accentuate the scale, but would also contribute to the story and help develop the story. In this shot, it was me who was the hero. When I saw that the sky was starting to get cloudy, I immediately realized that I needed to disperse the clouds with my flashlight. This is how I knew where I should stand and where I should put my light. With the 20 second delayed release mode I was able to pull the shutter release, run up the rocks to the point I wanted to go and start posing. It’s very convenient that the Nikon D5 can take up to nine shots in delayed shutter mode instead of just one. I kept changing the position and direction of the flashlight a bit with each shot to see what combination would work best for me.

By the way, if you happen to shoot at night in a bumpy terrain, don’t forget about safety – always carry a flashlight and light your way. And to fully protect your feet, take these pictures only with comfortable and well-protected shoes, like hiking boots.

Backlighting. As I said before, I used a flashlight for illumination. To make my figure stand out against the sky, I used a flash set to manual mode. I asked my assistant to stand so that my figure obscured the flash, and the momentum was kept out of the shot. Towards the end, when I told the assistant to do it, he pressed Test on the flash and blew it out. So my backlit figure showed up instantly in the picture.

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Illumination of the hero with a flash from the back

I lit the foreground with the same flashlight I used as a prop in the previous shot. If you want to get an interesting light and shadow pattern, then I advise to illuminate the foreground not “directly”, but from the side – so you can better show the volume.


Backlighting the foreground

And of course you have to be prepared for the fact that working with a light brush, especially at night, is trial and error. You have to take a couple of dozen shots until you get acceptable results.

I took a couple of shots with this one that had the sky in the background, one that had the figure well backlit by the flash and one that showed the foreground in interesting detail. Then you load all those photos into Photoshop for editing. If you want to avoid problems with editing the final photograph, try not to move your tripod when you shoot. The slightest displacement will cause your photos to be slightly separated, and it will take you a long time to match them up.



Selecting, processing and uploading photos in Photoshop as layers of a single file

To composite layers quickly and efficiently, change the blending mode to Lighten, which takes only the highlights from the layer. Use masks to hide the unnecessary. The photo is ready.

Photo equipment

A photo with layers assembled, but no additional toning

Photo equipment

Finished photo with all layers and toning

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