The Color of Night: The Proliferation of LEDs and its Effects on How We Photograph

If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that it’s gotten much cooler at night in recent years––about 3000 degrees cooler!

The nighttime world has transitioned from one that was overwhelmingly lit by yellow-orange sodium vapor lamps to one lit primarily by daylight-balanced LEDs. It’s happened quickly and it’s had a huge impact on night photography, especially in urban areas. Even night photography in national parks is impacted, as the distant glow on the horizon shifts from orange to white.

While there’s no doubt that LED lighting is more energy-efficient, and generally easier on the eyes, it is making for much more mundane and ordinary-looking night photographs.

Figure 1. Trona Pinnacles, California. November 2014. Canon 5D Mark II with a Nikon PC Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 lens. 30 seconds, f/8, ISO 6400. White balance: tungsten. Foreground lighting with a Four Sevens Quark 123 LED flashlight. Sky glow from mostly sodium vapor lights in the nearby small city of Ridgecrest.

Back in the 1990s I was living in San Francisco, and much of my night photography was done in and around industrial sites in the Bay Area. My friend Tom Paiva and I explored the abandoned piers along the Third Street corridor in the south of San Francisco, and the Southern Pacific rail yards across the Bay Bridge in Oakland. We were drawn to the strange machinery and architecture of these sites, but most of all it was the odd mixture of high and low pressure sodium vapor, mercury vapor and metal halide lights that we found so irresistible. We sought scenes lit with multiple light sources that created surreal colors when combined with long exposures on our film (Figure 2). These were exactly the kind of situations that I tried hard to avoid or to correct for in my commercial architectural work.

And there’s the rub––mixed lighting can be both a curse and a blessing depending on the situation at hand. To the artist, it makes for worlds of possibilities, and to the commercial photographer concerned with color accuracy, nothing but headaches.

Figure 2. Petaluma, circa 1994. Shot on Fuji NPL color negative film (tungsten), exposure unrecorded. A combination of sodium and mercury vapor lights illuminates separate parts of this image making for areas with radically different color balances—not to mention that crazy purple sky. Note the light on either side of the pole in the foreground.

Photographing mixed-lighting scenes with digital cameras and adjusting the white balance in post-processing allows for great flexibility in how an image is presented, and in turn the feelings or moods it elicits. We have it easy today being able to fine-tune (or even dramatically shift) the white balance after an image is made, and local adjustments make it even easier to “correct” for different colored light sources in the same frame.

Not too long ago that would have been an unimaginable luxury. Back in the days of 4x5 transparency film, I shot assignments where I would have to make multiple exposures on the same sheet of film for each light source. Testing was required to find the right filtration to put in front of the lens for fluorescent, incandescent, sodium, halide and other light sources, and if daylight was involved, windows would often have to be blacked out and then exposed for separately with all of the other light sources turned off. All of this had to be done while making sure the camera didn’t move between exposures. The gas discharge lamps often took 5 to 10 minutes to warm up after being turned off, so testing and exposing Polaroids and film might have taken 2 or 3 hours for a single image. In some instances, I could filter the lights directly and make a single exposure, but putting filter sleeves on a sea of fluorescent tubes in a large office space wasn’t much fun either. This is what it was like in the days before digital photography and even Photoshop.

But, back to our future …

In the images below of an old textile mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the overall scene is lit with high pressure sodium vapor lights, and there’s a metal halide light out of sight behind the building on the right side of the frame. The interior is lit with either incandescent or possibly more sodium vapor lights.

In each version, I’ve set the white balance differently by using Lightroom’s eyedropper tool to click on an area lit by one of the light sources. As is usually the case, my preferred white balance is somewhere between the neutral points used in the first two examples. After using the eyedropper tool to check various white balances (Figures 3a and 3b), I pick the one that is closest to what I want and then use the temperature and tint sliders to further refine the color (Figure 3c). In this kind of situation, the “right” white balance is the one that looks best, not a perfectly neutral setting.

Figure 3a: Pawtucket Textile Mill. December 2015. Nikon D750 with a Nikon PC Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 lens. 10 seconds, f/8, ISO 400. White balance neutralizing the metal halide light: 3100 K, +15 Magenta.

Figure 3b: The same image with the white balance neutralizing the sodium vapor light: 2050 K, +4 Magenta.

Figure 3c: The same image with the white balance set to personal taste: 2450 K, +7 Magenta.

Figure 4: An LED streetlight casting multiple shadows in Los Angeles, December 2013.

LEDs in the Modern World

In my recent travels, I’ve noticed that in both large cities and small towns around the country, most places have almost fully transitioned to LED lighting within the last 2 or 3 years. Lighting technology has evolved quickly, and early adapters—such as the city of Los Angeles (Figure 4), which converted to LED in 2012 and 2013—now find themselves with outdated fixtures that use multiple diodes and cast weird repeating shadows. Newer lights are brighter, and don’t require multiple diodes for adequate brightness. Even my tiny hometown of Hinesburg, Vermont, has completely transitioned to LED streetlights, casting the town in a naturalistic—but boring—neutral glow.

I had the great fortune to lead National Parks at Night’s Easter Island and Morocco photo tours this winter, and observed that relatively poor and extremely remote Easter Island (Figure 6) has converted to LED lighting, but Morocco, which generally has better infrastructure, is still lit mostly by sodium vapor. Granted, there’s only one town on Easter Island, while Morocco (Figure 5) is a country that is slightly larger than California with several major cities! I guess it’s not a fair comparison, but it was interesting to see. I haven’t been to Cuba since 2015, but I’m guessing that when Gabe returns next week, he’ll report that Havana still glows orange at night!

Figure 5. Essaouira, Morocco. March 2019. Nikon D750 with a Nikon PC Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 lens. 13 seconds, f/11, ISO 100. White balance was set to auto, which used 4350 K, +36 Magenta. I adjusted it to 3950 K, +37 Magenta by clicking the eyedropper tool just above the archway in the foreground. The orange light is high pressure sodium vapor, the green is from mercury vapor, and the archway was lit by either metal halide or LED. The window in the tower is most likely an LED bulb.

Have you noticed the Color of Night in your town lately? Has it changed, and if so, was it for better or worse? Let us know in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Figure 6: Tahai, Rapa Nui. February 2019. Nikon D750 with a Sigma 24mm f/1.4 lens. 20 seconds, f/2.2, ISO 3200. White balance was set to auto, recorded as 3550 K, +2 Magenta, and adjusted to 3300 K, +6 Magenta. Six vertical images, merged to panorama in Adobe Lightroom. The Moai at Tahai are just at the edge of Hanga Roa, the only town on Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. They are the only Moai that are (indirectly) lit by artificial light, and one of them told me that they were not pleased at being lit up all night every night. Most of the light in this scene is from LED street lighting, but there is one sodium light casting a yellow tinge on the right side of the image. The rock platform in the foreground on the left was lit with a Luxli Viola set at 3200 K.

Lance Keimig is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He has been photographing at night for 30 years, and is the author of Night Photography and Light Painting: Finding Your Way in the Dark (Focal Press, 2015). Learn more about his images and workshops at www.thenightskye.com.

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New Rule for Shooting the Sharpest Stars in the Sky

Kareem (@wildnkrazykid) searching for the sharpest stars in the sky. Nikon Z 6 with Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 20 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 16,000.

In this golden age of night photography that we live in, the quest for the sharpest stars seems to be the most elusive. But it’s certainly an achievable goal, and we’re here to help you reach it — to reach for the stars, you might say.

Sharp stars can mean two things: Focus and proper exposure. We discussed the multiple ways you can master focus in Chris Nicholson’s article “Staying Sharp.” Today we are going to take a deep dive into working out the best exposure for your camera and lens combination to create tack-sharp stars that don’t trail.

The 600/500/400/250/200 Rules

When I first started shooting digital night photography a decade ago, we used a simple rule to figure out the best shutter speed for star point photography. That was the 600 Rule. Divide 600 by the focal length of your lens, and the result was your maximum shutter speed for achieving pinpoint stars. For example:

600 / 20mm lens = 30 seconds.

This seemed to work fine, but for those of us who were making prints bigger than 8.5x11 inches, we were noticing that those stars weren’t as round as they should be. In reality, they were tiny lines.

So we adapted the rule to 500:

500 / 20mm = 25 seconds

The 500 Rule became the standard for many night photographers and worked fairly well with larger prints and cameras under 20 megapixels. However, as cameras increased the millions of pixels they put into their sensors and with the variety of different size sensors, we needed to adapt again. Over the last 4 to 5 years we have been using the 400 Rule for full-frame cameras under 30 megapixels, the 250 Rule for APS-C sensors and the 200 Rule for Micro Four Thirds. (For an explanation of why this all works, see Lance’s two-part blog post “What’s the Longest Usable Shutter Speed for Astro-landscape?”)

400 / 20mm = 20 seconds

250 / 20mm  = 12.5 seconds

200 / 20mm = 10 seconds

These results were more accurate than the previous 500/600 rules and were customized to our sensor sizes. However, if you were to zoom in to 100 percent, or get close to a large print, you would definitely still see slight movement in those luminous points in the sky.

Add to the equation that higher-megapixel cameras (40-plus megapixels) were actually doing a decent job at higher ISOs, which meant our images were showing more detail than ever before. More detail means that trailing stars become more noticeable.

Not to mention that those “rules” are just guidelines to get you in the right ballpark for shutter speed. Other factors affect how quickly stars begin to trail, including declination (i.e., your place on the globe) and which compass horizon you’re facing. The point is (see what I did there? point?), if you want to be precise about getting sharp star points, there’s a lot that goes into figuring that out.

A Modern Solution for a Modern Problem

A couple of years ago, Frédéric Michaud—a French photographer and amateur astronomer—devised the ultimate formula for the Astronomical Society of Le Havre. That formula is called the NPF Rule. Don’t bother trying to decipher the acronym; the letters aren’t initials, they’re variables:

N = aperture
P = pixel pitch
F = focal length

I’ll be honest—the formula is a bit complex. Besides the focal length of your lens, it also takes into account the camera’s megapixels, physical size of the sensor, aperture, pixel pitch and the minimal declination of the stars in your frame.

This is a lot to figure out in the field, and the cheat sheets aren’t small. To take a look at Frédéric’s formula, visit the Astronomical Society’s website (or Google’s English translation).

Fortunately for night photographers, there’s a simple way to apply this complex concept: I am happy to report that our friends at PhotoPills have incorporated the NPF Rule into their app, under the Spot Stars section.

Below is what the PhotoPills calculator looks like, followed by the five easy steps to figure out the best shutter speed for sharp stars.

When you open PhotoPills, the Spot Stars module is located near the bottom, so scroll down and tap.

Input your information and PhotoPills will do the NPF Rule calculations for you,

Here’s how to use it:

  1. Select your camera in the upper right corner. PhotoPills uses this to determine some of the necessary numbers to plug into the NPF Rule algorithm, such as using the sensor size and megapixels to figure out the pixel pitch.

  2. Choose the focal length of the lens (the one written on the lens, not the full-frame equivalent).

  3. Input the aperture you’d like to use. We typically choose an aperture one-third to 1 stop less than wide open. For example, for a f/1.4 lens we’d shoot at f/1.8 or f/2.

  4. For declination, tap the AR (Augmented Reality) button on the lower left corner and angle/aim the AR to the area in the sky you’d like to compose around. Note that at the bottom of your screen PhotoPills will now show your maximum exposure in landscape and portrait modes, as well as your minimum declination.

  5. The final setting to look at is Accuracy (upper right). It should say “Default.” If you keep it at Default, you’ll get a longer shutter speed and be able to use realistic ISOs such as 3200 and 6400. However, if you’re a pixel-peeper and look at the stars at 100 percent, that will result in you still seeing slight movement. You can switch from Default to Accurate and then there will be no trails at all. However, you’ll also be cutting your maximum shutter speed in half. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you are making 17x22 or larger prints—but even then, that results in the negative trade-offs that come with shooting at sky-high ISOs, which are also more prevalent in larger prints. Decisions, decisions.

Old vs. New

Let’s take a look at the old and new math.

Using our beloved Irix 15mm lens on a standard-resolution, full-frame camera, the 400 Rule gives us a 25-second exposure (400 / 15mm = 26.6 seconds).

Using the NPF Rule in PhotoPills, at a declination of 0 and set in Default mode, with the Irix lens at f/2.8 on our new favorite camera, the 24.5-megapixel Nikon Z 6, we get a maximum shutter speed of 17.26 seconds. I’d probably round that out to 15 seconds. (You want to round down, not up, to ensure sharpness.)

However, if we then shifted to Accurate mode, our maximum shutter speed would be 8.63 seconds. I’d round that to 8.

So, using the NPF Rule in Accurate, I’ve lost pretty much 2 stops of light from ye olde 400 Rule and 1 stop of light off the NPF Default mode. On a moonless night we would typically use ISO 6400 under the 400 Rule. Now, with the NPF Rule, we’d have to shoot at ISO 12,800 or 25,600 in order to get perfectly sharp stars. The Nikon Z 6 can handle those ISOs, but not many others can.

Real-World Testing

Theory is nice. But shooting for real is where we really learn some things.

I was out on the sand dunes of Death Valley a few weeks ago, and I brought my new Z 6. Curious about how the bigger sensors and higher-megapixel cameras would perform, I also borrowed the medium format 51.4-megapixel Fujifilm GFX 50R as well as my friend Kareem’s 42-megapixel Sony a7R III.

Fujifilm GFX 50r with 23mm f/4 lens

400 Rule: 400 / 18mm = 22.22 seconds

The 23mm lens is equivalent to an 18mm on a full-frame sensor, so for the 400 Rule this equaled a 22.22 maximum shutter speed. I rounded down to 20 seconds at f/5.6, ISO 6400. The resulting stars are slight dashes—elongated oblongs. They are sharp and skinny, which makes me feel I could live with this. However, if you are shooting with a 50-megapixel camera, then you’re probably making big prints, so maximum sharpness is important.

Full image from Fujifilm GFX 50r with 23mm f/4 lens. 20 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

100 percent view from Fujifilm GFX 50r. 20 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

NPF Default = 10.71 seconds

I used 10 seconds, but I was afraid to go any higher than ISO 6400 on the GFX 50r—so I just underexposed. (Not trying for art here, just testing efficacy.) To be honest, I’m seeing only the slightest of movement in the stars, not even oblong, mostly round but some of the brighter ones slightly oval. I’d be happy with these stars, event in a big print.

Full image from Fujifilm GFX 50r. 10 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

100 percent view from Fujifilm GFX 50r. 10 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

NPF Accurate = 5.35 seconds

With NPF Accurate, we’re squeezed even further. Again we are still dealing with an underexposed image, but the stars are certainly tack-sharp.

Full image from Fujifilm GFX 50r. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

100 percent view from Fujifilm GFX 50r. 5 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

Takeaways: The GFX has the most megapixels of the sub-$5,000 cameras on the market, clocking in at 51.4. The dynamic range and detail are amazing, but the higher ISOs are a struggle. ISO 3200 is workable but 6400 needs some finessing. Match that with their widest lens, for which the fastest aperture is f/4, and it’s a challenge to do any dark sky work with this combo.

Nikon Z 6 with Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens

400 Rule: 400 / 15mm = 26.66 seconds

Here was my first shot using the 400 Rule, which gave me a 25-second maximum shutter speed. This forced me to use a wide-open aperture of f/2.4 and an ISO of 12,800. It looks good in standard view in Lightroom, and if posted to social media there would be no issues. However, the 100 percent crop definitely show the stars as small lines.

Full image from Nikon Z 6 with Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 25 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 12,800.

100 percent view from Z 6. 25 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 12,800.

NPF Default = 17.26 seconds

The stars are definitely rounder, a little oblong, but I would find this result totally acceptable.

Full image from Z 6. 15 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 12,800.

100 percent view from Z 6. 15 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 12,800.

All that disturbs me is the coma distortion that is affecting the brighter stars. Most lenses display some coma at their widest aperture, mainly near the edges of the frame and in brighter stars. With the Irix, this can be minimized by stopping down to f/2.8 or f/3.5.

Note the distortion in the brighter stars—they look like UFOs with a bright line intersecting them. This is called “coma’ and is found in many lenses. You can correct for coma by closing down your lens 1 to 3 stops.

NPF Accurate = 8.63 seconds

The NPF Accurate exposure was for 8 seconds, so I had to push my ISO up to 32,000 to get a good histogram. The stars are definitely rounder and less oblong, but it is a challenge to live in those higher ISOs. The coma is also still prevalent.

Full image from Z 6. 8 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 32,000.

100 percent view from Z 6. 8 seconds, f/2.4, ISO 32,000.

Takeaways: I’m starting to feel that I can live with the Default NPF setting in PhotoPills, which is still pushing cameras into the ISOs of 12,800 and higher. The Z 6 handles those higher ISOs very well, but I barely got the right exposure in the sky and the foreground is suffering. Blending a longer foreground exposure would be key to balancing the overall image (such as Tim did for his Bryce Canyon photo in last week’s post).

Sony a7R III with 16-35mm f/2.8 lens

400 Rule: 400 / 19mm = 21.05 seconds

I stopped down the lens to f/4 and the shutter speed to 20 seconds for our 400 Rule shot. The Sony a7R III does an excellent job at ISO 6400 and the Big Dipper looks very sharp. Looking west (left) I do notice the stars are becoming oblong.

Full image from Sony a7R III with 16-35mm f/2.8 lens. 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

100 percent view from a7R III. 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

NPF Default = 11.75 seconds

Rounding down the NPF Default to 10 seconds yields excellent results. Only a few bright stars to the far left look oval, and this is being nitpicky.

Full image from a7R III. 10 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

100 percent view from a7R III. 10 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

NPF Accurate = 5.88 seconds

We rounded up the NPF Accurate shutter speed to 6 seconds and the stars are wonderfully round. I don’t see any distortion at all.

Full image from a7R III. 6 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 25,600.

100 percent view from a7R III. 6 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 25,600.

Takeaways: I was very impressed with how the higher-megapixel Sony handled ISO 6400, and the 16-35mm lens did a superb job resolving sharp, round stars. In my testing, ISO 12,800 is also easily attainable with the a7R III, whereas ISO 25,600 is the breaking point for me, as a layer of grainy noise covers the whole image. This is still a very admirable result for a camera that gives loads of detail.

Final Thoughts

If you are a star-point seeker then you’ll definitely want to start using the NPF Rule in your workflow. I’ll be switching over from the 400 Rule to the NPF Rule at the Default setting in PhotoPills. If the shot is an absolute beauty—a 5-star shot (so to speak) that I know I’ll want to print—then I’ll use the NPF Accurate mode.

Either way, with an f/2.8 lens we will be using an ISO from 6400 to 25,600, which isn’t ideal for any camera. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly a few cameras that handle these higher ISOs admirably, but for the best print quality we always want lower ISOs.

Because of that reality, I’ll also start committing to shooting multiple frames of a star-point scene that I can blend in post-production to reduce noise. This requires using Starry Landscape Stacker (SLS), a Mac-only software application that does an excellent job of reducing high ISO noise while keeping stars sharp. Sequator is the PC equivalent. Look for our in-depth reviews of these excellent pieces of software soon.

For the test photos above, the foregrounds were all very dark due to the moonless night and the fact that the area we were shooting was too large to paint with light. In these scenarios, I’d also advise taking an additional exposure between 3 to 5 stops brighter than your sky exposure, perhaps with LENR turned on. This will provide more detail and information in the foreground, which can be blended into the stacked SLS or Sequator image.

Applying the NPF Rule

Now here is the hardest part about new knowledge: Do you use it?

It’s up to you. We just want you to realize that star point photography is a constant balance, wherein you want to weigh the trade-offs of noise at higher ISOs versus slightly trailing stars. Understanding how your gear performs and then deciding which sacrifices to make in the field will help you create the best possible image based on the specific conditions you are shooting in.

Run some tests so that you know your personal tolerance for star sharpness versus how your camera performs at higher ISOs, then apply the 400 Rule or NPF Rule as needed while you #seizethenight!

Note: If you want to take a deeper look at some of the other “night testing” you can perform on your camera, check out Gabe’s latest video with B&H that takes a deep dive into recently released full-frame mirrorless cameras.

Gabriel Biderman is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. He is a Brooklyn-based fine art and travel photographer, and author of Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots (Peachpit, 2014). During the daytime hours you'll often find Gabe at one of many photo events around the world working for B&H Photo’s road marketing team. See his portfolio and workshop lineup at www.ruinism.com.

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How I Got The Shot: Star Trails Over the Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon National Park

Star Trails Over the Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon National Park. Fujifilm X-T2, 10-24mm f/4 lens at 10mm. Light-painted with a Coast HP7. Two blended exposures of 1 second, f/8, ISO 200 and 15 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

The Location

Bryce Canyon National Park is truly one of the wonders of our park system. It’s not as big or varied as some other parks, but what is has to offer is nothing short of astonishing.

Despite its name, Bryce Canyon is actually not a canyon at all. A canyon is the technical term for a gorge formed by a river. Bryce is instead a series of natural amphitheaters, or bowls, that line the eastern side of Utah’s Paunsaugunt Plateau. These bowls are filled with red, orange and white rock spires that were eroded into existence by water freezing into ice. These spires are called hoodoos. It’s the endless variety of these hoodoos that make Bryce so magical.

The Light

Standing on the rim of the canyon at one of the many overlooks affords the visitor with an awe-inspiring view. The sprawling amphitheater spreads out below you with the orange-red colors of the towering spires contrasting with the deep blue sky. This view is especially popular at sunrise as many of the viewpoints face directly east. How then, does one capture this incredible canyon at night?

As with any location, the first step is to decide which phase of the moon you would prefer to shoot in. Moonless nights (new moon) are great for photographing the Milky Way, but they leave the foreground completely black. On the other hand, moonlight (full, quarter or crescent) helps illuminate the foreground, but the brightness of the sky masks many of the dimmer stars. All phases of the moon are great to shoot under, so you just have to consider how much moonlight you actually want. My choice for Bryce would have been to shoot under some moonlight. Unfortunately for me, I was there during a new moon. Complete darkness.

Under these conditions, it made sense to concentrate on shooting the Milky Way, which I did on the first night. While I like some of those images, the lack of moonlight means I didn’t include the canyon because it was completely black. And the canyon is the hero of this location.

Figure 1. Milky Way over Bryce Canyon. Fuji X-T2, 10-24mm f/4 lens at 17mm. Twelve stitched frames shot at 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

Being in Bryce, I really wanted to include the canyon with the night sky. But how do we do that with no moon? I could have done a little painting on the foreground, which I did for the photo in Figure 2. This worked out well for some of the details, but it still did not show the entire canyon.

Figure 2. Light painting in a small area of the canyon. Fuji X-T2, 10-24mm f/4 lens at 10mm, Coast HP7.

To illuminate the entire canyon I needed something stronger than a flashlight. It needed to be the sun or the moon. Since I didn’t have the moon, I had to use the sun.

The Shoot

The next day I headed out in late afternoon to scout a location to shoot. Once I decided on the spot, I set up my camera and tripod and began fine-tuning my composition.

The goal here was to take one shot in the waning light of dusk and then another once the sky became completely dark. Back at home I would combine them together in Photoshop.

The trick was to get the right light on the canyon. Sunset would look fake if combined with the night sky, so I needed the illumination to look somewhat like moonlight. That time came around half an hour after sunset. This time of the day is called civil twilight and is great in its own right for making landscape images. (For more on this, see one of my previous posts, “Out of the Blue: The Importance of Twilight to the Night Photographer.”) I experimented with several exposures to find one that sort of looked like night. Figure 3 shows the exposure I ended up using for the final composite.

Figure 3. The canyon during civil twilight. 1 second, f/8, ISO 200.

Keeping my camera set up—not moving it one centimeter—I waited until complete darkness.

The kind of darkness I wanted begins at the time of evening called “astronomical twilight.” Depending on your latitude, this is somewhere between 1 to 1.5 hours after sunset. (Click here for a great description of the different types of twilights.)

Once the sky became completely dark, it was time to start experimenting with light painting. I changed my ISO to 100 and opened up my aperture to f/5.6 so I would capture more stars.

With these new settings I experimented with walking up and down the trail, painting as I went along. I determined that painting at an angle back toward the camera—while returning back up the trail toward my setup—created better texture in the lit areas. It also kept my silhouette from blocking the light on the trail. Had I painted while walking away from the camera, my body would have blocked some of the light from the camera’s view, thereby creating a blotchy effect.

Once I felt confident that my light painting approach was effective, it was time for the long shot. Figure 4 shows the 15-minute exposure that captured the star trails while I lit the trail.

Figure 4. Light painting during the long exposure. 15 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

The Post-Production

Once I was back at the computer, it was time to put the images together in post-processing. I began in Lightroom by fine-tuning the exposure and white balance. Then with both images selected, I chose Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop. This command brings both of the images into Photoshop and combines them into one file, with each image as a separate layer.

Figure 5. The two images combined into one file in Photoshop.

Next I highlighted the upper layer by clicking on it. From the Blending Mode dropdown (the box that defaults to saying Normal), I chose Lighten. This blending mode automatically shows the brightest parts of all the layers it’s applied to (in this case, two layers). Voila! Now I could see the brighter canyon (lower layer) as well as the stars and the light painting (upper layer).

Figure 6. The Lighten blending mode revealing the brightest parts of each layer.

At this point I could have been done with the image. This technique works well for so many situations found in night photography, but in this case it needed a little tweaking. Because the sky was brighter at dusk during my first shot, that part of the scene also showed through when I applied the Lighten blending mode. To solve this problem, I clicked on the lower layer, made a selection of the sky with the Quick Selection Tool, and then created a Curves adjustment layer to darken the sky.

Figure 7. The Curves Adjustment over the bottom layer.

Figure 8. The Curves adjustment darkening the sky.

Because the Curves adjustment layer is below the stars layer, the adjustment does not affect the night sky. It darkens the sky only in the dusk layer. And now that the sky was darker in the dusk layer, only the stars layer would show through.

Then I needed to apply a little cleanup. The hard edge of the mask near the horizon looked a little odd, so I blurred the edge of the mask to smooth out the gradient of the curves adjustment. To do this, I clicked on the mask and increased the feather in the Properties dialog, as seen in Figure 9.

Figure 9. Feathering the mask to smooth out the transition of the curves adjustment.

At this point the bulk of the compositing was complete. Figure 10 shows the finished composite of the stars layer and the dusk layer.

Figure 10. The completed composite.

Once the images were put together I was able to judge the overall look of the picture. I felt it was still a bit dark and the color somewhat off, so using more adjustment layers in Photoshop, I fine-tuned the exposure and color.

Figure 11. The final image after fine-tuning white balance and exposure.

Wrapping Up

The moral of the story is that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes … well, you get the picture. Matching the locations, moon phase, time of year and our creative vision can be a daunting task—and sometimes an impossible task. But with creative thinking, and a full grasp of all of your available tools, you might just find you can get what you need.

Tim Cooper is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. Learn more techniques from his book The Magic of Light Painting, available from Peachpit.

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Five Questions: Great Smoky Mountains, Zion, Bryce, Black and White Printing, and More

You ask questions, we give answers. (And then you ask more questions, and we give more answers. Let’s keep the conversation rollin’!)

This installment of our “Five Questions” series features inquiries about camera choice, Lightroom’s Dehaze feature, file settings for black and white printing, and location info at Great Smoky Mountains, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks.

If you have any questions you would like to throw our way, please contact us anytime. Questions could be about gear, national parks or other photo locations, post-processing techniques, field etiquette, or anything else related to night photography. #SeizeTheNight!


1. Great Smoky Mountains Closed at Night?

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Nikon D850 with a Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art lens. 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 64. © 2018 Matt Hill.

Q: Your Smoky Mountains National Park workshop looks interesting, but isn’t the park closed at night? I once tried to get in before dawn and the gate was locked. — Linda

A: Yes, the workshop will be both interesting and fun. (Promise!)

Great Smoky Mountains is usually open 24/7/365.25. But there’s a caveat. You may have been trying to enter Cades Cove—one of the most popular destinations at GSM. The gates at the beginning of that 11-mile loop road are closed at dusk and opened at dawn. But that is only to keep motorvehicles out; visitors can park nearby and walk or bike through Cades Cove anytime.

In fact, we will be going into Cades Cove twice during our workshop. The first time will be on foot. We’ll saunter a comfortable walking distance, which still offers plenty of shooting opportunities, such as the horse meadow, Sparks Lane, the Carter Shields Cabin and the Oliver Cabin. Our second jaunt into Cades Cove will be as an add-on opportunity that will avail the entire loop road to us.

Night photography in Cades Cove can be a blast, and is worth venturing into for sure. You’ll find amazing sky views, as well as loads to light paint. — Matt

Note: We still have a few spots open for our Great Smoky Mountains workshop this spring. Interested? Click here!

2. Missing dehaze

Q: How come my Lightroom 6 does not have the Dehaze slider? Are there any add-ons to LR that have the same quality Dehaze function that I can use?  — Bailing L.

A: The reason Dehaze slider isn't showing up for you in Lightroom 6 is because the feature wasn't added until the next version of the software, which was when the subscription-only model of Lightroom Creative Cloud was launched. In fact, Dehaze was the major feature added to the program right after launch to entice more people to sign up.

And I gotta say, while I’m not a fan of the subscription-only model, there’s an argument to be made that the Dehaze feature alone is worth the upgrade. It's an amazing tool with a lot of ancillary uses. One such application is to make starry skies and the Milky Way “pop,” as can be seen in this blog post by Tim.

If you don’t want to upgrade, there is one alternative that I’ve heard about, but I’ve never tested it: Prolost Dehaze. If you take it for a spin, please let us know how it works out for you. — Chris

3. Things to Shoot in Zion and Bryce

The Amphitheater at dusk, Bryce Canyon National Park. Fuji X-T2 with a 10-24mm f/4 lens at 10mm. 3 seconds, f/7.1, ISO 200. © 2018 Tim Cooper.

Q: I’ve already booked hotels for your Valley of Fire and Grand Canyon workshops. So excited! While in the region, I'm thinking about hitting Bryce Canyon and Zion. Do you have any advice about good areas to shoot without 4-mile hikes? — Julianne K.

A: There’s a ton to see and shoot at both parks without having to hit long trails.

In Zion, be sure to drive into the main canyon and also up through the tunnel toward Checkerboard Mesa. Stop at any pullout along these roads and enjoy the incredible scenery! You can’t miss.

For short walks in Zion I recommend:

  • Weeping Rock and the trails around it

  • Temple of Sinawava and the trail to The Narrows (though not into The Narrows, as that’s a more serious endeavor)

  • the area near the bridge that crosses Pine Creek

At Bryce, any viewpoints along the 15-mile road offer awesome overlooks of the canyon. Think sunrise for these viewpoints (especially Sunrise Point).

Middle-of-the-day shooting is better when you hike down a bit below the rim. Check out Navajo Loop Trail and Queens Garden Trail. No need to hike the entire loop of either, but just going down a little will get you into some terrific scenery! — Tim

Note: Due to a cancellation, a spot just opened up for our Bryce Canyon workshop this summer. Interested? Click here!

4. Choice for Multipurpose Camera

Q: I have two specific photography interests—night and underwater. I’ve been using a Canon 5D Mark III for night photography and time-lapse. I also use a Nikon D7000 for underwater. I’m planning to replace the D7000 with a higher-resolution camera, hopefully one that I can use for both underwater and night photography. My options are to buy an underwater housing and lenses for the 5D Mark II, or stay with a DX-format (Nikon D500) with a new housing, or go with something else like a Nikon D850. I would like to get to the point where I am using Nikon or Canon, not both. Which camera would you recommend to meet my needs? — Richard R.

A: Camera choice is a personal decision, and there are lots of factors to consider. I have yet to find the perfect camera, or one that offers everything I’m looking for in one package.

Given that you have Canon glass for full-frame cameras, I’d concentrate on comparing the 5D Mark IV to the D850. I think the Mark IV is the best camera Canon has ever made, and the first one that surpasses the 6D for high ISO night photography. The D850 is an awesome camera, but if you use live view focusing at night, I’d probably go with the Mark IV, especially if you have a number of L lenses. Why not rent them both and see which feels better?

The D500 is certainly a capable camera, but if you can afford to go full-frame, I think you’ll be happier that way. If you favor wide lenses, definitely go full-frame; if you tend to shoot long, then the D500 might be a better choice. — Lance

5. Image Settings for Printing in Black and White

Q: I sent a black and white image from the Sloss Furnaces workshop to Bay Photo to have printed for the NPAN exhibit there. I converted to black and white in Lightroom, exported to Photoshop for star stacking, flattened, and then brought the file back in to Lightroom. But Bay Photo is telling me that the image is not in the correct format—that instead of grayscale it needs to be converted back to RGB to make a black and white print. So I then tried keeping the photo in color and just dropping Saturation and Hue to 0 to create a black and white image “in color,” but that washed out the shadows. I’m lost here. Any suggestions or insight? — Martha H.

A: Very cool that you’ll be participating in the exhibit! This is the third park that our workshop attendees will have a show in. It will be running April 1 to June 1 at the Sloss Furnaces visitor center.

As for your question: In short, any file that is sent to a printer should be an RGB image, not grayscale. Even if you convert an image to black and while in Lightroom, it still sends an RGB image over to Photoshop. Below is a screenshot of an image that I converted to black and white in Lightroom and then sent to Photoshop. If I go to Image > Mode, you can see that the file is a 16-bit RGB image. This is normal and the way it should be.

The difference? An RGB image can be black and white, or it can be color. A grayscale image can only be black and white. My guess is that you did something in Photoshop to convert it, intentionally or not.

To fix the problem for Bay Photo:

  1. Reopen that image in Photoshop (from Lightroom, choose Photo > Edit In > Edit in Adobe Photoshop CC 2019).

  2. Go to Image > Mode, and click on RGB Color.

  3. Save the file.

Now when you export the image from Lightroom, you will create a JPG in RGB. — Tim

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

How I Got the Shot: Stars and a Rock in Lassen Volcanic

Lassen Volcanic National Park. © 2018 Chris Nicholson. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, light painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight. 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

The Location

Last summer, Lance and I visited Lassen Volcanic National Park to shoot for a few days (er, nights). For both of us, it was our first time there, and we quickly discovered that this Northern California wilderness is one of the best kept secrets of the national park system. The scenery is beautiful, bewildering and varied: volcanoes of different types and shapes, snowcapped peaks, reflecting lakes, babbling brooks, lush meadows, multicolor pumice fields, steaming geothermals and more await photographers and their cameras. Not to mention … deliciously dark skies.

On our second day in the park, we stopped at a visitor center to talk to a ranger about possible places to photograph in the dark. She gave us a lot of great information, including an auto-tour map with suggested sites to see, and she marked the areas that she thought would be of interest to us. We ventured out for our daytime scouting, driving the main road (the aptly named Lassen National Park Highway), hiking short trails, making daytime photos (gasp!) and all-in-all enjoying the experience of being in the outdoors in such a captivating space.

Along the way we stopped at a trailhead parking lot that afforded a 360-degree view of mountain peaks and valleys, all with great visual lines to the sky above them—i.e., no trees, cliffs and so on that would block our sky views in any direction. In other words, it was a perfect place to set up for a night shoot. And then we spotted what turned out to be the star of the scene: a massive boulder perched at the edge of a cliff.

A scouting photo of the boulder.

A scouting photo of the boulder.

We were both pretty excited about the rock as a subject, as it has an interesting shape, is in an interesting place visually, is in front of an interesting background from all available angles, and we could safely set up and shoot from about 180 degrees around it. In other words, this was going to be a lot of fun.

Moreover, because the cliff faces south, we knew we could get the Milky Way galactic core in the composition. So we pulled out PhotoPills to see exactly when and where the Milky Way would appear, planned our shots, and then continued exploring the park with the knowledge that we would definitely return to this spot after sundown.

The Shoot

We arrived back at our shoot location early in twilight—so early that we couldn’t see the Milky Way yet, but that was fine because we were surrounded by many other creative opportunities. Lance ventured a little east on the cliff edge to work on a separate idea with a twisted tree, and I stationed a camera at the far end of the parking lot to rip some longish exposures over the mountain ridge to the west (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Star trails over a Lassen ridge. Nikon D850 with a Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 lens. 6 minutes, f/6.3, ISO 64.

As the sky grew darker, I started working with the boulder. The Milky Way was not yet apparent in the sky, so I worked on some alternative compositions with the mountains in the background, using the silhouette of the distant ridge as a leading line into the rock (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 15 seconds, f/8, ISO 4000.

Once I was done with that, I looked south, and there it was: the galactic core rising over the valley. So I repositioned my camera and tripod to start working on the photo I was there to create.

The valley below the cliff is a scenic wonder in daylight (in moonlight too), but in pitch-dark it was just vast blackness—so I lowered my tripod to get it out of the frame (Figure 3). The real stars of the composition were the Milky Way and the boulder.

Figure 3. Working on the composition, but with a poor-choice white balance of Daylight.

Figure 3. Working on the composition, but with a poor-choice white balance of Daylight.

I worked the composition a little more, and then changed my white balance. I’d been using Daylight during the blue hour portion of the shoot, but once the sky darkened, I wanted a white balance that would help the sky look more like “night” and that would also help draw out the delicate colors of the Milky Way. So I switched the white balance of my D5 to manual and dialed it in to 3800 K (Figure 4). (For more on this, see Matt’s blog post “How to Choose the Right White Balance for Night Skies.”)

Figure 4. White balance at 3800 K.

Figure 4. White balance at 3800 K.

At this point you can see that Lance was in the background doing his light painting on a different subject. This didn’t bother me. First, I was only making test shots. I didn’t care about someone else’s light; I cared only about the specific elements that I was testing for, i.e. composition, focus, exposure, white balance, etc. Second, once I was ready to start executing my “real” image, I knew Lance and I could communicate and take turns light painting our different setups, and that when his flashlight was off, he and his camera would disappear into the shadows.

For focus, a quick check of a hyperfocal distance chart confirmed that I could lock in on the boulder and still have the stars sharp. So I shined my Coast on the rock and auto-focused. Easy peasy.

The exposure was pretty simple too. I knew I wanted sharp stars for a sharp Milky Way. Using the 400 Rule with a 14mm focal length, that gave me a top shutter speed of 25 seconds (400 / 14 = 28.57, rounded down to 25 for safety), which I shot at f/2.8 and ISO 6400.

Then I started working on the light painting. Using a Coast HP7R flashlight with a homemade color-warming filter, I worked from the left of the frame. I chose this angle for three reasons:

  1. Working from the right was nearly impossible because of the cliff drop. I could have done it if I learned how to fly, but I didn’t have time for that in the middle of the shoot.

  2. When light painting, I usually want the direction of the added light to “make sense” visually, to almost look like the illumination could be coming from something else in the scene—in this case, the galactic core. Of course no one will think that the Milky Way was actually bright enough to illuminate the boulder, but I find that the visual suggestion of it works better.

  3. When light-painting a subject on the right side of the composition, I usually like to have the light coming from the left, across the majority of the frame. (And vice-versa for a subject on the left.) If I’d painted from the other side (Figure 5), then the brightest, highest-contrast parts of the boulder would have been way over on the right edge of the frame, separated from the secondary subject of the image (the Milky Way) by a large shadow. That would have been far less compositionally effective. (This is a personal guideline, and an effective one. But it’s not a rule. In fact, you can see that I went against this guideline in the image above of the boulder without the Milky Way.)

Figure 5. I moved as close to the edge of the cliff as I could to light paint from camera-right, and the result proved the efficacy having the light come across the majority of frame. Also, it was nearly impossible to paint from that angle without having the light hit the sapling too.

Figure 5. I moved as close to the edge of the cliff as I could to light paint from camera-right, and the result proved the efficacy having the light come across the majority of frame. Also, it was nearly impossible to paint from that angle without having the light hit the sapling too.

The final step was just a matter of playing around with the light painting, trialing-and-erroring, repeatedly coming back to the LCD to review my results. I was evaluating factors such as:

  • how out far out of the frame I needed to stand so the camera couldn’t see the flashlight

  • whether to use direct light (harder, more contrast) or reflected (softer, less contrast)

  • which angle to paint from to create the most texture

  • which angle would illuminate enough of the boulder to be interesting but not so much that I was light painting everything (which is boring)

  • which angle accomplished all that without lighting the sapling to the right of the rock, which I deemed a compositional distraction

  • how long to keep the light on so the boulder would be bright enough to draw interest yet subtle enough to not be garish or overwhelming

Failed iterations of my light painting approach. Or, rather, honing by trial and error.

Once I’d made all of my decisions, I was ready to make the final photograph. By that point Lance had joined me at the boulder, and we took turns light painting our individual setups. Again, the key was communication, so that we didn’t inadvertently ruin each other’s images—each of us asking if the other was in the middle of an exposure before turning our flashlights on.

I loved how everything came together. One of my field rules is that when I finish executing my idea, before changing the setup I always try something I wasn’t planning, just to push myself out of the immediate box and see if I stumble across a great idea. In this case, I tried backlighting the rock (Figure 6). I hated it—so I moved on. …

Figure 6. The failed backlighting idea.

Figure 6. The failed backlighting idea.

Incidentally, while I was doing all of this, I still had my second camera, a D850, capturing star trails from the top of the hill, creating the image in Figure 7. That’s a great use for having two cameras in the field—one for long exposures and one for doing other work during the wait.

Figure 7. Star trails over Lassen Peak. Nikon D850 with a Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 lens. 13 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 160.

The Post-Production

This particular photography didn’t need a lot of work in post.

I cropped out the bright star that was sitting immediately on the right edge of the frame, where it served as only a visual distraction, pulling attention far away from both the primary and secondary subjects.

Using the Spot Removal tool, I cloned out a patch of snow that was picking up just enough light to be seen in the background, as well as one bright and three faint plane trails (Figure 8).

Figure 8.

I boosted Exposure (+20) and Whites (+34) to increase overall brightness, then Clarity (+19), Dehaze (+24) and Vibrance (+8) to add some punch to the sky (Figure 9).

Figure 9.

Usually I’ll go over the galactic core with a custom Milky Way brush, but I didn’t think this image needed it. Sometimes not doing something is the best decision.

Figure 10.

Figure 10.

The Final Adjustment

The last correction was one I couldn’t make by myself. The combination of using a CTO filter and shooting with a white balance of 3800 K made the light kind of green. I’m red-green color blind, so I asked Tim if he’d be a second (better) set of eyes while I tried to get the color of the rock accurate. Using the targeted adjustment tool in the Hue section of the HSL panel, we clicked a green sample in the rock and dragged down, which brought the Yellow slider to -69 and the Green to -80. The rock was then a little too warm, so we manually pulled Red down to -20. (Figure 10.)

There are two lessons here:

  1. Knowing how to work around your limitations can be critical. Much thanks to Tim, my sister Ann and several past girlfriends for helping me color-correct through the years.

  2. In the field, knowing my limitations and when shooting at a non-Daylight white balance, I should have used a Luxli Viola LED panel for the painting. Why? Because that would have allowed me to dial in the color temperature of the light to 3800 K or slightly warmer—then I would have known the color was accurate even if I can’t see it. (Another way to do this is to use a combination of color-correcting gels to alter the Coast’s output accordingly. Check out Tim’s post “Level Up With Light Painting: Correcting the Color of Your Flashlight (Part II).”)

Figure 11. The final image.

Wrapping Up

I finished my photo before Lance finished his. I tooled around with a few other image ideas in the same area (Figures 12 and 13), but soon settled on light painting Lance while he worked, creating a portrait of one night photography’s true masters in his element (Figure 14). By this time the moon had risen, which illuminated the valley in the background, adding more of a sense of place to the scene.

Figure 12. Tail end of the Milky Way over Lassen Peak. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 8000.

Figure 13. Milky Way disappearing in the moonrise. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Figure 14. Lance at work. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, light painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight and a Luxli Viola LED panel. 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Afterward we moved on to our second shoot location of the night, a placid alpine lake just up the road, where we ripped some long exposures of star-circle reflections above Lassen Peak.

Lassen Volcanic is truly an extraordinary national park. I have no idea when I’ll be back, but the day I am can’t come soon enough.

Want to explore Lassen Volcanic with Lance and Gabe on an epic night photography adventure workshop this August? Sign up here!

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at www.PhotographingNationalParks.com.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT