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

Wonders of Workflow: How Consistency Will Improve Your Night Photography

In my 20 years of teaching night photography, there is one thing I’ve found that can make a huge difference in both the consistency and quality of your images, as well as reducing your frustration and increasing your enjoyment in the field. It’s not glamorous, it’s not sexy, but it will make you a better photographer.

You’ve probably heard the term “mindfulness” before. Before you roll your eyes and click off of this page, be assured that I’m not going to get all spiritual and New Agey on you. Hear me out.

As the website Mindful.org defines it, “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

Being present. Focused. Intentional. It’s a  simple concept, but one that many of us find increasingly difficult in today’s chaotic, digitally “enhanced” world. It’s certainly something I struggle with. But I promise, it will make you a better night photographer.

How to be Mindful at Night

There are numerous ways to apply the concept of mindfulness to photography, from the way you observe the world to the way you edit your images, but what I’m suggesting here has to do with your workflow.

We tend to think of workflow as beginning when we download our images, but really it begins when you decide to go out and photograph. Every little decision that we make—or don’t make—impacts everything that comes afterward. If you have a checklist, and if you go over it before you head out to make images, then you will always have the gear you need, your batteries will always be fully charged, and you will never waste amazing images because you accidentally shot with image quality set to “JPG Small” at ISO 1,000,000.

Some people are more naturally inclined to working methodically, while others require intense effort to discipline themselves. Whichever category you fall under, I promise that it’s worth the effort.

Perhaps the most important thing I teach during night photography workshops is that everyone should consciously develop their own field workflow. By this, I simply mean creating a sequence of repeatable steps that you do every time you set out for a location, and every time you push the shutter release. Doing so means that a much higher percentage of your images will end up being keepers, and that you will be able to see more clearly what worked and what didn’t in your shoots. Some people are more naturally inclined to working methodically, while others require intense effort to discipline themselves. Whichever category you fall under, I promise that it’s worth the effort.

With that in mind, I’m going to share my workflow with you. But I’m not trying to get you to do what I do. Rather, I’m sharing it as an example with hope that it will help you develop your own working methods that get you the results that you are looking for. Each of us at NPAN has our own procedure that we follow. There isn’t a right or a wrong way to do this—the key is to figure out what works for you.

Field Workflow Example 1: Duxbury, Massachusetts. Building a night image from beginning to end, marching through the same steps time after time.

Before You Go

Because I travel frequently, I don’t always keep the same gear in my bag—moreover, I don’t always even work out of the same bag from one trip to the next. So it would be easy for me to find myself on location without an essential piece of gear and not even realize my error until right when I need it. And this is why I always check my kit before leaving home.

When I’m planning a shoot, I consider what the lighting conditions will be, the type of subject matter I’ll be shooting, the weather conditions, and if I’ll be working close to a vehicle or hiking some distance to my location. Each of these factors dictates what I bring with me––not just in the camera bag, but also accessories like clothing, food and drink, and whether I’ll be better served by a backpack or shoulder bag.

Step 1: Pre-Shoot Scouting

Research location if it is unfamiliar. Scout ahead of time if possible. Check for access/trespassing/permit/safety issues. Use PhotoPills to access celestial conditions and possible shot locations if appropriate. Look at the Google Earth view of the location, as well as night images available online. When is the best time of year, or the best part of the lunar cycle for the location? How about parking?

Step 2: Gear Selection

Choose a bag, camera(s) and lenses based on location. Pack camera batteries only after making sure they are fully charged. Make sure rechargeables are recharged, and include some disposable batteries as needed. Choose light sources for light painting, as well as light modifiers such as snoots and gobos. Check accessories: tripod, an extra tripod plate and tools, intervalometer with fresh batteries, filters, hand warmers, water bottle, snack, phone, phone charging cable, hat, gloves, extra layers as needed.

Field Workflow Example 2: Orkney, Scotland.

On Location

Step 3: On-Site Scouting

Arrive before dark if possible, explore the site and consider possible shots. How will the light change? What conditions are likely to impact photography? Are there likely to be other people, or other photographers? How about street lights or traffic? Are you under a busy flight path? Formulate a plan.

Step 4: Field Workflow

The order in which you do the following steps is up to you. I suggest experimenting with the sequence to see what feels right. The following is what I do––for every image.

A. Compose the shot. Without any regard for exposure or focus at this point, I roughly work out the composition. If there is enough light, I’ll do some quick hand-held high ISO shots just to see if the idea is going to work. If I need more than 2 to 3 seconds to get an exposure, I’ll go right to the tripod. It doesn’t matter if the lens is focused—I’m concerned only with framing the image. How do the foreground, middleground and background relate to each other? How does the subject fit within the frame? I’ll make multiple exposures, making little adjustments until the composition is perfect. It might take two or threeframes, it might take a dozen. Once I get to this point, I lock the camera down on the tripod, and I don’t move it until the image is completed.

B. Focus. Depending on the situation, I might use one of several different focusing techniques. If it’s an astro-landscape image with nothing in the foreground, I’ll focus at infinity for maximum sharpness of the stars. If there is an important foreground element, I’ll determine the hyperfocal distance to maximize the depth of field. I almost always use magnified live view combined with a flashlight for accuracy. (You can read more about focusing techniques in Chris’ post “Staying Sharp: 8 Ways to Focus in the Dark.”)

Field Workflow Example 3: Ryholite ghost town, Nevada.

C. Determine the exposure. Once the composition is set and focus is achieved, I turn to finding the ideal exposure. As before, the type of image will give me a clue as to the starting point. If I’m going for star points, then I’ll start with shutter speed, using the longest speed that will still render the stars as points of light rather than as trails. (I wrote two posts on this subject in 2017. Part one deals with subtleties of managing different variables to determine the best exposure for maintaining star points in astro-landscape photographs; part two explains the 250, 400 and 500 rules for calculating the best shutter speed for the conditions at hand.)

If I’m more concerned with depth of field than star points, I might start with aperture, and build the rest of the exposure around that. ISO is rarely the starting point of an exposure.

Regardless of my starting point, I’ll use the histogram as a guide to get the exposure where it needs to be. In natural light situations, the histogram is my primary exposure determinant. In dynamic, artificially lit environments, I’ll simply give the scene as much exposure as possible without clipping important highlight details. In most instances, I bracket exposures and decide which one(s) to use once I download the images. High ISO testing is a tool to help calculate the exposure quickly and easily.

D. Add light painting. By now, I have a pretty good idea of where, if not how to light the scene. The image is coming together, and I might want to emphasize a particular element of the scene with added light, or simply fill in the shadows to reduce the overall contrast. This last step can be the most challenging, but is also the most creative and rewarding aspect of night photography.

Years of experience guide me in making lighting decisions, but that simply means I might need only a couple of frames to work it out, while someone just getting started may need a few more attempts before they figure out what they are trying to achieve, and then how to achieve it. But the steps are the same: make an exposure, evaluate and adjust until as close to perfect as possible.

Once the quality and amount of added light are where I want them to be, the last step is to consider adjusting the ratio of ambient to added light. I will often reduce the overall exposure length to get a more dramatic effect, to make my lighting stand out. Again, it’s just trial and error until everything falls into place.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, most of what I’ve written about here is fairly obvious and seems like common sense. Organize your gear, plan ahead, and work in an organized and methodical fashion. That’s the gist of it, with the goal being consistency and repeatability.

As I said before, I’m not trying to get you to work the same way that I do. It’s more important to have a plan that works and stick with it than to do what I or anyone else says you should do. This is what works for me. I encourage you to develop your own field workflow so that you’ll be able to #SeizeTheNight more effectively when you go out to photograph.

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

How to Make Your Lightroom Rendering Look Like Your Camera Preview

Have you ever imported an image into Lightroom and felt that it looked different than what you remember from the back of your camera? If you have, you are probably not imagining it.

There are two reasons this disparity can occur. The first is a function of our vision. The second derives from the way your camera and Lightroom handle RAW files.

Night-Adjusted Vision

Our eyes are fabulous instruments. Their ability to adjust to a wide range of light is astonishing. Stand outside on a bright sunny day and you’re able to take in all of the information from your surroundings. Enter a dark room and your eyes adjust to the low level of luminance, allowing you to make out shapes and details. Stand on a street illuminated with city lights and you can discern every detail from the highlights of bright buildings to the shadows beside them.

However, adjusting to extreme darkness takes time. As your surroundings get darker, your pupils dilate to allow more light to enter—just like opening your lens aperture from f/8 to f/2.8. This condition is called “night-adjusted vision.”

When your eyes are dilated in this state, the images on your camera’s rear LCD will be perceived as much brighter than they actually are—because your eyes have adjusted to the darkness of the world, and not to the brightness of your camera. The problem this causes is that when you view your images in Lightroom, they look much darker than you remember from in the field.

The solution

Turn down the brightness on your camera’s LCD.

Most cameras’ default setting for brightness is Auto. This means when it’s bright outside, the screen brightens; when dark, the screen dims.

While the Auto setting is fine for most types of photography, the night photographer needs to take manual control over the brightness of the LCD. By lowering it to the lowest setting possible (or second lowest), you will get a much more accurate preview at night. This will also help achieve a better match when you review your images back in Lightroom. (Figure 1 shows the LCD brightness settings on Nikon and Canon cameras.)

Figure 1. The LCD Brightness settings in Nikon (left) and Canon menus.

How the Camera Previews

Even though you have set your camera to shoot RAW, the image you see on the rear LCD is not the RAW image, but rather a JPG generated from that RAW data. For many photographers this discrepancy is irrelevant. But for those wanting to ensure a close match from camera to Lightroom, a better understanding of this function is important.

There is a setting in your camera that allows you to create different “flavors” in your photos. Each manufacturer has different names for this setting, but in essence they all alter the color and contrast of the resulting image. For example, by using Portrait mode, the skin tones of your subjects will seem more natural. Using Neutral will lower the overall contrast and saturation. Standard provides a more traditional rendering.

Figure 2. The Nikon Picture Control menu.

Figure 2. The Nikon Picture Control menu.

For detailed explanations and a complete list of your options, consult your camera manual. Nikon calls their setting Picture Controls (Figure 2). Canon is Picture Styles. Sony is Picture Profile. Fuji is Film Simulation.

These settings are applied differently to RAW and JPG images. When you shoot in RAW, the image is captured and then passed on to an in-camera processor. Here the RAW image is “tagged” with the Picture Control. But that interpretation—those settings—are not permanently baked into the file. Think of it like a note that’s added to the file that says, “Make the image look this way when it’s opened.”

When your camera displays the image on its LCD, it first creates a JPG made from the RAW file with the Pictures Control “notes” taken into account. So what you’re seeing on the LCD is not the RAW file, but a JPG that your camera’s internal computer has rendered just for that immediate use. It has no impact on how the image will look later in Lightroom.

This is in stark contrast to how things work if you’re shooting straight to JPG, rather than shooting RAW files. When you shoot in JPG, the Picture Style is actually baked in. So if you shot on the Landscape setting, the extra contrast and saturation is a permanent addition to the file. When it comes to shooting JPG versus RAW, there are many photographic disciplines out there and each has its own version of best practices. For the night photographer, we want as much flexibility within our files as possible, so we shoot in RAW.

My personal preference is to shoot my night images in RAW on the Neutral picture style. This style is the lowest in contrast and saturation. This means when I preview my image on the camera’s LCD I am seeing a more accurate view of all the image data that the camera captured. Using something like Landscape or Vivid may fool me into thinking there is less detail in the file, which in turn may cause me to make different choices in the field.

Lightroom and RAW Files

Provided you have calibrated your monitor (something every photographer should do!), JPGs from your camera should look pretty similar in Lightroom as they did on your camera’s LCD. This is because the Picture Style from the camera has been baked in!

However, remember that RAW files are only “tagged” with this information. That note attached to the image file that says “make the image look this way when it’s opened” is not available to Lightroom because the camera manufacturers consider it proprietary information—they don’t tell Adobe how to decipher it. This means the only thing Lightroom can do is create its own version of what the image should like. What we see in Lightroom is Adobe’s interpretation of the 0s and 1s in our RAW file.

Moreover, Adobe has many interpretations that you can select from. Adobe Color is the default interpretation (or Profile) that Lightroom uses. You can see the Profile dropdown in the Develop Module at the top of the Basic Panel (Figure 3).

The Problem

And that right here is where the mismatch between the LCD and Lightroom often happens.

Let’s say you shoot a RAW image with the Picture Control of Landscape. On the camera’s LCD it will look more contrasty and more saturated—because, again, you’re seeing a JPG with that Landscape “preset” applied. But when you import that RAW file into Lightroom, you’re seeing Adobe’s interpretation of this file based on assigning the Adobe Color profile. That’s a completely different algorithm. So this will almost always look different from what you saw on the back of your camera, because the settings being applied are coming from two different recipes.

Figure 3. This image is set to the default Adobe Color profile.

Figure 4.

The Solution

Choose a profile in Lightroom that better matches your memory.

How? In Lightroom, click on the double arrow next to Profile. You will see a list of alternative profiles that Adobe offers (Figure 4). From this menu you could choose, for example, Adobe Landscape to try to approximate what you remember from the field.

(These profiles are not just for matching, however. You can choose any profile to create the look that you want. Be creative. You don’t have to match what you saw in the field—you can also match the possibilities that you see in your artist eye.)

The difference in the profiles can be seen best when looking at contrast and saturation. Adobe Vivid and Adobe Landscape are the most contrasty and saturated. Next comes Adobe Color, Standard and Portrait with varying degrees of moderate contrast and saturation. Adobe Neutral is the least contrasty and saturated. Figures 5 shows one image with several profiles applied.

Figure 5.

But there are even more options beyond those! By clicking on Browse in the list, you can access all of Adobe’s profiles. The ones with the stars appear in the Favorites list, which is the dropdown we saw in Figure 4. In Figure 6 below, you can see that all of Adobe’s standard profiles are starred.

Hovering your cursor over these profiles produces a temporary preview in the image window. I recommend previewing the different profiles to gauge their affects.

Matching to Camera

In addition to Adobe’s Standard profile, you can also access their Camera Matching profiles. These profiles attempt to match your camera’s Picture Control settings as closely as possible. While not exact, they can be accurate enough to, in golf terms, “get you on the green”—and on the blue and the red, so to speak.

And there you go. That’s the secret!

That feature right there—the Camera Matching profiles—can be one of the best tricks to get your Lightroom rendering to most closely align with what you see on the LCD. You simply pick the profile that aligns with the Picture Control you used in-camera. For example, if you shoot in Camera Neutral and then apply Lightroom’s Camera Neutral profile, that should get you a relatively accurate match.

There’s a good chance that you will use this strategy so often that you’ll want to speed up the process. If you find yourself using one or more of the Camera Matching profiles repeatedly, you can add it to the favorites list to access it more quickly. Do this by clicking on the star to the right of the Camera Matching profile. Now that profile will appear on the profile dropdown list. And if you find yourself always using the same profile, you can include it in an import preset.

Figure 6.

Figure 7. The dropdown list after I added Camera Landscape and Camera Neutral as favorites.

Figure 8.

Final Takeaways

As we’ve seen, there are a two main reasons why our images in Lightroom may not match what we saw in-field on our camera’s LCD:

  1. Our night-adjusted vision perceived the image on the LCD as brighter than it actually was. The solution here is simply to lower your camera’s LCD brightness while shooting at night.

  2. Lightroom doesn’t have the ability to the read the Picture Control (Style, Profile, Film Simulation) in our RAW files. Again the solution is simple: A quick trip to the Profile section of the Basic Panel in the Develop Module will allow you to choose a profile that better matches your memory of the image. It’s also a great way to experiment and learn!

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

How to tell the Difference Between Planes, Satellites and Meteors

Look! Up in the sky! It's ...

Sometimes, you just want to know what kind of object is passing through your star trails or star stack. Why? Could be for any reason, but the most obvious is that in post-production you might prefer eliminating one type of streak in the sky while not eliminating another. Or, you might just be curious.

Fear not, astral observer and recordist! I will guide you in how to identify and classify plane trails, satellites and meteors.

Planes

First up! The bane of of my existence. Plane trails. (I’m just kidding. Without those wonderful airplanes, I couldn’t go to all these wonderful places!)

Plane trails are easily identified by the following characteristics:

  1. They are almost always solid lines with hashed or dotted lines on either side.

  2. They travel at a predictable rate, often spanning many frames in an exposure stack.

  3. Usually, they travel in a predictable path. But, they are not always straight! You may see course changes that curve away from the initial heading.

This example spanned six frames:

Nikon D750 with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. Six exposures at 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

Want to eliminate plane trails? See “4 Ways to Remove Airplanes from Star Stacks.

Satellites

Satellites are even more fun to identify, and tricksy like Hobbitses. You may want to think they are meteors, but they aren’t! Here’s what to look for:

  1. Satellites are very thin and often dim paths with no other markings alongside.

  2. In my experience, they move slower than planes, and so they also can span more than one frame in a star stack.

  3. The trails from satellites are solid lines that are the same brightness from one end point to the other. They do not taper in and out like a meteor (keep on reading for details).

This example spanned ten frames:

Nikon D750 with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. Ten exposures at 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

If you want to know with certainty (or get notifications) when a satellite or the International Space Station is passing overhead, there are a ton of apps for that. See this article from Space.com for a couple of suggestions. Lance uses Sky Guide (iOS only) with great success.

Meteors

Meteors are the “holy grail,” right? We all want some meteor love in our frames. Here is how you discern meteors from the other sky objects mentioned above:

  1. Meteors taper in from nothing or a very thin path at the start point and taper out again at the end of the path.

  2. They move faster than planes and satellites, and thus often appear in only one frame, possibly two (depending on your exposure length).

  3. They can be many different colors, depending on if they flare up during entry.

  4. They almost always appear in only one frame, because they move fast and burn out quick!

Here’s an example of a whole bunch of meteors at Great Sand Dunes National Park, shot during the Perseids:

Great Sand Dunes National Park, Colorado. Nikon D750, 15mm Zeiss Distagon f/2.8 lens. 234 images at 22 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400, plus a single exposure at 382 seconds, ISO 2000 for the landscape after moonrise.

Iridium Flares

Bonus! There’s something else those night streaks might be. Iridium flares.

Iridi-what, you might ask? Yeah, I kinda asked the same thing when Gabe and Lance mentioned them to me while looking at the photos I pulled for this post.

Iridium flares are the reflections from a certain set of communication satellites with highly reflective antennae. When they line up properly with sunlight streaming past Earth, they glow while traveling through the night sky for up to 20 seconds.

In a photo, they look much like a meteor—a long, bright streak with tapered ends. But because they last much longer than a meteor, their trails can appear longer, and can even last through multiple frames (as in the stacked image above—you can see the gap from when the shutter was closed). Here’s another example:

Nikon D750 with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. Two exposures at 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 6400.

Alas, as cool as these can be to shoot, they won’t be shooting through our skies much longer. Iridium, the company that put them up there, is taking them down. For more info, see their brilliantly titled “#Flarewell” webpage.

Wrapping Up

Now that you know which is which, I hope deciding which to eliminate or enhance will become easier during your post-processing.

Stump the Chump

Got a mystery? Post your photo (either in high resolution or cropped close to the object) in the comments section or on our Facebook page and I’ll help you identify it. I’m looking forward to sleuthing out some mysterious sky events with you.

Matt Hill is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night. See more about his photography, art, workshops and writing at MattHillArt.com. Follow Matt on Twitter Instagram Facebook.

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Five Questions: Light Painting Headlights, Moonrises and Sunsets, Auroras and More

You ask questions, we give answers. (When we’re not shooting. Which is why we don’t do this feature more often.)

This installment of our “Five Questions” series features inquiries about light painting headlights, tripods, open hours for national parks, moonrises at sunset and lens choices for aurora.

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. Light Painting Headlights

Pickup in Nelson Ghost Town, Nevada. © Tim Cooper. Nikon D4, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. 3 minutes, f/8, ISO 100.

Q: When light painting old cars/trucks at night, how do you get the headlights to look like they are on? I have an old tractor in a field that I would like to practice on. — Brien R.

A: We love light painting, especially old cars! Who doesn’t?

Light painting the headlights is a tricky but rewarding thing to practice.

If the headlights have the glass still intact, use a very low-power light source (e.g., a Maglite or a Coast G5). Stand about 2 to 3 feet from the headlight, but to the side so you aren’t blocking the camera. Shine the flashlight into the headlight briefly—1 to 3 seconds is generally enough. Then walk over to the next headlight and do the same.

Here’s a key to this working: Stay invisible. Be careful and use your body to block the light source (i.e., the bulb) from being seen by the camera—we want to capture only the light reflecting from the headlights. I also advise dressing all in black, including black gloves. Sometimes the light bouncing off the headlights can freeze your hand or face in the frame, and you end up being ghosted in the picture. If that is the case, you’ll need to move farther out of the scene and then snoot your flashlight with a long tube— think PVC or a paper towel core. This will give you a more precise paintbrush to place the light.

Finally practice, practice, practice! And then feel free to share your results with us. — Gabriel

2. Lance’s Tripod

Q: I’m trying to figure out which tripod Lance showed in your CreativeLive class. I went back and watched the class again and figured out that it may be a Manfrotto 190 carbon fiber with a leveling center column. Can you please confirm this? Also, for a tripod this size would you still suggest that setup or has something else come out that you like better? Finally, which ball head would you suggest for this combo? — Marc S.

A: You are correct that I was using the Manfrotto 190 with a leveling head in the video. The head is great, but only for panoramas. It’s unnecessary otherwise.

If I were to buy today, I’d go with the Manfrotto 190go! Carbon Fiber M-Series Tripod with MHXP RO-BHQ2 XPRO Ball Head RC2 Kit. I like the twist locks better than the flip locks, which can pinch if you are not careful. However, these days I’m mostly using my Gitzo Series 2 Traveler Carbon Fiber Tripod with Center Ball Head.

Several of us at National Parks at Night are big fans of the Acratech GP-ss Ballhead With Lever Clamp. It is designed for compact travel tripods. It’s not quite as compact as the Gitzo head, but is easier to work with and the lever clamp is awesome. — Lance

3. Hours at National Parks and Monuments

Arch Rock, Valley of Fire. © 2014 Matt Hill. Nikon D750, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 500.

Q: Thank you for your recent article on whether light painting is allowed in national parks. However, it seems there is an even more important issue, which is if visitors are actually allowed to enter certain parks at night. My wife and I visited a number of national parks and monuments in recent years, but in places like Valley of Fire, Hovenweep or National Bridges we were told by rangers that we’d be in trouble if we were seen out there at night. On the other hand I have seen plenty of photos taken by the National Parks at Night team or other professionals at exactly these places. Are there different rules for the average photographer? — Lambert

A: Most of the 400-plus National Park Service units are open 24 hours to all visitors—including Natural Bridges National Monument, so I’m not sure why that ranger told you otherwise. In fact, night skies are part of how Natural Bridges actively entices people to visit. It’s also a feature that Hovenweep plays up, though only some sections of the park are open at night.

All of the national parks are open 24 hours per day, except Petrified Forest, but you can get a camping permit to stay overnight, or pay for a Special Use Permit to shoot after hours. Some of the national seashores are closed at night unless you have a camping or special use permit. National wildlife refuges are mostly closed at night, but those are units of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, not the NPS.

The Oliver Cabin is one of the many wonderful night photography subjects in Great Smoky Mountains National Parks’ Cades Cove region. Cades Cove is closed to vehicles at night, but you can walk or bike the 11-mile loop road all night if you’d like. © 2017 Chris Nicholson. Nikon D3s, 17-35mm f/2.8 lens, light painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight. 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 3200.

However, note that even if a park is open at night, there’s a chance that certain features are closed. In addition to Hovenweep, this is also the case at Mesa Verde National Park, which closes access to the ruins after sundown. Another example is Great Smoky Mountains National Park (where we’re hosting a workshop this April): Cades Cove, an amazing place to shoot; it is closed to motor vehicles at night, yet remains open to foot traffic.

As for Valley of Fire, that’s a state park, and as with any state land is run under local regulations that the NPS guidelines don’t affect. For night access to Valley of Fire, you need either a permit or to be camping in the park. (Or you to be on our workshop this April, which happens to have one spot remaining.)

No matter where you’re going to shoot at night, we always recommend checking the hours and letting the rangers (or other appropriate authorities) know what you’ll be up to. Not because you necessarily need permission to engage in night photography on public lands, but because it sometimes makes their jobs easier if they know you’ll be out there. Not to mention that they might share some valuable local knowledge about the location. — Chris

4. Aurora Lenses

Aurora over Westfjords, Iceland. © 2012 Lance Keimig. Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon 20mm f/3.5 lens. 15 seconds, f/5.6 ISO 3200.

Q: I’ll be traveling to Iceland in March to shoot auroras. Which lens would you recommend between a Sigma 20mm f/1.4 and a Sigma 14mm f/1.8? Or is there another lens you’d recommend instead? I’m shooting with a Sony a7R III. — Jeff

A: Congrats on your Iceland trip! Our No. 1 bit of advice is to get off of the main ring road and explore the random back roads to avoid the crowds. It can be busy over there!

As for your lens question, the wider-aperture model will probably be more useful, but it’s always good to have options. If the sky really lights up, you’ll want the widest lens you can get, but the 14mm is crazy wide for general shooting. Also, you don’t necessarily need superfast lenses—with a good aurora, you will probably be stopping down a few stops anyway.

For more advice on shooting the northern lights, see our two blog posts “Capturing Clouds of Light: How to Photograph the Aurora Borealis.” and “Northern Exposure: 8 Illuminating tips for Photographing Auroras.” — Lance

5. Moonrises at Sunset

Day before full moon, Death Valley National Park. © 2005 Tim Cooper. Canon 1Ds, 16-35mm lens at 31mm. 4 seconds, f/8, ISO 100.

Q: We learned from PhotoPills that sunsets can be spectacular when the moonrise and sunset occur within an hour of each other. But the moon rises in the east and the sun sets in the west, so we’re stumped. Any ideas? — Barbara E.

A: I suggesting thinking about it this way: What will be illuminated from the west when you’re facing east, with a great view of the moon rising behind it? The idea isn’t to shoot the sun and moon together, but rather to shoot the full moon rising among beautifully sunlit scenery or among the delicate light of a just-set sun.

The other advantage to this scenario is that the brightness of sunset balances well with the moon, which equalizes the intensities to get it all in one shot (as opposed to having to HDR the scene, which is so often the need when trying to shoot the moon over a landscape).

For a crispy moon, keep those exposure times short—don’t be afraid to ramp up your ISO to keep things sharp. Ideally, you want a big ol’ moon coming just off the horizon with gentle, ruddy sunlight kissing your subjects.

Grab your phone and scout with PhotoPills! Use it to see just where that moon will peek up to be sure you will see it during that sweet spot of sunset with the moon on the horizon.

And please send us photos of your success! — Matt

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.

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