Five Questions: Pixelstick Portraits, Motorized Mounts, Devils Tower and More

Welcome again to an NPAN Q&A, where we share some of the great questions we’ve received via email. This time around we're featuring Q’s and A’s about using a popular light writing tool with night portraits, motorized mounts in astro-landscape photography, the orientation of the Milky Way, loupes for Live View, and tips about shooting Devils Tower.

If you have any questions you would would like to throw our way, contact us anytime!

1. Pixelsticks and Portraits

Night portraiture with a Pixelstick. 60 seconds, f/8, ISO 100. Nikon D750 with a Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8 lens. Photo © Matt Hill.

Night portraiture with a Pixelstick. 60 seconds, f/8, ISO 100. Nikon D750 with a Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8 lens. Photo © Matt Hill.

Q. Can you tell me how you used the Pixelstick with speedlights [in the recent blog post “Tools for Illuminating the Night”]? When do the lights fire, before or after you draw with the Pixelstick? — Alison Carlino

A: The technique you’re asking about is a long exposure where I use the flash first, ask the model to stand still, and then run behind with the Pixelstick while the shutter is open. You can do it in either order, but I prefer the order I use.

First, I meter the ambient exposure, and then drop it by a stop. Second, I set up each flash to expose as I prefer. Third, I test for the Pixelstick exposure. Finally, I work all those elements into a composition I like. It’s like spinning plates. Exciting!

I’m planning on holding a couple of night portrait workshops to teach this technique. Stay subscribed for early announcements. ;-) — Matt

2. Motorized Mounts for Astro-landscape?

Q. I was curious about a motorized mount for night photography, such as the Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer. In the context of what we shoot with you guys (astro-landscape), that would not really ever be needed, right? In trying to figure out what that is used for, it seemed to be more for longer exposures of the sky alone, to get star points versus trails. It appears that if you include any foreground, the movement of the camera would blur it. — Martha Hale

A: You are absolutely correct! Motorized mounts are excellent for astrophotography, such as for shooting planets, deep-space objects or even ultrahigh-detail shots of the moon. But if you were to try to include any Earth-based foreground element, that would blur. You could, however, use the mount to create great star points with a long exposure at a low ISO, and then in post-production layer that with a separate, sharp exposure of the foreground. — Chris

3. Milky Way Orientation

Milky Way pano over Montana. Seven stitched images shot at 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400. Nikon D750 with Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm. Photo © Gabriel Biderman.

Q. How do I know if the Milky Way will be an arch or in a vertical position? Is it in both positions at different times throughout the night? — Susan Manley

A. The Milky Way is an amazing thing to witness and capture, and it inspires creativity!

In the Northern Hemisphere the Milky Way season officially begins in April and goes until September. We can see the Milky Way all year, but the galactic core, or brightest part of the Milky Way, breaches the horizon at night during those months. It rises at about 2 to 4 a.m. in March, midnight to 2 a.m. in April, 10 p.m. to midnight in May, 8 to 10 p.m. in June, and earlier and earlier in the night through the summer. By August, it is high overhead by the time the sky gets dark.

The best time to see and photograph the long arc of the Milky Way is from late April to July, on nights with little to no moon.

Which orientation is preferred for photography? Totally your choice. The Milky Way arc is really a camera effect caused by including this massive astronomical structure arching across the sky in one photograph. It is best achieved by creating a panorama of four to eight stitched images. That way you can encompass the whole arc with minimal distortion. (You can learn more about that technique in our CreativeLive course.) On the other hand, when the Milky Way core shoots straight into the air from the horizon, you can capture the core with one exposure and be creative with where it intersects with the foreground.

By the way … it’s Milky Way season right now. Carpe noctem! — Gabe and Lance

4. Loupe for Live View

Q: I’m thinking of buying a loupe to use with Live View focusing on my Nikon D750. Trying to decide which model to buy. — S.G.

A: A loupe can be an excellent accessory for helping to focus at night. I’ve been using since last year not only because it can help to ease the focusing process in general, but also because my 45-year-old eyes appreciate the assist in focusing on the camera’s LCD! A focusable loupe does just that.

For the Nikon D750 (awesome night camera, BTW!), the HoodMan Compact Hoodloupe is an excellent choice, in terms of both quality and being the right size for the D750, or any of the very many other cameras with similar-size LCDs (i.e., 3.2 inches). — Chris

5. Devils Tower Tips

Devils Tower National Monument. 30 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 100. Nikon D750 with a Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8 lens. Photo © Matt Hill.

Devils Tower National Monument. 30 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 100. Nikon D750 with a Zeiss Distagon 15mm f/2.8 lens. Photo © Matt Hill.

Q: I will be traveling to Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. Per TPE, the moonrise time will provide a window of dark sky. Any suggestions for where to shoot? I’m looking at using my Genie Mini, doing time-lapse, panos or some star trails (with as little light pollution as possible) … I’m not picky, and will see what the moment dictates. — Megan

A: Devils Tower is actually really easy to shoot. It’s a rather small property that is circular. Some of my favorite locations are:

  1. From just outside the park, before the hotel/trading post—that curve in the road gives you a nice, long shot at the open sky with the tower in the middle. Ripe for a 70-200mm lens for details and long star trails.
  2. As you come in, there will be a parking lot to the left. Shooting from there gives you an awesome view of the North Star over the tower.
  3. As you drive to the base of the tower, there is one road to the left. Take that left, park in the little lot, and shoot from that meadow for a cool view. Last time I was there, we had stars and a thunderstorm at the same time. Amazing.
  4. Right up at the base of the tower is another great location, with a classic view as you come off the trail. And you can walk around the whole thing, which gives you a ton of photo options.

When shooting at Devils Tower, use the buddy system, and watch for sleeping snakes. I startled one once—I’m not sure who was more scared, the snake or me! Stay on the path for greatest safety. Scout during the daytime and you’ll find all these spots. There isn’t much light pollution out there, so enjoy the darkness! — Matt

Do you have a question the NPAN team might able to answer? Email us today!

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

Voices For the Wilderness: Public Comments on National Monuments Due Today

Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. Photo by T. Miller/NPS.

Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument. Photo by T. Miller/NPS.

Three months ago the United States government initiated a review of the 27 national monuments that have been created by Republican and Democratic presidents over the past two decades. That review includes a period of public comment, which ends today, July 10.

Most people on both sides of the American political aisle don't see this question as one of partisan politics, but rather as the interests of some industries versus other industries—in particular, natural resources versus natural spaces.

Our Voices

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Photo © 2016 Chris Nicholson.

Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Photo © 2016 Chris Nicholson.

As a business that relies on the latter, and as people who love spending time in the wild, you can probably guess our opinion on the matter. We try not to wade into politics as an entity, but we did want to share the personal opinions of two of the NPAN partners and instructors. This is what Matt Hill and I submitted as public comments in reaction to the review:

Matt Hill

"I am co-founder of a photography workshop program that teaches night photography in public lands. We focus on national monuments and national parks.

"We provide an opportunity for our students to experience the uniquely dark skies offered by these locations which cannot be found elsewhere in the USA. They are also encouraged to learn about the landscape, wildlife, ecology and challenges each monument or land faces, and suggestions on how to honor, protect and share awareness about these qualities and challenges through their photography.

"Our students choose to spend their scarce vacation time or retirement money on supporting the local economies during our workshops. They also explore more monuments and parks in their own time, making more art and awareness in harmony with these precious spaces.

"I implore you to protect these unique, wild places. Do not exchange commercial benefits for irreplaceable acts of nature."

Chris Nicholson

"The lands of our nation belong to every citizen and every industry. But obviously some spaces need to be used by only one interest, as that use makes that space worthless for others. Outdoors enthusiasts have little use for lands riddled with oil derricks, and gas mining cannot occur on lands preserved for natural beauty. Therefore, a compromise is necessary—some lands relegated for preservation, some for development, mining, drilling, etc.

"That compromise was made more than a century ago. Processes were set in place to divide lands between interests that cannot share spaces, and a majority of available space has been dedicated to residential and business development. Business interests may not be happy with some specific results of that compromise, just as environmentalists are not happy with some. But that doesn't mean we go back on the compromise for either of those parties. Processes were put in place to determine which spaces would be set aside for preservation and which would be allowed to be developed, and the results of those processes should stand.

"Moreover, preserved lands may not benefit the industries of energy development, etc., but they are the lifeblood of the outdoors industries and local and international tourism. It is not the government's role to take existing economic interests away from one industry to grant them to another. The decisions and processes in place need to be respected and preserved in the face of special interests that seek to profit by strong-arming the American public out of compromises and agreements made in good faith over the course of generations."

Your Voices

If you're unsure of where you stand on the matter, a view of the spaces in question might satisfy curiosity. Journalist Brent Rose did just that—traveled to all 27 national monuments under review to see whether they're more valuable to America as natural spaces or business spaces. See his findings at www.27monuments.org.

Craters of the Moon National Monument. NPS photo.

Brent obviously has an opinion which drove his narrative, so if you would prefer a completely neutral view, consider exploring photographs of these national monuments on Google Images or Flickr, or on their home webpages. You can see a list of the spaces under review at www.doi.gov.

Regardless of where you stand personally on this issue, we encourage you to let your voice be heard. To register your public comment today, visit www.regulations.gov and enter "DOI-2017-0002" in the search box.

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 to Choose the Right White Balance for Night Skies

TIP: If you're reading this via email, try using a Web Browser for the best experience.


What do you do when you want just that perfect night sky?

  1. Know your light sources and their color temperatures (in Kelvin). See below.

  2. Know the feeling you want to evoke in the viewer.

  3. Set the white balance on your camera manually.

  4. Shoot RAW. 

  5. Process to taste later if the photo doesn't really match your expectations.

With a little knowledge in-hand, you can shoot it right, in-camera. Keep in mind, I'm not going to offer some dogma about the "right" settings. It's not that simple. There are no rules. But a little knowledge goes a long way. So let's get on with it.

Here is a cheat sheet on understanding Kelvin:

Temperature Source
1700 K Match flame, low pressure sodium lamps (LPS/SOX)
1850 K Candle flame, sunset/sunrise
2400 K Standard incandescent lamps
2550 K Soft white incandescent lamps
2700 K Soft white compact fluorescent and LED lamps
3000 K Warm white compact fluorescent and LED lamps
3200 K Studio lamps, photofloods, etc.
3350 K Studio "CP" light
4100-4150 K Moonlight
5000 K Horizon daylight
Tubular fluorescent lamps or cool white/ daylight compact fluorescent lamps (CFL)
5500-6000 K Vertical daylight, electronic flash
6200 K Xenon short-arc lamp
6500 K Daylight, overcast
6500-9500 K LCD or CRT screen
15000-27000 K Clear blue poleward sky

* These temperatures are merely characteristic; there may be considerable variation.
Source: Wikipedia
 

If you set your camera to 5500 K (Daylight), you'd see any light source mentioned in the chart above rendered in colors similar to what is shown in the first column. If you want a warm light to be warm, or a cool light to be cool, play it safe and shoot at the Daylight setting.

If you set your camera's white balance to 3200 K and you have a tungsten light source in your scene (or you're illuminating it), it will render as neutral. Read on for more about this.

Make it look cool like the night

In the above comparison (shot at Nahuel Huapi National Park in Barlichoe, Argentina), the very cool 3000 K white balance in full moonlight (left) makes it look distinctly like a night photograph, but a neutral 5500 K white balance (right) looks dull and lacks emotional qualities.

This works well when you're away from city lights. There were some sodium vapor lights in the above image that added an orange glow, but when I shot at 3000 K, the glow was much less noticeable.

Set it to Tungsten (3200 K)

If the above is too radical for your image, shoot at 3200 K or the Tungsten/Incandescent setting. This works well with moonlight, which is really just sunlight bouncing off a big, grey rock in space. So by choosing a cooler setting for "daylight at night," you'll be accessing that visual knowledge we all have of how the night should look to us. But did you know we can't see colors so well at night and we bias toward blue?

It's worth noting that Adobe Lightroom's native Tungsten setting is 2850 K, not 3200 K. Check out the subtle difference it makes in this photo from Capitol Reef National Park.:

Personally, I like the skies in the 2850 K shot better (left), but the foreground in the 3200 K better (right). Adding a color temperature gradient to slightly cool the sky would solve that in post-processing.

Shooting in Urban/Suburban areas

This is a little bit of a dilemma, because there are so many different light sources in inhabited areas. Here is an example where I shot fireworks in Denver (2950 K on the left, 5000 K on the right):

Making the Milky Way POP

When the moon is hiding around the other side of the Earth, and you can see the galactic center of the Milky Way, you want those colors to jump off the screen or print, right? To encourage those delicate colors to emerge like a flower opening up, set your white balance to 3900 K (right, versus 3200 K on the left).

Making that change in the above photo (from Crater Lake National Park), you can see the Milky Way colors jump right out at you, and the green airglow becomes much more noticeable. (The orange glow is from a nearby forest fire over the edge the caldera. We were not in any danger.)

Wrapup

Once you start thinking in terms of what you want your photos to feel like and surveying the light sources in the sky—whether natural or otherwise—you'll start to master choosing a white balance that makes your vision of the night come to life. 

Honestly, just don't fret about it. Enjoy your quiet creative time. And always shoot RAW with a manual white balance. You can adjust files you shot in RAW no matter the color balance you set in the field. But isn't it fun to nail it when you're on the scene?

Seize the night (skies)!

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.

UPCOMING WORKSHOPS FROM NATIONAL PARKS AT NIGHT

12 Things Other Than Fireworks to Photograph on the Fourth of July

As some readers may recall, I cut my night photography chops in San Francisco in the late 1980s, studying with Steve Harper at the Academy of Art. Steve had some strong opinions about what night photography was, and was not. Mainly, night photography was about images that had a certain sensibility, atmosphere or mood about them. Night photography images portrayed melancholia, loneliness, solitude, peacefulness and, perhaps above all, a sense of mystery.

To Steve, night photographs were not taken during the blue hour, in twilight, at sunset or sunrise, and they did not very often feature black skies. Most of all, night photography did not include taking pictures of nighttime sporting events, theater productions or Christmas lights. It also did not include—as is pertinent to this weekend—Fourth of July fireworks!

As the 241st birthday of the United States approaches, there will no doubt be countless articles and videos about how to take fireworks photographs. ... I think there are more creative ways to photograph the night on this holiday weekend.

In the many years since, I’ve expanded my own definition in ways that Steve might not agree with if he were still here. For example, he never could come to terms with high ISO images of the night sky. Having been a film shooter for most of his career, Steve was a star trails man through and through. Even after he switched to digital, Steve’s images were all about long exposures–– there was just more of the surrealistic aspect of night photography in star trails than in star points.

But I’ve digressed. As the 241st birthday of the United States approaches, there will no doubt be countless articles and videos all over the web about how to take fireworks photographs. If that’s your thing, have at it. (And be sure to read our post from last year, “Tips For Getting the Most Explosive Fireworks Photos.)

On the other hand, Steve thought and I think there are more creative ways to photograph the night on this holiday weekend. As an alternative, I’d like to offer you:

12 Things Other Than Fireworks to Photograph on the Fourth of July

1. Photograph the city skyline. (Nope, scratch that—the sky will be full of fireworks.)

Boston, 15 minutes, f/11. Ebony 6x9 view camera with Nikkor 65mm f/4 lens, Fuji Acros.

2. Photograph a bridge or lighthouse. (Hmm, maybe not. Most likely more fireworks.)

Tappan Zee Bridge from Tarrytown, New York. 90 seconds, f/8, ISO 160. Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon 28mm f/3.5 PC lens.

Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco. 6 seconds, f/8, ISO 160. Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon 28mm f/3.5 PC lens.

3. If you want to photograph a cliché subject other than fireworks, how about tail lights?

4. Go fishing. Or photograph fisherman and hope they don’t get irritated with you.

Providence, Rhode Island. 1/4 second, f/4, ISO 1250. Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon 28mm f/3.5 PC lens.

5. Go to a cemetery and light paint tombstones.

“Here Lyes The Body,” Concord, Massachusetts. 2 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100. Canon 5D Mark II, Olympus Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 PC shift lens.

6. Go to the liquor store—and photograph it.

“El Cheapo.” 30 seconds, f/8, ISO 100. Canon 5D Mark II, Olympus Zuiko 35mm f/2.8 PC shift lens.

7. Go skinny dipping, and call to the aliens. Then take a selfie.

“Night Swimming.” 30 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 640. Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon 28mm f/3.5 PC lens.

8. Visit a drive-in movie theater, and make an homage to O. Winston Link.

“Barstow Drive-In.” 4 seconds, f/8, ISO 6400. Canon EOS 6D, Nikon 28mm f/3.5 PC lens.

9. Visit a ghost town. Ghost towns are great places for night photography and light painting, and they rarely host fireworks.

Bodie Ghost Town, California. 15 minutes, f/8, ISO 100. Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon 28mm f/3.5 PC lens.

10. Watch Mother Nature’s fireworks.

Mono Lake, California. 25 seconds, f/16, ISO 100. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 lens at 65mm.

11. Create your own fireworks with light sabers.

“Lightforms.” 227 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100. Nikon D750, Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 lens at 40mm.

12. Visit a national park. (You knew that was coming, right?)

Olmsted Point, Yosemite National Park, California. 15 minutes, f/16, ISO 400. Canon 5D Mark II, Nikon 28mm f/3.5 PC lens.

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 I Got The Shot: Star Stacks and Sea Stacks in Olympic National Park

Sea Stack at Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park. Nikon D3s, Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8. 120 stacked exposures shot at 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600. Light-painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight. © 2016 Chris Nicholson.

The Location

It’s hard for me to choose a “favorite” national park, because it’s like trying pick a favorite item from a buffet of candy and ice creams. But Olympic National Park would certainly be near be near the tippy-top of my list, if not the cherry at the very top.

Not only is Olympic simply beautiful, but its three distinct ecosystems—mountain, rain forest and coast—all present unique photography opportunities. You could literally be shooting an entirely different scene and genre from one hour to the next.

My favorite of those ecosystems? That’s an easier question to answer: the coast. I grew up in New England only a mile from the shore, so my affinity for the water is strong. And my favorite spot on the Olympic coast to photograph? Ruby Beach.

Ruby Beach is a stunning stretch of coastline ... flanked by high cliffs, lined with hundreds of ancient, massive driftwood logs, divided by Cedar Creek, and punctuated by picturesque sea stacks amid the crashing Pacific waves.

During my four visits and shoots at Olympic National Park, I’ve shot at Ruby Beach in three of them. When I visit the park again this September to prepare for the two workshops we’re hosting there, I’m certain to shoot at Ruby again.

Ruby Beach is a stunning stretch of coastline that is a perfect location for photographing sunsets, in sunset light, on overcast days (tide pools!) and, of course, at night. The shore is flanked by high cliffs, lined with hundreds of ancient, massive driftwood logs, divided by Cedar Creek, and punctuated by picturesque sea stacks amid the crashing Pacific waves.

(Shameless plug: I’d be happy to personally show you around Ruby Beach this September, when Matt Hill and I run our two workshops there. A couple of seats are still open for each week—September 17 to 22 and September 24 to 29—so sign up today!)

Here are a few of photos to give a sense of what Ruby Beach looks and feels like:

The Setup

On a July afternoon in 2016 I scouted Ruby Beach for a night shoot, and planned three setups for once the sky grew dark. I knew I would have a good view of the Milky Way, and intended to frame it with sea stacks in two of the setups, but also wanted to rip one long exposure to capture some southern star trails.

One thing I kept in mind while scouting is something that can be important when working around the coast: Changing tides affect the appearance of the shoreline. To get a good idea of what the water levels would look like once shooting at night, I used the Tide Graph Pro app. I looked up the tide chart for that date (see Figure 1), noticed where the water level would be during my nighttime shoot (about 9 pm. to 1 a.m.), found a corresponding tide level during daylight (about 1 p.m.), and visited at that time for scouting. This way I didn’t have to imagine what the water would look like later—I knew exactly.

Figure 1. Tide Graph Pro showed me that the tide level during my shoot would be at about 1 foot above the zero tide height. I saw that the water would be at about 1 foot also around 1 p.m., so that is when I did my daytime scouting.

Incidentally, knowing the tides is important for safety too, especially in Olympic National Park, where many headlands are impassable at high tide. You don’t want to venture around a promontory at low tide and get trapped a few hours later when the water floods your trail back.

The Gear

Ruby Beach is certainly not a long hike from the car—it’s only about a half-mile round-trip—but because I was working on a beach, I didn’t want to be burdened with a heavy bag that I’d be tempted to put down in the sand during my several planned hours out. So I left some of my gear in the car and brought along a one-camera, two-lens, one-tripod kit:

The Exposure

For the star trail photo, I chose a single sea stack about halfway between Cedar Creek and Abbey Island, and once set up I started to “work the scene”—i.e., I shot from several different angles, some without light painting, some with varying approaches to light painting, some including the Milky Way, some including reflections in the sand as the tide receded. You can see a couple of the variations in Figures 2 and 3.

Figure 2. My first composition included the reflection in the wet sand, which is how I visualized the photo during my daytime scouting, an approach I abandoned while adjusting the composition.

Figure 3. My second attempt at a composition included a little of the Milky Way to the left. I also tried scraping the wet, pebbly shore with some light painting to emphasize the texture of the wavy sand.

I ultimately chose an angle that allowed me to get a little of the Milky Way behind the sea stack. I didn’t like the position of the galactic core in the frame, but figured that as it moved over the next hour or so, it would eventually be in a spot I did like. This led me to a key decision in how I approached the exposure: I chose to create my star trails using a long series of short exposures that I would later stack in post-production.

I could have created the star trails using one very long exposure, but there are drawbacks to that approach, including a significant drain on the camera battery, along with the introduction of long-exposure noise, which would be particularly problematic in warm midsummer temperatures. So instead I opted for “star stacking.” Star stacking is a post-processing technique for creating star trails that solves many of the image-quality issues inherent in night photography. (I will likely write more about all of that in a future blog post, so please stayed tuned for a year or two.)

Star stacking involves shooting multiple frames of the scene that are later layered together in Photoshop in a way that combines the stars into the same trails they would have made in a long exposure. You can do this with shutter speeds of any length. For example, if you wanted to create one-hour star trails, you could star-stack 12 5-minute exposures, or 30 2-minute exposures, or 60 1-minutes exposures, or so on.

Star stacking is a post-processing technique for creating star trails that solves many of the image-quality issues inherent in night photography.

For this photo, I shot 120 20-second exposures, giving me the equivalent of 40 minutes of star trails. Shooting that many frames meant I’d have more work to do later in Lightroom and Photoshop, but there was a reason I chose this approach, and it goes back to the decision about the Milky Way. I wanted to be able to pick out of my sequence one frame in which I liked the position of the galactic core, and I wanted that frame to have crisp star points.

I had my lens zoomed to 19mm, and using the 400 Rule, I knew that my shutter speed could be no longer than 20 seconds before the stars would start to blur. Therefore, I set my shutter speed to 20 seconds, and calculated that I would need 120 frames to produce my 40-minute star trails.

I set my aperture to f/2.8, and I used hyperfocal distance to ensure that both the sea stack and the stars would be in focus. I set the ISO to 1600, which could normally be quite low for star points, except that the moon was close to rising—not close enough for its light to be seen by the naked eye, but close enough to brighten the sky a bit during a long exposure. Shooting at f/2.8, I would have plenty of stars to trail, so I wasn’t concerned about them being a little dim, and because I would be light painting the sea stack, I wasn’t concerned about lacking shadow detail.

The last piece of the puzzle was the light painting. The sea stack was too prominent in the frame to use as a silhouette—half the composition would have been pure black. So I wanted to light paint the rock in a way that would bring out its texture and color. I experimented with different angles and determined the best option was lighting from the right, standing as close to a 90-degree angle to the sea stack as I could without stepping into the waves. (See Figure 4.)

Figure 4. A self-portrait of me light painting the sea stack.

I also experimented with different flashlights and chose my Coast HP7R, because its wide, crisp edge-to-edge beam allowed me to evenly paint the entire sea stack from a relatively close distance without having to move the light. Figure 5 is the painting approach I settled on.

Figure 5. The final approach to the light painting, after trying several variations.

The Shoot

Once my exposure and light painting strategies were set, all I needed to do was execute the sequence. Because I was shooting 20-second exposures, I didn’t need an intervalometer, so I simplified matters by using a wired remote shutter release that I could lock (specifically, the Nikon MC-30A). The camera was set in Continuous shooting mode, so all I needed to do was push the button on the remote, set the lock, and let the camera do its thing 120 times.

During the first exposure, I did the light painting that I had already practiced. The remaining 119 frames have just a silhouetted sea stack. I went for a walk and enjoyed a quiet night on the coast under the dark skies of Olympic National Park.

Figure 6. The entire 120-frame sequence in Lightroom.

The Post-Production

The star-stack process is actually pretty simple for such a powerful technique.

After dumping the cards into Lightroom, I looked at the images and decided not to make any adjustments other than adding a standard touch of Vibrance and Clarity, and (this is important) in the Len Corrections panel I turned on Remove Chromatic Aberration and Enable Profile Corrections. I made those adjustments to one file, then selected the entire sequence and clicked the Sync button to apply those changes to all the highlighted files.

With the entire sequence still selected, I went to the menu and chose Photo – Edit In – Open as Layers in Photoshop. This maneuver created a new file by making a layer out of each of the selected frames of the sequence I had shot on the beach. (See Figure 7.) Because I initiated this process for over a gigabyte of collective data, once the computer was working I went to the kitchen and made a sandwich and a cup of coffee. My computer is no slouch, but it still needed a good 20 minutes to complete the job.

Figure 7. Each frame of the sequence was imported to Photoshop as individuals layers in one file.

The next step was to select all the layers (Figure 8), which can be done either by shift-clicking the first and last layers, or by pressing Control+Option+A (Mac) or Control+Alt+A (PC).

Figure 8. All layers selected.

Then, using the drop-down menu at the top of the Layers panel, I changed the blend mode to “Lighten.” (Figure 9.) The Lighten mode essentially looks at the layers as a pile of aligned images, searching through each of them pixel by pixel. It searches for the lightest pixel in each pixel pile, then brings that lightest pixel to the top. In the case of stars that are moving against a dark sky, that means the star point in each layer is brought forward, thus creating the trails. (Note to astronomers: Of course we know that it’s actually the Earth moving, not the stars, but it’s easier to explain this way, so please bear with me.)

Also, because I light-painted the sea stack in that one frame but left it silhouetted in the others, the sea stack is also brought forward. No masking needed—it happens automatically.

Figure 9.

That’s a sort-of technical explanation of how the Lighten mode works behind the scenes. What I see on-screen is some nifty magic of star trails appearing where before there were only star points and dark sky. (See Figure 10.) It looks pretty much the same as if I’d shot the 40-minute exposure, except it has no long exposure noise, and my camera battery didn’t have the life sucked out of it.

The Cleanup

The keen observer will note that while shooting those 120 frames, some planes flew through my composition, and they impolitely neglected to turn their lights off before doing so. Some photographers like to keep plane trails in their photos. I’m not one of those photographers. Getting rid of them is a simple matter of masking or cloning them out of the layers they appear in.

I also wasn’t crazy about the bright star trail in the upper right corner of the composition. It’s the brightest and thickest trail, and it’s right in the corner, where it draws attention far away from where I want attention drawn. So I masked it out.

One more bit of cleanup I did was in the lower right corner of the composition, where you can see a big blotch of light that was caused by a moving star being distorted in the reflections on the sand. That was relatively easy to mask out as well.

Figure 10. The artifacts from stacking that I masked out of the layers in Photoshop.

Figure 10. The artifacts from stacking that I masked out of the layers in Photoshop.

The Save

The final decision in creating a star stack is whether to save the layered PSD file. If I had shot the sequence using fewer longer exposures (for example, eight 5-minute exposures), then saving the layers file may have been feasible, and it would have come with the benefit of being able to make adjustments to the individual layers in the future. But I didn’t do that—I used 120 short exposures to create this stack, and if I saved that as a PSD—well, I wouldn’t be able to, because it would have resulted in an 8 GB file, which is too gigantic for the PSD format.

Rather, I would have had to save it as a PSB, which is Adobe’s large document format. But I still would have ended up with a giant file that I don’t want to deal with reserving space for or having to open again. So instead, I flattened the image and saved it as a 70 MB PSD, which while not as flexible for future edits, is much easier to maintain. Should I ever want to approach this image differently, I can always recreate it from the sequence files—and enjoy another sandwich and cup of coffee while doing so.

Once the star-stacked photo was saved and back in the Lightroom catalog, I made some minor adjustments to Clarity and Vibrance to optimize the look of the stars, and that was that—star trails over Ruby Beach.

Figure 11. The final image.

And what about that star-point Milky Way photo I wanted to pull out of the sequence? Well, I didn’t like the position of our galaxy in any of those 120 frames. So after I wrapped the star stack sequence, I reframed my composition and shot Figure 12 instead.

Figure 12. The Milky Way over Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park. © 2016 Chris Nicholson.

Speaking of the Milky Way, can you see it in the star trail photo (Figure 11)? It’s to the left of the sea stack, and you can discern it by the telltale cluster of denser star trails. It looks like a streaky cloud of light. That’s what our galaxy looks like in a long exposure!

Note: If you’re interested in joining NPAN instructors Chris Nicholson and Matt Hill in Olympic National Park, there are only a few spots left, so sign up today! We’re offering two weeks in this amazing national park: September 17 to 22 and September 24 to 29.

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