Light Painting

Filling in the Shadows: Light Painting Before and After

Light painting is and can be many things. It can control the viewer’s eye. It can be a catalyst for creativity. It can bring life into the shadows of a composition. It can add drama to an otherwise ordinary scene. It can be an artist’s brush used to sweep strokes of illumination onto a landscape to allow us to see into the night in new and previously unimagined ways.

In other words, light painting is a versatile tool that can be a means to various ends. Below, all five National Parks at Night instructors share a way they have used light painting to enhance a nocturnal photograph.

You’ll notice that the examples included do not involve drenching a scene with buckets of untamed light to paint every crevice and fill every shadow. They also don’t involve dramatic re-representations of reality, wherein we let the light alter the authenticity of the world that’s in front of the camera. Rather, as Gabe says, we paint with shadows as much as we paint with light. And as Matt says, we let the light merely kiss the subject.

For each photograph, click or press on the slider, and drag it left and right to see how the light painting subtly but noticeably enhances the composition. Study the ways that the added illumination helps accomplish different tasks or helps solve problems of exposure, composition, etc. Then think about how you can apply those same ideas to your own night images.

More importantly, also think about how you may have illuminated these scenes differently. One of the amazing aspects of light painting is that it affords us an opportunity to create a completely different photograph than another photographer who may have the exact same composition.

Lance Keimig

Nikon D850, Irix 11mm f/4 lens, 15 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 3200.

This image of the backside of Lady Boot Arch in the Alabama Hills of California’s Eastern Sierra was made at the end of a long night during our workshop there last November. I had photographed the arch many times before, and was looking for a unique vantage point. It’s a situation that I often find myself faced with––trying to make an image that I’ve never seen before in a familiar location.

Once I found this perspective, I knew that I had the shot. I just had to figure out how to light it. The moon was high in the sky to the west, illuminating the left side of the arch, and the foreground was deep in shadow. I lit the right side of the formation from behind with a warm-gelled Coast HP5R flashlight, which gave depth and texture to the arch, which from the rear looks more like a tower.

The light painting worked like this: The repeated diagonals from upper left to lower right created depth and drama. However, the dark mass on the left and bottom of the frame was too heavy, so I decided to add just a hint of fill light to this part of the frame. Anyone who has studied with me has heard the mantra to “not light from behind the camera,” but in this case, there really wasn’t much of an option. A quick swipe of the flashlight along the surface of the rock was all it took to bring out the texture and fill in the shadows.

The key was to rake the light along the surface of the rock rather than to light it straight on. The flashlight was a better choice for this than my Luxli Viola because I needed a strong directional source, as I was lighting from next to the camera. Low-level Landscape Lighting with the Luxli would have been much easier, as I had only 15 seconds to paint from both locations. But as it turned out, racing to get the lighting completed before the shutter closed was a fun challenge that served the additional purpose of keeping me warm after about eight hours out in the cool autumn air!

This image ended up being my favorite of 2017, not only for the image itself, but for the challenge of executing it all in one frame in just 15 seconds.


Tim Cooper

Nikon D4s, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 60 seconds, f/5.6, ISO 100.

Light painting is all about angles and shadows. More specifically, it’s about the angle of the light source to the subject, and the shadows that the light source subsequently produces. Painting a subject while you stand right by the camera always produces the most boring light. Why? Because it causes all of the shadows to fall behind your subject. But when you paint from an oblique angle, you produce a more interesting picture with tons of texture.

Texture, and in turn drama, is brought out when you paint your subject from the side or from behind. Painting your subject from behind causes all of your shadows to fall in front of the subject and toward the camera. This type of lighting can be really dramatic. It can also be difficult to pull off when you have to hide your light from your camera.

That was the case with this footbridge in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I wanted to paint the railings and the walk, but I didn’t want the flat look of front lighting. So I tripped the shutter and hid the flashlight in front of me while I walked down the bridge pointing the flashlight backward at the left railing. When I reached the end, I walked backward and again hid the flashlight in front of me while I painted the right railing. Doing this kept the flashlight hidden from the camera the whole time.

The next and more difficult task was to light the walk. In this case I couldn’t walk away from the camera while painting with the flashlight in front of me, or my body would have blocked the camera’s view of what I was light painting. So I had to start at the far end of the bridge and walk toward the camera while painting the walk in between me and the camera. Painting in this manner brought out all of the texture in the wood decking.

Unfortunately, it also caused the problem of the flashlight being fully visible to the camera. That’s a big no-no in light painting. To solve this problem, I held my hat in my other hand and used its brim to hide the flashlight from the camera while I painted down at the walk. The diagram below shows the basics of this technique.

Remember to always hide the flashlight from the camera, and always wear dark colors so that the bounce light doesn’t illuminate your body!


Gabe Biderman

Nikon D5, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 24mm. 20 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

Light painting is a must when photographing close subject matter under dark sky conditions. We specifically chose a new moon time period for our first Ambassador Series workshop with Atlas Obscura at Borrego Springs. The focus was to revisualize the many surreal sculptures that surround the town against the billion-star backdrop.

Before I paint with light, I always take several test shots to help me see, compose and focus. This also helps me figure out where the light would create interesting shadows. We call it light painting, but I like to call it “shadow painting” because not only is it about revealing information, but it’s also about creating interesting textures and shadows! This can generally be achieved when our light hits the subject at a 45- to 90-degree angle from the camera.

I also love adding dramatic backlighting to scenes and I chose this composition specifically so that the bush would frame the turtle and I could cast light and shadows into the scene.

During the 20-second exposure I walked 10 feet to the left of the frame with my 1/2 CTO-gelled Coast HP5R flashlight. I did the side lighting at the lowest setting for 2 seconds. I was careful not to move my flashlight while it was on, which allowed me to create the dark shadows along the neck and back of the sculpture—i.e., the areas I shadow painted.

With the flashlight off, I then walked behind the bush, got low and out of view from the camera, and quickly turned the HP5R on and off while it was pointed back toward the turtle. This revealed so much texture in the sand and created an interesting mosaic of shadows reaching toward the viewer.

So give shadow painting a try!


Matt Hill

Fuji X-T1, 7artisans 7.5mm f/2.8 lens. 58 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Sometimes light painting a 400-foot tall pillar of Moenkopi sandstone calls for bringing in the big guns. I was running a long star stack/time-lapse with some other students on our Capitol Reef National Park workshop earlier this year.

The stack started during moonset, which was very gentle, and beautiful. But according to PhotoPills, the tail end of the Milky Way wouldn’t be ascending the rock formation until we came back to collect our cameras over an hour and a half later. As we came back, student Karl Zuzarte asked what was already on my mind: “Can we light paint the last frame or two of the stack?” “Heck, yes,” I said.

Since it was a bit of a slog to get to our cameras, I asked Gabe to grab a radio and a Luxli Cello panel light (which is the new big brother to the Viola), and to head off about 1/4-mile away at an oblique angle similar to moonset.

Gabe set the Cello to 3000K and maybe 2 percent intensity. Unlike sweeping a flashlight around, which softens the shadow edges, the fixed position of the panel created the perfect strong kiss of light to cast crisp shadows. And its 72-degree beam angle covered the entire massive rock formation and grazed the tops of the vegetation on the desert floor.


Chris Nicholson

Nikon D3s, 14-24mm f/2.8 lens at 14mm. 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 2000.

When shooting in Cape Hatteras National Seashore earlier this year, I was excited to tackle perhaps the most famous light house in the United States: the eponymous Cape Hatteras Light. I'd shot there only once before, in 2001 or so, and that was during daylight. This time, I got to do it with stars!

I went for a wide-angle composition, drawn by the symmetry of the scene, as well as by the low angle that allowed me to include as many stars as possible. I liked the framing, but felt the scene needed a little lighting to help emphasize the primary subject—i.e., the lighthouse. If I’d let the structure stay in relative silhouette, then the visual emphasis would have been on the sky instead.

For the light painting I used a lightly gelled (1/2 CTO) Coast HP7R flashlight. I stood to camera-right, beyond the out-of-frame fence, at almost 90 degrees from the lighthouse. I fired my shutter with a Vello Freewave wireless remote, then started light painting with a wide beam and a downward stroke, starting at the lantern and moving down to the stones and steps at the base. I then quickly focused the flashlight for a tight beam and side-lit the fence leading to the bottom of the frame, letting it catch just pieces of the fence here and there, but being careful not to light the grass.

Light it Up!

We hope this gives you some ideas about various ways you can light the night, and about some of the ways you can use light painting to overcome night photography obstacles.

There are of course many other examples, and I’m sure we’ll offer more in the future. In the meantime, we’d love to see your work. In the Comments section, please share some stories (with photos, of course) of how you have used light painting to help you seize the night!

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


How We Got the Shot: Wildrose Charcoal Kilns of Death Valley National Park

Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, Death Valley National Park. © 2017 Lance Keimig.

The Location

Last month I led a small private workshop to do night photography and light painting in Death Valley National Park. With only five participants in the workshop—all of them advanced—we spent our time differently and chose locations that could not be accessed with larger groups. One place everyone wanted to go was to the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, which are among the most interesting architectural and historical features in the park.

The ten charcoal kilns were built by the Modock Consolidated Mining Company and completed in 1877. They were built to provide fuel for two lead/silver smelters––about 25 miles away. They were used for only a couple of years, which accounts for their remarkably good condition. They are aligned in a row at about 8,000 feet of elevation, which makes for a challenging night photography location in late November!

I had been to the kilns only once before, in 2012, and had been looking forward to another chance to photograph them. Despite my return visit being five years later, the conditions were remarkably similar: cold and windy with an almost full moon. On my first visit, I was there with Scott Martin, Aaron Grimes, and Russell Brown from Adobe. Russell had brought a brand new Wescott Ice Light, the likes of which we had never seen. That’s another story, but it reminds me of just how fast technology is moving, as today there are many similar tools for a wide range of purposes and budgets. Back then, we were mightily impressed, and used it to great effect.

The Setup

Back to the present… After spending a few minutes exploring and talking about how we would tackle this project, we decided to work as a group on the first shot, and then split up and work with individual kilns. From my previous visit, I knew that the only way for a group to photograph the entire set of kilns at once was to do so from a similar location. We chose to work from the downhill end of the row, which meant we were facing almost due east.

We set up in a row, with my camera being furthest out from the kilns, which meant that I had the least oblique angle, and could see more of the most distant kilns in my image. This also meant that I couldn’t include the first kiln without also including the first couple of photographers in the shot. I simply rotated my camera to the right, and completely excluded the first kiln rather than have it partially in the frame.

Figure 1. The basic setup for the shot. I would be doing the final shot at the camera’s native ISO of 64, so the test shot was done at ISO 4000, six stops more than the final. Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24 mm f/2.8 lens at 24 mm. 8 seconds, f/8, ISO 4000.

I had the good fortune to be working with the outstanding new Nikon D850, which Nikon Professional Services had sent me for testing and review. (My next blog post—to run in early January—will be an in-depth review of the camera as a night photography tool.) I set the focal length of the 14-24mm lens to 24mm, which was still just a bit wider than I needed from this camera position. That was fine, as I was tilting the camera upward, and I knew that I would be using the Transform tab in Lightroom’s Develop module to correct the perspective, and would lose a bit from the sides of the composition in the process.

The Exposure

After the composition and focus was set, the next step was to figure out the ambient exposure. Since we were working with an almost full moon, we decided that star trails would be a better option than star points, as the dimmer stars would be obscured by the moonlight anyway. This also gave us the added advantage of being able to do all of the lighting in one long exposure, something that never could have been accomplished in a single 20-second shot.

Due to the wide-angle lens and the camera distance from the subject, I could have shot wide open, but that would have left me with a 1-minute exposure at ISO 64–– not enough time to light the scene. I closed down the aperture three stops to f/8, and came up with a final exposure of 8 minutes, f/8, ISO 64.

Figure 2. The first attempt to light the kilns. Klaus (under)lit the interiors of each kiln, and I (under)lit the back sides of each. We stopped the exposure as soon as the lighting was finished, which was after 7 minutes and 4 seconds. We were both using a Coast HP7R flashlight with a full CTO and 1/4 Minus Green gels.

The Shoot

That first attempt at lighting was underwhelming. The moon washed out most of the light painting, and workshop participant Klaus—who was lighting the doorways from inside the kilns—realized that he needed to take a couple of steps to his right, and aim the light slightly uphill to light the camera-facing part of the opening.

I initially lit the back of each kiln from a position near the back and up against the downhill neighbor of the structure I was lighting. This worked well for the first couple of kilns, but by the time I got to the third one, my lighting was barely visible. For the next attempt, I moved progressively further around toward the front of each kiln, but made sure that I was still out of sight of the cameras, and I also increased the time I was lighting each structure. This resulted in a longer exposure time, so we stopped down one-third of a stop to f/9 to compensate for the additional exposure.

We pretty much nailed it on the second attempt, but went ahead and made a third exposure just to have a little extra piece of mind–– an insurance policy, if you will. The third exposure was almost identical to the second one, so we wrapped the shot and went off to work on our own images.

Figure 3. The second and third attempts to light the kilns yielded almost identical images, and the third is the final version. Each kiln was lit from the left rear for about 15 seconds, and from the interior, with the light facing outward, for about 10 seconds. I made minimal adjustments in Lightroom to the single RAW file, including vertical perspective correction. 8 minutes and 38 seconds, f/9, ISO 64.

Figure 4. I made another image using similar lighting, but featuring a smaller grouping of the kilns. This image has less ambient exposure for a more dramatic look. 30 seconds, f/7.1, ISO 400.

Figure 5. Klaus and I worked together to make this one, from the inside looking out. This shot would be better at a high ISO with star points, or if the clouds did not take up most of the sky. 30 seconds, f/7.1, ISO 1250.

Final Thoughts

The D850 is a joy to use, and Nikon users will find the menus, button layout and features familiar yet improved from previous models. I am duly impressed with the image quality of the pictures I made at the charcoal kilns, and think you will be too. Cold weather under moonlit skies are conditions that most modern DSLRs will handle with aplomb, so the real test will be when I present images made in high-contrast scenes or at high ISOs under dark starry skies.

I had the opportunity to use a D850 at our recent Eastern Sierra workshop as well as at this Death Valley workshop, both times around the full moon. I did manage to do a few shots under dark skies in my front yard before returning the camera to Nikon, and will share those with you in an extensive review soon. You’ll see images shot with the D850, D810, D750 and D5 all side by side so you can decide which is the right camera for you.

Note: See our January 2018 post Nikon Night Photography Showdown for our full rundown on the Nikon D850 and its efficacy in night photography.

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

Leveling Up by Layering Light: How to Paint with Short Exposures

I love painting with light. Crafting the illumination in my scene by carefully painting my subject with a flashlight is both fun and challenging.

One of the biggest problems I run into, however, is not having enough exposure time to paint my entire scene. Shooting under a full moon, working in brightly lit cities or even trying to capture the Milky Way all require shorter exposures that limit the amount of time you can paint with your flashlight.

The solution? Paint each part of your scene on a separate exposure and layer them together in Photoshop.

In the following example—shot in Jerome, Arizona—I take this method to the extreme. I made this image at dusk, but I wanted it to look like a night photograph. My base exposure was 1/125, f/11, ISO 100. This very short exposure did not allow me the time to paint with my flashlight like I normally would. So instead I used my speedlight (flash unit) to light different parts of the scene in three separate fast exposures, with the goal of layering them together in post-production.

This technique can be used with longer exposures too, and with any light painting tools you like to use. Maybe light pollution or moonlight is limiting your ambient exposure to 30 seconds, and you have 2 minutes of light painting to do. That's another perfect time to layer light painting frames.

The Technique

Shooting to blend later in Photoshop is actually pretty simple.

Start by establishing your base exposure. Again, in this example, using a 24mm lens, my base exposure was 1/125, f/11, ISO 100 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Jerome, Arizona. Base exposure of 1/125, f/11, ISO 100.

This is the exposure you’ll use for all the subsequent frames. Keeping the exposure constant keeps the background illumination uniform in your final image.

With your base exposure established, simply click the shutter and jump into your scene and paint as much as you can. Click the shutter again and paint another area. Continue in this manner until everything you want illuminated has been painted. In this example I shot and light painted three frames, but you could do four, six, ten … whatever it takes the get the lighting right.

Figure 2. First exposure painted from the left, second exposure painted from the right, and third exposure painted from behind.

Once your images are made, it’s time to blend them.

1. Begin in Lightroom by selecting the images you want to blend.

2. From the menu choose Photo–Edit In–Open as Layers in Photoshop (Figure 3).

Figure 3.

All of the images will open in Photoshop in separate layers within one file, as seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4.

3. Click on the top layer and then hold down the shift key while you click on the bottom layer. This will select all of the layers in the stack (Figure 5).

Figure 5.

Figure 5.

5. With all of the layers selected, it’s time to change the blending mode, which is what makes the magic happen. Choose "Lighten" (Figure 6).

Figure 6.

Voila! As you can see in the image below, all the of the areas that I painted are now visible, creating one comprehensivley lit scene.

Save and close. The image will now return to Lightroom.

Figure 7. Final layered image. Nikon D4, Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 lens. Three layered images shot at 1/125, f/11, ISO 100, each with flash.

Using the Lighten blending mode is a great trick for night photography. It allows for shorter exposure times, multiple attempts at light painting during star stacking, and even the ability to control the color and brightness of the individual exposures back in Lightroom!

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.


How We Got the Shot: Light Painting the Upright Stone in Iceland

Nikon D750, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art lens. 73 seconds, f/8, ISO 200.

One of my favorite moments of our recently completed Westfjords of Iceland photo tour was working with three of our travelers on a joint light painting image one night while we were waiting for the aurora to appear. (The aurora did eventually appear, and in a big way!)

We were positioned high on a hill with 360-degree views in order to be able to see and photograph the aurora no matter where it appeared in the sky. The weather was perfect, the sky mercifully clear, and the vistas magnificent. The group was excited with anticipation as the KP index of 5 was a good sign that the sky would put on a good show for us.

There was a large upright stone, about 5 feet high, perched neatly near the edge of the hill. It reminded me of an image by the Czech photographer Jan Pohribny titled “Positive Energy Emitter” (Figure 1). Pohribny’s photo was of an ancient standing stone at twilight, and he had circled the stone with a red light held overhead and also pointed down at the ground to create the “energy vibrations” implied in the title.

  Figure 1. “Positive Energy Emitter," 1992 Jan Pohribný. From the series  New Stone Age .  
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Figure 1. “Positive Energy Emitter," 1992 Jan Pohribný. From the series New Stone Age.

I thought that this would be the perfect opportunity to attempt an homage. My thought was that the stone before us could be a beacon to summon the aurora, as well as a tribute to an early light painting innovator.

After my standard procedure of framing the composition, focusing and determining the ambient exposure, I made my initial attempt at creating the rings of light around the stone (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Initial experimentation. Nikon D750, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art lens. 30 seconds, f/16, ISO 100.

First I set up a Luxli Constructor Large Block Bi-Color LED Light on the ground pointed at the stone, set on low power at 3200 K––partly to illuminate the stone, and partly so I could see to move around without tripping over the other rocks on the ground.

I also used a short section of frosted plastic tube that I had removed from a collapsible light sword from Light Painting Brushes, and fixed it to my Coast HP5R flashlight on low power, which created a DIY light wand. I wasn’t satisfied with the look I was getting with the wand, so Erika, one of the workshop attendees, suggested using a different Light Painting Brushes tool that she had, a purple translucent light writer (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Second attempt. Nikon D750, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art lens. 30 seconds, f/13, ISO 100.

We liked the look with the translucent light writer better, but since there was still a lot of light in the sky, we were limited to a 30-second exposure at ISO 100 and f/11. Because the ground around the standing stone was covered with rocks of various sizes, it wasn’t possible to move around very quickly in order to create the desired light writing effect in such a short time. We could make only a few revolutions during the half-minute exposure. But I knew that as the sky got darker, we would be able to extend the exposure time and create more light rings.

Meanwhile, Erika’s husband Dan suggested adding another element to the image using shadow painting rather than light painting. His idea was to project a hand shadow onto the rock by placing his hand between the rock and a light source. We loved the idea, and the initial result reminded us of pictographs found in ancient rock art sites around the world.

The first attempt was encouraging, so we made a few refinements until we came up with an iteration we all liked. I also added some illumination to the foreground by sweeping a flashlight low to the ground on the left and right sides to fill in the shadows and reveal some detail (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Third attempt. Nikon D750, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art lens. 30 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.

By this time, things were getting complicated, as Erika was making the rings around the stone, Dan was holding his hand in position for the shadow, and I was lighting the ground and creating the hand shadow, which took precise alignment of Dan’s hand and the flashlight. Each of us had our cameras set up and were shooting side by side.

Fortunately, Steve, another participant, was available to assist us by opening all the shutters, which gave us time to get into position before the exposures started. We made one more frame just as the aurora was starting to appear in another part of the sky, and that frame was exactly the vision we were working toward (Figure 5). So we called it a wrap, and repositioned ourselves to photograph the aurora.

Figure 5. Final image. Nikon D750, Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art lens. 73 seconds, f/8, ISO 200.

So many elements came together to make this image succeed:

  • the references to ancient cultures associated with mystery and spirituality––the standing stones of neolithic cultures in Europe, and the pictographs reminiscent of Native American Kokopelli
  • the ritual of light painting and the call to the gods asking for the aurora to bless us with its magical presence
  • and most importantly, the collaborative spirit that we shared to create the image, which made this special moment a highlight of our trip to the magical place that are the Westfjords of Iceland

Thank you Erika, Dan and Steve. It was an honor sharing this experience with you!

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


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