Devils Tower

How I Got the Shot: Light Painting and Star Trails at Devils Tower

Stars at Devils Tower. Nikon D750 with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. Ten stacked frames, each shot at 150 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600 (1,500 seconds total).

The Conditions

Shooting under moonless conditions can create consistent challenges for astro-landscape photography. The primary challenge is lighting your main subject. When it’s the Devils Tower in Wyoming, you’ve gotta get it right.

Gabe and I were leading a group of eager learners on a workshop a few years ago when I made the above image.

I was not standing at my camera—I was up at the base of the Tower, illuminating it.

So how did we do this?

The Shoot

Well, lemme first show you how it looks without being lit, which you can see in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Nikon D750 with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. 150 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600.

It lacked the detail that screams, “Is that the mountain from that famous movie?!?” Right? Yeah.

But one frame did stand out: when some climbers who had to descend after dark illuminated the deep crevices that are the hallmark of this natural stone edifice (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Nikon D750 with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. 30 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Aside from that, we wanted more detail in the Tower. So I set my intervalometer to take many, many (infinite, in fact) exposures. (You can read more on how to do that in our post “Mastering the Intervalometer for Night Photography and Long Exposures.”

I knew I intended to make an epic star trail from this. So I aimed for longer exposure lengths of 150 seconds and let the sequence begin. I knew this was still short enough to manage the long exposure noise that the camera would generate in the mid-August Wyoming heat.

I grabbed a two-way radio and drove up to the parking lot. I hit the loop trail and started doing my own lighting. From so far away from the camera, how did I know I was executing the light painting sufficiently? That’s where the radio came in—I kept pinging Gabe to see if my flashlight was providing proper detail and coverage. Trusting Gabe to be the lighting director from the camera position was crucial.

Gabe advised me to cover about one-quarter of the arc around the base of the Tower. We tried a few variations and settled on a final strategy (Figure 3).

Before and after light painting from the base of the tower.

I shot many different variations (Figure 4) through the evening, sometimes re-framing, sometimes adjusting the exposure length. Even when you’re confident about your approach in the field, it’s always good to push the boundaries of your decisions and to give yourself more options to look at when back at the computer.

Figure 4. The different strategies I shot that night gave me lots of options to choose from in post.

The Post-Production

The final set of frames I chose to work with is this:

Figure 5.

Each image required a gradient for the sky, and a proper Range Mask set to 28/100 Luminance and 19 Smoothness. I also used the mask brush to remove the gradient from Devils Tower itself and from the trees below.

Once the mask was done, I made the adjustments, which were intended to emphasize (but not over-process) the sky. Sometimes that’s a fine line, and one we always want to be conscious of. You can see the mask I created in Figure 6, and the adjustments in Figure 7.

Figure 6.

Figure 7.

Then I needed to stack the frames in Photoshop. In several previous How I Got the Shot blog posts we’ve discussed stacking frames to create star trails and to combine different light-painted compositional elements into one image. This time I used the same technique to achieve both those goals in one photograph—i.e., to get the stars to trail and the light-painted sections of the Tower to composite.

The process is:

  1. Select all the pertinent frames in Lightroom by shift-clicking the first and last.

  2. From the menu, choose Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop.

  3. Once the image opens select all the layers by clicking on the top layer, pressing the shift key and then clicking on the bottom layer.

  4. In the Blending Mode dropdown above the layers (the box that defaults to saying Normal), choose Lighten.

  5. Save and close, which will bring the stacked image back into Lightroom where you can make final edits.

I was really pleased with the stacked result:

Nikon D750 with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. Ten stacked frames, each shot at 150 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600 (1,500 seconds total).

The photograph has more mystery with the tree line falling into silhouette and the Tower having detail. This emphasizes where the viewer should look.

A Little Cleanup

Due to some people’s red headlamps and flashlights, the trees and ground closest to us picked up the color. It’s quite hard to edit away, so I brushed in some local adjustments subtracting highlights and whites. After stacking, that still wasn’t enough, so I ended up using layer masks to eliminate the distracting details.

(Hmmmm. Come to think of it, it may have been the brake lights of my rental car when I returned to the group. D’oh! And possibly a “mea culpa” moment. Whoops. Bad Matt.)

When I re-edited the stack this time, I noticed something new. I wanted to crop it to a vertical. It felt … more powerful. More focused.

The final, final result:

Nikon D750 with a Zeiss 15mm Distagon f/2.8 lens. Ten stacked frames, each shot at 150 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 1600 (1,500 seconds total).

Wrapping Up

I gotta say, I am excited to return to the Devil’s Tower with Chris later this year. It’s going to be amazing. What will he and I dream up together? And what will the workshop participants dream up? I bet it’ll be out of this world. (Yeah, I went there.)

How do you achieve better astro-landscape photography by collaborating with friends and peers? Tell us more in the comments, and show us photos!

Note: Want to join Matt and Chris to make epic night photography images at Devils Tower National Monument? We have two spots left for the workshop, so sign up now!

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


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