Light Painting

How I Got the Shot: Dueling Dinos in Borrego Springs

Dueling Dinosaurs, Borrego Springs, California. Nikon D750 with an Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens, lit with a Luxli Viola and Maglite Mini. 25 seconds, f/4.5, ISO 4000.

The Location

Ricardo Breceda’s metal sculptures in Borrego Springs, California, are intense and dramatic with or without light painting. They are incredibly fun to shoot. The 130 sculptures are spread out over about 8 miles of desert, but two of my favorites are a pair of giant dinosaurs that stand together in eternal battle.

The relationship between these two makes for some great composition options. The two dinosaurs are about the same size and roughly 40 or 50 feet apart, although they don’t appear that way in these images. I set up the camera to make it look like the near dinosaur was about to bite off the head of the more distant one.

You can find Ricardo’s two dinosaurs right here.

The Exposure

I was collaborating with Cutler Connaughton, one of our workshop participants when we partnered with Atlas Obscura this past May. We placed our cameras very close together, as there was very limited space to get the alignment just right.

After determining the composition, we focused and decided on the ambient exposure. I was using an Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens, which I can usually shoot at f/2.8 and get incredibly sharp results. But in this case I needed to stop down to f/4.5 for more depth of field. The 400 Rule told me that my longest usable shutter speed for star points with the 15mm was 25 seconds, so I set the ISO accordingly to get an adequate background exposure. Final exposure: 25 seconds, f/4.5, ISO 4000.

This is the final composition without any added light. I thought that it worked as a silhouette, but knew it could be improved with a suggestion of detail. I don’t want to reveal everything with my lighting—I want the viewer to be left with questions. If you have all of the answers with a quick glance, there’s no need to keep looking at the image, and I want to keep eyes on the picture as long as possible. Nikon D750 with an Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 25 seconds, f/4.5, ISO 4000.

The Lighting

This exposure left the dinosaurs completely silhouetted. We needed to add light.

We turned on a Luxli Viola and set it to 10 percent power and 3000 K, and mounted it on a hand-held Elinchrom boom arm. I wanted to use a warm color balance to bring out the rust color of the steel sculptures, which would contrast nicely with the cool natural light.

Ten percent brightness provided just enough intensity to accomplish what we needed during the exposure, while still providing a good amount of control over the added light. Turning up the power of the Luxli would have gotten the job done in less time, but would have been less forgiving if my positioning wasn’t perfect while painting. Every decision I make when creating an image is a compromise, balancing the various elements required to make the shot work.

The Shoot

Cutler triggered both cameras, while I experimented with the lights.

We made a total of 47 exposures of this setup! Refining the composition took five frames, as we had to have our cameras nearly touching and the tripod legs overlapping to make it work. The rest of the exposures involved making slight modifications in the lighting. It’s not unusual for me to make six to 10 variations to get an image just right, but this one required a lot of perseverance.

The sequence of 47 exposures that Cutler and I made together. The final version actually occurred about two-thirds of the way through the sequence, but we kept at it because we weren’t confident that we had what we were after.

The lighting involved four steps from four different positions, and three of the four steps were done with a single light source during the 25-second exposure. I could have set up multiple lights in fixed positions or lit each part of the scene in separate exposures, but I needed the exercise! I ran from one spot to the next over and over again, reviewing the results with Cutler and making mental notes each time for the next exposure.

The first light position was about two feet behind and over the right shoulder of the foreground dinosaur. This is the main light in the image, and even slight variations in position altered the overall appearance dramatically. The light was about 10 feet off the ground, which is why I was using the boom arm.

I couldn’t tell you how much light was added from each position, but I had good control over the process, and that’s what’s important.

The second light position was just out of the frame from camera-right, and slightly behind the foreground dinosaur. The purpose here was to backlight the teeth of the beast to emphasize its ferociousness.

For the third position, I ran further to the right and behind the second dinosaur to light that one. I wanted to show texture as well as detail, so it was important to light from an oblique angle.

Cutler took care of the last detail (from the fourth position), which was to light the left claw of the foreground dinosaur with an incandescent Maglite Mini flashlight, just enough to separate it from the background. The color balance of the Maglite Mini is a little warmer than the Luxli, but against the monochromatic rusted steel, this isn’t noticeable. If Cutler had been using an LED light, the color difference would have been obvious. The mini-Mag was a good choice for this task also because it was both dim and focusable.

I recommend that people count seconds in their head when they light paint to get a repeatable and consistent effect in the image. I’ve been doing this for so long that I work by what feels right rather than actually timing the light in each position. For this image, I couldn’t tell you how much light was added from each position, but I had good control over the process, and that’s what’s important.

The final image, before and after being lit as described in the text. Nikon D750 with an Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 25 seconds, f/4.5, ISO 4000.

Location Lighting  vs. Light Painting

Other photographers might have approached this scene differently. Most would probably not have run around tripping over rocks and waving a light on a stick in the dark, but that’s just the way I roll.

Using fixed-position lights on stands would certainly lead to more consistent results, and most likely fewer overall exposures to get to the end result. To me though, that is simply location lighting, and not light painting. The difference is more than just semantics––light painting is an active process that requires a different skill set than location lighting. Both are valid approaches, but the former is what makes my creative juices flow.

The line between light painting and location lighting has blurred in recent years. The term Low-level Landscape Lighting (LLL) has come to be used to describe static lighting in astro-landscape photography (ALP). This is partly out of necessity, and partly due to the development of new technologies such as the Luxli panel light.

When working at the high ISOs required for star points in ALP, it’s difficult to light from multiple positions during a brief 15- to 30-second exposure. With short exposures at high ISOs, it’s also hard to control traditional light painting tools like the venerable Coast flashlights, because they are just too bright for such a sensitive sensor. The amount of time required to adequately illuminate most subjects with a bright light at ALP settings is just a fraction of a second.

This is an outtake, initially overlooked because I was excited about the original concept. This one was made at the very end of the sequence—it was actually the last shot of the night. After I felt like I had finally nailed the shot we were originally going for, I decided to try a couple of other ideas just to see what would happen. Which one do you like better? Nikon D750 with an Irix 15mm f/2.4 lens. 25 seconds, f/4.5, ISO 4000.

Final Thoughts

I always tell our workshop participants that there is no wrong or right way to do things in night photography. That’s what makes this such a great medium––it’s incredibly flexible and adaptable to different visions. I don’t try to teach people to do what I do, but how to develop their own techniques and methods to make images that get them excited.

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if you do long or short exposures at low or high ISOs, or light with flashlights, strobes or an army of Luxli lights. What does matter is that photographers find a way of working that leads them to grow and that leads them to images that excite them.

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: 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.


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 Nikon SB-700 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.