How I Got the Shot

How I Got the Shot: Star Trails and Tufa Spires at Trona Pinnacles

Star Trails and Tufa Spires, Trona Pinnacles, California. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, light painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight with 1/2 CTO and -1/8 green gels. 20 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 100.

I’ll admit—Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark was not in my crosshairs. I was not aiming to photograph it, nor even to visit. I really had never even thought about the place. But while planning a Death Valley workshop with my friend Susan Magnano last year, she asked if afterward I’d be interested in shooting at Trona with her for a couple of nights. I’m always happy to spend time with Susan (if you knew her, you would be too), so I said yes.

And gosh am I glad I did.

The Place

Trona Pinnacles is a 3,800-acre piece of BLM land that’s accessed via a 5-mile dirt road in the Southern California region of the Mojave Desert. Not far from Death Valley National Park, not far from Alabama Hills, Trona features one of the most surreal landscapes of the whole Owens Valley.

The primary photography targets are the 500-plus tufa spires that rise as much as 140 feet from a dry bed in the Searles Lake basin. Standing amid them, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re on another planet—the area looks so much like a foreign world that it’s been used on numerous occasions to depict exactly that. If you’ve watched sci-fi films and TV shows such as Battlestar Gallactica, Lost in Space and Planet of the Apes, then you’ve seen Trona Pinnacles.

It’s a great place for photography. The formations can be mixed and matched and juxtaposed to create endless possibilities for compositions. The groups of pinnacles are far enough apart to make for a relatively expansive park, yet close enough to make walking around relatively easy, and the landscape is open enough to provide plenty of space to move around and create angles for light painting.

Star Circles over Trona Pinnacles, California. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens. 31 minutes, f/4, ISO 100.

The Scout

On our first night of shooting, I mostly focused on the grand landscape—the pinnacles as a foreground for big-sky compositions. On our second night, I honed in on the rock formations as primary elements of more intimate compositions. The image at hand is one of those, and was the second-to-last that I made on the trip.

During our daytime scouting, this was exactly the kind of composition I’d been looking for: a group of three pinnacles that juxtaposed nicely to form a triangle effect. My first preference was to find a triad in front of where the Milky Way or North Star would be, but this was the group I liked the best in terms of the shape they combined to create.

With the afternoon sun shining on the landscape, I walked around the pinnacles to find the best spot for the tripod, and made a rock note about where that spot was so I could find it hours later at night. (What’s a rock note? I placed three golf ball-size rocks next to the tripod feet, kind of like I was marking my ball on the green. They were pretty easy to find later, and I knew exactly where to set up.)

Then I strolled around the scene again, envisioning the angles I could light paint from—not only where the light would look the best, but also where I could safely walk in the dark.

The Shoot

After first shooting night scenes in other places we’d scouted, Susan and I returned to this spot at about 12:45 a.m. The moon had set a few hours earlier, so aside from a little of light pollution from the community of Trona to the north and the city of Ridgecrest to the west, we were working in pretty dark conditions.

Figure 1. The base exposure before light painting: 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 8000.

Figure 1. The base exposure before light painting: 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 8000.

I set up my tripod, mounted my Nikon D5 and 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, and quickly found the composition I’d visualized earlier. I shined a Coast HP7R flashlight on the front spire, which was plenty of light for the D5’s autofocus to lock onto. We’d been shooting for a while, so I already knew what the base exposure would be: 15 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 8000. I fired a test shot (Figure 1) to make sure everything looked right.

I knew the spot I wanted to light paint from, but the one thing I hadn’t been able to test in daytime was the light itself. Now that it was dark, I could start doing that.

When light painting by myself (Susan was a few hundred yards away working on her own photograph), I like to use a wireless shutter trigger—specifically, the Vello FreeWave Micro. This allows me to get into position before firing the camera, rather than pressing the shutter button and running into the landscape to start lighting. (Another option is to use a timer, but I sometimes find that from a distance I don’t hear the shutter open. I also might not be in position when the camera fires, or conversely might be standing around waiting for it to fire. The wireless release solves all those issues for me.)

I made a few test exposures, adjusting the lighting strategy with each (Figure 2). I’d fire, light the pinnacles, return to the camera to see the results, then get into position and start again. (This is a great way to stay in shape.)

My concern in this particular composition was lighting each spire about equally, but with the front-and-center one just a little brighter. They look close to together in the image, but they were actually far enough apart, and at different enough distances from the light source, that each required a different amount of light. For each formation, I just counted how long I was lighting it—perhaps 2 seconds for the first, 3 seconds for the second, 4 seconds for the third. (I don’t recall the exact amount of light I used for each—the concept is more important than the specific number.)

Figure 2. Different light painting trials (all of them failures—albeit positive failures, because they led to something that worked).

Once I got the timing down, I tried changing the color temperature of the light. For the initial test shots I was using my HP7R with a gel combination of 1/2 CTO and -1/8 green (see Tim’s post “Level Up With Light Painting: Correcting the Color of Your Flashlight”). Just to be sure that’s what I liked best, I also tried a few without the color correction, opting for the naturally cool temperature of the LED flashlight (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Testing a cooler color temperature.

I decided I liked the warm look better (Figure 4), as it nicely complemented the warm tones of the clouds reflecting the street lights of Ridgecrest.

Figure 4. The light painting approach I settled on—or so I thought.

Going Long

The next step was to adapt the lighting strategy for a long exposure. I wanted to shoot for 8 minutes, which with a focal length of 31mm and facing west I thought would give me star trails long enough to be compositionally relevant. To get my exposure from 15 seconds to 8 minutes, I dropped the ISO from 8000 to 200. (The 1/3 stop less of exposure was to compensate for the light reflecting off the clouds, which had grown a little denser.)

Figure 5. To test the light painting for the long exposure, I kept the shutter open just long enough to test what I was adding with my flashlight. The idea was to keep the test short by evaluating only that one piece—I didn’t care if the background went to black.

At the new, less sensitive exposure, clearly a few seconds of light would not have been enough to illuminate the foreground. But how much light was right? I obviously didn’t want to use an 8-minute exposure to find out, especially if I needed two or three tries, which would have resulted in 16 or 24 minutes of testing. That’s not time spent well.

The good news is that for a test shot, I don’t need to care about the background—just the light painting. So I opened my shutter, tried the light, then closed the shutter. The background was nearly black, but I could see if the light painting was correct. Lucky me, it was! (Figure 5. I hardly ever get this right on the first try.)

At this point I felt ready to fire the long exposure. I turned on Long Exposure Noise Reduction, opened the shutter, applied my tested light painting, and waited out the rest of the 16 minutes (8 minutes of shutter time plus 8 minutes of LENR).

Once the camera was finished cooking, I looked at the result on the LCD (Figure 6). The exposure was right, as was the light painting. Alas, the stars were too short. Another issue I noticed is that the ground in front of the pinnacles was completely black, which I didn't like.

Figure 6. Problems to solve for the final exposure. 8 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 200.

Figure 6. Problems to solve for the final exposure. 8 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 200.

I didn’t want to spend another half hour on a photo I'd thought was almost done, but I preferred that idea to investing all that time and not getting the image right. So I went at it again.

I turned off LENR (so as not to unnecessarily double the test-exposure time), dropped the ISO to 100 and started re-testing the light painting. First I shined some light on the ground, adding just enough to reveal a bit of detail—which took me three tries to get right. Then I re-tested the light on the formations (compensating for the lower ISO), combining it with the foreground light to make sure everything would look good in the final, even longer long exposure (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Testing some light to draw out detail in the foreground shadows. The first take was too much light, the second just about right, and the third combined the new foreground light painting with the light on the spires.

Once I was (relatively) confident the painting approach was sound, I turned on LENR again, opened the shutter, set a timer for 16 minutes, light painted, strolled around gazing at amazing night skies for 12 minutes, then closed the shutter. When the LENR finished, I finally had my shot (Figure 8).

The Final Image

Taking the time in the field to work out the kinks meant that the final image required very little post-processing—just some basic tweaks in Lightroom’s Basic panel to optimize contrast and color.

Figure 8. The final image with 20-minute star trails and all the light painting.

Want to shoot this great space with us in 2020? We have one ticket left for our Trona Pinnacles & Alabama Hills workshop. Sign up 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


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.


How I Got The Shot: Star Trails Over the Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon National Park

Star Trails Over the Amphitheater, Bryce Canyon National Park. Fujifilm X-T2, 10-24mm f/4 lens at 10mm. Light-painted with a Coast HP7. Two blended exposures of 1 second, f/8, ISO 200 and 15 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

The Location

Bryce Canyon National Park is truly one of the wonders of our park system. It’s not as big or varied as some other parks, but what is has to offer is nothing short of astonishing.

Despite its name, Bryce Canyon is actually not a canyon at all. A canyon is the technical term for a gorge formed by a river. Bryce is instead a series of natural amphitheaters, or bowls, that line the eastern side of Utah’s Paunsaugunt Plateau. These bowls are filled with red, orange and white rock spires that were eroded into existence by water freezing into ice. These spires are called hoodoos. It’s the endless variety of these hoodoos that make Bryce so magical.

The Light

Standing on the rim of the canyon at one of the many overlooks affords the visitor with an awe-inspiring view. The sprawling amphitheater spreads out below you with the orange-red colors of the towering spires contrasting with the deep blue sky. This view is especially popular at sunrise as many of the viewpoints face directly east. How then, does one capture this incredible canyon at night?

As with any location, the first step is to decide which phase of the moon you would prefer to shoot in. Moonless nights (new moon) are great for photographing the Milky Way, but they leave the foreground completely black. On the other hand, moonlight (full, quarter or crescent) helps illuminate the foreground, but the brightness of the sky masks many of the dimmer stars. All phases of the moon are great to shoot under, so you just have to consider how much moonlight you actually want. My choice for Bryce would have been to shoot under some moonlight. Unfortunately for me, I was there during a new moon. Complete darkness.

Under these conditions, it made sense to concentrate on shooting the Milky Way, which I did on the first night. While I like some of those images, the lack of moonlight means I didn’t include the canyon because it was completely black. And the canyon is the hero of this location.

Figure 1. Milky Way over Bryce Canyon. Fuji X-T2, 10-24mm f/4 lens at 17mm. Twelve stitched frames shot at 30 seconds, f/4, ISO 6400.

Being in Bryce, I really wanted to include the canyon with the night sky. But how do we do that with no moon? I could have done a little painting on the foreground, which I did for the photo in Figure 2. This worked out well for some of the details, but it still did not show the entire canyon.

Figure 2. Light painting in a small area of the canyon. Fuji X-T2, 10-24mm f/4 lens at 10mm, Coast HP7.

To illuminate the entire canyon I needed something stronger than a flashlight. It needed to be the sun or the moon. Since I didn’t have the moon, I had to use the sun.

The Shoot

The next day I headed out in late afternoon to scout a location to shoot. Once I decided on the spot, I set up my camera and tripod and began fine-tuning my composition.

The goal here was to take one shot in the waning light of dusk and then another once the sky became completely dark. Back at home I would combine them together in Photoshop.

The trick was to get the right light on the canyon. Sunset would look fake if combined with the night sky, so I needed the illumination to look somewhat like moonlight. That time came around half an hour after sunset. This time of the day is called civil twilight and is great in its own right for making landscape images. (For more on this, see one of my previous posts, “Out of the Blue: The Importance of Twilight to the Night Photographer.”) I experimented with several exposures to find one that sort of looked like night. Figure 3 shows the exposure I ended up using for the final composite.

Figure 3. The canyon during civil twilight. 1 second, f/8, ISO 200.

Keeping my camera set up—not moving it one centimeter—I waited until complete darkness.

The kind of darkness I wanted begins at the time of evening called “astronomical twilight.” Depending on your latitude, this is somewhere between 1 to 1.5 hours after sunset. (Click here for a great description of the different types of twilights.)

Once the sky became completely dark, it was time to start experimenting with light painting. I changed my ISO to 100 and opened up my aperture to f/5.6 so I would capture more stars.

With these new settings I experimented with walking up and down the trail, painting as I went along. I determined that painting at an angle back toward the camera—while returning back up the trail toward my setup—created better texture in the lit areas. It also kept my silhouette from blocking the light on the trail. Had I painted while walking away from the camera, my body would have blocked some of the light from the camera’s view, thereby creating a blotchy effect.

Once I felt confident that my light painting approach was effective, it was time for the long shot. Figure 4 shows the 15-minute exposure that captured the star trails while I lit the trail.

Figure 4. Light painting during the long exposure. 15 minutes, f/5.6, ISO 100.

The Post-Production

Once I was back at the computer, it was time to put the images together in post-processing. I began in Lightroom by fine-tuning the exposure and white balance. Then with both images selected, I chose Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop. This command brings both of the images into Photoshop and combines them into one file, with each image as a separate layer.

Figure 5. The two images combined into one file in Photoshop.

Next I highlighted the upper layer by clicking on it. From the Blending Mode dropdown (the box that defaults to saying Normal), I chose Lighten. This blending mode automatically shows the brightest parts of all the layers it’s applied to (in this case, two layers). Voila! Now I could see the brighter canyon (lower layer) as well as the stars and the light painting (upper layer).

Figure 6. The Lighten blending mode revealing the brightest parts of each layer.

At this point I could have been done with the image. This technique works well for so many situations found in night photography, but in this case it needed a little tweaking. Because the sky was brighter at dusk during my first shot, that part of the scene also showed through when I applied the Lighten blending mode. To solve this problem, I clicked on the lower layer, made a selection of the sky with the Quick Selection Tool, and then created a Curves adjustment layer to darken the sky.

Figure 7. The Curves Adjustment over the bottom layer.

Figure 8. The Curves adjustment darkening the sky.

Because the Curves adjustment layer is below the stars layer, the adjustment does not affect the night sky. It darkens the sky only in the dusk layer. And now that the sky was darker in the dusk layer, only the stars layer would show through.

Then I needed to apply a little cleanup. The hard edge of the mask near the horizon looked a little odd, so I blurred the edge of the mask to smooth out the gradient of the curves adjustment. To do this, I clicked on the mask and increased the feather in the Properties dialog, as seen in Figure 9.

Figure 9. Feathering the mask to smooth out the transition of the curves adjustment.

At this point the bulk of the compositing was complete. Figure 10 shows the finished composite of the stars layer and the dusk layer.

Figure 10. The completed composite.

Once the images were put together I was able to judge the overall look of the picture. I felt it was still a bit dark and the color somewhat off, so using more adjustment layers in Photoshop, I fine-tuned the exposure and color.

Figure 11. The final image after fine-tuning white balance and exposure.

Wrapping Up

The moral of the story is that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes … well, you get the picture. Matching the locations, moon phase, time of year and our creative vision can be a daunting task—and sometimes an impossible task. But with creative thinking, and a full grasp of all of your available tools, you might just find you can get what you need.

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 I Got the Shot: Stars and a Rock in Lassen Volcanic

Lassen Volcanic National Park. © 2018 Chris Nicholson. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, light painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight. 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

The Location

Last summer, Lance and I visited Lassen Volcanic National Park to shoot for a few days (er, nights). For both of us, it was our first time there, and we quickly discovered that this Northern California wilderness is one of the best kept secrets of the national park system. The scenery is beautiful, bewildering and varied: volcanoes of different types and shapes, snowcapped peaks, reflecting lakes, babbling brooks, lush meadows, multicolor pumice fields, steaming geothermals and more await photographers and their cameras. Not to mention … deliciously dark skies.

On our second day in the park, we stopped at a visitor center to talk to a ranger about possible places to photograph in the dark. She gave us a lot of great information, including an auto-tour map with suggested sites to see, and she marked the areas that she thought would be of interest to us. We ventured out for our daytime scouting, driving the main road (the aptly named Lassen National Park Highway), hiking short trails, making daytime photos (gasp!) and all-in-all enjoying the experience of being in the outdoors in such a captivating space.

Along the way we stopped at a trailhead parking lot that afforded a 360-degree view of mountain peaks and valleys, all with great visual lines to the sky above them—i.e., no trees, cliffs and so on that would block our sky views in any direction. In other words, it was a perfect place to set up for a night shoot. And then we spotted what turned out to be the star of the scene: a massive boulder perched at the edge of a cliff.

A scouting photo of the boulder.

A scouting photo of the boulder.

We were both pretty excited about the rock as a subject, as it has an interesting shape, is in an interesting place visually, is in front of an interesting background from all available angles, and we could safely set up and shoot from about 180 degrees around it. In other words, this was going to be a lot of fun.

Moreover, because the cliff faces south, we knew we could get the Milky Way galactic core in the composition. So we pulled out PhotoPills to see exactly when and where the Milky Way would appear, planned our shots, and then continued exploring the park with the knowledge that we would definitely return to this spot after sundown.

The Shoot

We arrived back at our shoot location early in twilight—so early that we couldn’t see the Milky Way yet, but that was fine because we were surrounded by many other creative opportunities. Lance ventured a little east on the cliff edge to work on a separate idea with a twisted tree, and I stationed a camera at the far end of the parking lot to rip some longish exposures over the mountain ridge to the west (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Star trails over a Lassen ridge. Nikon D850 with a Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 lens. 6 minutes, f/6.3, ISO 64.

As the sky grew darker, I started working with the boulder. The Milky Way was not yet apparent in the sky, so I worked on some alternative compositions with the mountains in the background, using the silhouette of the distant ridge as a leading line into the rock (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 15 seconds, f/8, ISO 4000.

Once I was done with that, I looked south, and there it was: the galactic core rising over the valley. So I repositioned my camera and tripod to start working on the photo I was there to create.

The valley below the cliff is a scenic wonder in daylight (in moonlight too), but in pitch-dark it was just vast blackness—so I lowered my tripod to get it out of the frame (Figure 3). The real stars of the composition were the Milky Way and the boulder.

Figure 3. Working on the composition, but with a poor-choice white balance of Daylight.

Figure 3. Working on the composition, but with a poor-choice white balance of Daylight.

I worked the composition a little more, and then changed my white balance. I’d been using Daylight during the blue hour portion of the shoot, but once the sky darkened, I wanted a white balance that would help the sky look more like “night” and that would also help draw out the delicate colors of the Milky Way. So I switched the white balance of my D5 to manual and dialed it in to 3800 K (Figure 4). (For more on this, see Matt’s blog post “How to Choose the Right White Balance for Night Skies.”)

Figure 4. White balance at 3800 K.

Figure 4. White balance at 3800 K.

At this point you can see that Lance was in the background doing his light painting on a different subject. This didn’t bother me. First, I was only making test shots. I didn’t care about someone else’s light; I cared only about the specific elements that I was testing for, i.e. composition, focus, exposure, white balance, etc. Second, once I was ready to start executing my “real” image, I knew Lance and I could communicate and take turns light painting our different setups, and that when his flashlight was off, he and his camera would disappear into the shadows.

For focus, a quick check of a hyperfocal distance chart confirmed that I could lock in on the boulder and still have the stars sharp. So I shined my Coast on the rock and auto-focused. Easy peasy.

The exposure was pretty simple too. I knew I wanted sharp stars for a sharp Milky Way. Using the 400 Rule with a 14mm focal length, that gave me a top shutter speed of 25 seconds (400 / 14 = 28.57, rounded down to 25 for safety), which I shot at f/2.8 and ISO 6400.

Then I started working on the light painting. Using a Coast HP7R flashlight with a homemade color-warming filter, I worked from the left of the frame. I chose this angle for three reasons:

  1. Working from the right was nearly impossible because of the cliff drop. I could have done it if I learned how to fly, but I didn’t have time for that in the middle of the shoot.

  2. When light painting, I usually want the direction of the added light to “make sense” visually, to almost look like the illumination could be coming from something else in the scene—in this case, the galactic core. Of course no one will think that the Milky Way was actually bright enough to illuminate the boulder, but I find that the visual suggestion of it works better.

  3. When light-painting a subject on the right side of the composition, I usually like to have the light coming from the left, across the majority of the frame. (And vice-versa for a subject on the left.) If I’d painted from the other side (Figure 5), then the brightest, highest-contrast parts of the boulder would have been way over on the right edge of the frame, separated from the secondary subject of the image (the Milky Way) by a large shadow. That would have been far less compositionally effective. (This is a personal guideline, and an effective one. But it’s not a rule. In fact, you can see that I went against this guideline in the image above of the boulder without the Milky Way.)

Figure 5. I moved as close to the edge of the cliff as I could to light paint from camera-right, and the result proved the efficacy having the light come across the majority of frame. Also, it was nearly impossible to paint from that angle without having the light hit the sapling too.

Figure 5. I moved as close to the edge of the cliff as I could to light paint from camera-right, and the result proved the efficacy having the light come across the majority of frame. Also, it was nearly impossible to paint from that angle without having the light hit the sapling too.

The final step was just a matter of playing around with the light painting, trialing-and-erroring, repeatedly coming back to the LCD to review my results. I was evaluating factors such as:

  • how out far out of the frame I needed to stand so the camera couldn’t see the flashlight

  • whether to use direct light (harder, more contrast) or reflected (softer, less contrast)

  • which angle to paint from to create the most texture

  • which angle would illuminate enough of the boulder to be interesting but not so much that I was light painting everything (which is boring)

  • which angle accomplished all that without lighting the sapling to the right of the rock, which I deemed a compositional distraction

  • how long to keep the light on so the boulder would be bright enough to draw interest yet subtle enough to not be garish or overwhelming

Failed iterations of my light painting approach. Or, rather, honing by trial and error.

Once I’d made all of my decisions, I was ready to make the final photograph. By that point Lance had joined me at the boulder, and we took turns light painting our individual setups. Again, the key was communication, so that we didn’t inadvertently ruin each other’s images—each of us asking if the other was in the middle of an exposure before turning our flashlights on.

I loved how everything came together. One of my field rules is that when I finish executing my idea, before changing the setup I always try something I wasn’t planning, just to push myself out of the immediate box and see if I stumble across a great idea. In this case, I tried backlighting the rock (Figure 6). I hated it—so I moved on. …

Figure 6. The failed backlighting idea.

Figure 6. The failed backlighting idea.

Incidentally, while I was doing all of this, I still had my second camera, a D850, capturing star trails from the top of the hill, creating the image in Figure 7. That’s a great use for having two cameras in the field—one for long exposures and one for doing other work during the wait.

Figure 7. Star trails over Lassen Peak. Nikon D850 with a Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 lens. 13 minutes, f/2.8, ISO 160.

The Post-Production

This particular photography didn’t need a lot of work in post.

I cropped out the bright star that was sitting immediately on the right edge of the frame, where it served as only a visual distraction, pulling attention far away from both the primary and secondary subjects.

Using the Spot Removal tool, I cloned out a patch of snow that was picking up just enough light to be seen in the background, as well as one bright and three faint plane trails (Figure 8).

Figure 8.

I boosted Exposure (+20) and Whites (+34) to increase overall brightness, then Clarity (+19), Dehaze (+24) and Vibrance (+8) to add some punch to the sky (Figure 9).

Figure 9.

Usually I’ll go over the galactic core with a custom Milky Way brush, but I didn’t think this image needed it. Sometimes not doing something is the best decision.

Figure 10.

Figure 10.

The Final Adjustment

The last correction was one I couldn’t make by myself. The combination of using a CTO filter and shooting with a white balance of 3800 K made the light kind of green. I’m red-green color blind, so I asked Tim if he’d be a second (better) set of eyes while I tried to get the color of the rock accurate. Using the targeted adjustment tool in the Hue section of the HSL panel, we clicked a green sample in the rock and dragged down, which brought the Yellow slider to -69 and the Green to -80. The rock was then a little too warm, so we manually pulled Red down to -20. (Figure 10.)

There are two lessons here:

  1. Knowing how to work around your limitations can be critical. Much thanks to Tim, my sister Ann and several past girlfriends for helping me color-correct through the years.

  2. In the field, knowing my limitations and when shooting at a non-Daylight white balance, I should have used a Luxli Viola LED panel for the painting. Why? Because that would have allowed me to dial in the color temperature of the light to 3800 K or slightly warmer—then I would have known the color was accurate even if I can’t see it. (Another way to do this is to use a combination of color-correcting gels to alter the Coast’s output accordingly. Check out Tim’s post “Level Up With Light Painting: Correcting the Color of Your Flashlight (Part II).”)

Figure 11. The final image.

Wrapping Up

I finished my photo before Lance finished his. I tooled around with a few other image ideas in the same area (Figures 12 and 13), but soon settled on light painting Lance while he worked, creating a portrait of one night photography’s true masters in his element (Figure 14). By this time the moon had risen, which illuminated the valley in the background, adding more of a sense of place to the scene.

Figure 12. Tail end of the Milky Way over Lassen Peak. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 20 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 8000.

Figure 13. Milky Way disappearing in the moonrise. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Figure 14. Lance at work. Nikon D5 with a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, light painted with a Coast HP7R flashlight and a Luxli Viola LED panel. 25 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 6400.

Afterward we moved on to our second shoot location of the night, a placid alpine lake just up the road, where we ripped some long exposures of star-circle reflections above Lassen Peak.

Lassen Volcanic is truly an extraordinary national park. I have no idea when I’ll be back, but the day I am can’t come soon enough.

Want to explore Lassen Volcanic with Lance and Gabe on an epic night photography adventure workshop this August? Sign up here!

Chris Nicholson is a partner and workshop leader with National Parks at Night, and author of Photographing National Parks (Sidelight Books, 2015). Learn more about national parks as photography destinations, subscribe to Chris' free e-newsletter, and more at