For most people, night photography started with a digital camera… following in the footsteps of others who inspired us to get out and shoot in the dark. Our images were a little noisy and that reminded us that the higher ISO settings can give us more noise. With that, we accepted that nightscape images are generally more noisy (than daytime landscape images) because of the limits of the cameras we have available.
Introducing Stacking To The World
Astronomers have had some ability to "stack" multiple exposures to reduce noise for years. This is where we take advantage of the fact that the location of the noise dots on each exposure is different and this allows us to sort of "average" them together to get the noise dots to disappear where the points of light just reinforce each other. The result is significant noise reduction - although the software that does this is generally very expensive and overly complicated.
The answer to this question may seem obvious to some but it comes up a lot. And over the years, we've found a few approaches that you may find helpful to hear. This article is not about how to identify which gear you should buy but more about how to find it once you know what gear you want. And for anyone looking for free gear, sorry… that's not what this article's about either. :-)
New To Me
When we're talking about new photo gear, let's make sure to include gear that's new to you and that includes pre-owned (aka used) equipment. In this direction, I like working with KEH.com but I've also been known to buy directly from other photographers through craigslist - knowing the latter approach has a lot more risk.
MindShift Gear (founded by the creators of Think Tank Photo) makes a great line of backpacks that work well for the adventures I like to do with my night photography. I've been reviewing their packs for a little while now and the latest model I chose was the Firstlight 40L. I chose the big 40L model so it would hold all my gear including a bigger telephoto lens. I had high expectations for the bag and I was able to quickly see if it was going to measure up.
I'll be honest in saying that I did not buy this backpack. I had the opportunity to review it for MindShift Gear and I was happy to do so. That said, I'm including my honest opinions on it without restraint. If there are areas where it did poorly, I'm not afraid to say so.
To test the backpack, I took it out numerous times - during in-field training sessions in Arches & Canyonlands National Parks and Monument Valley with Night Photography Workshop and shooting on my own in the Bisti Badlands.
We generally have a positive and encouraging approach with people we meet. But when something needs to be said... well, you know.
A little while ago, I was in Badlands National Park shooting what I thought was going to be epic clouds, and stars under the moonlight. A group of ladies showed up and parked their cars a little ways away. Then they got out of their cars, turned on their red headlamps, and walked past me (on my right) looking out into the area where I was shooting.
After my image exposed and I saw the horror, I kindly walked over and asked If I could make a suggestion. They said sure... I told them about the bleed in the red headlamps and that it would be very nice of them to use a dimmer white light. I also mentioned in the kindest way possible that if the white light gets into the scene you can fix it much easier in PS than you can the red light. They nodded and said ok but I could tell they weren't buying it...
While astronomers have some good alternatives for stacking multiple exposures to reduce noise, the apps they use are generally expensive and complicated to use. For these reasons, I tend to like using Photoshop to handle stacking my images. Other options have been limited and hard to get excited about. Over the past few years however, the quality of our options and my opinions of them have changed significantly.
Background Wide-field astrophotographers have looked to Adobe Photoshop to handle their stacking needs for years. It hasn't been a perfect fit but when combining 4 or so exposures to reduce noise, it's been an effective tool in reducing noise. For those people who like to stack more than 4, staying with Photoshop pushes most people past the limits of their Photoshop skills. And in looking at 3rd party alternatives, there simply haven't been good alternatives available since most of them are expensive and complicated to learn and use.
Several years ago, we posted an article titled "Recommended Lenses For Night Photography" that a lot of people found helpful. Since then, a lot has changed that affects the lenses my training partner Darren White and I most like to recommend as the best choices so I decided that this original article deserved an update with the latest information and recommendations.
Background As a night photography workshop instructor, I'm committed to getting great nightscape images. And while we believe that the best images come from a combination of great composition, great technique, and having an eye for great image, having good gear certainly helps to make a difference. we think the gear is secondary to these first three items but it does help. We get a lot of questions from our students about what gear works best and so we like to have some good answers for them. On the approach to our workshops, we often get asked if we were to recommend one single lens, which one we would recommend to help students get the best shots possible.
Have you ever missed what would have been an awesome shot because you weren't quick enough in pulling out your gear? Well with the ability to access your photo gear in an instant from the belt pack without having to take the pack off, the Rotation180° will put you in a great position to access your gear at a moment's notice. But that's not all… photographers will love the three options for holding a tripod from the traditional side pocket to the tripod sling on the back of the pack to the tripod suspension system. And with the tripod suspension system providing easy access to your tripod without removing the pack, it goes hand-in-hand with the rotating belt pack for super-easy access to your gear.
While our workshops primarily focus on night photography, we get a lot of questions about how to capture a good panoramic sequence. This may be because it's a common technique for reducing noise or because it's a great way to capture a scene with the Milky Way arcing across the sky but regardless we wanted to share some of our favorite techniques for capturing a great panorama.
Which Lens Should I Use? A lot of this decision is left up to the artist and his/her vision for a photograph but we recommend anything from a 14mm to an 85mm focal length. Generally speaking, a longer focal length (35mm or 50mm) will mean more images in the sequence which will result in better quality in the final results. A shorter focal length (14mm or 20mm) will result in more distortion which may make the frames more difficult to stitch together but it will need fewer images in the sequence. I generally recommend something in the 24mm to 50mm range because it gives good quality without having to capture a crazy number of frames… but again, this decision needs to consider the subject we're trying to capture.
Thanks to Acratech's high quality materials and innovative designs, I've been a huge fan of their ballheads for years. I've owned and have been using the GV2 as my primary ballhead until just recently when I got a chance to test two of their latest, most popular ballheads: the Ultimate GP Ballhead and the award winning GP Ballhead. With a few key improvements, I was very excited to give them both a try!
I'll be honest in saying that I didn't buy either of these ballheads. As a loyal user of Acratech gear, they gave me the opportunity to review them and I was very happy to do so. That said, I've been testing them both for a couple of months now and I'm including my honest opinions on them without restraint. If there are areas where they did poorly, I won't be afraid to say so.
Noise is a big consideration in shooting pictures at night. We push our cameras to capture the best details possible in dark conditions and the result can often be a little noisy. What can you do about it? Well, part of the answer lies in the shooting techniques but there's more on the post-processing side as well. In the end, photographers have some good options available to them.
One of the challenges in using noise reduction is that there are so many options available to us. In-fact, with all the different approaches available for reducing noise in nightscape images, it can be a downright confusing to know what to use when. Darren and Mike got together and tested some of the most common methods available to determine what would be best to recommend and when.
MindShift Gear (founded by the creators of Think Tank Photo) makes a great line of backpacks that appear to work well for the hikes I like to do with my night photography. I've always thought highly of their reputation for quality gear, so with one of their premier backpacks on-hand (the Backlight 26L), I was able to put it through its paces to see just how well it would do out in the field...
I've had a headlamp shootout review in-mind for years as I've been searching for that perfect headlamp for night photography. Along the way, I learned a few interesting things that I thought I'd share as well. In the end though, it's all about finding the best headlamp for the job...
It feels like a lot of the ads for headlamps lately really seem to push how bright they are and I've started to cringe at that. It's not that I mind a bright headlamp, it's just that for the most part headlamps are already bright enough in my view and I'd really like to see people get more control over the lower intensities...
A little while back, I decided to try an LED Light Panel in my night photography. I'd seen a few mentions of people using them in night photography circles and when I saw night photography friend Royce Bair's comments about them in his e-book, I knew I had to give it a try.
Now that I've used it for a while both on my own and in the night photography workshops I teach together with Darren White, I've found it to be a great addition that allows us to do a few things we weren't previously able to do. As a result, it's now a required part of my light painting toolkit.
Background A little while back, I posted an article where I reviewed the Brinkmann Dual Xenon Spotlight for light painting. At that point, it was the best light I'd seen for night photography and it became my favorite "brush" for light painting. The neutral to warm tint and the gentle, even cast of light worked well in a variety of light painting situations.
Problems With Availability Not long after posting the article, supplies for the dual xenon spotlight dried up. I had stirred the interest in people's minds but now they couldn't find the light. As a result, I've had a pretty steady stream of people asking for an alternative light. And while, my dual xenon spotlight still works great for me, I felt the need to help find a good light to recommend to others so I decided to take another look at which light would be a best choice for the night photographer looking to add some light painting...
A first ever release from Colorado Captures... a video tutorial showing how to blend multiple exposures in Photoshop. It's intended more for night photography students but with several blending techniques included, it's useful for landscape and photographers in general. Your sharing and feedback on this post is very much appreciated and encouraged. :-)
There are lots of different ways to shoot night photography. We have the relatively short duration exposure (usually 30 seconds or less) where we get to see details in the night sky as points of light. Then we have the star trail images where we shoot for a little longer and we stack multiple exposures so we get the stars to appear as trails in a way that's effective at reducing noise. Both of these approaches open the shutter for a period of time that doesn't usually exceed 2 to 3 minutes - often less. Part of the theory behind this is that multiple exposures are more effective at reducing noise than a single super long-exposure - even with long-exposure noise reduction enabled.
The Super Long-Exposure In this article, I'm not letting the issue of sensor heat stop me from trying a really long exposure. I'll make use of some long-exposure noise reduction to help address that issue. I want to see what it looks like when I expose my shutter to light for 16 minutes or even 32 minutes. The human eye is limited to ultra-short exposure times so we can't see much color at night. But when the shutter is opened for half an hour, the results can be very interesting...
I get a lot of questions about how to make star trails in some of the images I've posted. So in the spirit of sharing, I thought I'd answer some of the most common ones. In this tutorial, I'll focus on a technique where I stack multiple frames of star trails. And in the final part of the tutorial, I'll show how I do a very popular technique - applying Comet-Like Star Trail Processing.
What Does It Mean To Stack Star Trail Frames? A star trail image is simply a long-exposure photograph usually captured from a stationary position that includes stars in their apparent motion across the sky as the earth rotates on its axis. You could shoot a single long exposure image that shows the motion of the stars as long lines in one frame… or you could shoot multiple shorter exposures of the stars and combine them in post-processing. This second option is called star trail stacking and is the focus of this tutorial...
Are you an Android user who's interested in night photography? Having been Android user for several years, I've come to appreciate a few of the apps I've been using to support my night photography and thought I'd share them here. So while this isn't a list of all the apps I use (that list would be huge), these are just my favorites in three areas: Celestial Objects, Weather, and Navigation.
If you're an iPhone user with similar interests, check out my friend David Kingham's article on smartphone apps for night photography.
Official Description: As just reviewed in Sky & Telescope magazine, the iOS version of SkySafari is "revolutionary" and a "game-changer". Now here for Android, SkySafari will change the way you do astronomy! SkySafari Plus adds a hugely expanded database, wireless telescope control, the ability to fly into orbit around other planets our Solar System, and beyond it to other stars in our Milky Way galaxy, to our basic version...
Mike's Comments: This is my favorite astronomy app for my phone. It has so many features, it really deserves more of my time to learn how to use them all. Regardless, it's an amazing app that gets regular use - a real treat to use out in the field. I got the more expensive version that includes details on satellites and comets but you don't have to...
Having recently taken a look at my favorite "Paint Brush" for night photography (the Brinkmann Dual Xenon Spotlight), I wanted to share some of the techniques I've developed for creating great nightscape images with light painting. That's right, there's a lot more to it than just turning the light on and pointing at your subject... so read on and see what approaches I was able to figure out work best. If you missed the review on the Brinkmann Spotlight, see it here.
In the image shown to the right titled "Fingers In The Fire", I captured a vertical panorama showing the Milky Way stretching all the way from one horizon to another. I used an indirect Light Paint Spike™ with my hand to illuminate the big tree in the bottom of the image and a direct Light Paint Stroke™ on the trees that appear in the top. Both of these techniques are described below.
Why I Hesitated To Use Light Painting For So Long It's not easy to tell by looking at my portfolio today, but I stalled for quite some time before actually starting to use light painting in my night photography - mostly because I wasn't impressed with a lot of light painting efforts I'd seen. Many of them used light painting that was so strong that it overwhelmed the image and didn't look natural...
To some people, it may seem a little strange that a tool built for the auto industry turns out to be such a good choice for light painting foreground subjects under the starry night sky, but that's the case here. That's right, the Brinkmann Dual Xenon Spotlight (originally built for the automobile repair industry) works as an excellent light painting tool - so I thought I'd post a full review to let you know why it's such a good choice.
As a night photographer, I'm looking to capture great night nightscape images. And while I'm often shooting in the dark of the night with little to no moonlight, I find that I can add a lot of depth to my images with some subtle light painting. So over the years, I've been improving my gear and my techniques to make the process easier and the results even more subtle and natural looking.
What Makes A Good Light Paint Brush? I've found there are several factors in deciding which light painting flashlight I like to use most: color temperature, even cast of light, adjustability, etc. In that direction, I really like the Xenon bulbs because they are a very neutral color temperature compared to the more common LED lights. I find that the LED lights are a bit too cool in temperature which needs to be adjusted in post-processing. Given the choice, I prefer to use a warmer light during the capture so I don't have to do that manipulation in post...
As students get ready for night photography workshops, they often ask the question, "If I could buy just one lens, are there any that would really help with my night photography?". On this, I smile because there definitely is. And the best part is the route I recommend doesn't break the bank.
In general, a wide-angle, bright lens with a minimum aperture of 2.8 would be ideal. Good night photographs come from lots of other lenses, but in general, the low light sensitivity of an f/2.8 lens makes capturing the starry night sky a lot easier.
Improving Low-Light Capability With A Better Lens Just like a new camera body can gain a few stops of low light sensitivity, it's well worth taking a look at how lenses can do the same. As an example, changing from an f/4 lens (a lens with a minimum aperture of f/4) to an f/2.8 lens is equivalent to doubling the amount of light you have to work with - which is a big deal. And a lens with an even wider aperture like f/1.4 can give you even more low light sensitivity...
I get asked fairly often how I'm able to anticipate or predict when the Milky Way and other celestial objects will be in position in the skies above for my photography. In that direction, I wanted to share that I use a combination of knowledge and software tools to help boost that knowledge and understanding.
In looking back in history, it wasn't that long ago that I asked myself the same questions. I was following some other excellent night photographers where it suddenly hit me that these guys were definitely not guessing - they knew what to expect before heading out in the darkness. So I started doing some research to see what pc-based tools I could find - mostly from the astronomy side of photography.
Option #1 - Stellarium Shortly after starting the hunt, I found a free software application called Stellarium (from http://www.stellarium.org/) which helped to wet my appetite. Considering the price (did I say it was free?), it's hard not to recommend that people at least take a look at this option...
Finding dark skies can seem challenging at first - especially if you don't use any tools to guide you along the way. Sure, you can drive away from the city into the countryside, but there's a little more to it than that. Fortunately, astronomers have been thinking about dark skies for a long time so this isn't anything new.
So over the years, I've come across a few tools that help to identify some locations that would be good and others that don't quite fit the bill. This approach to driving my night adventures with light pollution data is a key part of my dark sky photography planning.
Option #1 - Dark Sky Finder My favorite tool is called the Dark Sky Finder at http://www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/ - a website that lays light pollution data over top of a Google Map. This makes it really easy to see just where the light pollution is with colors indicating the intensity of the light pollution - a great asset for planning night photography adventures in the Continental US...
Focusing in the dark can be a tricky task... and it can certainly be frustrating to go to all the effort of shooting at night only to get home and find that the scene wasn't quite in-focus. When it comes to focusing at night, there are a few options that work better than others.
Option #1 - Hard Stop At Infinity I really like it when I'm using a lens that has a hard stop on the focus ring at infinity. This allows me to more easily set the focus on infinity which works really well in most cases. In-fact, this approach is so easy that I use it whenever I'm using a lens that allows it. Some of my lenses however, have the ability to focus past infinity which complicates the process. Back to the simple approach, I just make sure I know which way to turn the focus ring before I get out into the dark and then use just turn the ring all the way in the correct direction. I've heard of some people taping the focus ring (with gaffers tape) but I don't typically do that...