Guest article by Alister Benn

Shooting for the Stars - Part I by Alister BennIn October 2004 I was visiting Banff National Park with my wife Juanli and one evening we had spent time at Vermilion Lake to experience its iconic views towards Mount Rundle. We were however not alone, some fifty other photographers played a bizarre musical chairs with key compositions; the moment one photographer moved, another would place their tripod in virtually the same spot and make very similar images.

Even though I was quite new to landscape photography, having graduated from being something of a bird specialist, I still felt this was a very odd way to go about making images. We left shortly after sunset with the rest of them and I pondered this over a fine dinner with our friends who lived in the town.

Around 11pm I was in our room closing the blinds and noticed the full moon bathing the entire valley in super soft light and on a complete spur of the moment suggested to Juanli that we head down to the lake to try our hand at some night photography. Over the next few hours we enjoyed a glorious time together – the light was magical, the lake calm and ethereal mist hung among the trees. But, I soon found that making images at night was much harder than I thought, and I struggled making good exposures in the unfamiliar conditions.

In short, I had discovered the hard part of Night Photography, how to:

EXPOSE | COMPOSE | FOCUS

I muscled on and made the image at the top of this article, my very first night shot. I recall being tremendously proud of it at the time, and even to this day it remains a favorite, despite its flaws. I clearly had a lot to learn, but the fire in my belly had been lit.

Had I known then that it was going to become one of the strongest forces in my life and lead me down so many exciting paths, I am sure I would have been even more excited.

Shooting for the Stars - Part I by Alister BennOver the next five years I spent thousands of hours out at night, mostly around our home in southwest China in eastern Himalaya. The clear air and lack of light pollution were a good combination, and I quickly began to make images that were more competent than before.

I find writing any article or book to be a compromise between actually delivering meaningful and useful learning material and providing the quick fix that many aspiring photographers are looking for. Not everyone has the time or inclination to spend their 10,000 hours in the field mastering a whole bunch of techniques, which in truth is what gives the best landscape photographers their edge over the rest of us. Familiarity with diverse shooting scenarios is a very good way to make competent images, and much as I would love to, I am reluctant to provide standardized suggestions for what to do in any given scenario.

My reasons for this follow the same principal as, “Give someone a fish and you’ll feed them for a day – teach them how to fish and they’ll feed themselves for ever.”

Returning home I started trying to research all I could about night photography, but quickly found that there was a scarcity of good learning material available, and what there was, was unfortunately illustrated with noisy, non-inspirational images. I knew then it was going to be a long road of self-discovery ahead.

Shooting for the Stars - Part I by Alister BennMost of the books I read as an aspiring night photographer said things like:

½ moon exposure = ISO 400 f4 45 minutes

I wasted a lot of time and effort by trying to fit the huge complexity and diversity of night photography situations in to that neat little box, and I would strongly advise you to ignore those types of suggestions.

We will start this series of articles with the one thing/skill I believe everyone should know – how to evaluate available night light.

Scene Evaluation

One thing we could say is a constant in night photography is that it is usually dark, but how dark? Every night of the month the moon is a different size and as the brightest object in our night skies, its influence cannot be understated. The second huge variable is what we are shooting – snow, surf, waterfalls and light sand are obviously a lot more reflective than dark trees or rocks. This is where the futility of making any type of generalized “one size fits all” recommendation for aperture, shutter speed and ISO is so obviously wrong.

With a half moon in the sky, shooting surf or snow for 45 minutes at ISO 400 and an aperture of f4 would very likely blow out all the whites in the frame – not what we want at all.

So, what’s the answer? If we can’t give guidelines or recommendations, then what can we do? We can learn to evaluate light – that’s what.

The very first thing I do when I arrive at a night shoot is to evaluate the available light and secondly, the reflective power of the subjects. We will cover creative shutter speeds in a later article, but the very first step is to assess what is out there in the gloom. Your camera can see a whole lot better at night than you can, so let it show you.

  1. Set your camera on a tripod with a wide angled lens fitted.
  2. Open the aperture to its widest setting – f2.8 or f4.
  3. Put the camera in M – Manual mode.
  4. Set the ISO to 1600 (3200 if it is very dark with no moon).
  5. Set the shutter speed to 30 seconds.
  6. Put the lens on infinity focus, or if there is a something bright in the frame use AF (auto focus) to focus on the bright light (moon, very bright star, distant house or car).
  7. Use a cable release to depress the shutter for the 30 seconds.
  8. Review the Histogram.
  9. Make any necessary changes and repeat until happy.
  10. Convert the exposure numbers to your real shooting requirement based on your creative needs.

This process I call The High ISO Test Shot – and it saves me hours of wasted shooting time because I know exactly how much light is available and how bright the subjects are that I will be shooting. Spending 5 minutes fine-tuning the exposure now makes sure I make great exposures at night – every time.

The key to this whole process is the Histogram – do not rely on the preview screen to determine how well exposed your images are – in the pitch darkness your pupils are wide open to allow any available light to get into your eye – out of the darkness comes a bright LED screen on the back of your camera, of course it looks bright!

Use the histogram to determine the exposure, as it gives an objective and honest assessment of the exposure of the frame.

Shooting for the Stars - Part I by Alister BennThis is a typical night shot exposure with a half moon in the sky, and it is underexposed by about 2 stops. The histogram shown below helps to confirm that assessment, with the vast majority of the tones being in the shadow area – the left side of the histogram.

In very simple terms, the histogram is a graphical representation of the distribution of tones in an image. Blacks/shadows are on the left, mid tones in the middle and highlights/whites on the right. Digital files contain way more details in the right side of the histogram and a better “in camera” exposure should be brighter to capture that extra detail. You can always darken it later in processing.

Underexposed HistogramJust to illustrate the point, I have added 2 stops of light to this image in Lightroom 5, and this is the type of image you should be producing in the field.

Shooting for the Stars - Part I by Alister BennThe second histogram shows that much of the shadowed areas have moved nearer to mid tones and we have a far better exposure.

Good HistogramThe shooting stats of ISO 800, f4 and 30s have stayed the same as I made this brightening in processing, but for an example it shows well the type of images/histograms you should aim for.

Probably the biggest and most common mistake with night photography is underexposure of the image captures. RAW files these days are quite forgiving and lost shadow detail can often be recovered, but with it comes the second big enemy of night photography – NOISE, which is more of a product of under exposure than high ISO.

The image below is another good example of a well-exposed High ISO Test shot, taken at 14mm – 1600 ISO f4 for 30 seconds.

Shooting for the Stars - Part I by Alister BennI used this Scene Evaluation to work out exactly how long I could keep the shutter open at my lowest ISO to take a shot of the stars trailing over the Spanish Coast.

Keeping the Aperture constant at f4 all I needed to do was work out the impact on my shutter speed from changing ISO 1600 to ISO 50.

1600 | 800 | 400 | 200 | 100 | 50

5 stops between 1600 and 50.

Shutter speed doubles with each stop we reduce the ISO.

30s | 60s | 120s | 240s | 480s | 960

The moon was covered by cloud during part of the exposure, so I added some more time, knowing that without direct moonlight on the surf it would now blow out. In the end I exposed the frame for 1552 seconds and achieved the file shown below. I think the clouds streaking through the frame create a nice effect, and stars can move quite a way in only 26 minutes.

Shooting for the Stars - Part I by Alister BennPeople get frustrated with night photography not because it is difficult, but because they make a lot of silly mistakes through lack of good guidance. Once you learn to evaluate light the night becomes your playground and you can make good exposures easily. Of course there is a lot more to it than that, making good compositions and ensuring the image is sharp and in focus, but we’ll cover some of these in later articles.

If you are interested in taking your night photography to a higher level, please consider buying my eBook Seeing the Unseen – How to Photograph Landscapes at Night.

Shooting for the Stars - Part I by Alister BennEmbrace the challenge and Harvest the Light.

Alister Benn

Scotland

Feb 2014.

Alister Benn is a professional landscape photographer and author. He lives in the Highlands of Scotland with his wife Juanli Sun, with whom he manages their company Available Light Images Ltd.

They are both co-founders and Directors of Whytake Ltd – The Global Community of Nature Photographers.

Workshops – http://availablelightimages.com

eBooks – http://harvestinglight.net

Inspiration – http://whytake.net/inspire

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