Tag Archives: creativity

Exploring Night Photography – Lesson 2

Published: Apr 13, 2016
Updated: May 11, 2016

Last week we covered the beginnings: what is a photograph, manual mode, self timer, and did some experiments. This week we delve into different disciplines of night photography – creative ideas and look at the settings used.

Before we do that, let’s answer those questions we asked:

  1. Mastering the basics: The three components of an exposure are  APERTURE (f/stop),  ISO (sensitivity), and  SPEED (exposure length)
  2. To get a good exposure if you change the (a) APERTURE you must change the (b) ISO or (c) SPEED.
  3. What does “1 stop” (up/down) mean?
    One stop up means twice the exposure length or twice the ISO, or one f/stop larger aperture.
  4. How can you judge the “quality” of a photo without looking at the photo? (This is not a trick question!)
    The histogram! Hopefully you used that when doing your experiments/homework from last week.


This week is nearly identical to our free Night Photography 101 webinar. Unfortunately the slideshow doesn’t include settings, but many of the photos do if you click them.  Students will be getting a PDF file that DOES have the exposure information in it.

Creative Ideas

Exposure Tips

  • Use that histogram Display!
  • Do not be afraid to experiment – and even bracket shots like you might in daytime.

Last Week’s Homework

About last week’s homework: If you tried to get a shot showing both the MOON with details and STARS… you failed. With the current cameras, the dynamic range between all but the brightest stars and the dimmest moon is just TOO great to have both except when the moon is eclipsed.

This Week’s Homework

  1.  Check your camera manual and find out how to turn on over exposure (and under exposure) indicators. Canon and Nikon call this a “Highlight Alert” or similar.
  2.  Take a photo that includes stars and force the exposure to “clip” (over expose) the stars but *not* most of the sky.  (Hint adjust the ISO and exposure time to accomplish this task).
  3.  Pick a creative direction illustrated by the photographs above and give it a try. If weather does not work out for you, the simplest creative experiment to try is to point the camera at lights and move the camera while taking an exposure… like this, for example:Leaving on a Jet Plane
    This was accomplished by shooting through a plane window as it was taking off. No plane handy? Try this instead.
  4. See if you can work out how to make yourself semi transparent. You may or may not need help.  Hint: You will probably need to use your flash and will need to have not completely dark surroundings.
    Transparent Steven 5285

Next up… Lesson 3.

If You Want a Better Star Trail…

When I went the Department of Motor Vehicles in Raleigh, North Carolina there was a sign next to the camera that was a bit harsh for the genteel south, especially if you did not have much of a sense of humor.  The sign read:

If you want a better picture bring a better face.”

I doubt the sign is still there, but the thought is more profound than it may seem at first blush. Beware because you are about to read something that might disturb you just as the DMV sign caused some people to sneer while others, like me laughed.

Brother's StarburdenPictures of star trails (like the one at left) are BORING. Ho Hum. Yes, taking star trail photos is technically a bit challenging. And it is also interesting – for a short while – to the photographer and even friends of the photographer. But really, what do you have? White, and sometimes colored lines across a frame. It’s the KNOWING that those are stars and the photo represents time that starts the mind in motion.

I may form a strong emotional connection to a photo of my cat  but that does not mean it’s a good picture. It means I have a strong bond to MY cat. Something compelling and visual must be present for my cat photo to be interesting to someone else.  (PS I don’t have a cat – my wife is allergic to them).

(son of) Bristlecone Pine Star CircleTo me, a star trail must attach earth and sky, tell a story, suggest something of wonder or awe or longing.  That is why for the better part of 2 years I’ve been collecting star trails in a gallery on Flickr called “The Best of Star Trails.” I am the primary judge of what makes it in to the photo pool so the photos reflect my opinion. But if you look through those photos you should notice something. Actually two things.

  1. Almost every image has more than lines in the sky – there is also light on something in the foreground.
  2. Most of the images would be interesting even if there were no stars or star trails at all.

I have never set out to capture a star trail where the sole goal was a star trail. I always attempt to marry an interesting foreground with the sky.  The more interesting the foreground, the more interesting the photo, at least that’s the way I see it.

Moon Break - Restacked...

Here are a few more tips – your mileage may vary:

  • Don’t “center” the circle of a circular star trail. Leave it off to the left or right to strengthen an image (e.g. like the rule of thirds).
  • Leave some breathing space around the center point.  This usually means super wide angle lens unless you are shooting at a low latitude.
  • It doesn’t have to be a circular star trail to be interesting!
  • The moon can be your friend.
Foreground Revisionism [B_02555-714br]

Mauna Kea, Hawaii, moonlit, 7 hours of exposures.

What about you? What makes a star trail shot interesting to you?  Please comment, we’d love to hear from you.

South Side [C_009842-75br]

Red Rock Canyon State Park, California. The star trails are dense because a very high ISO was used.

Driven to Abstraction

I’ve been doing a lot of abstract painting lately,
extremely abstract. No brush, no paint, no canvas, I just think about it.
— Steven Wright

There’s more to the night than just stars – or so I need to remind myself sometimes.  Even when no stars are visible one can shoot conventional night landscapes and cityscapes.  The main problem is that with most cities, the white balance at night with clouds is tough to deal with. But who says you have to take a conventional cityscape? From a relatively high perch overlooking Los Angeles, I saw lots and lots of city color.

Fast Times in Universal City [5_030223]

Photo 1: Fast Times in Universal City

Photo 1: Fast Times was accomplished by mounting my camera on a tripod, carefully focusing on the towers and then beginning a 5 second exposure at ISO 200, f/8.0.  The exposure settings were determined by trial and error, but the goal was to have no “blowout” (over exposed) pixels, or at least very few.  After starting the exposure I waited about 3 seconds and then rapidly but smoothly zoomed in allowing another second and a half of exposure at the end.  Before I took the picture I had already zoomed in to 200 mm to make sure the ending would not zoom the top lights of the towers out of the frame. I then zoomed out to about 120 mm before starting the exposure.  The previous night I shot a handheld zoom that cause a cool warping of the top of the towers – a Seussical look, but unfortunately I apparently deleted that exposure when deleting a number of trial shots.

Next I tried a handheld zoom. For Photo 2 I pointed the camera at the Pacific Design Center which is under construction. The red horizontal bands were on the structure but several bright lights were below it. I worried how they might come out. I set the exposure to 10 seconds, ISO 100, f/10.0. When the exposure started, I slowly zoomed in to the maximum. I completed the shot in post processing by increasing the shadows, increasing the contrast and slightly warming the color.

Photo 2: Zoom Zoom – Pacific Design Center

I then went “overboard” with exposures.  Photo 3 is an 8 second exposure at f/6.3, ISO 100.  For this exposure I hand held the tripod collar on the 70-200 lens with one finger dragging the zoom ring. I began the exposure and tried to keep the camera pointed in the same place while rotating the camera counterclockwise. Since one finger was dragging the zoom ring, it caused the lens to zoom out. When zoom out stopped, I continued rotating the camera counterclockwise until the exposure ended.  The result was a heavy “abstract” painting which I completed by increasing the contrast, increasing the saturation, and increasing the shadows. I also warmed the color a little.

Photo 3: Swirling Dervish

Photo 4: Blue Man of Hollywood

Large continuously changing light banners at the “Sunset” building caught my eye. They provided striking color that cycled through yellow, orange, red, blue, and purple at approximately 8 seconds per color. So I set my exposure to 8 seconds, f/6.3, ISO 100 and was zoomed to about 120 mm. I started the shot in portrait mode, and as in Photo 3, I turned the camera counterclockwise – this time a little less smoothly. I also slightly rotated the zoom ring causing the shot to zoom in to 200 mm.

What did “Blue Man” look like with out the twisting? Photo 5 captures the building in its pink period.

Photo 5: Conventional scene – same subject as Photo 4.

So what did I learn from my play? Celestial light coursing through the night sky is compelling but playing with artificial city light can produce pleasing results. So play more!

If you would rather create compelling star imagery with engaging foregrounds in majestic dark night skies… then join us on one of our StarCircleAcademy.com workshops.