Combining Light Painting with the Night Sky

Sometimes the pictures that require the most effort to take end up paying off the most. This was certainly the case for me during a recent trip to Door County, Wisconsin. A friend and I drove through the night, arriving at Cave Point at about 3 am. We then waited for the moon to go down and took some night pictures in the pitch blackness on the frozen beach. The image below was well worth being a little tired and cold for a couple hours.

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Starry Sky Over Cave Point : Prints Available

Stars in the night sky over Door County’s Cave Point in Winter

I’ve had a few people ask me how I took this picture, so I thought I’d put together a quick summary in a blog. I’ll approach this by covering the four concerns I had in mind when shooting, namely 1) composition, 2) focus, 3) exposure for the background, and 4) lighting for the foreground.

Before we start, there are a few conditions that need to be present for night sky images like this. Obviously, you need to be able to see a lot of stars, so no cloud cover is important. Equally important, you need a very dark location away from light pollution. Your backyard will not work. Deserts are ideal, but this remote area along Lake Michigan met “minimum standards” for lack of light pollution. You also want an area with some interesting foreground elements.

Another consideration is the moon. You definitely do not want the moon in front of you as it will be the equivalent of shining a flashlight into your camera. In some cases, having the moon to your back serves to light your foreground as you shoot, which might be a good thing. In our case, we waited for the moon to go down and had a couple hours to shoot before sunrise.

Now, for my four main concerns while taking this shot:

Composition – It is easy to get sloppy in composing night pictures. This is because: a) it is tough to set up your composition in the dark; and b) it is easy to just focus on how great the stars look. However, a compelling composition, including an interesting foreground, makes all the difference. If possible, you can set up your composition on your tripod while it is still light. In my case, we didn’t arrive until the middle of the night, so I used “live view” in my Canon camera and then shined a flashlight around the foreground to determine my composition.

Focus – You will generally be using a wide angle lens for night pictures that include a foreground element and the sky. So, there is a good chance that focusing on your subject will mean focusing on infinity. To focus, I used a flashlight on the subject and used auto focus, zooming in using live view for the most accurate focus (message me if you want advice on how to do this). Then, I switched off auto focus.

Exposure for the Background – After getting my composition and focus set, I next made sure that I got a good exposure for the background, namely the stars and the horizon. Although the horizon looks a bit like a sunrise here, it is actually light pollution from across the lake.

I first set my camera to Manual, opened up the aperture as wide as possible (in my case to 2.8) and set the shutter speed for 30 seconds. If you are using a wide angle lens, you don’t want to go above 20-30 seconds or you start to get star trails (even shorter shutter speeds are necessary when shooting telephoto). Then, I adjusted the ISO up high enough so that the stars became visible and the highlights on the horizon did not get blown out. So, my settings here were ISO 2500, f2.8 and 30 seconds. I used in-camera noise reduction because of the high ISO.

Exposure for the Foreground – I was literally in pitch blackness as I was shooting. The foreground subjects had no light on them. Although foreground silhouettes look good in some cases, I thought a lighted foreground would look much better. Had I gotten there much earlier, I could have set up my tripod and taken a picture before it got dark… then blended the foreground with the night sky in Photoshop. However, in this case I lit the foreground with a flashlight during the 30-second exposure.

Basically, you just need to experiment. Because the ISO was high, it only took a little light before the foreground would get too bright. I took 6 or 7 pictures until I got the foreground lighting how I liked it. I found that using the “edge” of the flashlight’s beam (not the center) and moving the flashlight around very quickly and only for a second or two worked the best. You want to avoid hot spots in the image. You are better off with a less powerful flashlight in this case. Practice makes perfect here.

Processing – Post-processing was critical in this image. In a few weeks, I’ll be traveling to Death Valley (I can’t wait!) and plan on shooting some additional pictures of the night sky. After that trip, I’ll post an additional blog on processing night pictures like the above image and show you the results from that trip. Stay tuned!

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