Night Photography With The Milky Way (and what I learned)
A few weeks ago I posted about what I learned on my first night star photography shoot. Well, the day after I did that shoot, I got the chance to do another one.
Getting In To Bryce Canyon Late
I was meeting the group I was with at Bryce Canyon, Utah. They had already driven up earlier in the day and I came up later that evening when it was already dark. I got to the hotel room, and my buddy RC was already checked in. It was around 10pm and I was beat from getting up early and driving and shooting all day. But RC and a bunch of people from the group (the workshop he was teaching in) were heading out for a star trail shoot. Personally, I don’t like star trails, so I said I was going to stay back, edit some photos and get some rest for sunrise the next morning.
15 Minutes Later
About 15 minutes after they left, RC texts me and all it says is “Drive here…. now!!!”. I texted back and said “Really??? – I’m beat!”. He replied with “Get out here. Now!”. Knowing that RC and I share the same taste in night and star photos, I figured I better listen to him so I drove out. Luckily it was only about 15 minutes away from the hotel.
My First WOW Moment
Okay, so I arrive at the location. First off, it’s pitch black. I mean so dark you can’t see 2 feet in front of you. I knew the group was right there, and all I could do was follow voices since they were all taking photos, and I didn’t want to turn my flashlight on and screw things up. So I eventually set up my tripod and get settled. It was at that point where I first looked up. WOW! is the only thing that comes to mind. I’d never seen so many stars in my life. I grew up in New Jersey, fairly close to NYC so I definitely didn’t see them as a kid. And while I’ve been to many nice places before, I never really paid that much attention to the stars. But this was magnificent!
My Second WOW Moment
RC and I had just finished saying that we wished we were able to see the Milky Way better the night before, when we were shooting in Monument Valley. Well, that’s exactly why he called me out there, and insisted that I go. When I looked up to see all of the stars you saw this beautiful “milky” gas-like area right in the middle of the sky. While I may have exaggerated about never seeing so many stars, I’m not exaggerating about this. I had literally never seen this before (only in photos). And from the research I’ve done about photographing the Milky Way, everything I’ve read said that most people rarely see it with the naked eye because of light pollution. I’m sure if you live in an area that’s really dark and removed from cities, you may see something like it more, but most people don’t. And I have to say, it was breathtaking.
My First Shot – The Foreground Silhouetted
So I framed up my first photo, using the techniques I learned the night before. We shined a bright light on to the rocks in front of us to give a place for everyone’s camera to lock focus. I pretty much set my camera on Manual mode, 15-20 second exposure and jacked the ISO up to see what I got. After one or two shots I was dialed in and had the stars sharp and in focus. But the photo was lacking something. The silhouetted rocks and trees were nice, but it just seemed a little too, well, dark.
A Happy Accident – More Foreground Helps
Earlier, when I arrived, I parked my car and had my foot on the brake. The brakes lights cast some light on to the rocks in front of us and it turned out that it looked really cool in the photo during a long exposure. So what did we do? What every photographer would have done right? We put a guy in a car and light-painted with brake lights. First we had him simply aim the back of the car toward the rocks, but that didn’t work. So then we had him pull forward so the back of the car was facing toward the rocks. The front of the car eventually went off road and started going into a ditch. It almost worked because it cast the light upward more, not not enough. If he went any further he may have plunged to an ugly death on the rocks below. So we switched gears (figuratively and literally) and had him ride up and down the road (closer to the rocks) tapping his brakes every so often. Perfect!
How To Know Where The Milky Way Is?
There’s lots of night sky star apps out there. But not all of them show you where the Milky Way is. One of the apps I found works good is called Go Sky Watch. It’s a great looking app and it shows you where just about every possible thing you could want to see in the night sky is. One feature I really like is that it has a Red Light mode for night viewing. For $3.99, it’s definitely worth it.
I wrote about setting up to shoot at night in the last post, and nothing really changed here (other than adding some light in the foreground). But here’s the settings:
Camera: Nikon D800
Lens: Nikon 16-35mm
Shutter Speed: 15 seconds
Besides the lessons I learned the night before about shutter speeds, ISO and exposure, I learned a few more things this evening.
1. I’m not a big vertical shooting guy, but I find that vertical really works for Milky Way photos. I guess because of the angle of it from the location we’re at, it tends to run vertically in the sky.
2. Foreground helps. Silhouettes are good, but for me personally, seeing more foreground really helps. If you watch Dave Black’s new class on Kelby Training Online, about light painting landscapes, he goes over some lights you can get to shine on whatever happens to be in your foreground. If you’re into shooting at night, I’d suggest picking them up or something similar. It can totally transform a night star photo.
3. If you stay in bed, your hotel room or at home, then you can 100% guarantee you won’t get the shot. I owe a big thanks to RC for convincing me to get out there.
4. Dress warmer if you’re out there at night when it’s cold. Nothing can kill a photo shoot like being cold. It got to a point where I simply didn’t want to shoot anymore because I was so cold. It was almost impossible to be creative. I was dressed just fine for our sunrise and sunset shoots. But I hadn’t planned on being out there at night.
The post-processing work was pretty simple. One of the things I learned from the previous night’s shoot was that I could lower my ISO (to get less noise) and increase the Exposure in Lightroom/Camera Raw later, to get the photo bright enough. It works like a charm. You can get a full two-stops of added exposure (with my Nikon D800 files) with LR/ACR and not hurt the image whatsoever. Another change I made was to the white balance. I added a little blue on the Temperature and some magenta on the Tint slider. Finally, I added some Clarity. The Milky Way LOVES Clarity. But I used the Adjustment Brush to add it to the Milky Way only, not the rest of the stars. If you simply add clarity to the whole image it starts looking too noisy.
Well, that’s it for today. I’m really digging the star photography stuff and can’t wait to get out there and try again. Hope you enjoyed. Have a good one