Welcome to The Process! This will be a new series on my site where I'll break down what went in to creating an image. Each time I approach a scene, I go through a number of mental (and sometimes physical) checklists of what I want to accomplish. That might mean shooting differently or just planning ahead for a different style of edit. What I hope to share is a bit of the story that goes in to an image before it ever ends up in front of anyone. Let me know what you think in the comments below and if there are any images you're interested in learning more about! Let's get started!
Pyramid Lake: Although Pyramid Lake in Jasper National Park is just a few minutes outside of town it's still an incredibly dark location. I've shot this spot before a few different times on my past visits to the Dark Sky Festival, but I wanted to approach it a bit differently on this trip. If you missed my post on the 2018 Jasper Dark Sky Festival, be sure to check it out here.
The photo above is made up of three different exposures and this post will give you a bit of insight in to how and why I shot it at that.
Shooting a spot like this with no Moon in the sky can be quiet challenging. While no Moonlight or light pollution is an ideal stargazing scenario, it can often leave you with a very dark or completely silhouetted foreground. There's nothing wrong with a darker foreground, but as I said, I wanted to shoot this image a bit differently.
Different Approach - Similar Results?
In most circumstances, there are actually a few different ways you can achieve the results I'm hoping to get with my final image. Before going through all the different methods, let's take a look at what I was really hoping to achieve.
- Sharp stars with no signs of trailing
- Detail in mountain
- Detail on island
- Low noise in all foreground areas
So, not a completely crazy list, but not the easiest to pull off. Let's quickly go through a few different ways you can shoot a scene like this.
Single Exposure - One shot for the sky and foreground. Quite often, I do prefer shooting single exposure images. It can require a bit more planning and timing, but can proceed really nice results when done correctly. That said, it's often a compromise and the you may not get all of the details you want from those darker areas. If you're shooting with the help of some Moonlight, you may lose some of the stars in the sky.
Stacking Exposures - This technique involves taking multiple exposures, often at a much higher ISO, and then stacking them during post production to help reduce noise. When using approach, you'll have to stack your sky and foreground separately. The movement in the stars would be obvious after the first shot. You would also have to worry about trailing in the star reflections in water becoming visible, too! It's possible to use this approach for many landscapes (especially if you're using a star tracker for the sky!), but because of the lake it wasn't the best for this scene.
Blue Hour Foreground - Night Time Sky - This method requires a bit more of a time commitment and while it isn't one that I use, it is an option. The idea is that you shoot the foreground section of your photo during blue hour. Blue hour is that beautiful in-between time after sunset and before the stars are fully out. The lingering light from sunset will allow you to take a photo with a lot of detail for the foreground with a low amount of noise. Later, presumably without moving your tripod, you take a photo from the same location of the dark sky full of stars. These two separate images are then combined during post processing. You can definitely achieve some very nice results using this method, but I personally prefer all my exposures to be taken consecutively.
Day Time Foreground - Night Time Sky - Similar idea as above, but this time you took a photo during the day, went to get dinner and came back out after it was dark. Don't do this. Bring dinner and coffee with you. Enjoy the stars.
Light Painting - Within this technique, there are actually multiple approaches to light painting. It can range anywhere from just using a flashlight and quickly moving it across the foreground to setting up a very dim light off to the side and letting it illuminate the scene a bit more evenly. You can also selectively light up parts of your image once you're a bit more accustom to how it works. It can be easy to miss a weird shadow or have things look unnatural, so while starting out it's a good idea to also try different methods.
Exposure Blend - This was the technique that I chose to go with for my Pyramid Lake image. Generally, you will take your shorter exposure for the stars that will ensure they stay sharp and then a much longer exposure for the foreground at a lower ISO. As you lower your ISO, your exposure time will need to increase to compensate. I approached my shot a little bit differently, but I'll get in to that below.
Exposure Blend + Stacking Exposures - This is a combination of the two techniques above. A number of shorter exposure for the stars that are stacked to reduce noise and then a much longer shot for the foreground at a lower ISO.
That's a quick overview of a few different ways you can shoot an image at night. I'm not a huge fan of composite images and feel that even when using any of the techniques above, it's important to honest about your approach.
There are a number of factors you should consider when deciding on which method to use. I'll dig in to all of those techniques a bit more at a later time. For now, we'll take a look at the images I shot and why I shot them.
Image by Image
Starry Sky Exposure
As mentioned above, I was shooting with the Sigma 14mm f1.8 ART lens. This gave a nice wide field of view and the fast aperture would allow as much light in as possible. I started with a single 10 second exposure for the sky as I knew this would keep the stars pin point sharp. As you can see with the image to the right, the foreground is a bit dark. There's detail there and the Sony A7RII does a great job at recovering details from the shadows, but as with any camera there's only so far you can push your RAW files.
If I had more time or was more concerned about noise in the sky, I could've shot 8-10 of these 10 second exposures to later stack and reduce noise even further. Even with the technique I used, I was already creating a mask in Photoshop to only reveal the sky portion of this image. But, I was happy with a single exposure to save time.
10 Second Single Exposure
Foreground Exposure #1
This 60 second exposure would be the base for my foreground. There's plenty of detail in all areas of the image. I actually ended up bringing down the overall brightness of many areas. You can notice the stars in the sky that trailing is very obvious for this exposure. It's especially visible on the left side of the image. On the right side of the bridge, we're facing in a bit more of a Northern direction while the left side is facing a bit more West. There's a little more leway when it comes to how quickly you'll see trailing in your stars cause by the rotation of the Earth, while facing directly North. Because of this, you can actually see trailing in the reflection of the stars on left side of the bridge, too!
So, why shoot at such a high ISO still? Well, in this particular case I didn't have a lot of time. We were at this location with a few people and it's also a pretty popular spot. Being able to pull off any long exposure without stray lights is no easy feat! You can actually see someone standing on the island in a few of the shots. I wasn't worried though as I wouldn't be using that portion of those exposures.
With time and stray lights on my mind, I knew even at ISO3200 at f1.4, I'd get plenty of light and still be able to produce a really clean image. Under different circumstances, I could've shot a much longer exposure at a lower ISO and then shorter exposures for the reflections on both side of the bridge.
60 Second Single Exposure
Foreground Exposure #2
For my second exposure that would be used in the foreground, I was really just trying to capture the area of the lake on the left side of the bridge. Using a 20 second exposure meant the trailing wouldn't be too obvious and I'd be able to get things to match the right side of the bridge pretty easily.
20 Second Single Exposure
Putting The Pieces Together
So, now I have my three exposures and its time to put them all together. Despite being home, I ended up working on this edit on my Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 over the course of two nights as we caught up on some of our favorite shows. Thanks to some of the more defined lines in this image it would make putting it together a little bit easier. That said, I still loved utilizing the Active Pen to make the masking a much easier task.
If you take a look at the illustration below, I quickly painted and labeled different areas of the photo to show where each exposure ended up in the final image. The image to the right might be the most casual edit session as I worked on refining some of the masking details.
Multiple Exposures - Areas Blended
Part 1 - Lightroom: I started off with all of my images in Lightroom and made some base adjustments. I copied White Balance and pasted it across all three images so when it came time to blend them together, I'd be off to a good start.
I spent a bit more time on the 10 Second Starry Sky Exposure and the 60 Second Foreground #1 Exposure. When my first foreground exposure was at a good point I was ready to work on making the second foreground exposure match. To do this, I used the feature in Lightroom that will automatically match exposures between two images. It's kind of hidden, but when you have two images selected you can find it from the Develop module and then Settings and Match Total Exposures.
From here, I selected my three images and brought them in to Photoshop to blend and finish things up!
Part 2 - Photoshop - Advanced Cut and Paste - Once I had each exposure as its own layer in Photoshop, I started creating my masks. This lets me take the parts of each image that I want to use and hide the others. As I mentioned, this is kind of an ideal composition for this type of edit. Masking can take a lot of time, especially with night sky images where there isn't a lot of contrast between areas of the photo. This is where the touch screen and Active Pen really came in to play.
Since I had already matched the exposures for both foreground images they looked pretty seamless after the mask was finished up. No reflections of stars on either side of the dock!
Overall, the entire foreground area still needed some work. It looked good, but it just felt a little bit off. I ended up actually bringing the overall brightness of the foreground down a decent bit and it finally felt right. Even though I had the ability to have a clean and very bright foreground, it's still an image taken at night. So, it's important that it looks and feels like night.
I decided on a slightly bluer tone for the whole image to give it kind of a dreamy type feel. Something you feel standing in a place like this.
I took the single 10 second exposure and gave it a similar edit to the 3 exposure blend so we could have a look at the two side by side. Between the two, there's a lot more cleaner detail in the image with multiple exposures. In both the mountain and on the island, there's more detail in the shadows which is exactly what I was hoping to achieve. The colors stand out a good bit more in the multiple exposure image as well. I probably could've pushed this in the single exposure, but it might produce more noise in those area. The multiple exposure image could've been edited to be a bit darker, similar to the single exposure, but because I wasn't pulling detail from an underexposed/darker area to start it would still be a cleaner looking image in the end.
Here's the side by side:
10 Second Exposure - Full Edit
3 Exposure Blend - Final Edit
So, was it worth all the work in the end? Overall, it's probably something that most people won't notice which is why I thought it'd be just as fun to share this with photographers and non-photographers alike.
If you're a photographer, hopefully this gave you some ideas on how you can approach your images. If you're not a photographer, hopefully you enjoyed a little behind the scenes look at what goes in to an image you see on your social media feed.
Do you like one better than the other? I'd love to hear what you think in the comments about the image and this type of post. If you want to see more like this let me know!
Be sure to follow along on FB and Instagram. I'll be sharing a lot of live edits and behind the scenes looks through my Insta stories.