About Nightscapes - After Midnight Landscapes

About After Midnight Landscapes

Muley Point

Well, all of the photos are not taken after midnight, but you get the idea. People have called this type of photography Landscape Astrophotography or more commonly "Nightscapes". I became interested after seeing photos on the web. I was immediately hooked, and the rest is history.

These photos require a very dark sky, and were taken in some of the darkest places in this country.  There is a lot of subtle color in the night sky that the camera captures. The green is primarily “Airglow”, somewhat like the aurora. The sun’s extreme ultraviolet light excites oxygen and nitrogen atoms in the upper atmosphere during the day. The products then interact with other atmospheric components to later produce light emission by chemical luminescence at night. The camera can detect this but our eyes cannot. The yellow, orange, and red can be due to the setting sun or moon, and in large part due to light pollution. Light pollution can be seen for hundreds of miles. There is also a lot of subtle color in the core of the Milky Way that is simply beautiful. In many of these photos the nearby landscape is illuminated to some degree (light painting).

So why do this at all? Living in the Eastern USA I was not used to actually seeing the real beauty of the night sky. The light pollution in the East obscures many of the stars as well as the Milky Way. You have to actively seek the darkest skies in the country to  see the sky as our ancestors did.  It is exhilarating to be in these places at night and see the Milky Way arching overhead. There is a feeling that is almost primal to see the sky just as our ancestors did thousands of years ago, maybe one of the few experiences we can still share with them. 

We have largely forgotten the beauty of the night, especially in the eastern US. When the sun sets we go indoors and turn on the lights, and spend little time outdoors.  People have learned to fear the night. Seeking out the night sky has been an exciting experience. The sky is beautiful. The land is still and quiet. The crowds of the day are gone. Occasionally a rabbit, or fox, or mouse will appear and then scurry away. It is peaceful and quiet in a way that we have forgotten.

King of Wings Hoodoo 1

For those that have not tried this kind of photography, here is a little background. Those photos are taken in the darkest places possible, to allow you to see the Milky Way and stars.   There are "Dark Sky" apps that can help show you the darkest places in the world. Moonlight is usually too bright and this means that you take those photos around the time of the new moon, or well after the moon has set. Most of these photography trips are planned around a new moon to minimize moonlight. All of the exposures are long exposures, usually 15-30 seconds. All are taken with a tripod. Since the stars are moving in the sky, you will get "star trails" if you use exposures longer than 15-30 seconds. This means the stars turn from dots into curved lines that look like small commas.  Twilight (the time after sunset) lasts much longer than most people realize. There is some residual light from the sun for up to two hours or so after sunset, and most of the photography is obtained after that time.    You also need a camera that is very sensitive and functions well in low light. As for the landscape you can provide lighting or leave it natural. There are times each may be best.

About Me

Wayne Pinkston

By profession I am a Radiologist. Photography and Radiology share many of the same principles as far as image capture and display, both in the eras of film and digital imaging. As photographs moved into digital imaging so did x-ray. I suspect an interest in photography while in college later helped to stimulate an interest in Radiology. My primary interests are outdoor and travel photography. I have had a longstanding interest in travel, and travel as much as my life will allow.  Over the years my interest in landscape photography has opened up a world that I may have otherwise never experienced. 

The photos were taken with a variety of cameras over the years, changing with the times. The 35mm and digital cameras were Canon with a few rare exceptions. Earlier Medium Format cameras were Bronica and Contax. Over the last few years the cameras have been Canon Digital SLR's, most recently the 6D, 5D Mark III, and 1Ds Mk III. Canon lens include the 16-35mm 2.8L II, 28mm f1.8, 100mm 2.8 Macro, 70-200mm f4 L IS, and the 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 IS L. Non Canon lens include the Sigma 15 mm f 2.8 fisheye, and the Nikon 12-24 mm f 2.8 zoom, and the Rokinon 24mm f 1.4. I use a Gitzo G 1128 MK2 tripod and an Acratech Ballhead and leveling base. I find that as time goes by I use less filters, with the exception of a polarizing filter. Image processing is done on a Mac Computer with Adobe LightRoom 5.0 and Photoshop CC. I am currently printing either on an Epson Stylus Photo R1900 Printer or use Bay Photo as a commercial lab. Virtually all of the daytime images were taken with available light. "Light painting" is used in many of the night photos. If there are any questions please contact me by email.


Wayne Pinkston

About Workflow

Delicate Arch

I'll try to pass along some workflow ideas, as these change and evolve. It changes as I learn. 

There is a choice you have to make at some point in the processing. It can be made initially or later. If you want the sky to be blue with a cooler look overall, you will want to process the sky with a cooler white balance. This usually turns the highlights in the Milky Way a magenta color, and is very pretty. This seems to be the most common choice photographers make. The sky experts say that the real color of the Milky Way is more yellow, and they assume the sky is black (and I suppose it is out in space!). If you use the Temp  and Tone curves to make the darkest part of the sky a dark grey, several things happen. The Milky way develops a yellow hue rather than magenta. The stars develop individual colors. If you look closely you will see blue, yellow, red, white, and occasionally orange stars, with the largest number being blue. This reflects the temperature at which the stars burn, the bluer stars burning hotter. This is a better reflection of real life. If you process the sky as a "cool" blue color it will in part cover up airglow (green) and light pollution (yellow, orange, red). If you process the sky more neutral or more "warm" you will find a lot of subtle color coming out. The airglow and light pollution shows up much more vividly. It can be attractive or a nuisance. You can then try to make the light pollution and airglow go away, or you can embrace it and work with it. This can make the sky look very surrealistic, with lots of green, yellow, orange and red. IT can look beautiful but very otherworldly. Lots of photographers try to get rid of this color to make the sky look more natural or more like we expect. Lately I have stopped trying to get rid of these colors and have embraced them (at least for now). A good choice might be to process the sky more neutral to start with and then adjust the color later as desired. You could select the sky in photoshop and then use the color tools.

Balanced Rock

The initial part of processing can be done in Adobe RAW or Lightroom (I use Lightroom). For processing I usually make the darkest part of the sky as neutral as possible in Lightroom (using the Temp and Tint sliders).   It is hard to get it perfect, at least for me. When I say I make the sky as neutral as possible, I do this: I pick the darkest area and try to make it grey or only slightly tinted. The easiest way to do this is to look at the separate histograms for red, green and blue in the histogram graph and use the Temp and Tint sliders to get the separate color curves to overlap or match up as best you can. Overlap or superimpose the blue and yellow peaks (in the part on the histogram that represents the sky - the large rightmost peak), then superimpose the green and magenta peaks as best you can, then go back and superimpose the blue and yellow peaks again, keeping an eye on the darkest sky. This means that you no longer have a cool or warm tone bias. The more neutral you make the dark sky, the more subtle color you can bring out elsewhere. If I want to end up with a blue sky I will then move the Temp slider very minimally to the left (one click). This is virtually un-noticeable at this stage. To get a preview of what the sky will eventually look like go to the "Tone Curve" function in Lightroom. Click on the little square in the bottom right hand corner, so you can manipulate the curve freely. The place a very steep "S" shape on the curve, up at the top and down on the bottom. This will increase the contrast tremendously, and you can see which way the color is trending. I like to leave it with a minimally blue bias in the darkest sky. Then right click on the curve and click "flatten curve", and the sky will return to a grey flat color (contrast will be applied later in Photoshop). Usually the upper sky is so much darker than the lower sky that I may lighten the upper sky with a gradient in Lightroom to make the sky more uniform in density. This helps a lot in processing the sky later. I also do noise reduction, sharpening, and lens correction in Lightroom and export to Photoshop. You can do all of this in Adobe RAW with the exception of the gradient function. In Lightroom or Adobe Raw here are some good initial settings for sharpening and noise reduction for an ISO of 6400 in a Canon 6D: 

For sharpening, Amount 25 (you can sharpen later in Photoshop if necessary),  Radius 0.7, Detail 15-20, Masking 75. For noise reduction, Luminance about 40-50, Detail 50, Contrast 50, Color about 17-20, Detail 50, smoothness 100.  The amount of noise reduction you need will vary with your camera and ISO. I use the Lens Profile correction function. I then export or open in Photoshop. To do this right click the image and choose "Edit in Photoshop".  In Photoshop I carefully select the sky and foreground and save the selections separately. I chose the sky and may increase the vibrance by 10-25. This darkens the color in the sky slightly. You can darken the sky primarily in Curves by adding contrast, but if this is your primary way to darken the sky, then you may be adding a lot of noise and graininess. I mildly increase the vibrance first, then mildly increase the contrast in curves use a "S" shaped curve. Increasing the vibrance first means that you can use a smaller contrast adjustment in curves to darken the sky, and end up with a less noisy and less contrasty sky. Many times the sky can end up looking overly sharp, and this helps to lessen that effect. I then go to levels and move the left most slider slightly to the right. This darkens the sky without significantly changing the lighter tones.

Moonlit Fall

I find that this will really bring out the subtle sky colors if you start with a neutral sky. If you make the sky very blue in Lightroom from the very beginning, them you cover up a lot of the subtle colors in the sky, and also you can give the airglow and light pollution unpleasant color casts. Airglow and light pollution can be attractive! I may make small changes in the color of the sky primarily with the Color Balance function. I frequently choose the Milky Way with the lasso tool and feather it about 200 pixels, and then use then  adjust the brightness and contrast and vibrance. I frequently chose the lower sky separately and darken it, as it is usually much brighter than the rest of the sky.This often improves the color tones in the MW, but not always. I then chose the foreground and adjust the contrast separately in curves. I do a little dodging and burning for hot areas or areas that are too dark, and that's about it. I commonly increase the local contrast using the Unsharp Mask function, using an Amount of 10-20, a radius of 40-50, and a threshold of 0. This increases local contrast and gives the impression of sharpness, without increasing the perceived noise too much. Using the sharpening tools in the usual way of a high amount and a low radius creates too much noise in high ISO images.If there is too much noise I use the Topaz noise reduction plug-in. It is remarkable good at reducing noise without making the image too soft. 

About Planning and Logistics

It is remarkably easy to get lost at night in unfamiliar places and on the darkest of nights. Normal landmarks are absent, and in some cases you may be trekking through unmarked and featureless desert-like terrain. It is frustrating and embarrassing as well! You need to prepare and plan ahead if the location is new to you. Normally I visit the location during the day and scout the area, looking for landmarks that may be visible at night. If there are well marked paths to the site it will be easier. In locations that have no well developed path I get GPS co-ordinates on my smartphone. The GPS function operates even when you do not have a cellular signal. There are a number of free GPS apps that work just fine. I normally mark the site in the app, and record the co-ordinates. It can also be exhausting to try to capture Sunrise, Sunsets, and the Milky Way in the middle of the night, especially if you are doing it for more than a couple of days.  I usually scout the sites in the afternoon and stay around for the sunset. You then have a couple of hours to get dinner before it is dark enough to photogragh the Milky Way. 

About Equipment and Gadgets

I'll try to pass along some thoughts on lighting and equipment so perhaps you can avoid some of the mistakes I made.

First piece of advice: Take the filters off your lens. The filters, even a simple UV filter, can cause a ring artifact in the image at night, especially with green light. These artifacts are very difficult to process out of the photo. The artifact is subtle in the original photo but comes out when you increase contrast. 

Lately I have been using a Canon 6D as my camera for night photography. It has relatively low noise at ISO 6400 and that noise is handled relatively well with noise reduction in Lightroom. I have also used the Canon 5D MK III, and the 6D is superior in low light. There is a noticeable difference. This will only get better with newer cameras. The lens I primarily use are the Rokinon 24 mm f/1.4, Canon 16-35 mm f/2.8 MK II, Sigma 15 mm f/2.8 fisheye, and the Nikon 14-24 mm f/2.8. The latter is used with a mechanical adaptor for Canon and this makes it a manual lens. 

I try to acquire the images as a single shot if possible. This means the foreground and stars all have to be in focus at the same time. Since the foreground is so close you will need a very large depth of field, and this is where the very wide angle lens excel. The Nikon 14-24 mm at 14 mm has a noticeably larger field of view than the Canon 16-35 at 16 mm. You also get additional depth of field which can save you in tight spaces. The Sigma 15 mm fisheye also has a very large DOF when you are close to a foreground object. You can always take a separate photos for the foreground and background and combine them in photoshop or other software. 

I use a leveling head on the tripod for panoramas, and an L bracket on the camera. A remote shutter release and an intervalometer are very useful.  

Painted Hand Pueblo Ruins

Camera: Canon 6D. There are lots of good ones out there, but this is the one I can vouch for.

Lens: Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L II, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, Sigma 15mm f/2.8 fisheye, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 (with Canon adaptor), Canon 70-200mm f/4.0 IS L, Canon 100-400mm IS L, Canon 24-105 mm f/4.0

Lights for static light painting:    1) F&V Z96 LED Video Light Panel. This light is dimmable, comes with warming filters, and works well. Can be purchased online from Amazon, Adorama, B&H Photovideo, etc. for $80-160 USD.    2) Neewer CN-160-LED Video Light. This light is around $30 on Amazon, and is very bright. For this kind of work I find it too bright most of the time, even on the dimmest setting.    There is a smaller Neewer 60 LED and a Neewer 32 LED which should work well. They all come with warming filters and are around $20 USD. . 3) Chromo 160 LED CI-160 Video Light. This one also has 160 LEDs but dims down to a usable brightness.  I have found it very useful. It also comes with a warming filter, but is more yellow than golden in color. This costs around $30. 

Lights fro Light Painting or Brushing:  I like the halogen light for this. They have a pleasing warm color. (1 Luminar WorkTM Rechargeable Cordless 25 Watt Halogen Spotlight Kit. This has 1 million candlepower and has worked well. It costa around $37 USD online. 2)  Black and Decker LEDHALB  Lithium Ion Spotlight. Works similar to the Luminar, and costs around $30 online. 3)  There is a Stanley version similar the Black and Decker.

Light With a Blue Beam: You see these in photos with people holding a spotlight skyward. You want a LED light (blue light) and you want a light with a focusing beam. An excellent choice is the Duracell Duraabeqm Ultra 1000. It has a very tight focus and looks like a LightSaber. It costs about $35 on Amazon and $20 at Costco. Another choice are hand held torches from Coast. These come in various sizes. They can be quite large. A medium sized one I have used is the Coast HP14 High Performance Focusing 339 Lumen LED Flashlight, and it functioned well. You can narrow the beam even more with a "snoot". 

Focusing Headlight with a Blue Beam: Coast HL7 Focusing Headlamp. You may have seen photos of people at night with a blue headlamp beam. It works better if it focuses to a tight beam. This has not been as bright as I hoped, and I am looking for a better one.

Headlight with White or Red Light:   The red light is good to preserve night vision.   1) Black Diamond Equipment Storm Headlight.  You can purchase this online for around d $37  2) Ozark Trail Multicolor Headlamp can be purchased at Walmart for around $13. 

Moving Rocks or Sailing Stones
Bisti Badlands Hoodoo

I have found that a manual white balance of around 3800K works well, with a good range from 3600 to 4000. RAW images are always preferred as you need all the information you can manage. Once I have the composition and lighting desired, I will get one additional image with long exposure noise reduction to try to minimize noise. This may decrease noise a bit, but doubles the time between exposures. 

About Lighting

Many people call this "light painting". The lighting is primarily done in two ways, static (constant) light, or brief brushing of the scene with a hand held light. 

I love the look of photos during the "blue hour". I believe that the cool cobalt blue of the sky goes beautifully with the warm golden glow of city lights. For this reason I prefer lighting that has a more golden look. Many people like lighting that reflects more natural colors. It is your choice artistically. Some people prefer unlit landscapes and this is also an artistic choice.

Static Light Painting:

The static light painting is good for consistent illumination, especially if you are shooting panoramas, or want to change your location or angle. Once you are set up you do not have to worry about the lighting. For static light painting I use dimmable video LED lights. A very useful one is the F&V Z96 light that can be purchased online at places like Amazon, B&H Photo, Adorama, etc. It is dimmable to a very low level and easily portable. It can be run with AA batteries or rechargeable batteries.  I usually use these at or near the lowest settings, and on low settings that batteries last for hours and hours. 

I usually place one on a small cheap lightweight tripod at approximately 45-60 degrees off to the side from where I am shooting. This creates relief and shadows in the rocks and gives it texture. If you illuminate the scene from the area of the camera the scene will look flat. I set up the light or lights and leave them on. I take a photo and adjust the angle or brightness of the light accordingly. I may do this 5 or 6 times to get the light right. Once you get the light right you are set. 

The F&V Z96 costs around $169 USD. There is a knock-off version that costs around $80. I bought the knock-off version unknowingly, later to find out it was not the original. The units look identical, and for my purposes they both do the job. The original has a battery meter that tells you when the battery is drained, and the knock-off does not. This could be critical in video productions but is not critical for me. 

If I find that the light is still too bright on the lowest setting I will drape something over the front of the light. You can improvise. Napkins work well and dim the light well. I can vouch for Subway Napkins! You can use more than one to damp the light way down. Lately I have been using lens cloths. I carry several lens cloths in my pocket, either black or white and will drape or tape them over the front of the light. I carry a small roll of painters tape or masking tape that comes in very useful.

I usually carry two or three of these lights. Many times I will put one inside of an arch, or behind an arch or rock formation to create some form of back lighting. I will then use the other one off to the side at an angle to create low level front lighting. Sometimes the landscape is so rough that you just improvise as best you can. 

Bisti Badlands Hoodoos and Small Arch
Perspective, Looking Up from Wall Street 1

LED light are generally too blue for my taste. Many of the video LED lights came with a warming filter and a diffusion filter. The F&V Z96 has both and I use both regularly. IF you want more diffusion you can cut out the side of an old plastic milk contained and tape that to the front and a "filter". It works great. If you want the light to be even warmer you can make filters out of theatrical gel and tape then to the front. Theatrical gel is a thin sheet of colored translucent material that comes in many colors. You can get this from B&H photo, Amazon, etc. 

Light Painting or Light Brushing:

This is done by passing or brushing a hand held light over the area of interest, and every time you perform this kind of light painting it can look a little different. Many times you are constrained by the landscape and this kind of lighting is the only choice. Many prefer this kind of lighting.

The features of the land become flat or featureless when you light the scene from the vantage point of the camera. For this reason It is useful to try and bounce the light off of some object off the side of the scene such as a wall, or rock, or even the ground. If you can find something at around 45-60 degrees to the side it would be optimal. If not, you do the best you can. 

Incandescent light is very warm or yellow, but many are too yellow. LED lights are too blue and do not usually come with warming filters, but you could make one yourself. Xenon Halogen handheld torches have a nice warm color and work very well.  

There are a number of good choices for halogen torches. I have used the Luminar WorkTM Rechargeable Cordless Halogen Spotlight and it works well. It has a one million candlepower light and has a rechargeable Li ion battery, and can be purchased from Harbor Freight or Amazon.  You can recharge the Li-ion battery in the car or at home. The charge last for about 12-15 min of constant use, and since you may light paint for 10 seconds or so during a 30 second exposure, you can get 60 frames or more on a charge. It goes a long way for this purpose. It costs about $35 USD.  There is a Black and Decker Lithium Halogen spotlight which is very similar in all regards, and a Stanley Lithium Halogen version which is identical to the Black and Decker except for the color. You can get these  for less than $20-30 at Lowe's or Home Depot. There is a light called a Hi CRI LED which is supposed to give a more natural color, but I do not have a lot of experience with this.

It's fun and interesting to get into the photo yourself, maybe with a light. It can add scale and another point of interest to the photo. The blue handheld light beam you may have seen in night photos (like the one higher on this page ) is usually a focusable LED torch. A good choice for are the Coast LED Torches, from Portland, Oregon. These are not small or light, but come in a variety of sizes, and are excellent all around lights. It works better if it focuses to a fairly tight beam. 

It is very helpful to make a "snoot" for the hand held light. This is a cylindrical tube that you place around the light to direct and focus the light. It prevents stray light from scattering and illuminating the wrong areas, such as the foreground around the camera. You can make a tubular snoot from poster board, a sheet of rubber, etc. You can improvise, such was a rolled up plastic dinner placemat!

Tufas at Mono Lake
Colorado River


 Here are some excellent sources:

1) Royce Bair has written an excellent ebook on photographing the Milky Way called "Milky Way Nightscapes". It is highly recommended and an excellent way to get started in night sky photography. Here is the link:

Milky Way Nightscapes

2) David Kingham has written an excellent and thorough ebook on night photography. I also recommend this book. It is called "Nightscape, A Complete Guide". Here is the link:

Nightscape, a Complete Guide

3) Read the blog by Royce Bair. Go back through the old posts on this blog and see recommendations about technique and equipment, etc. Here is the link:

Into the Night Photo Blog

4) Both Royce Bair and David Kingham have workshops. I would recommend both. There are other good ones but I do not have direct experience with others.

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