When I venture out for a night photography shoot one of my first priorities is to establish how I intend to light my subjects. This isn't as straight forward as you may imagine. Many of you will probably think that you don't need to light the subject at all ... after all, it's meant to be a night image ...? Well my response to that is that whilst the stars themselves give off enough light to be seen in the shot, the foreground usually is captured as a black blob, sometimes silhouetting trees or hills and other times giving the faint outline of a building or perhaps an old car or truck.
The star trail image of the old truck above is a classic example of what I'm talking about. If you look closely you'll see that it is lit from every direction and this is almost impossible in a single shot. To put this into perspective you have to understand that this scene was in the middle of a paddock nestled between two rocky hill faces. There was absolutely no light coming from anywhere except the stars above. See the images below to get an understanding of what I'm talking about.
Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with silhouettes but in this case I reckon the detail in the truck is what makes the image stand out.
So once the star trail images were captured, which involves taking a number of "Medium Duration" shots to be blended into the final length star trails, I then proceed to capture images that show the detail in the foreground. In this case I took particular care and effort to get it right and in doing so captured 6 images lit from every angle, including inside the cabin of the truck.
One other detail which is incredibly important in an image like this is to change the focus point on these foreground images to make the detail in the truck sharp and clean. This is a process known as "Focus Stacking".
Of course when all of these single images are edited they are then carefully blended to create the one final photograph. Is this a difficult process ... ? Not really, but it can certainly be time consuming .... start with a few shots and give it a go. Current software gives us all the necessary tools to achieve whatever we can see in our mind. I'll say it again, pre-visualisation is the key.
Now I must stress that you don't have to go to these lengths with every photo to get something awesome, but there are times when a simple point and shoot just doesn't cut it. As with any photograph taken during the day or night the craft and skill is in how it is lit. Lighting is everything in image making and the more we study how light works and how to create it when it isn't present, the more we will produce stunning work.
The below image is a single shot of the truck with stars in the background with a bit of light painting to bring out some detail. It's a good shot but I think you'll agree that it isn't in the same class as the first image on this page.
If you look closely you'll notice that the focus on the truck is a bit soft. Not such a problem unless you zoom in on the image or decide to make an enlargement of the photo.
With ultra wide angle lenses you can often get away with these shots as the focus plane is very broad. But as the focal length increases the soft focus becomes a real issue.
Nikon D750 Nikon 14-24 f2.8 20 sec exp iso3200
I regularly have this discussion with fellow night photography enthusiasts and it becomes obvious that the majority of photographers fall into one of two categories. They are either creative or technical in their initial leaning. During daylight shooting this is less obvious as the camera can make very smart decisions for the photographer and mask a lot of flaws in technical understanding. Lets face it, we've all shot in auto camera modes haven't we ...??
On the other hand there are countless people who can pretty much pull a camera apart and put it back together again blindfolded but when it comes to producing an image of creative beauty they are often left wanting.
My advice is to force ourselves to learn something that we don't know. Initially this can be very painful but in the long run it will pay off big time. Our images will improve technically and eventually we'll begin to "see" things we didn't notice before.
So we began this post discussing light painting, and that's because light painting is one of the most creative things we can add to our night photography arsenal. Is it difficult ... ? It certainly can be. Is it something that requires a lot of practice ... ? It sure does.
But you'll be surprised how a little light in the right places, at the right angles will lift a lifeless image and make it something unique.
Give it a try, you'll be absolutely surprised with the results.
I'll leave you with a few of my favourite images showing the techniques described above. Hopefully you are inspired by them.