by Roman Kurywczak
I have been photographing nighttime landscapes for about 20 years now, capturing images of star trails like the one pictured above with good success (even in the film days). The arrival of digital cameras and their high ISO capabilities has allowed me to push the boundaries of nighttime landscape photography and allowed me to capture the milky way and stars just as we see them. I released my e-book on that subject in February 2011 but wanted to revisit some of the images I had captured with the Sigma 12-24mm lens. The above image is the newest version of my cover shot, but this time the illumination you see is from just the moon. A rock solid tripod and ballhead are a must for this genre of photography. A wide-angle lens is also a must; the Sigma 12-24mm lens is now my lens of choice for my Canon 1D Mark III bodies. For those of you with crop sensors, the 10-20mm F3.5 EX DC HSM should be your go to lens, but keep in mind that any wide angle lens will work (Tip: you should be around 20mm max on a full frame sensor with the settings I will be providing).
These types of images are best done with little or no visible moon. A moon that is about ¼ of full moon size to the eye is ideal and makes for the most natural look. You can also light paint as I did in the image above (I will go into that in a bit more depth below). The hardest thing to do is focus at night. How do you do that? A very easy solution is to test your lens during the day. At the top of your lens, there is a hyperfocal distance scale. Set the distance to 12mm (or all the way wide for any zoom). Auto focus on a subject approximately 20 feet away from you. Look at the scale and where it lines up on the white line. Now turn your lens to manual focus. You should now hear the beep (if enabled) or see the little focus light show up if you are in focus. If you check the online hyperfocal distance calculator with my equipment and settings at http://www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html you will see that everything from about 4 feet to infinity will be in focus! Testing it out during the day and finding the location will allow you to go out at night and consistently manually focus and get sharp images as long as you keep your subject 20 feet away from you or more. Below is an example of what to look for on the lens but remember to check to make sure where your camera body and lens combination line up!
OK, so now you know how to focus at night, but how do you compose? One way is to go out during the day and compose your subject and then return at night. That works well for one location, but if you plan on doing multiple locations, that would prove difficult. An easier method is to use a very powerful flashlight so you can see through the viewfinder. Point the light at the left edge of your subject and then the right, making sure you can see it through your viewfinder. Then point it at the bottom of what you want in the frame. You can now quickly compose at night in a matter of seconds. In the image below of Turret Arch you can see how that would work especially well when you use a wide-angle lens.
I choose to do my high ISO exposures first so that I can compose quickly and judge the amount of light painting I need or if I need to do it at all. This workflow allows me to compose in a matter of minutes and, if I want, I can then do a long exposure of the same subject. Here are the starting point settings for photographing the stars: ISO 6400, f/4.5, for 30 seconds. Remember that these are just starting points and you can adjust your settings – especially if you use one of the faster fixed lenses! A good rule to follow is focal length multiplied by shutter speed = 500-600. The closer you stay to the number 500, the more the stars will appear as points of light. For example, let’s say that you have a crop sensor body and use the new Sigma 18-35mm F1.8 DC HSM | A lens. You set it to 18mm, which would be equal to 27 or 28mm on a crop sensor body. Using the formula above, you would have to drop your exposure time to 15 or 20 seconds; 28 (focal length) multiplied by 20 seconds (shutter speed) equals 560. This should give you very sharp light points. The bonus of using that lens is that you can open it up all the way to 1.8 and gain all the stops of light you lost on the shutter speed. (Tip: remember, if you check the hyperfocal distance chart, you would need to keep your subject about 35 feet away to get it all in focus at f/1.8). I also used DXO Pro Optics 9 noise reduction in post processing on all of the high ISO images in this post.
I composed the image above using the high ISO settings provided above. I simply lowered the ISO and set the camera to bulb. Using a cable release, I locked the camera open for just over an hour. The illumination is from the moon. Here are my starting point settings for star trails: ISO 100-400 (depending on size of moon), f/4.5, lock shutter open for an hour or more. Note that you will only achieve circular trails if you include the North Star or the Southern Cross. I have never achieved a successful star trail image when the moon was ¼ moon phase or larger.
Light painting is an art form, not a science. I cannot give you specific settings because the power of the flashlight as well as your distance to the subject can greatly affect the final image. The main light on the image above is from a street lamp just out of frame on the right hand side. I placed a headlamp or small flashlight in each of the windows hidden by the frame. Finally, I painted the bell tower and shadow side of the building with a larger LED flashlight from about 50 feet away to give detail on that side. The illumination you see behind the building is from city lights of Moab, Utah.
I hope these basic settings inspire you to go out and try some of these images for yourself and to enter the exciting world of nighttime photography.
Roman Kurywczak is a member of the Sigma Pro Team and you can find more of his night images and information about his workshops, lectures, galleries, e-books, blog and more at: http://www.roaminwithroman.com.
Kurywczak will give a presentation on “Photographing the Nighttime Landscape” as one of the breakout sessions at the 2015 NANPA Summit taking place in San Diego, California from February 19th – 22nd. To learn more about the Summit and to register for this exciting and inspirational event, please visit www.naturephotographysummit.com. Early bird registration ends on October 31st!