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Photographing Nightscapes

 Guest Post By: Royce Bair

There are many types of night photography. I do a style I call "nightScapes". Most of these are starry night skies with a landscape feature. Some of the land features are often enhanced with light-painting, if it will help improve recognition of the location. I usually expose the stars as points of light, rather than as star trails. Most of my NightScapes are a single exposure, with little Photoshop enhancement, other than to increase contrast in the sky (so that stars stand out brighter against a darker sky).

Nightscape Photography - Stars Over John Moulton Homestead
Nightscape Photography By Royce Bair - Stars Over John Moulton Homestead

My two biggest challenges to this type of night photography are:

1) Finding darkness: 

There are only a few days each month when conditions are optimum for this type of photography. I cannot photograph the stars until at least two hours after sunset, and I must stop at least two hours before sunrise. I must also avoid moon light, because even a quarter moon is 130 times brighter than starlight. This requires me to plan my photography around the cycles of the moon, not to mention unpredictable weather!

Nightscape Photography - Delicate Arch - Milky Way - Stars
Nightscape Photography By Royce Bair - Delicate Arch - Milky Way - Stars

The other challenge to darkness is man-made light pollution. As the earth becomes more populated, finding areas that are not polluted by artificial light can be difficult. Luckily, I live in the south western region of the USA where the air is not only dry, but thinly populated.

2) Overcoming darkness: 

Because starlight is 40 million times weaker than sunlight, it produces huge technical challenges. To stop the effects of the earth's rotation, which blurs the stars and produces star trails, I must keep my time exposure between eight and 30 seconds (depending on the focal length of the lens). In order to get enough light to properly expose the night sky in this short of time, I must use expensive lens with the largest possible apertures, and expensive digital cameras with large image sensors that allow for extremely high ISO numbers (i.e. 6400 and above) without producing high image noise.

Nightscape Photography - Jackson Lake Tetons
Nightscape Photography By Royce Bair - Jackson Lake Tetons

Despite these challenges, the rewards can be breathtaking and satisfying. The long exposures and high sensitivity of my cameras always reveal much more than my eye can see. When I see the beauty of the universe, set behind the "window frame" of some of our home planet's natural features, I'm often in awe of the Creator's handiwork.

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