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Night Sky, South Tufa, Mono Lake

Posted by
Gary Hart (California, United States) on 2 June 2010 in Landscape & Rural and Portfolio.

Since "discovering" night photography about four years ago (just so we're clear, I didn't actually discover night photography, but it was a real photographic epiphany to see what my camera was capable of after dark), it has become a huge part of what I do, both in my personal shooting and in my workshops. Visiting over-photographed locations at night gives me the freedom to roam in peace, without distraction; instead of merely duplicating what has been done thousands of times already, I'm suddenly reenergized by the opportunity to capture fresh images. And while I once stressed about boring, cloudless skies during my workshops, I now breathe easily on those days with the knowledge that the photography will be fabulous once the sun goes down.

At the risk of sounding like a marketing brochure, let me just say that photographing in full moonlight is fun, easy, and rewarding. Rather than rehash old how-to material, I'll just refer you to my Shoot the Moon article published in the April 2010 "Outdoor Photographer" magazine. In the article I mention that the best moonlight subjects are reflective surfaces, like water and granite. I should add to that Mono Lake's tufa, the limestone towers formed by underwater springs and exposed as the lake receded due to growing Southern California water demands. But while a good foreground is essential, night photography really is about the sky. I choose my foregrounds to complement, not compete with, the celestial canvas, making the vast majority of my compositions vertical to include as much sky as possible.

I never meter a moonlight scene; rather, I have a starting exposure (look at the exposure settings to the right of this image) that gets me within a stop of where I want to be, and then I adjust from there. I want a foreground bright enough to reveal detail (unless I'm going for a silhouette) and a sky dark enough that the stars stand out. The exposure ends up being between what my meter suggests and what my eye sees.

Processing an image like this takes a bit of time and experience. The human eye adjusts to moonlight by expanding the pupil to collect more light, and the brain has a built-in white balance tool that adjusts for color temperature, so the experience on location actually changes with time (though most aren't aware of it). Through trial and error I came to realize that digital cameras do a real poor job with moonlight white balance, rendering these scenes in daylight tones that rob them of their night feel. Since the last thing I want is an image that looks like daylight with stars, I photograph in raw mode for complete control over the color temperature. The first time I open a moonlight raw file I drag my white balance slider to the left, usually somewhere in the 3,000-4,000 degree range. My goal is a scene that's cool (blue) enough that the foreground says "night."

To account for the eye's ability to bring in more light, in post-processing I usually dodge (increase the exposure) the foreground a bit (but not so much that the shadows lose their blackness), and decrease the sky exposure (burn). Taking care to avoid decreasing the exposure of the stars when I darken the sky (this gets into Photoshop techniques that vary tremendously from photographer to photographer and go beyond the scope of this post), I'm able to make the stars stand out a bit more. My ultimate objective is something that conveys the experience of being out there beneath the celestial canopy.

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Thanks for visiting. Even if I don't respond, your comments are always read and appreciated.

Barbara Kile from Ft. Worth, United States

Wow, this looks like you're ON the moon! Very ethereal - awesome sky and lighting. Well balanced and natural looking!

2 Jun 2010 5:11am

Dulcie from Danville, CA, United States

This looks like the stuff of fairy tales.
Astonishing and magical. If I move my cursor slightly, the stars are falling. ;-)

2 Jun 2010 5:27am

Tamara from Aarschot, Belgium

It looks like we're on another planet... Outstanding capture, I really love the stars here !

2 Jun 2010 6:50am

Vitor Martins from Lisboa, Portugal

Beautiful night shot and a magic image. It is nicely balanced and the sharpnes in the rocks is fantastic.

2 Jun 2010 8:16am

Michelle from Elverson, United States

Oh this is very magical! My new favorite!

2 Jun 2010 2:20pm

KriKridesign from Cully, Switzerland

Respect Sir Gary...This is ??? I'm speechless...!

2 Jun 2010 4:39pm

Babzy from Besançon, France

it is just unbelievable !!:)

2 Jun 2010 8:19pm

Photo Buffet from United States

Gary, what can I say? This is beyond incredible. It has a surreal mood. Keep using your amazing gift. Your photos are such a day-brightener.

3 Jun 2010 2:05am

DarkElf from Perth, Australia

a perfect exposure here - the stars have really come out beautifully and yet the detail of the foreground is perfect as well! thanks for the detailed explanation - it is an interesting process and i can see what you mean about keeping the evening white balance "cool"... the mood is really magical!

3 Jun 2010 2:20am

Dutch from Chicagoland, United States

A five star sky.. wow just amazing! I want to thank you again for sharing the information that you do, your techniques, secrets.. Many would not, 'protecting' their trade, but you share even if its stories about getting wet and your car breaking down and people can learn. Learning means everyone puts out better photographs spreading the beauty. I am no where near the caliber of you however whenever someone asks and often when they don't I share what little secrets I have. I still know I can't do this right now but one day :D Would also help for me to get away from the city and the light pollution.

3 Jun 2010 3:22am

Julie from Hillerød, Denmark

Very inspiring, beautiful work. Like some other says, it's quite moon-like!

3 Jun 2010 8:26am

Julie from Easton, United States

Simply breathtaking!

3 Jun 2010 2:55pm

MontereyJohn from Salinas, California, United States

Wow!!!! And thanks for the info. This is just superb!

3 Jun 2010 3:49pm

Elora from Genoa, Italy

absolutely stunning image gary! How wonderful!!!

3 Jun 2010 4:18pm

Denny Jump from Easton, PA, United States

I second the comments from Dutch, Julie and all the rest. The work you went through just to put this image "on paper" (or on screen) is incredible.....that you allow us to learn from your experience is just as amazing. Thanks again, Gary

3 Jun 2010 4:36pm

Julie Brown from Indianapolis, United States

I am wondering if anyone does night photography as well as you do, Gary. You have found a niche. The color here is gorgeous, and the foreground light is just perfect. There is nothing like a starry night over Mono Lake!

4 Jun 2010 2:28am

Pavan Kaul from Mumbai, India

Just fabulous! Great work!

4 Jun 2010 9:43am

Scott F. Schilling from San Martin, United States

Wonderful night tones in this and I
like the star details and the light on the tufa!

5 Jun 2010 2:48am

Tracy from La Selva Beach, United States

This is so amazing! I am just starting to feel like I am comfortable enough with my camera and technique to try going out at night.....My biggest problem is how do you know when the histogram is "right" and you have what you need captured? I am so used to the daytime histogram, and ETTR- that I find I am at a loss when I try to shoot at night.....

5 Jun 2010 3:42pm

Rui from Leiria, Portugal

This is amazing!
Thanks for sharing all the information.
I understand what you mean. Since I discovered night photography about 1,5 year ago, it changed my way of "seeing" and "understanding" photography.

6 Jun 2010 9:15pm

Dimitrios, think positive. from ATHENS, Greece

EXCELLENT

8 Jun 2010 1:08pm

Ansie from South Africa

I always enjoy your explanations, it gives real insight, and shows you will be an excellent workshop "giver" so I will be looking at yours, I often visit the states, maybe one day? This is simply stunning. The digital camera has opened up the dark world for us!

9 Jun 2010 4:06am

Marie from FRESNES, France

absolument magnifique !

11 Jun 2010 9:14am

dkc from Xanthi, Greece

wow...what an amazing blue palette....love your photo!

14 Jun 2010 6:57am

Marie from FRESNES, France

magique !

14 Jun 2010 1:44pm