An electric goodbye

An electric goodbye

Click the image to see the timelapse (new window)

 

It’s time of thunderstorms!!

While half of the world is trying to capture and collect Pokemons, I’m in an electric mood and I try to collect rays and lightning. Where I live electric storms are very rare, with only a few happening every year, and most of them during daytime, so the excess of light doesn’t allow to take good pictures of them. But I like electricity, lightning, and low light photography, so when the right conditions happen I like to be there, trying to collect a new specimen for my museum of “rays that existed for less than a second but were captured for not being forgotten ever” (of course, assuming ever as “as long as my hosting service exists and is online”; any other ever interpretation is just being too optimistic).

A couple of days ago I caught one good storm (ok, not really good, just above average, but I’ve been waiting for them so long that now all of them seem nice to me), so I set the camera and started to take pictures. Capturing lightning is a matter of luck (good luck, just in case you had the doubt). You put your camera on the tripod in the same way you put a fishing rod, and just sit and wait, hoping that the shutter will be open when the ray strikes. As Murphy’s law states: most of the rays will appear just in the recycling moment while the shutter is closed between two pictures. But if you take enough frames, sooner or later you will get a couple of pictures with a ray on it. As you can guess, this also yields a lot of boring pictures where nothing is happening, and will end deleted. But I thought: If the pictures are already taken, and the raw processing can be automatized, why not giving them some use before deleting them. And this is how this time lapse was born, just joining all the sequence together. Nothing impressive, but it’s a “free” side-result of my main goal, which is a good picture of a ray.

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Picture taken manually with my mobile phone while the main camera was working. It is possible.

The trick for this kind of pictures is to have a remote controller (better if it is not wireless), so you can trigger the shutter manually. Most of the remotes have a lock position, which is equivalent to be pressing the shutter button all the time. In this position when the camera finishes a picture writes it to the card and automatically starts a new one, so all that is left for the photographer is to sit down, relax, and watch the forces of nature do their noisy job. Of course, if you don’t have a remote (I don’t know why, they are as cheap as useful), you will have to activate the camera manually for every picture. In any case, what it is a very bad idea is to have the camera idle until the moment you see the ray (or expect it to happen), because almost every time you will miss it (although it can be done; the picture on the right was taken with my mobile phone while the DSLR camera was doing its job, and with a little effort I managed to capture it).

About the parameters for capture lighting, they are simple and hard both at the same time. You need to correctly expose your background, so if it is at night, you can allow a dark background, but if it is at sunset you will need to expose well for it. Once done, you need to use shutter speeds as slow as possible, so you have the sensor exposed as much time as possible, maximizing the probabilities of a ray happening at that moment (usually 6-8 seconds of exposure are good starting values). To achieve slower speeds you can decrease the aperture, what will also make easier to focus on the sky, as the depth of field increases. Although lightning seem very brilliant, they are not really much brighter than daylight, so capturing them at noon, or at dusk but underexposing the picture, will not work. It is not a problem with parameters; it is a problem because there is not much difference in intensities between the ambient light and the ray. On the first case you will capture a ray that blends with the surrounding clouds without any effect, and on the second case you will get a dark picture with a very dim ray on it.

So, if you have the chance, go out and try to capture one ray for yourself. It’s not as difficult as it sounds, and it is very satisfying. Very few actions can be more filling than capturing a strike of electricity on a sheet of paper and hanging it forever on your living room.

And if you like what you have just seen, in a few days I will post a couple of pictures of this session. Stay tuned!

The story of a tree – Moonrise

The story of a tree - Moonrise

There is little to tell here. Two of the three pictures were already published, and the third one was discarded against The visit of aunt Cassiopeia. The thematic is almost the same in all of them, and I consider that publishing too many pictures about the same topic can be a little boring and monothematic, so it got out.

But I saw the three of them together, and I had to create the composition. It is said that a picture has to be a part of something bigger, that there must be a story behind every picture taken, and not just random snapshots taken without a linking thread. Here, the story develops around a tree, and his home: the sky, the land, the moon… and the illumination. A simple story, but I consider it aesthetically captivating.

Just relax, look at the sequence, and enjoy its simplicity. That is happening every night all around the world, and still most of the time is missed, as people is bored looking somewhere else.

The Fluor Rainbow

Fluorescent subjects are one of the most impressing themes that can be photographed. The reason is simple: Under ultraviolet light they glow very brightly, like if they were illuminated with a very bright bulb, but as ultraviolet light is invisible to our eyes the glow appears to come from the subject itself, as if it was emitting the light without any help. Today I’m explaining how to get one of the nicest pictures I have made in this theme: The Fluor Rainbow.

The Fluor Rainbow
f/5.6; ISO 100; 1.6 secs.

In the picture 13 glass vials are filled with 13 different chemical compounds. The vials are hermetically closed and the air inside is pure nitrogen, without any trace of oxygen. Those compounds have a common property: they all absorb ultraviolet light from the ambient and re-emit it as a form of light that we can see. Each of them emits the light in a different color, which is what allows us to create the rainbow effect.

In order to capture the light the compounds are emitting it is necessary to work on a dark environment. The amount of light that they emit, although enough to be visible to the naked eye, can be overflowed by the ambient light and if this happens we won’t be able to see the effect. Reducing as much as possible the ambient light reduces the competition with the emitted light, and the sensor of the camera will only capture the light we desire. So in order to arrange the elements in the table and adjust parameters we can use light, but once the capturing process starts, it is necessary to make the room as dark as possible.

Working in a dark environment also imposes limitations. The use of a tripod is a complete must. We will need to acquire light for periods of time longerthan 1 second, so the hand movement will be enough to obtain a blurred picture. The tripod stabilizes the camera and provides us with the ability to lengthen the times longer (5-15 seconds are reasonable amounts of time for this kind of pictures). To increase the sharpness of the picture, also some tricks are advisable:

  • Activating the mirror lock-up, so the mirror lifting movement is detached from the sensor exposition. When we push the trigger, the lifting movement of the mirror can make the camera tremble for a couple of seconds. As the shutter speed is slow, that tremble can cause blur in the image. Lifting it in advance before taking the picture improves the quality of the picture dramatically.
  • Use a remote trigger or a delay. The ideal choice is a remote trigger, so we can lift the mirror without touching the camera (and making it move) and after a few seconds activating the shutter without touching it again. Mirror lock-up would be useless if after locking it we move the camera pushing the trigger button. If you don’t have a remote control, activate the delay of the camera between 2 and 10 seconds. When we push the trigger the mirror will rise immediately, but the camera will wait the programmed period of time before taking the picture, so vibrations will dissipate before starting the light acquisition.
  • Focus using the Live View mode. Before turning off the lights activate the LV mode and zoom on the vials. It is difficult to focus on soft glass, due to the lack of contrast areas, but you can focus very well in the caps. If your subject doesn’t allow this, just put another object on the side of your main subject and focus on it, as the focus plane of this dummy object will be in common with the main object. Also, because you have a tripod and you can use shutter speeds as slow as necessary decrease aperture to around f/8, so you have enough depth of field to capture the entire subject and correct any minor maladjustment in the focus.

Taken all of these steps into consideration, is time to turn off the main lights and turn on the UV light. As I explained before the UV light is not visible to our eyes, so we will be filling the room with light, but we won’t see any increment of luminosity… almost. Most commercial UV lamps are not perfect, and they provide a little amount of blue light. When we turn on the light, we will see that light, and so will the camera. We will deal with this in a moment. Also, the camera sensor is slightly sensitive to UV light and can capture a bit of it as a bluish haze. In order to avoid this it is a good idea to equip the lens with an ultraviolet filter that blocks the UV light and only allows the visible one to pass (probably, you will already have one of those mounted on your lens to protect them). If you are wondering where you can find an ultraviolet light try your closest bulbs store, and ask for a black light. They are used very commonly on pubs and discos as decoration. I got mine for less than 20 euros.

Now you can take the pictures and enjoy playing with the parameters.

After taking the picture, some software corrections are needed to achieve a better look. You will need to correct the white balance in order to erase the blue component caused by the blue light the lamp emits (and also the UV mist if you didn’t use the filter). Although some people do it against a grey card I have found that usually this method overestimates the blue component. Adjusting manually, just making the colors approach the ones you saw when you were taking the picture, usually provide very good results. After that, everything you do belongs to the creativity field: you can adjust curves, modify saturation, tint the image, or any other modification you desire.

I took the picture using some exotic compounds that are not available for everybody, but that doesn’t mean you cannot have fun with this technique. Many objects around us are usually fluorescent. Money, passports and any official ID card are usually modified with fluorescent dyes to avoid falsification, just try to expose them to ultraviolet light and see what happens. Also, some gems or stones fluoresce in bright colors when exposed to this kind of light. Natural products, like oils and fats tend to fluoresce in yellow, so visit your kitchen or bathroom with the lamp to see what you can find. Chlorophyll, the pigment that makes leafs green, fluoresces in red, try using the light on a plant or vegetal. And of course, the more creative and interesting objects are fluorescent paints, dyes and make up. You can use them to paint anything and make it visible under ultraviolet light. Try a portrait with a face that uses fluorescent make up, or a body painted with them. The results are amazing.

As I told you previously, these vials are closed in absence of oxygen. Other day I will show you what happens when we open the cap and expose them to the air.

Weightless

Today, I want to show you a little example of picture processing carried out a few months ago. The original picture,  on the left, was not taken by me; it is a self-portrait taken by the gifted photographer Keia Eskuetan (if you don’t know her work yet, you should go visit her gallery) and nicely contributed to my archive. Sometimes I like to play with someone else’s work as it allows me to try different things. The fact that the picture was taken by another person avoids the bias of including my own style in the picture, and allows me to obtain different and nice things using the constraints provided by the picture. In this case I’m really satisfied with how the picture developed and I’m using it as an example of one possible way to process a photograph.

original
The original self-portrait taken and processed by her.

In this case the starting material was a little bit complicated. The file I received was correctly exposed and nicely focused, but it happened to be saved in JPEG and was a little bit cropped vertically. There are some important factors to consider: Starting from a JPEG instead of a Raw file disallows the use of some high quality retouching that could be used for adjusting sharpness or light temperature among other parameters. This still can be done in Photoshop (or any other software), but using a lower quality starting point and less reliable techniques. Furthermore, having a cropped JPEG means that the picture has been edited and saved at least once (possibly twice). Every time we save a JPEG file, the compression process discards a little bit of information, worsening its quality. This is imperceptible to the eye, but when processing afterwards can be an issue. As a rule of thumb you should always work with a lossless format until the end, when you can save a copy on JPEG as a distribution file.

base1
Rotating 90 degrees and cropping a little bit completely change the look of the picture.

Step 1: After opening the picture up on the software the first thing to do is to prepare the file to work with it. This means, first of all, changing the color depth from 8 bits/channel to 16 bits/channel. JPEG is stored using the first value in order to save space. Increasing the depth to 16 allows us to use a much wider and richer set of colors and tones. Our final target will be a monochromatic JPEG, but even if it means less information, during the process we can benefit from the additional colors we can use (for example, in gradients). Also, in this step I decided the composition I wanted the final picture to have. First I chose an aspect ratio of 3:2 (or 2:3, depending orientation). I use this ratio as a signature of my work. After trying some cutouts I chose one that keeps the head, the camera and a part of the legs. Losing the shoes, an important part of the outfit and the original picture, is compensated by the strength gained by the final composition where they are not needed to explain the image. Finally, I decided to turn it 90 degrees, so it seems like our model is straight and floating in the air instead of crouching on the floor. This is the final composition and the idea that gives name to the picture: Weightless.

Finally, we need to duplicate the background layer and add it to a group, so afterwards, when we add some adjustment layers, we can work with all of them at the same time.

To avoid losing quality while working on the picture always work with a lossless format in 16 bits/channel. Change to 8 bits/channel and a loss format only to save a distributable copy at the end of the process.

Step 2: Although our final picture is a monochromatic picture, in order to achieve a good quality B&W conversion we need a good color image. The exposition of the picture is good, so there is no need to touch the levels. The color was pretty close to the right one, but it needed a little correction. In this case a duplicated layer of the image, with the color adjusted automatically and merged at 50% opacity did all the work.

tonemap2
After tone-mapping, we obtain more detail in hair and legs and skin has a softer and more natural color.

After that, a “tone map” adjustment was applied in order to reduce micro contrasts in the higher contrasted parts of the image and increase contrast on the more flat areas. This tends to approach the overall image to the way the eye saw the scene, simulating a tiny HDR correction. This effect is much more subtle and less powerful than real HDR, but has the advantage that you only need one picture instead of at least two with different exposition (even on real HDR pictures tone mapping filters are used). This adjustment, anyways, is usually worth trying when photographing people, especially on interior or closed environments, as it tends to give the pictures a more natural lighting if the exposition is correct. It is to be noticed that this is always not the best option anyways.

My software doesn’t allow applying a tone map automatically, but it is an easy filter to build from scratch. Make two duplicates of your actual set-up (duplicate the working group, then combine the entire group to a layer and finally duplicate that layer again) and combine them inside a new group, inside the working one and on top of all the layers. Leave the lower layer as it is, and desaturate and invert the upper one. Change the opacity of the upper layer to 75% (we won’t change this anymore). We also set the opacity of the group to 90%, and the fusion mode to soft light. At this point we should see a lighter and very soft image. Now, on the upper layer, apply a Gaussian blur. The lowest recommendable value is 100 px, and good working values usually range from 100 to 200. The lower the value, the softer the image will be, the higher the blur, the more similar it will be to the original. We shall adjust the blur to a point where we soften some of the contrast on the clearer and darker areas but without softening the midtones. It usually takes a little bit of practice but it is easy to spot the right point. Finally, if we like the softness achieved but we want to make it more subtle we just have to decrease opacity of the group.

At this point we already have our composition and a good image for starting the real part of the process.

BW4
Result of selectively converting to black and white.

Step 3: We need to go from a color image to a black and white one. There are several ways to carry out this step, some better than others. The most commonly used by inexperienced people is simply by desaturating the image, which consists on maintaining the illumination value of the pixel while deleting all the chromatic information. This might seem like a good procedure but it presents a couple of problems: usually our eyes doesn’t sense brightness in the same way that the camera does, so a desaturation tend to offer flat greys in situations where a better contrast can be achieved. Besides, having three color channels to work with allow us to change illumination and contrast selectively on different areas of the picture, depending on the dominant color. Desaturation, on the other side, always chooses the same formula, without interpreting whether it is the best option for the situation or not.

In order to control the overall contrast of the picture, we have to create an adjustment layer on black and white mode. This layer allows us to convert the image to a black and white one selecting the absolute luminosity that the different colors of the picture will have. Do you want the red lips to appear dark while the Klein blue dress appears very bright? Just reduce intensity of the red color and increase the luminosity on the blue part.

 

BW3
Values used for the conversion in this example.

This procedure gives us a lot of power over the picture, but with a great responsibility: Adjacent parts of the picture with different colors usually have the same brightness; when you increase the brightness of one and reduce the other sometimes “patches” appear, giving an ugly appearance. In order to solve this issue, it is recommendable to keep the values of adjacent parts of the adjustment controls relatively close (for example, if you set reds to 100%, a good value for yellows and magentas are between 50 and 150, but not usually -100 or 300). Also, for the same reason as before, adjusting too much the conversion tends to increase noise, as noise is uniformly distributed in brightness but randomly distributed in color. This means that when you separate luminosity on any two colors, you are separating the brightness of both kinds of noise, making it more noticeable.

It seems complicated, but with a little bit of practice it is very easy to achieve good results. In this case, the values used are the ones depicted in the image, and the final result of the adjustment is shown above.

Using B&W adjustment instead of desaturating allows more control on the conversion process. Using very different values for adjacent colors can lead to an increase of noise and patches appearing, so a careful control must be taken.

contrasts4
Contrast is selectively modified for every part of the body, to obtain the best result.

Step 4: In the last step we adjusted the overall contrast, but now it is time to adjust the contrast selectively on different parts of the image. To do this first we have to use our preferred method for selecting the area of interest, and after we create a curves adjustment layer. Playing with the curves allows modifying the brightness of the area in very creative and powerful ways. The intention of this post is not to show all the power curves have, but as an example, in order to increase contrast you set the middle point of the curve to its own value, and decrease the point between the black and the midpoint and raise the point between the midpoint and the white. The more accused the variation is, the higher the contrast. You can selectively increase the contrast by variating shadows more than lights, lights more than shadows or by setting the “midpoint” in any place where you consider that the neutral point should be.

In this case I increased the contrast of the legs and the skin (each part on its own layer and with own optimal values), raised the luminosity of the dress and decreased the luminosity of the hair. These modifications all together tend to increase the sense of depth of the body and create attitude by the rising of contrast and strengthening of shadows.

background5
The clearer background isolates the model and increases the lightning sensation.

Step 5: The last important part is clarifying the background, removing shadows, details and increasing the isolation of the girl. The technique is the same as in point four, we select the background with our preferred method and increase luminosity in a controlled way until satisfied with the process. Removing the background eliminates distractions that can make the eyes wonder away from the main character, which is the place where we want them to stay. Also, a clearer background means and increase in the illumination and contrast perceived by the observer, without having to change anything in our main part of the picture, so it supposes an easy modification with a powerful increase in the overall attractiveness.

Step 6: Finally, we increase the sharpness of the picture. It is very important to leave this process always to the end and to apply it with the picture on its final size. If we want to have two copies of a different size, the best procedure is to duplicate the image, resize one (or both) to the desired size and after that increase the sharpness separately. Sharpness is very susceptible of the size and resizing after sharpening tends to increase artifacts and reduce the quality.

Many ways to increase sharpness are possible. One of the most used is the unsharp mask. In order to use it, you first need to duplicate the working group and combine all layers.

Instead of this method, I like to use a sharpening method based on a high pass filter. This method is better because it works similar to an adjustment layer, which can change opacity, be duplicated, combined or moved in order to fine-adjust the effect, instead of modifying a combined layer that cannot be modified afterwards.

First of all you need to duplicate the working group and combine. After that, a high pass filter is applied. The high pass filter removes all blacks and whites and leaves the greys, increasing contrast in border areas. A parameter (radius) can be adjusted. The higher the value is, the more noticeable the effect will be, but will be more prone to generate artifacts, like halos or Moire patterns. Moreover, the lower the size of the image is, the lower the value needs to be to achieve an actual sharpening. I usually work in the 0.5-1.5 px range for images lower than 6 MP and between 1-3 px for a 6-20 MP size. After applying the filter adjust opacity to 90% and fusion mode to soft light. In case you require more sharpening, instead of rising opacity to 100% or increasing the radius over 3 px, it is better to duplicate the layer, as the effect stacks. You can lower the opacity of the second layer if the effect is now too noticeable.

Always perform sharpening on the last step of the process, and always at the final size of the image. Some photographers prefer to save a picture without sharpening and, when they need a copy for any purpose, they just make a copy, resize adequately and apply sharpening on that copy.

final6
Final picture.

After all this process we get our final picture, which can be seen on the right. This procedure represents one of the possible examples of how a picture, taken with a concrete idea in mind, can be changed dramatically just by some simple processing effects and a little bit of imagination.

As a final remark, remember that JPEG doesn’t allow 16 bits/channel, so if you want to save it in this format, first you need to combine all layers and, after that, change to 8 bits/channel mode and save the file. Doing it this way allows us to do all the modifications with the highest amount of colors and possible tones, and just reducing the depth of color for the saving step.

What do you think of the picture? Do you like it more before or after? Is there a retouching you did that you are especially fond of? Share your impressions on the comments and give any idea you would like to share.

Light and Shade

This time, the analysis of the picture is from a studio photograph. I use “studio” in a wide meaning. Many people believe that a studio is a place designed specifically for photography, but I tend to consider studio any place where I can control the light, the location of the subject and any decoration with enough time, without having to worry for the environment. It doesn’t matter if it is an object in a three light scheme or a picture of a house room for a sales page. What it is important is that, in both cases, I can fiddle with the light and the surroundings to arrange it, in opposition to urban or nature photography where I can barely change anything that doesn’t belong to the camera or me. This picture was taken and released on 6 February 2016, and although apparently simple, it hides a surprise.

Light and shade

Explanation to Light and Shade

Let’s begin with the technical part. One of the secrets to achieve a good quality picture is illumination. In this case illumination is also extremely important for composition, not only for quality, but we will see this in a moment. The illumination used for this picture is a continuous light (halogen bulb) situated in the same plane as the camera, illuminating the Venetian mask with an angle of around 30 degrees. The exact angle was carefully chosen in the composition step, and I used a continuous light instead of a flash because it allows me to see the effects that causes a change on light on real time (and not just in the picture). The light has to be strong enough to allow a correct exposition, which was not a problem on this case as the picture was taken using a tripod. This allowed me to use shutter speeds as low as needed (0.5 s on this case) and the lower sensor sensitivity possible (ISO 100), to achieve the best quality the camera could offer. It is a very good practice to take any studio picture of a still subject using a tripod, as it allows optimizing the parameters for quality.

The recipe for glory with any portrait is focusing on the eyes (#1). A mask can also be seen as a kind of portrait. In this case the focus was carefully placed on the eyes using the Live View mode and the manual focus ring (if you don’t understand the procedure, you can read this post about focusing tricks). Aperture was set to the lowest possible f value (f/3.5) that allowed the desired depth of field, in order to isolate the mask from the background and help to blur the shadows behind the mask.

Finally, some care must be taken in the moment of arranging all the elements in the picture, as it is a good practice to avoid the camera to appear reflected on any reflective surface of the subject. In this case, the reflective surface is the metal of the jingle bells (#3), and the dissimulated its presence using the distortion the curvature of the bell provides.

That’s all about the technical part. But the place where the strength of this picture arises is in the composition.

First of all, a first plane with symmetry was chosen to include an “order” factor on the picture. The plane of the nose (#4) separates the picture in two, almost symmetrical, halves.

But the key point of the picture is contrasts. On the front we see the mask, symbol of joy, which brings memories of dancing and laughs. This is encouraged with the very intense and bold color of the parts that form it (#2): gold, white, intense magenta… Which was softly increased in post-production to achieve an even bolder look than the original. The mask by itself represents the beauty, the luminous side of the picture.

But behind, on the shadows, the dark side arises (#5). The shadow formed by the mask form the figure of a mysterious specter with no color, only grey and darkness. This contrasts with the cheerful color of the mask. Also, the contour of the shadow is blurred, opposing to the perfect sharpness of the mask, and is situated on the back of the picture, opposing to the front leading position of the bright side. The shadow not only represents all the opposite of the mask, but also breaks the symmetry that was previously designed, as a form of bad behavior, making both halves of the picture different. In order to have an appealing shadow that looked exactly the way that was planned the light had to be moved and changed until it fitted on the scheme. In this case the light not only appears as illumination, but also as a character of the scene, and has to be treated and considered as such.

Both sides, together, constitute the main composition of the picture. Usually, the spectator will only focus on the mask and its bright colors. Is after a while, while he or she keeps looking at it, when they may realize that there is something else, the contraposition of the shadow, representing all the opposite that was seen until that moment on first place. This is a surprise factor, an unexpected reaction that only appears a few moments after the observation began. Not only contrast tends to increase the appeal of a picture, but the surprise effect also contributes to increase the attention of the spectator, as the unexpected reward satisfies the mind as if a jigsaw was just solved and makes him or her remember the picture for a longer period of time. In case that the effect is too subtle, the title (“Light and shade”) works as a hint for the spectator, suggesting that perhaps both sides of the composition may be important, and not only the bold and pretty one in which he focused.

Did you saw both parts before the explanation? Was the relationship of the shadow with a specter subtle, or it just hit your mind since the first moment? Share your opinion on the comments.

Moonrise

I’m starting the section of picture analysis with one of my most recent work. This picture dates from 24 March 2016 and was taken in a water reservoir near my city. The original plan was to photograph a near iron bridge at dusk, but after the sunset other opportunities arose. So I guess the first lesson in this blog is: keep your eyes wide open to catch any opportunities that might happen, even if you didn’t planned for them. The picture is titled “Soon after the moonrise”, and you can click on them to enlarge:

Soon after the moonriseJT5D2964 moonrise II_EDIT copia

As you can see, this is a typical landscape shot, in which you can see a fragment of the river that leads to the reservoir, with the horizon behind and the sky filling the rest of the picture. So… Which is the element that makes the picture special? In this case is the illumination, provided by the moon and partially diffused by a thin strip of cloud. We are used to see landscapes with sunlight, which is very rich in yellow tones that make green and yellow very outstanding. The trick here is to change the illumination to a dim global and bluish light, which makes it feel much colder that it really was, and very different to the way that what we are used to see it.

Lets begin with the technical part.

In order to get this picture a tripod is always needed. A picture taken at night, even with full moon (which is the case), is a situation of very low light available. If we want to keep the sensibility of the sensor in a low value to avoid noise we will have to increase our exposure time to the order of seconds. In this case, the picture was taken using ISO 1000 (an acceptable noise level for a Canon 5D mkIII) 10 seconds of exposure and an aperture of f/5.6.

Increasing the exposure time could have been an option to reduce the noise of the picture. The decision of setting it only to 10 seconds is to avoid capturing the movement of the stars (#3). For this picture I wanted them to appear still, as points, instead of trails, so increasing the time would have been risky as we are already moving in the threshold times. Also, the aperture could have been increased up to f/4, but working on f/5.6 grants me more quality as I am working on the sweet spot of my lens. Having into account that the noise level at ISO 1000 is fairly good on the camera the parameters are a reasonable choice. If, on the contrary, we had to take the picture with a noisier camera reducing ISO would be necessary for a clean shot and star trails or a bit less of sharpness would be the price to pay.

Another point to have in mind while taking night pictures is the moon. Because moon rises usually at night, we tend to associate it with the dark. But we tend to forget that, even in the dark sky, it is a body fully illuminated by the sun, so we have to take that into account. It is impossible to correctly expose the moon and the sky/earth at the same time, as the relative brightness of both exceeds the dynamic range of any commercial camera we can use. That doesn’t mind if we can turn that on our benefit. In this picture the full moon (#2) is completely overexposed, but we can make the defect less noticeable waiting for it to be behind a pale cloud. The cloud blurs the light and progressively extends the light to the sky, so instead of having a full perfect white circle in a dark sky we have a degraded light from white to dark blue. If we had exposed the moon correctly, that would have been the only object visible in the picture.

Also, in this picture the reflection (#3) takes a great importance. In order to get the moon perfectly round in the water we had to wait for two things to happen: The first one, obvious, is the moon to raise enough over the horizon to reflect from our angle of seeing. The second, less obvious, is to wait until there were no wind or currents in the water, as both of them tend to perturb the surface and produce elongated reflections. The first condition eventually happened, and we were lucky that the second happened for a few minutes, enough to take the picture. The surface was so still that even the brightest star (#3) reflected enough to be captured.

According to the composition, a few points are worth noticing. First one is the horizon (#1). In any landscape photography it is compulsory that it is perfectly leveled horizontal. In this case it looks a little bit inclined to the left because of the mountains in the right part, but if you look closely in the left part of the horizon it is perfectly horizontal. Of course this can be corrected on Photoshop later but at the cost of losing a portion of the external part of the photograph. The best leveled the camera is the less picture you will lose correcting it. A more subtle topic is where to put the horizon. The rule of thirds says that it should be in the upper or lower third of the picture but this is one of the cases when we decide to avoid the rule on purpose and center it. The reason for this is symmetry. We want to capture the sky and the moon, but also its reflection, so putting it in the middle of the picture makes a good symmetry between upper and lower parts. If we didn’t have had the reflection, the composition would have been boring and still.

Finally, in order to complete the composition, some bushes were included on the left side in order to frame the composition. This adds a little bit of naturalness to a picture that could be rather still and mathematical, and also breaks the symmetry to increase the force of the composition.

General advice to take any night picture is to take care of the white balance. At night there is no “correct” white balance, so choosing the one that feels more natural is a good recommendation. Also, knowing that night pictures tend to be noisier that their diurnal counterparts, not sharpening until the last moment and doing it smartly is also a good advice in order to not increase it and make it even more noticeable.

What do you think? Do you have any advice into night photography? Or perhaps any observation to make? Comment and share your mind with us.