How to make Unique Mountain Night Sky Images
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by Editor Yan Zhang
Mountains have been a dominated theme in my landscape photography. They not only present the most magnificent landscapes on the earth, but also set great mental and physical demands for photographers to climb them and to take pictures of them. During my recent trip to the United States in June 2018, together with my fellow photographers, I visited two spectacular mountain areas in California – Ritter Range of the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite National Park, and made a few unique mountain photographs.
In this article, I would like to share my experience of how to make unique mountain night sky images: from the planning prior to the trip, the field shooting techniques, to the post processing. While this tutorial takes two specific cases to demonstrate my methodologies and techniques, it can be applied as a general night photography guide in other mountainous environments.
Night sky over Minaret Lake
Night sky over Upper Yosemite Falls
Before our trip started, we realised that the weather for our trip period was rather flat – sunny every day without changes, which meant that we would not have a chance to get dramatic sunrises and sunsets. But on the other hand, it also implied that we would have clear sky nights in these areas. So we decided to focus on the night photography in these two mountain areas.
Obviously planning was the first task to achieve our photography goals, for which, using a photography app would be greatly helpful.
The following two screenshots show our plan for photographing Minaret Lake.
For photographing Upper Yosemite Falls, we also did the plan using Planit!, as showed from the following two screenshots.
Tip 1: Basically, app Planit! needs Internet connection to generate a photography plan. If one plans to go to a place where he/she has never been before, he/she can firstly generate an initial plan using Planit! before the trip, not necessary to be very precise. Then once arriving at the location, he/she can easily refine the plan without Internet connection, because the location map was already uploaded in the initial plan.
Minaret Lake in daytime.
However, to execute the procedure successfully, there were two key issues we would have to carefully consider: focusing and the exposure.
Tip 2: I do not recommend to use a panorama plate for shooting panorama images during a mountain photography trip, simply because the weight of the backpack is critical to affect our movement in the mountains. Instead, with a sound field shooting method, one can achieve a high quality panorama image from series of shots through the photo merge function in Photoshop.
For night sky photography, there has been a rule of thumb saying that we could focus on infinity to make the stars clear. While this is true in general, we should be also know that this rule would not applicable for our night photography when near foregrounds were included into the frame.
In our situations here, both scenes of Minaret Lake and Upper Yosemite Falls contained rich foreground details that I would like to include in my final images, and some parts of the foregrounds were quite close to my camera location, i.e. less than two meters. Focusing on infinity would lose the sharpness of these near foregrounds.
Tip 4: Using a proper focal length for taking panorama shots is important. In general, I take multiple individual shots in portrait format with a focal length between16mm – 20mm, which is a good balance between the wideness and lens distortion when we stitch the pictures together in Photoshop. Try to avoid using an extreme wide focal length, such as 14mm or less, as the merged image produced from Photoshop would likely have a large horizon distortion.
In Minaret Lake location, I started to photograph the foreground of the scene at 12:40am on 8 June 2018, in portrait format of Nikon D850 with lens 14-24mm f/2.8 at 17mm focal length.
After completing the foreground shooting, I waited a while until the Milky Way moved closer to Minaret peaks. The second series of 9 shots mainly covered the sky, for that I titled my camera up 30 degrees so that more sky was captured, while the focal point remained unchanged.
Shooting information for Minaret Lake
The second series of 9 sky shots
Photographing Upper Yosemite Falls was done using a similar approach. But there were two key differences: (1) I took a series of 8 sky shots first, and a series of 8 foreground shots next, because the Milky Way appeared on the preferred position right after the dark night started; and (2) I set ISO 3200 for the foreground long exposure shooting, because the mountain surroundings were extremely dark in Upper Yosemite Falls.
Similarly to the case of Minaret Lake photography, when I took photos of the foreground, I titled my camera down a bit in order to cover a larger part of the lower foreground.
Shooting information for the Upper Yosemite Falls
The second series of 8 foreground shots
(b) Long exposure for Upper Yosemite Falls: 180 seconds with camera long exposure noise reduction on.
Tip 5: Even if under an extremely low light condition in a mountainous environment, taking a long exposure shot may capture some interesting low light reflection on the foreground surface, which would provide a useful starting point in post processing to reveal the foreground details and produce a moody and surreal dark image as a final result.
Step 1: Photo merging.
Image 2: Initial result after photo merging from 9 sky raw file images.
By applying a sequence of “Warp” transform operations on Image 1 in Photoshop, I could correct such distortion, and finally transformed Image 1 to Image 3 as follows.
By observing Image 5, for instance, I noted that the overall colour and tone presented in the picture was pretty warm, from the village light to the giant mountain walls, all displayed a warm yellow tone. So I decided to go with such colour and tone with a proper enhancement.
I used two simple tools for doing this. Firstly in Photoshop CC 2018, by going to “Filter => Camera Raw Filter…”, I brought the image back to Camera Raw, where I slightly increased Temperature. Then back to Photoshop, by going to “Filter => Nik Collection => Color Efex Pro 4”, I started the plug-in Color Efex Pro 4, in which I used Skylight filter with strength 10%. Image 6 below shows the result after these adjustments.
The other critical adjustment was to selectively increase the brightness and contrast of the mountain walls and the Milky Way centre, using a similar way described above, such that more subtle details of these parts were naturally highlighted.
A similar approach was used for processing the Minaret Lake image. The final result is shown as follows.
I realised that the Upper Yosemite Falls image, Image 7, was of the dimension of 13992 pixels X 7060 pixels, not exactly of 2:1 ratio. So I reduced the width of image down to 6500 pixels, and made the image become a typical panorama form, as shown below.
Final adjustment: Making the ratio of long and short sides to 2:1 or bigger would make the final image be a typical panorama look.
Having done such ratio checking and adjustment, I saved both final images in psb format (Large Document Format) of Photoshop. Then I also wanted to produce a small size image for displaying on social media such as Facebook and Instagram.
For this purpose, in Photoshop CC 2018, I first resized the image down to 4000 pixels X 1858 pixels. Then I duplicated the background layer, selected the mode to be “Luminosity”, as shown in the following screenshot. This would prevent any colour shifting during sharpening.
In the following, I started to sharpen the image by going “Filter =>Sharpen => Smart Sharpen…”. In Smart Sharpen dialog window, I set Amount 100%, Radius 0.3% and Reduce Noise 3%. After this sharpening, I did one more time Smart Sharpen, but this time reduced the amount to 50% and other parameters remained unchanged.
Finally, I merged two layers, and reduced the file size to 2000 pixels X 886 pixels, i.e., half of the size of the image that I just sharpened, which was also the final size of the output image. I saved the image by going to “File => Export => Save for Web (Legacy)…”, by clicking OK, Photoshop then output a jpeg file that was suitable for web display.
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